Etgar Keret’s voice carries beyond Israel’s borders

May 3, 2017
Etgar Keret. Photo courtesy of The Lion House Agency

Most of us understand the value of words. And those of us who may have forgotten their power have no doubt been reminded of it over the past few months as the new administration in Washington routinely comes under fire for words said and words omitted. It goes without saying that writers, especially fiction writers, have a special proclivity for language — a gift for transforming ideas and emotions into textual images that, hopefully, remain with us.

This is a trait shared universally by writers from around the world, with culture and geography generally playing a large role in the way a person writes. Place gives stories their unique character, though good writers know how to ensure that their work is universal despite its particular elements. Israel has given us many great men and women of letters, including writer Etgar Keret.

Born in Ramat Gan in 1967, Keret is known for his short stories, graphic novels and scriptwriting for film and television. He is married to Shira Geffen, an actress and writer with whom he often collaborates on various projects, and together they have a son, Lev.

The popularity of Keret’s work has spilled far beyond Israel’s borders. He has appeared frequently on National Public Radio’s “This American Life” and is credited by many as having helped to revive appreciation for the short-story genre, which many literary critics at least a decade ago suggested was coming to a close.

I discovered Keret 10 years ago after falling in love with other Israeli writers, such as David Grossman, Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua, among many others. I already was familiar with Jewish-American literature, but I found there was something unique about Israeli writing, and within that genre I discovered there was something even more distinctive about Keret, who will discuss his writing in a dialogue with Rabbi Sharon Brous on May 10 at American Jewish University. Sponsored by the university’s Whizin Center for Continuing Education and IKAR, the event also will include a dramatic reading of Keret’s stories by actress Lisa Edelstein.

Israeli fiction is heavy and haunted. Despite the young age of the country, the novels produced by its writers are often long, sweeping and epic in nature. It’s as if all of the oldest souls in the world ended up in one place and decided to write. While the region is small, its stories are grand and perhaps unparalleled in their tendency to tease out the nuances of living in a land of ethical and geographic quandaries, always pushing us not toward what is simple, but what is just.

Israeli fiction is almost never not politically aware or engaged with current events either subtly or explicitly. Yet while the work of 20th- and 21st-century Jewish-American writers often demonstrates a meaningful struggle of identity — in many cases what it means to be both American and Jewish, observant or secular — the work of Jewish-Israeli writers reminds us that such struggles are perhaps a luxury.

When you live in a place where nearly everyone knows someone, or someone who knows someone, who was a victim of a suicide bombing or stabbing, you don’t always have time to reflect on the nature of identity. It becomes even more incidental when that place is the most criticized and scrutinized nation in the world, always the eye of some international storm and an enduring subject of heated conversation from the U.N. to the Shabbat dinner table. Instead, you must speak frankly and articulately about what matters now.

Every word counts in such an environment, and reading the heavy-hitting fiction writers of Israel, one gets the sense that there is nothing more critical, now, than understanding our responsibility as Jews and acting on it. And this is no laughing matter.

Israeli fiction is heavy and haunted. Despite the young age of the country, the novels produced by its writers are often long, sweeping and epic in nature. It’s as if all of the oldest souls in the world ended up in one place and decided to write.

But then there’s Keret, the 2016 recipient of the Charles Bronfman Prize, awarded in recognition for conveying Jewish values across cultures in his work. For Keret, this sense of urgency materializes in a different way — most notably in that he is funny. Darkly funny, that is, sometimes achingly and startlingly so. For example, in this excerpt from a 2012 piece for Tablet magazine called “School Isn’t (Always) Jail,” Keret reflects on his anxiety about his son starting elementary school in Tel Aviv:

“The entire week before that, Lev’s mom kept asking his dad to stop watching reruns of “Oz,” claiming that it was having a bad effect on him. And now, as Lev’s dad follows his son down those dark hallways and sees the second-graders, lollipops protruding like toothpicks from the corners of their mouths, eyes arrogantly inspecting the new first-graders as if they were a shipment of fresh meat, he thinks that … there’s no denying that something about schools is reminiscent of prisons. The long corridors. The square, asphalt-paved yard into which the small prisoners are released a few times a day. The unpleasant crowding, the uniforms. And as Lev finds himself a seat in the classroom next to a fat, red-faced boy who looks like a Bavarian farmer who turned in Jews during the Holocaust, his dad is praying that this first day will end peacefully: no solitary and no shanks in the schoolyard.”

One can’t help but laugh at the idea of school as a small replica of prison. But not far beneath the humor, we discover the real and raw fear that a parent can feel when his child enters school. This fear becomes even more deep-seated given Keret’s personal history as the son of Holocaust survivors.

