At 27, This Rising Novelist Gives Americans an Unfiltered Taste of Israel

Omer Friedlander is an exiled Israeli who received a two-book deal from a prestigious publishing house while in his mid-20s. He explains how he is making ‘Israeliness’ accessible to Westerners

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Omer Friedlander, author of "The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land."
Omer Friedlander, author of "The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land."Credit: Yam Traiber
Tzach Yoked
Tzach Yoked
Tzach Yoked
Tzach Yoked

How do you explain to a U.S. citizen from Alabama, Virginia or Ohio – or even a New York City Jew – exactly what an alte zachen is? “That was indeed a difficult choice that I spoke quite a lot about with the book’s editor,” says Omer Friedlander, author of “The Man Who Sold Air In the Holy Land,” his collection of short stories recently published by Penguin Random House. (An alte zachen goes around the streets, traditionally with a horse and buggy, buying and selling used clothes, appliances and furniture, announcing themselves with the trademark call “Alte zachen!” – which means “old things” in Yiddish, and is written in the book “alte sachen.”)

Friedlander is only 27 but has the chutzpah of a veteran scribe. He doesn’t cut corners or try to make things easy for his U.S. audience with 11 stories that cover all of modern Israeli society, touching the rawest of raw nerves – from the young Jewish alte zachen in the northern city of Safed, through tales of West Bank checkpoints, a family of orange growers in Jaffa, Holocaust Memorial Day at elementary school, and a father who leaves for a military operation in Gaza but returns a different man.

“The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land” superficially recalls Etgar Keret’s quirky stories. On the other hand, though, these stories are far from the quick two-pages-and-a-bit per punchline that Keret is known for. These are stories requiring far greater investment, with many nuances that are obvious to the Israeli reader but perhaps pose a challenge to the American one.

The book jacket for "The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land."Credit: Random House

“I didn’t want a book that would be a tour guide to Israel. I wanted something authentic,” Friedlander says, explaining how as a small boy he would wake up early and hear the alte zachen’s call as he passed underneath his window. “That call stuck in my head all these years,” he adds.

“After high school, I did a year volunteering with at-risk youth in Safed and heard all sorts of stories from them that inspired me. I was interested in the story of people who collect junk, of youngsters who came from religious homes and left for the secular world. I grew up in Tel Aviv and these are things that I’m not used to, and that attracted me – like this connection between old and new.”

Yet while the backdrops are as Israeli as can be, it seems Penguin Random House decided to take a gamble on a relatively rookie young writer firstly because Friedlander offers his readers a universal experience. Like the story of an adolescent following in his father’s footsteps. This is a tale that is, to a large extent, about teenage love and the longing of a little boy, and that teen’s brother, for their dead father.

“We were known as Alte Sachen, the haulers of Old Things, the last of a dying breed who wandered down dark, deserted alleyways, calling out for leftovers and collecting junk. … My favorite hauls were old radios. ... Transistor radios were the most common. The rarest find was an expensive cathedral-style wooden console,” Friedlander writes, in the voice of a boy following in his father’s trade, stuffing his wares into a buggy hitched to a horse. “Aba had always liked saying we’d get the best hauls from Holocaust survivors,” he writes. “They always kept everything, he’d say, and when they died, their kids threw it all away.” After the father dies, the narrator and his younger brother Shoni keep playing their father’s recording on the truck loudspeaker, calling out: “We take it all, Alte Sachen, Alte Sachen! Beds, cabinets, desks, chairs, fridges, gas stoves, sewing machines, sofas, carpets, Alte Sachen, Alte Sachen!”

An alte zachen at work in Tel Aviv.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Safed is described as a pathetic ghetto. “Black and white penguins, those ultra-Orthodox Haredim, schlepped around from one prayer to the next, bundled in their heavy coats ... dark fur shtreimel hats on Shabbat. There were no bars or clubs, no parties, not even a single movie theater. Once a year a three-day klezmer festival was hosted in the Old Artists’ Quarter, musicians played their Yiddish tunes from the rooftops ... and when it was over, the city returned to its usual state of slumber.”

You say you really liked your year in Safed a lot, but in the book it’s described quite depressingly.

“It’s true. I really did love Safed. Everything was different and new, and I really loved being with the friends in the commune. As someone who grew up in Tel Aviv, I loved the outdoors and the springs. But I think that if I had grown up there, I would have fallen into that depression too. Many of the youngsters I spoke with who grew up there described it as a place with nothing. People there are bored because there’s nothing to do. Part of my job while volunteering for the year there was to sit with kids and play backgammon – because that’s all there is to do in that city.”

‘Elvis of the Holocaust’

Friedlander is the son of two professors: Tel Aviv University philosophy faculty member Eli Friedlander and musicologist Michal Grover Friedlander (also at Tel Aviv University). His paternal grandfather is historian Saul Friedländer, one of the world’s foremost scholars of the Holocaust and Nazi Germany, and an Israel Prize and Pulitzer Prize laureate.

