Maya Arad: The view from the periphery
- An Israeli-American writer's tale of two cities
- Literary snapshots from Jerusalem
- 'Awful in Israel, isn’t it?’
The eve of Rosh Hashanah 5751 fell on a Wednesday. Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait, talk about missiles and gas warfare was in the air, and I, a relatively veteran soldier on the verge of getting a sergeant’s rank, drew four consecutive days of guard duty. I couldn’t believe this was happening to me; I had no idea how I would get through the holiday and Shabbat. Picture it: no mobile phone, no Internet, no movies on your PC. Actually, there was a computer. It had a dark screen with green letters flickering across it and a floppy disk drive.
I’d already read the holiday papers. Twice. I’d used the army phone to call all the personal ads on the back page of Ha’ir, the Tel Aviv weekly. The only thing left was television. There was only one channel back then, and all the unfortunates who’d remained on the base flocked around to watch “Siba Lemesiba” (Cause for Celebration) – a weekly, Friday night entertainment show hosted by Rivka Michaeli.
On the holiday program, Michaeli – hair done in spiky bangs and wearing a white padded-shoulder jacket decorated with an appliqué pattern – interviewed a young female writer whose debut novel had been enthusiastically received by the critics and reading public. “Is it hard to be a 26-year-old writer?” Michaeli asked. The writer thought it over and replied, in a serious tone, that being a writer isn’t easy at any age.
I listened to them talking as they sat on white leather sofas against a background of Venetian window blinds and dark house plants. Burning inside, I knew that one day, I too would become a promising young writer. The day would come when from this netherworld – the Education Corps – I would get to the top: to Rivka Michaeli.
My first book, “Another Place, A Foreign City,” had its origins in those two years at the Education Corps. Seven more books followed. I may not be a young writer, but for the benefit of the doubters and those of little faith, I will note that I did get to Rivka Michaeli. True, not to “Siba Lemesiba,” but I was told that someone had recommended one of my books on her radio show. So I did acquire a certain status.
In fact, a few years ago I was invited to a literary festival in Vancouver. “It’s a very, very distinguished event,” the organizer assured me. “We had David Grossman, Sayed Kashua, too – everyone.” When I asked why I had to get up at 4 A.M. – after all, there were many flights at more convenient times – the organizer told me, “Ah, that’s because we’re flying you on frequent flyer miles that were donated by a member of the organizing committee.”
I’m used to it. It’s the story of my life. They want an Israeli writer, but there’s no budget for one of the big ones, who charge thousands of dollars for a talk. There’s not even enough money to fly someone over from Israel, so they turn to a representative of Hebrew literature in the Diaspora.
They fly me in on a frequent flyer program, like they did in Vancouver. They offer free board, like in Cleveland, where I stayed with a warm Jewish family in the room of their college student son, surrounded by sports trophies and graduation pictures. One time, an affable woman from the JCC in San Francisco asked me to deliver a series of talks about Etgar Keret, because they couldn’t afford to bring him but could cover my gas expenses.
If Rivka Michaeli were to ask me now, I would tell her that being a writer is not easy at any age. But at my age, people no longer ask about age. And anyway, I’m the representative of Hebrew literature in the Diaspora. I get asked about place.
So tell us, Maya Arad, what’s it like to be a Hebrew writer living abroad?
You mean to ask: How do I manage to keep my Hebrew from this distance? What’s the problem? Hebrew is now found wherever there’s Wi-Fi. I can even find “Siba Lemesiba” from 1990 on YouTube (because, with all due respect to writers’ famous powers of recall, you didn’t really think I remembered what Rivka Michaeli wore a quarter of a century ago, right?).
Ah, no, you mean something else. You’re asking: How is it that your readers don’t mind? What happened so that the borders suddenly opened and readers of Hebrew are willing to accept a writer like you, who not only lives outside Israel but frequently writes about Israelis who live in the United States?
I’m not a sociologist, but that’s a question I actually think about a lot. I know now that as an adolescent I dreamed of becoming part of a world that already then, in 1990, was disappearing. A world of “My Michael” and “A Late Divorce” and “See Under: Love” and “Past Perfect.” A world of the “peace camp” and “petitions by writers and intellectuals”; “Amos Oz will now address us”; and a young writer who’s a guest on Rivka Michaeli’s TV show.
