You chose a nursery school as the setting for the new novel,and the leading character is a preschool teacher. Hardly trivial choices.
For me, nursery school is the holiest place in the world − more than home, the Vatican and Meccacombined.
The book left me feeling very sad. It made me face the fact that time is slipping through my fingers; with the fact that every day in nursery school, which for me is just another day of running around, is a whole world for a child.
They have a whole life there. There is also the rhythm of the Israeli cycle of the year, which begins with Rosh Hashanah and continues through all the holidays.
Again, from a parent’s point of view, it’s mainly the realization at midnight that you need a decorated basket and a garland of flowers for the next morning.
Right. Childhood goes by so fast − in parenthood, too. It’s here and now. You don’t actually grasp that there is not necessarily an opportunity to change things, to correct things. A nursery school teacher who does her job well is invaluable. It’s one of the jobs I most admire. It’s hard for us to wrest control and fulfill the needs of the one or two or three children we have, and here you have 20 or 30. Nursery school is a complicated environment.
You have this sentence in the book that was so aching − when the nursery school teacher says, “In another few years you won’t remember what I look like and you will probably forget my name, too, but my voice and the touch of my hand will be with you always.” It’s heartbreaking.
They are terribly vulnerable, nursery school teachers: to endless criticism, to demands to deliver the goods, to psychotic mothers and fathers who are out to get them. A few years ago, I had a case in which I represented a primary school teacher, in the low grades, who at the end of the year was confronted by seven children who had complaints that she had behaved violently toward them.
There was very clear evidence that many parents did not want the teacher to continue the following year. That there was a group of mothers who simply decided to frame her, and met together and did rehearsals with the children [on what to say] and then went to the police.
The teacher was convicted in the magistrate’s court but received a laughable punishment, because the judge understood there was something afoot. She was acquitted completely in the district court − that was one of the happiest days of my life. I saw, very clearly, the vulnerability. My heart is with the preschool and primary school teachers. It’s something I learned at home.
And you’re familiar with the situation of your protagonist, a weak woman, economically vulnerable, who is fighting for her survival?
Of course I am. What a question! Don’t I have anxieties about earning a living? As a self-employed person who pays taxes as stipulated in the law − one of the few in the country, I think (and apropos the burden of [being the son of former Education Minister and now Haaretz columnist] Yossi Sarid) − don’t I know all about this? I am raising three children.
You know what it is to be a weak, detached person like her?
I can tell you that we have an identical situation in my youngest child’s nursery school. It’s amusing, because he started going there after I had written the book, but that’s what’s happening there: The nursery school is facing closure and we, a few parents, are trying to save it.
Something in weak people touches you?
More than anything.
Because, from my point of view, I am not strong − let’s put it like that.
You don’t feel strong?
No, absolutely not. I feel like I am doing battle with all the forces of the universe every day. How can I feel strong? My only strength is my literary writing. That is the capital you create for yourself. It’s the only solid thing I have. All the rest is not strong. Children generate horrible anxieties, which you try to hide – or at least not to reveal in their full intensity.
Your previous novel, “Limassol,” did well abroad and won prizes. It even made the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award shortlist.
Regrettably, I didn’t win, because it’s 100,000 euros. Still, the book made the shortlist and received very good reviews in France and Germany. That made me very happy. Suddenly I had the critics abroad, and success came there, without anyone being familiar with the unknown writer Yishai Sarid.
Did that free you from the burden of being “the son of”?
It was marvelous. No one knows you or anything about you. You come with your book and meet literary figures who have nothing to do with, or knowledge of, Israeli politics. And they say good things to your face.
Is that shadow always present in your life?
Very much so. Without a doubt, my father casts a very strong shadow – a shadow with influence. Not least because of the political aspect. Many times things are examined with bias. Go tell people that – at least in the practical, material aspects – I had noprotektsia [benefit from connections], but rather, the opposite. I always had to prove myself more than others. There is no doubt it’s a significant factor.
So it must have been very liberating to gain recognition which is unrelated to that.
For sure. I was in Italy a month ago, in Trieste, to receive a prize. I delivered a speech and people applauded. It really does something to your ego, all that. It’s terrific. And it instills confidence.
You wrote some very grisly scenes in “Limassol,” such as when your protagonist, a Shin Bet investigator, kills a prisoner with his bare hands.
Yes. All those scenes are invented, of course. But it suddenly occurs to me that when I go abroad, I become an ambassador of the government. That is very disappointing to many people who read the book and expect some left-winger who will bad-mouth the country. But I don’t do that.
What do you tell the audiences abroad?
I tell them about the history of the State of Israel, and I also present the issue of the Palestinians. I try to be as fair as possible. One of the things I have discarded is the idea of apologizing for the fact that we are here. I am absolutely not willing to have to justify myself when it comes to talking about our existence here. It is a given. We can talk about and discuss the rest. The problem is that criticism abroad sometimes goes in the direction of delegitimizing Israel, and that is definitely not my thing.
Your take on the conflict shows its extremely ugly face. And I assume that when you are invited, and people know whose son you are, they expect something else. How do you defend torture in the Shin Bet cellars, such as you describe in the book?
I don’t: I say that there is a very difficult, very bad situation. That it’s a pity that nothing is done about it. That the solution is to try to talk. I have never had anyone make an anti-Israeli or anti-Zionist comment. Look, there are no apologies, as far as I’m concerned. We have been here for a hundred years, connected, stuck − call it what you will.
