November 15, 2019

A funny — and touching — thing happened when a writer had a son

Etgar Keret is an Israeli writer with an international readership. His stories have been translated into 37 languages, and you can read them in The New Yorker and The New York Times. He’s also been a contributor to the radio program “This American Life.” But if you are not already familiar with Keret, you can get a fix on him in the first few paragraphs of his new and endearing collection of reminiscences, “The Seven Good Years: A Memoir” (Riverhead Books; translated by Sondra Silverston, Miriam Shlesinger, Jessica Cohen and Anthony Berris).

Keret sits on a bench in the corridor of a hospital in Tel Aviv, where his pregnant wife is in labor, but he suddenly finds himself among the victims of a terrorist attack. A reporter, assuming that Keret witnessed the incident, thrusts a microphone into his face. “Are you Etgar Keret?” the reporter asks. “The writer?”

“I wasn’t in the attack. I just happen to be here today.”

“ ‘Oh,’ he says, not trying to hide his disappointment, and presses the stop button on his tape recorder. ‘Mazal tov.’ ”

As Keret allows us to see, he is something of a celebrity in his homeland, and his opinion matters. But the whole point of “The Seven Good Years” is that celebrity and public esteem do not matter much when a baby arrives. Indeed, it is the father who learns from the son: “I’m the first to admit he has a thing or two to learn before he can be shot into space or allowed to fly an F-16,” Keret writes. “But, in principle, he’s a complete person wrapped up in a nineteen-inch package, and not just any person, but one who’s very extreme, an eccentric, a character.”

The good years that give the book its title are the first seven years of his son’s life, but Keret also widens the lens to give us a glimpse of what life is really like in Israel nowadays. Terrorism is an affliction, of course, but so are telemarketing calls. “In the Middle East,” Keret writes, “people feel their mortality more than anywhere else on the planet, which causes most of the population to develop aggressive tendencies toward strangers who try to waste the little time they have left on earth.”

Sometimes the challenges of parenting and the strategic challenges faced by the Jewish state coincide in an unsettling way. One day in the park with his young son, he is confronted by the mother of another 3-year-old: “Will Lev go to the army when he grows up?” she demands.

Keret makes light of the question — “There was something accusing in her tone, as if the fact that my wife and I haven’t discussed our baby’s military future is on the same scale as skipping his measles vaccination” — but the conversation with his wife on the same subject is no laughing matter. “ ‘I’ve been dealing with it from the day Lev was born,’ my wife confessed. ‘And if we’re already discussing it now, I don’t want him to go into the army.’ ”  The solution to their dilemma?  “We decided to compromise on the only principle we both truly agreed on: to spend the next 15 years working toward family and regional peace.”

One of Keret’s gifts as a writer — and one of his coping skills — is his wry sense of humor. At a loss over what to inscribe in a book purchased by a stranger, for example, he invents a whole new genre: the fictitious book dedication. “To Mickey. Your mother called. I hung up on her.  Don’t you dare show your face around here anymore.” And: “Bosmat, even though you’re with another guy now, we both know you’ll come back to me in the end.” After recounting several incidents of anti-Semitism that he has experienced on book tours outside of Israel, he finishes with a punch line: “A clerk in a French hotel told me and the Arab Israeli writer Sayed Kashua that if it were up to him, his hotel wouldn’t accept Jews,” Keret recalls. “I spent the rest of the evening listening to Sayed’s grumbling that on top of 42 years of Zionist occupation, he also has to bear the insult of being taken for a Jew.”

Some heartbreaks are beyond the reach of humor. Keret describes how his sister, who married a highly observant man and herself had “gone religious,” now refuses to read any of his books.  When he wrote a children’s book that he dedicated to his nephews, he negotiated a contract that obliged his publisher to produce a single copy “in which all the men would have yarmulkes, and the women’s skirts and sleeves would be long enough to be considered modest,” all in the hope that his sister would allow her children to read it. “But in the end, even that version was rejected by my sister’s rabbi, the one she consults on matters of religious convention.” She sent him back to Tel Aviv with the “kosher” copy that he had wanted to give to his nephews.

At 171 pages in the hardcover edition, “The Seven Good Years” is a short, fast, funny read.  Most of the chapters are only a few pages long, and Keret always invites a laugh at his own expense. “In the discreet, intimate confines of this book,” he cracks, “I am willing to make a partial admission that I don’t have a life.” Behind the humor, however, is a sharp and serious observer of life, both in Israel and in general, whose wisdom and compassion shine through. 

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.