Back then, it seemed to me and my generation that this is the way it would always be. We would wait patiently, and in another few years we would find ourselves sitting on the white sofa, speaking into the microphone, taking our position at the head of the camp.
Michaeli’s show didn’t survive the Gulf War. Channel 1 had three years left before it had to begin competing with commercial broadcasting. The peace camp had five years – until the Rabin assassination. And Hebrew literature?
You know all about the crisis in the publishing world without me, but the problem lies elsewhere – and it started long before the Internet, commercial television and the chop-shop specials of four (books) for a hundred (shekels). Ever since the 1990s, no writer has emerged who possessed the gravitas of Oz, A.B. Yehoshua or Grossman. There was Etgar Keret, who succeeded in staking out an important place, but of a very different kind, precisely because he had the prescience to realize, even then, that this was it – the petitions and rallies in the town squares were over. (Anyway, that’s what I would have told them in San Francisco if I’d accepted the invitation.)
Others have said it before me: For almost a hundred years, since the period of the revival and renewal of Jewish settlement in Israel, a large public of Hebrew readers waited for the writers to speak out, to show the camp the way.
But at some point at the end of the 1980s, something happened: the public stopped waiting. Why then, of all times? That’s as far as I go – I’m not, as I said, a sociologist, nor a historian. But these are the facts: Literature moved from the center of Hebrew life and culture to the periphery. All of us, the writers: peripheral. Even those who live in the heart of Tel Aviv. We are all flying on the miles of others, being put up in families’ rooms, giving talks in return for fuel expenses. If it happens, occasionally, that someone positions himself behind a microphone or initiates a petition of writers and intellectuals, a moldy odor of anachronism wafts through the air, of a world that was and is no more.
And when literature is no longer so important, when truth is no longer needed from the Land of Israel, what’s the problem? Let the writers live where they want and let them write what they please. Who cares anyway?
Well, then, you ask, would you like to go back to 1990, just before the end of Hebrew literature of times past?
Are you out of your mind? Go back to doing guard duty on the base? But seriously: Both for me personally, and for the books I write, the present climate is more suitable. Without “Siba Lemesiba,” without petitions and microphones, without a camp that awaits what we have to say, but with geographical and artistic borders that are more open.
On second thought, maybe I would like to go back there. Just for two minutes. To tell that soldier-girl that she’s all right, and that the Rivka Michaeli thing will come, too. Just let her stop staring at the master sergeant’s TV and pick up a book instead. Let her just get through this guard shift, return her weapon, be discharged from the army, and go and live wherever she wants and write whatever she pleases.
Exactly as I wish for Hebrew literature.
Maya Arad lives with her family in the United States, where she teaches and writes in Hebrew. Her eighth work of fiction, “Lady of Kazan,” a novel, was published (in Hebrew) in 2015.
Ruby Namdar: Separation anxiety
What I miss most is the Hebrew intimacy – that communicative immediacy that echoes not only in the words but also in the empty spaces and silences between them. There is an essential difference between talking (and writing) in one’s mother tongue and using a foreign language, regardless of how strong one’s command of it is. There is a certain familial self-indulgence in speaking Hebrew, something that allows you to omit certain syllables and replace them with small physical gestures that are invisible to the foreign eye. The experience of “living in translation” is completely different.
I feel very comfortable with English. I enjoy speaking it and feel confident enough to use it in a creative and even playful manner – but my relationship with it is radically different from my relationship with Hebrew. Writing in English brings out a different persona in me than Hebrew: I become too eloquent, a bit sarcastic, perhaps a little smug. I have no idea where this persona came from and when it formed. But I do know that it appears out of nowhere every time I write something in English and faithfully assumes its role. I must confess that I do not much care for it. Ironically, though, that unbearable lightness often makes it easier for me to write in English than in Hebrew. I do, however, find the idea of writing fiction in English inconceivable; I fear that the result would be insufferable for both me and the reader.
There are very few moments where I feel like an immigrant whose language lags behind that of the locals. These times have been rare – I can count them on one hand. But when they do happen, I finally feel the full weight of the migrant condition – a load I can usually easily ignore, or even deny. I think, for example, of a certain colleague of mine – a very colorful character, a brilliant intellectual – who manages to do this to me time and time again, to pull an exotic lexical rabbit out of her hat that makes me suddenly realize I am not a natural-born English speaker, that I am not from here and never will be.