At age 6, Omer moved with his parents to Princeton. Upon returning to Israel, he studied visual arts at Thelma Yellin high school. After his year doing national service in lieu of the army, he studied English literature at Cambridge University and then earned his master’s in creative writing at Boston University. He then moved to his present home of New York.

He couldn’t have outrun the Holocaust stories in his new book, even if he had wanted to – both due to the family connection and the Israeli experience, which he seeks to make accessible to his readers. Like with the other stories, though, he does so in an original manner, mixing melancholia and the personal, with quite a dash of humor.

“The Sephardi Survivor” is the name of the short story centered around two school students of Sephardi extraction, who envy their Ashkenazi classmates with their family Holocaust stories, shared each year with the class on Holocaust Memorial Day.

A man works in Safed's Artist Quarter.Credit: Eyal Toueg

“My brother, Zohar, and I were Sephardi; our parents came from Egypt and Libya, their parents came from Syria and Morocco, and somewhere way back our ancestors were expelled from Spain,” the story begins. “We wished we had a Shoah story in the family to be proud of, but we didn’t, so we were always on the lookout for survivors to adopt.”

Which leads them, a week before Holocaust Memorial Day, to adopt Yehuda, an elderly Sephardi man who wanders around the local discount store in a state of confusion. “We decided to take him home with us and convince him to pretend he was our grandfather for Shoah Memorial Day at school,” he writes in his book, in the young narrator’s voice.

But, to their chagrin, Yehuda is not made of the stuff they had seen in the movies. Eventually their plan goes awry when Yehuda, despite repeated entreaties, leaves the classroom a moment before his turn comes to share the story the brothers devised for him. And if that were not enough, he decides to adopt a new origin: “Yehuda was Ashkenazi by day, Sephardi by night.”

“This story was born out of a conversation I had here in New York with some Israeli friends, including one of Iraqi descent, who told us that as a boy he always envied his Ashkenazi friends from class who had Holocaust survivor relatives. That was a strange comment that stuck in my head for a long time,” Friedlander says, knowing that it is unlikely anyone at his own school had a more original Holocaust story than that of his own grandfather, Saul, who at age 9 was hidden by his parents in a Catholic monastery in France.

“I remember as a child we once met someone who had heard of my grandfather and called him ‘the Elvis of the Holocaust,’” Omer laughs. “Although on my mother’s side, my grandmother is from Egypt.”

Omer Friedlander's grandfather, Prof. Saul Friedländer, one of the preeminent scholars on the Holocaust and Nazi Germany.Credit: Moti Milrod

He only showed the story to his grandfather after it was completed. “I think it’s very hard to write a story about the Holocaust that will be realistic and true to events, and on the other hand not make it come out kitschy and melodramatic,” he says. “Because I’m the third generation of Holocaust legacy, like the protagonists, I wanted to write something from a remote and absurd point of view, which would allow me to touch the story of the Holocaust in an original manner. A story that would be different, absurd, extreme.”

It seems that the story also carries a critique of the cheapening of the Holocaust, which has become a sort of beauty contest, a political tool often exploited to justify all sorts of decisions and policies.

“I agree that the Holocaust is exploited very cynically. It’s easy to say ‘we must remember.’ The question is how we remember, and there is no doubt that the politicians make manipulative use of the Holocaust’s memory. The moment you take an existential fear and lay past traumas on top of it, it impacts people and just makes them more fearful. It has become a sort of status symbol at school, too: Who has a relative who’s a Holocaust survivor? It’s true that we have to teach the Holocaust, but sadly most of the attention is on learning that is memorizing facts and numbers; not learning that really makes you understand what happened there.”

Friedlander tries to avoid the political landmine with all his might, and certainly does not grab the political explosive charges directly. But between the lines, in his so-very-Israeli tales, one can find more than a bit of criticism of Israeli society, which he himself admits to not really feeling a part of. “On the other hand, I don’t feel like I completely belong in New York either,” he says.

Like with the “Sephardi Survivor” story, in “Jellyfish in Gaza” Friedlander presents a painful and bloody story of conflict – this time the Israel-Palestinian one – through the eyes of two young kids. “I think there’s something about little children, who on one hand understand what’s going on around them, and on the other don’t fully get it,” he says. “The visual elements are very strong in all that they see and imagine – including all the rituals they adopt, thinking they will keep their father alive. It was important to me to present the story from a child’s viewpoint and not that of an adult. My goal wasn’t to tell the story of the war in Gaza, but to present the experience of little boys who fear for their father’s life.”

Your grandfather came to Israel on board the Altalena ship, and you were born a year before the 1995 Rabin assassination, into a reality where almost no one talks about peace anymore. How much does that bother you?

“I was born into a reality where there was no hope in that regard, as much as the hope was present before the murder. I didn’t have that hope, with the feeling being one of a reality that moves in circles, of things just getting worse, of everything becoming more extreme and messianic in Israel. The politicians’ whole language is a verbal laundromat of the conflict that only creates alienation and a feeling that this is how it is, and how it will stay too. I want to maintain a sort of optimism: that things will change, that it won’t stay like this forever. But the last few years haven’t given me the sense that there’s some kind of solution on the horizon.”

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