In Keret’s work, the idea that every word counts is taken literally. Living in Israel can be intense. It’s a place that is exhilarating and alive in every sense. It’s no wonder that much of Keret’s work falls into the category of flash fiction, stories that are exceptionally short, sometimes no more than half a page. Consider his story “Asthma Attack,” only one paragraph long, from his 1992 collection “The Girl on the Fridge”:

“When you have an asthma attack, you can’t breathe. When you can’t breathe, you can hardly talk. To make a sentence all you get is the air in your lungs. Which isn’t much. Three to six words, if that. You learn the value of words. You rummage through the jumble in your head. Choose the crucial ones — those cost you too. Let healthy people toss out whatever comes to mind, the way you throw out the garbage. When an asthmatic says ‘I love you,’ and when an asthmatic says ‘I love you madly,’ there’s a difference. The difference of a word. A word’s a lot. It could be stop, or inhaler. It could even be ambulance.”

Writing short stories in general is a profoundly difficult task. There is only so much space, so much time to say what needs to be said. Less is more, and it’s not always easy to do that in a way that works. But this skill is one of the characteristics of Keret’s writing that sets it apart from other Israeli writers.

Despite his fame as a fiction writer, my first encounter with his work was a film called “Jellyfish” he made with his wife. It’s a beautiful and well-written film, and one moment has never left me. Near the end, one woman tells another that her parents were Holocaust survivors. The second woman responds: “You’re second generation?” The first woman shrugs and says, “We’re all second generation of something.”

While the work of many second-generation writers suggests that the inheritance of trauma is the center of their world, Keret’s work transcends such literary blind spots. It’s not that the Holocaust isn’t present in his work. It is, certainly, as we see in his piece about sending his son to school. Some might argue that it haunts all of his writing. But it is simply one of many lenses through which he understands the world.

Humor is another — something we don’t often see from Israeli writers — and yet humor is not disconnected from struggle and tragedy. In fact, the need to laugh is often connected directly to the experience or inheritance of trauma. Given that Keret’s work is often tinged with the presence of something tragic, I asked him to what degree he connects humor to darkness, and whether the Holocaust is the only darkness that impacts his writing.

“Being funny, for me it’s never a goal,” he said, during a recent conversation by phone. “I think it’s always an effect of trying to say something else. We have this expression that my son uses: tickle-funny. When someone tickles you, you laugh. You don’t feel any emotion, you just laugh … [but real] humor is always a side effect of acknowledging some other emotion.”

Keret believes that his cynicism makes him funny, that it enables him to find an outlet, or a release valve, as I put it. Anger, fear, frustration and stress: they all need somewhere to go or we risk implosion. Humor can help manage these sensations. Keret, who grew up on “Monty Python,” described how it provided an incredible release for him. When I asked about contemporary comedians to whom he is drawn, he cited Louis C.K. for “the dialogue that [he] offers,” suggesting that Louis C.K. resolves himself to do “not just what works,” but what he finds “important at the risk of people not getting it.”

But laughter does not come cheaply. There’s a difference between simply being a funny guy who laughs a lot and being someone for whom comedy is a necessary function of survival. Keret described an instance when his young son asked him to “be funny.” He recounted not being able to supply what his son asked for because “I need some kind of catastrophe; there should be some obstacle for humor to present itself.”

An expression of humor is not so different from storytelling. Both are always responses to something else. It’s “always an attempt to complete something that isn’t completed,” he said, reminding me that writing is always only an approximate response, little more than a trace of what we want to communicate.

Despite the numerous books and countless stories and essays Keret has written, including his latest, a memoir called “The Seven Good Years,” the period between the birth of his son and the death of his father, he said he still finds it difficult when it comes to saying that he is a writer.

“When I would fly to the U.S. and fill out those immigration cards, I would always write ‘lecturer’ or ‘professor,’ ” he said. “I would never write ‘writer.’ I always had a problem with this because I think that for someone to say he is a writer is like saying he is lovable or cute … because anybody can write words on a page, but the only person who can say [whether this is] writing or not or that the writing means something is the reader.”

And yet, the fact remains that Keret is indeed a writer — a good one. But in true Keret comedic fashion, he said of finally having to accept the title: “It’s kind of like when you have this mole on your face and … you get used to it.”

“Humor is very much like story,” he continued. “Let’s say you’re living in a 3-D world and you need to get somewhere so you get there, but if this place is also [haunted by war] then you need to go through a fourth dimension to be able to get there. Going there is basically a place where fiction or humor function for me, kind of like using a hammer or can opener.”

I couldn’t help but think of how, much like these common tools of everyday use, humor is for some a basic tenet of survival.

Courtesy of The Lion House Press Agency
Courtesy of The Lion House Press Agency

And speaking of survival, it’s become culturally hip, at least in America, to question the parameters of comedy in the context of the Holocaust and other tragedies — a natural segue into the issue of anti-Semitism today, which various news outlets say is on the rise.