Paradoxically, but perhaps not surprisingly, the thing I miss most living outside of Israel is also the thing I find most inspiring. Living outside the bubble of Hebrew intimacy has immensely enriched my relationship with the Hebrew language. I’d be lying if I said that I ever took Hebrew for granted – I never have. But living outside of its boundaries added an element of tension to my relationship with my mother tongue and laced my love for it with a sense of awe.
This sense of awe is not necessarily limited to the realm of the sublime; it translates into a simpler and more mundane anxiety – a separation anxiety, a basic fear of abandonment. The thought of losing my Hebrew causes me to panic. It doesn’t have to be a sudden, dramatic disappearance of the language. As a matter of fact, what I fear most is its slow disintegration, the almost invisible everyday erosion of my command of it; its defilement, its turning into a muddied mishmash that is neither English nor Hebrew. Luckily, I am not paralyzed by this fear, but have managed instead to turn it into a source of strength. It motivates me to keep my Hebrew pure, vital and elegant. My life outside the Hebrew realm caused my Hebrew to become a sort of new “holy language,” perhaps similar to the way it was in the Diaspora before Zionism revived it as a spoken everyday language.
Luckily for me as a writer, I was never drawn to writing conversational Hebrew – something that is quite prevalent (too prevalent, in my humble opinion) in contemporary Israeli literature. I do find the roguish charm of Hebrew slang gratifying at times, but never in the context of literary writing. In this sense, living outside the world of colloquial Israeli Hebrew is one of the best things that ever happened to me and my work.
It is not just the linguistic distance that enriches me, but also the thematic and even descriptive distance. When I write non-Israeli Hebrew fiction, I must dig into the bottom of my linguistic toolbox in order to find words and terms that could capture colors, materials, sensations and sensibilities that are very different than those prevalent in the modern Hebrew – a language molded and shaped by the very distinct, and very different, Israeli landscape.
Ruby Namdar lives in New York. His novel “The Ruined House” (Habayit Asher Neherav) won the 2014 Sapir Prize for fiction.
Adam Coman: Someone to run with
Duza is lying on the bed, under the blanket, head on the pillow, dreaming. He’s running from Bonia Park in Krakow, where Polish girls with impeccable breasts caress him and whisper words of love in his ear, through the Tiergarten, to where rabbits flee through burrows from Auschwitz, in Tineretului Park in Bucharest stray dogs try to bite his tail, in Wrocaw he pisses on the great church, ruining my chances with beautiful Marie, joins a dog pack at the squat, and listens to Wagner in the park, in Paris he runs into a flock of Tour de France cyclists and then runs along the Cher in the Loire Valley, he hitchhikes to Prague bars, where he’s immediately served a bowl of water, and fed pikoty (tasteless egg biscuits) from the bag, stuffed like a goose, on the Kraków-Warsaw train he hears the Turkish-German students running along the corridor, listening again and again to the same horrible pop hit on their phones, in Riga he meets an 87-year-old parrot who speaks perfect Russian, in Vatra Dornei, we escape egg-sized hail, hiding under a broken asbestos roof, in Ljubljana it’s so hot he nearly jumps into the Ljubljanica, in Hradec Králové he dances Brazilian dances in the old square, near Biaystok he’s on the run, chased by two policemen who pull us over for speeding, and there he is on the Tel Aviv beach, stealing matkot balls, swimming into the deep, digging in the sand, rubbing himself in fish stench, what does he care if I have to wash him later for hours and he still stinks of fish in bed – a dwarfish dog with a huge head and crooked legs, born on Hamasger Street.
Duza is already a frequent flyer. He hates flying, it’s true. Getting inside the cage, leaving my noisy family or his European adventures but he just steps off the plane – and he’s ready for whatever’s coming.
When Duza dreams, he passes between countries without the cage, the flight and the sedatives, and when I write I try to imitate him. In this forsaken Hebrew force-fed with life, spoken barely by a few millions, read by even fewer – for some reason I write in this language.