How are you seen in the Israeli literary scene? As a lawyer who purports to be a writer? As the spoiled child of Yossi Sarid who suddenly felt like becoming a writer?
Hold on a minute, I am not a spoiled child.
No. Everything I have, I achieved myself. There’s no privilege here. On the contrary: only difficulties and obstacles.
Still, I have to assume that you are perceived as a spoiled kid.
You’re right, and I’m sick of apologizing and being accountable for that, too. Three or four books I wrote were rejected by publishers. Because of the “Sarid complex,” I submitted “Limassol” under a pseudonym.
When Am Oved told me they wanted to publish the book, they asked delicately if I was a Shin Bet agent, because the narrator is from the Shin Bet. I had to explain about the pseudonym. There is always the need to prove that you’re not some off-the-wall leftie. I am a major in the army reserves; I was in the army for six years − I had to prove myself.
But enough of all that. I write books, and whoever wants can read them. We live in a world of images. When you come with a surname like mine, people perceive you − in the legal world, say − as being part of the establishment. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am not part of the establishment and have no connection to any elites. I am an attorney making a living, but not some rich guy in either a big or small way. For many years I felt that I had to apologize for something, but that’s over. I’ve finished with it. Apropos pampered and apropos burden, when I was eight, I moved with my parents and my younger sister to Kiryat Shmona. From here, a pampered kid from Tel Aviv, to Kiryat Shmona. The chronological framework was 1974 to 1977.
Until Likud came to power.
Summer vacation came soon after the 1977 election, and we left. Life there was hard for everyone. A child in the fourth grade who is yanked out of an environment in which he felt very good and had a lot of friends. Not a tragedy, but not easy, either. In my last year in Kiryat Shmona, the kids ostracized me completely. That included being hit and taunted. That’s what the kids in Kiryat Shmona thought − that I was pampered. All the anger of the so-called development towns against [Labor forerunner] Mapai and against the Ashkenazim descended on my little head.
Doesn’t sound like much fun.
A few days after we got to Kiryat Shmona, I remember that I ran away from home, and my mother sent my father to talk to me. I remember us standing next to some railing, with a view of the whole Hula Valley below, and he says to me, “Listen, a person is not only for himself, and sometimes we have social responsibility.” That was it. I never complained again. Including the year of the ostracism, which is something that really does scar you.
Is it always like that? Wherever you go, people know you are “the son of”?
Yes. In recent years it’s fallen off, because he is less in the public eye. The height of his controversial character was around the [first] Lebanon war and beforehand, and that really was not easy.
You were a teenager then, right? It’s the worst of all possible worlds. Weren’t you angry with him?
I was not in a state of anger, but my adolescent years were very bad, hiding myself away. I still remember being in basic training and crawling across a field at night and the platoon commanders shouting, “Here’s Yossi Sarid’s kid crawling in the thorns.”
But there must also be good things about growing up in a home like that.
There is a feeling of pride, of integrity, that the struggle is truly on behalf of human beings and human rights.
How does that jibe with your career as a lawyer. Do you see a schism between law and justice?
My approach, which is perhaps quite naive, is that the judicial process leads to justice in the end. My experience is that the system generally produces a reasonable decision. The distortion, at least in the civil proceedings, lies generally and mainly in economic disparities. In a civil proceeding, someone with meager resources is almost lost. A civil proceeding is a gladiatorial combat − who has more strength, who is able to wear down the other side. It’s a very archaic process, aimed at screening certain cases and making people despair. Without a deep pocket, you are in trouble. So there is no doubt that in this aspect, at least, justice is not done. But you know what? Morality doesn’t help you in this line of work. That I can tell you. If artistic or literary endeavor is somehow driven by an aspiration for truth, in legal work that is not the most important thing.
It bears the potential for many conflicts, as you see it.
Yes. And maybe that’s why I am not a top lawyer, even at my advanced age. I will represent the underdog, the person who has been hurt. You are right. There really are readings of the moral compass at the day-to-day level, and that is limiting in many ways: in choosing cases, in terms of your integrity, in terms of the value of always stating the truth. By the way, I do think that most lawyers are decent people. I’m just not sure that they are the most successful ones.
Is that necessarily so?
I don’t want to slander anyone, but yes − to reach the top requires some sort of moral flexibility. Because then you also represent the bigger villains. That’s how it is.
Yes. Somehow I don’t see you going wild in court.
I have stopped trying to be overbearing in court. It took up too much energy in different periods of my life. I no longer make an effort to project a different image. There are clients for whom a fighter is someone who will stand up and shout in court. When I was younger, I appeared a great deal with a top-ranking criminal lawyer, and he really did always shout, so I started shouting, too. One day he took me aside and told me, “Look, it’s just an act, all this, okay? The whole day, all I’m think about is having a cup of tea with my wife.” I was very grateful for that advice. I can’t play that game; I can’t tell a client that we will tear the other guy to pieces and beat him to a pulp. So some clients stay, because that approach suits them, and others leave.
We have concluded that morality is not a useful trait for a lawyer, and now it seems authenticity isn’t, either.
Definitely not authenticity. It’s all a show, this business: show business.
All a game.
Well, isn’t it the same in literature? I didn’t know the literary world very well. Now, I know that the thing is not that you wrote a book, but that it’s a good book that will market itself. And you come to understand all kinds of things, such as that the great review someone wrote is actually because he owes some other guy a completely unrelated favor. And you have to speak and appear in places you don’t really want to, and to engage in all kinds of politicking.
Are you good at that?
Very bad. Really. Awful.