In Keret’s “Defender of the People,” found in “The Seven Good Years,” the first line reads: “There’s nothing like a few days in eastern Europe to bring out the Jew in you.” The sarcasm of this statement struck me as terrifyingly funny. I remember reading it on a flight to Israel when the memoir came out and knowing exactly what he meant. And laughing. The story describes a misunderstanding he experiences when a German-speaking man drunkenly enters the restaurant where Keret is dining and yells, “Juden raus!” (Jews out!) Keret confronts the man and reveals his Jewish identity before the man is thrown out of the restaurant.

It turns out that the man had actually been yelling “Jeden raus,” which means something along the lines of “everyone out.” The drunk was complaining that a diner’s car was blocking his. But “what can I do?” asks Keret in the story, “Even today, every other word of the German language puts me on the defensive.”

In the same story, Keret talks about how he had come to acquire “superhuman powers when it comes to detecting swastikas” and how he’s experienced a number of anti-Semitic incidents that, unlike the one above, “can’t be explained away by a mistake in understanding.”

I was curious about how someone with such a heightened sensitivity to anti-Semitism views an increase in hate crimes against Jews. Is anti-Semitism really growing, I asked, or is that just an idea peddled by those who enjoy fear-mongering?

In Keret’s view, it can be difficult parsing the differences between a crime and a hate crime. “I’ve been told anti-Semitic jokes because people didn’t know I was a Jew. It’s not discernible,” he said. Jewishness is more mysterious, I suggested, and therefore more threatening or frightening for some people. A Jew is “someone who is different but who looks the same,” he said.

Keret also drew a parallel between anti-Semitism and homophobia: “You can tell a joke about someone who is a homosexual and not know he was a homosexual. So I think this kind of obscureness about identity … that is, the difficulty [in identifying] Jews, is one of the sources of anti-Semitism.”

Keret struggles with the idea that Jews should unconditionally support all policies of the Israeli government. Like most deep thinkers, he understands the nuances and complexities that accompany this scenario.

“It’s tough for me to figure,” he told me. “Many times when I talk with American Jews, I say that I don’t really accept that Israel should be supported unconditionally. … I think that if my brother starts using crack, I wouldn’t say, ‘He’s my brother’ and, ‘Here’s some money [to buy more drugs]’ since he is family.”

As a fierce lover of Israel and its right to exist as a Jewish state, I found what Keret said deeply resonant. I love Israel as I love my friends and family, always poised to give Israel the benefit of the doubt before launching into criticism. But I also have witnessed the destructive effects of disguising, ignoring or enabling bad behavior in a loved one. It doesn’t do that loved one any good. It doesn’t do any of us any good. The issue, of course, is one of balance, which Keret gets intuitively, even if it often seems absent from political discourses.

“Being funny, for me it’s never a goal. I think it’s always an effect of trying to say something else. We have this expression that my son uses: tickle-funny. When someone tickles you, you laugh. You don’t feel any emotion, you just laugh … [but real] humor is always a side effect of acknowledging some other emotion.”

-Etgar Keret

I was curious about how Keret sees himself fitting into the cast of literary greats in Israel. While he is an enormous fan of Oz, he often feels closer to Jewish Diaspora writers such as Sholem Aleichem or Isaac Bashevis Singer than to his peers — if for no other reason than the ease with which he transitions between comedy and tragedy.

“Israeli humor is not distinct or special in any way,” he said. “I don’t think for Israeli humor, the foundation is different from Italian humor, for example. … I think [for] many Jewish Diaspora writers and stand-up comedians, it has to do with some kind of complexity or obstacle that doesn’t really exist in the Israeli context. Jewish humor came from a position of weakness.

“Diaspora Jews,” he continued, “being oppressed in many ways, needed humor. We were so weak. We needed that, but when we came to Israel, we became strong enough.”

And now that Israel’s default mode, as we know, is not one of weakness, humor has become an option rather than a necessity.

The dual identity of Diaspora Jews is also a factor in the use of humor in a way it could be and is not used in Israel. As Keret explained, an American Jew has the ability as a Jew to criticize Americans and as an American to criticize Jews. “You can always be inside and outside the community,” he said. “You can always have some kind of exterior perspective.”

Given that humor is almost always a result of some kind of tension, it makes sense that American Jewish writers have a long history of resorting to humor. But “in Israel,” he said, “I don’t think we need [it] anymore.”

Of course, none of these theories explains why Keret, an Israeli Jewish writer, is so comfortable using humor. But it’s a fortunate mystery for readers that distinguishes him from his contemporaries. I can’t help but wonder, however, whether his impulse to blaze his own trail among Israeli fiction writers has something to do with the bedtime stories his father used to tell him, stories he recounts in the short story, “Long View.”

Recalling the plots as an adult, he realizes they were supposed to teach him something “about the almost desperate human need to find good in the least likely places. Something about the desire not to beautify reality but to persist in searching for an angle that would put ugliness in a better light and create affection and empathy for every wart and wrinkle on its scarred face.”

I’d say Keret has found his angle.

Monica Osborne is a writer and scholar of Jewish literature and culture. Her book “The Midrashic Impulse and the Contemporary Literary Response to Trauma” is forthcoming later this year.

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