I never wrote a word in Israel. I can’t write in Israel – total impotence. Maybe because everything is too close, too familiar, schematic, symbolic, defined and already known. Maybe because in Israel somebody always knows you or just feels like talking to you. About what? It doesn’t matter – so long as there’s a conversation. Speaking, as everybody knows, neuters the thought. And the phone is always vibrating because someone has to ask you for something, or simply needs to kill time while waiting in line for social security. And if you don’t answer, you’re a shitty friend, and now’s the time to talk and understand, “Dude, why do you have to be such a shitty friend?” (Because I came out of the wrong hole.)
But outside Israel, I write in Hebrew, out of context. I’m a stranger – a stranger to Israelis, and locals. Writing in Hebrew is all I have left, because I will never replace it for a perfect, round, bland English.
Jews have always betrayed the countries they were living in, and if not the countries, then Jewishness, which is foreignness in essence. In exile I shed my Israeliness (as much as possible), and become again some treacherous Jewish being whom the communists hang in the name of cosmopolitanism, and Nazis massacre in the name of our wonderful ability to pass like rats in burrows between countries. It’s not multiculturalism or postmodernism – the stranger existed long before nationalism and modernism. It’s also not about peddling a stance, worldview, philosophy or way of life. Throughout history, regardless of fads, the stranger stands on the outside. In Hebrew, Duza and I run aimlessly – crossing the border from the local to the external, from Tel Aviv to Birobidzhan.
Adam Coman wrote “The Sound of Many Tiny Feet Angrily Stomping the Face of the Earth” (Am Oved) in Kraków.
Yossi Avni-Levy: Snow outside, heat wave in Tel Aviv
When I write abroad, I always write with longing. Writing in Tel Aviv is nothing like writing in Belgrade. For 10 years at least, I lived in Germany, Poland and Serbia as part of my job. When a gray river passes outside the window, when a square with a church looms, snow cascades, a new, faceless presence squats by the keyboard: the distance. You want to tell a story, but the fact that you’re writing it there, not here, turns it into a different story.
Longing is not necessarily loving. You can long, love and be angry all at the same time. When I write, I long for my father, who would come home from his work in the orchards of the Sharon and unpack the knapsack he was shouldering, which was filled with oranges, grapefruit and avocados. I long for my mother, who fried eggs, peppers and tomatoes in a frying pan in the kitchen, sprinkling cumin and coriander and singing to herself in Farsi, “Babay Keram.”
Writing is a form of memory. But memory is selective, sometimes deceptive, even prevaricating. Was there happiness when dad unloaded the knapsacks? Was there joy when mom stood and fried eggs with peppers? I don’t know what I remember when I write: truth, or possibly false specters of memory.
It happens that you forget: You’re in a house in a quiet, elegant quarter of Warsaw or Belgrade, creating in your memory the streets of a broiling Tel Aviv on which you want to place Nimrod, Roy and Assaf, to gather pieces of magic from above the thresholds that you’ve been dreaming of touching for years. And you discover, to your surprise, that you’ve forgotten the order of the streets. So you search Google for a map of your Tel Aviv, the one you love from afar (and she? Does she love you back in return? If so, why did you leave?), in order to get it into your head that first comes Frishman, then Gordon, followed by Ben-Gurion and only afterward Arlosoroff. And outside it’s snowing. The roof tiles are whited over. The firs align themselves like candles. But you don’t really care about this celebration of winter. Only if rain falls on the Coastal Plain are you filled with delight like a farmer’s son.
Writing Hebrew abroad – as if you have a choice: what other languages will you write in? – is to squabble the whole time with the place you came from and to which you can no longer return. Because you have changed and it hasn’t. Your writing has become simultaneously a statement of prosecution and statement of defense. One long, exhausting polemic. You fill up carts in German supermarkets and are constantly angry at how cheap things are here, damn it. And how unfair. You’re on a subway that hurtles below a metropolis of millions and you imagine the stops of the underground that speeds beneath Ibn Gabirol on the way to Jaffa. You sit in the wonderful Savignyplatz and hear the announcer declare, “Allenby, aussteigen bitte,” and you guffaw to yourself with insane bitterness.
After a year, five years, 10 years, you suddenly notice people who are standing quietly behind the windows of the houses in these cities. Well, you’ve always encountered them – in the square, on the tram, in parks – but you never really saw their faces. And in one fell swoop, you are drawn into their lives. Into the life of a poor refugee woman who fled from a wretched city and is looking for work and for loves. A gorgeous waiter who is living in a tiny nook and longing for the home he grew up in, to which he will never return. Because everyone is longing for something. Not just you. And you want to write about them, too. Because you’ve already changed. Definitely. Their story, the story of Erika and Hubert, of Marko and Jovana, is also henceforth your story. And the language? Is it an advantage or an obstacle? After all, you’ll write their story in Hebrew, the only language you can write in, and which, sadly, they will never read.
Yossi Avni-Levy wrote his novel “An Ode to Sins” (Hebrew, 2010) in Warsaw. He is currently serving as Israel’s ambassador to Serbia and Montenegro.
Shelly Oria: A space between the languages
When people ask me about interlingualism, about my experience as an author who writes in her second language, they usually ask about my dreams: “What language do I dream in?” I reply that in my dreams, language is fluid: Israeli journalist Oshrat Kotler might broadcast the evening news in English, while my New York friends, who don’t speak a word of Hebrew, might argue with me in the holy tongue with no trace of an accent. I suppose I dream that way because it’s my fantasy: a world free of linguistic boundaries, a world in which no real distinction between Hebrew and English exists, a world in which I can speak whichever language makes its way to my mouth first and always be understood.
Back in 2004, when I was neck-deep in the task of translating my stories and plays from Hebrew into English, with the goal of applying to MFA programs, my mother came to visit me in New York. This visit wasn’t really for me, but rather for Albany, the city to which lawyers travel when they’ve passed the New York Bar exam and wish to retrieve their hard-earned certificate. So we headed to Albany, and I got nervous before her brief interview with a duty judge, and in the ceremony, I applauded and took too many pictures; for a short time, it appeared we’d switched roles. During and out of that experience, I started to write about Avner, an Israeli painter who lives in New York. When his 7-year-old daughter comes to visit from Tel Aviv, he drags her to Albany for a meeting he has high hopes for with an art collector.
That story, “The Disneyland of Albany,” immediately came to mind when Haaretz’s literary supplement approached me with questions about my interlingual experience. In the context of my writing life, there’s no better example, it seems, of the chaos that is interlingualism.
It’s a story I wrote in Hebrew, then translated into English, later rewrote in English, and finally, years later, was translated by translator Ronnie Beck into Hebrew. (There are, of course, reasons and explanations behind each of these steps, but those seem less relevant to this discussion than the path itself.) But perhaps more importantly, this was the first story I wrote which took place in New York rather than in Israel, and whose plot centered on an Israeli trying to “make it” in the United States, coping with the various challenges of life in a new culture, in a new language. “The Disneyland of Albany,” therefore, confronted me with new challenges. For the first time, I had to figure out how to write – in English, and in a way that would sound natural – a character who, for example, speaks Hebrew poorly and with an American accent, or a character who speaks broken English because he’s constantly translating from Hebrew in his head.
But more than anything, perhaps, my journey with “Disneyland” has taught me the difference between bilingualism and interlingualism, which is sort of a polite way of saying that my life is from the fantasy I shared here earlier. There is no world without boundaries of language – or at least, I haven’t found it. Not only will English never be as immediate and elastic, as comfortable in my mouth and head as Hebrew, but Hebrew, too, will never again be the Play-Doh it once was in my hands.
That’s the cost: For all intents and purposes, I have been orphaned of my mother tongue, and a mother can never be replaced. Any yet the attempt to stretch toward the impossible – to live in the duality – in its failure creates a new, third, space: the space between the languages. In that space, for almost a decade now, I’ve been having an affair with the English language. Precisely because it is forever a mystery, forever both within and out of my reach, forever challenging me, teaching me, hiding from me and finding me, I wake up to it every morning as if it truly were my lover, excited for another day together.
Shelly Oria’s short-story collection, “New York 1, Tel Aviv 0,” was written in New York.
Itamar Orlev: Not alone in Berlin
I stood alone at the bus stop. It was dark, not because it was late but because the winter sun had already set. On the opposite sidewalk, an Arab boy appeared, crossed the road and walked toward me. It was cold. Unlike me, he was not dressed properly and stood tensely, shivering a little. He pointed to the illuminated sign on the stop and asked, “Columbian?”
“Yes,” I replied in English, “I’m also going in that direction. The bus will be here soon.”
He looked worried, glancing sideways anxiously. Finally, he pulled out a plastic card with his photograph on it, presented it to me and pointed to the writing at the top: “Tempelhof.”
“Yes, yes, Tempelhof. Columbiadamm,” I answered with emphasis. “I live nearby.”
Tempelhof Airport was planned by Albert Speer at Hitler’s request. It is a formidable fascist-style structure that was finally closed in 2008 and has since stood empty. The runways have been transformed into a spacious park where local children fly kites and ride bicycles. Many thousands of Syrian refugees have recently been housed in the terminal building itself. They rarely go out, but through the fence separating the park from the street you can occasionally see mothers pushing prams, or two or three men walking together. When my son and I take the bus to his kindergarten, we meet them at the stop near our home. Not many, though – just one or two families, usually on their way to settle some bureaucratic matter that the Germans are so fond of. The children usually have runny noses and the mothers sit silently next to them. The fathers chain-smoke cigarettes, looking alert, restless, concerned about the upcoming encounter with German bureaucratic clerks, their fates in their hands and subject to their moods. And still they are sure to smile at my son.
Near my son’s kindergarten, there is a falafel shack belonging to an aging Lebanese man. He opens it only a few hours a day, when it isn’t too cold, and we – my son and I – like to go there to eat falafel. I, on account of the longing I’ve felt from the moment we arrived in Berlin; my son, on account of the Lebanese sweets the owner showers on him.
“Where are you from?” he asked when we first came to him.
“Israel,” I said, reluctantly.
“Oh, Israel!” he cried out in excitement. “So we’re neighbors, from the same place.”
The aging Lebanese man seemed to be in poor health, moving wearily and with difficulty around the tiny shack. But when we come, his face lights up, a wide smile stretching across it as he pulls out a quartered apple or a date, insisting that we eat. While my son eats the falafel balls the man heats up for him in the microwave, and I eat falafel he didn’t bother to heat, wrapped in a kind of lafah bread, the Lebanese man and I look at the cold Berlin street together and talk longingly of Middle Eastern food – despite the fact that I arrived in Berlin only a few months ago and he has a wife who prepares it for him daily. We complain about the weather and talk with concern about the difficult political situation in the Middle East.
“I can’t go back anymore,” he says suddenly, with a dark expression. “I have nowhere to go.”
“When I arrived in Berlin in the mid-1980s,” he once told me, “I was hungry. I missed eating falafel – you could barely find it in Berlin back then. But one day I see a sign: ‘Falafel.’ I went straight in and ate falafel which, maybe because of the longing, was the best falafel I had ever eaten. Then I learned that the person who made it for me was actually an Israeli.”
“Where are you from?” I asked the Arab boy standing next to me at the bus stop.
“Syria,” he replied.
“I’m from Israel,” I said.
“No problem,” he said immediately, to be on the safe side. But then he seemed confused. I smiled.
“I can’t speak English,” he declared in broken English. I searched for words I knew in Arabic and realized, to my embarrassment, that I did not know how to say anything at all.
“Falastin?” he suddenly asked.
“Falastin,” I replied and he nodded in relief.
We were silent. The bus still hadn’t arrived.
“Not good now in Syria,” I said.
His face turned serious.
“Bashar Assad,” he said angrily. “Nicht gut.”
We were silent again. Out of the frozen darkness, the bus appeared. It was almost empty. I sat on one of the seats. The Syrian boy sat in the same row on the other side. When the time came, I stood up to get off.
“You’re getting off at the next stop,” I told him. He regarded me with a look that was either trusting or suspicious, I couldn’t tell which. I was wondering what to do next. He was also deliberating. Finally, we shook hands. It was a handshake that began abruptly, but lasted for a few long seconds. “Good luck,” I said finally and walked to the back door. I had never shaken hands with a Syrian before.
I got off the bus. The street was dark and cold. I went into a house that was not yet my home, in a city that was still not my city, and consoled myself with the fact that, for the time being at least, I still have somewhere to go back to.
Article translated by Leanne Raday.
Itamar Orlev lives in Berlin. His book “Bandit” (in Hebrew) won the 2015 Sapir Prize for First Novel.