November 11, 2019

Ashley Rindsberg is the American Novelist

There are no chartered Nefesh B’Nefesh flights or air-conditioned Birthright buses in Israel-based American novelist Ashley Rindsberg’s world. Rather, Rindsberg’s tale involves a lot of unexpected twists and turns, and a bit of romance. 

His story began in 2004, when Rindsberg balked at what he called the “offer of a lifetime” from a prestigious San Francisco nongovernmental organization. Instead, he answered a message on a sailing job board. Without even meeting the owner, Rindsberg jetted to Sardinia to take the job as a deckhand, transporting the boat to Greece, a leisurely paced voyage of two months across the Ionian Sea and into the Aegean. 

The story could have ended there. But after tasting the Mediterranean life, Rindsberg couldn’t go back to the California career track, so he made his way to Israel. That’s when things got interesting. 

“Israel makes you dig. You’ve got to shvitz to find the good stuff,” he said. In his adopted city of Tel Aviv, Rindsberg would wander the streets at night, connecting with the beggars, madmen and musicians who eventually formed the characters in his first book, “Tel Aviv Stories.” Moving 13 times in as many years, he felt at some point as if the city were pointing a mocking finger at him, saying, “Nu, you still here?” 

“Israel makes you dig. You’ve got to shvitz to find the good stuff.” — Ashley Rindsberg

In deference, Rindsberg would don his backpack and leave. Sometimes his “phantom home” of New York (“the place you’d live if things were just slightly different”) would beckon. Other times he went farther afield or for longer periods of time. After his best friend died in an accident in Nicaragua, he spent a few months there, and then a year in Bordeaux, France, starting the novel he’s finishing now.

Titled “In The Heart of the Jungle,” it tells the story of a young man from a privileged background on the rise in New York’s art world whose life falls apart when he finds himself the subject of a painfully humiliating #MeToo moment. In Nicaragua, the super-secular young New Yorker meets an ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman from Toronto and together they venture into the heart of the jungle, where they face the demons that have been haunting their lives. 

Part of the process of learning to write a novel, Rindsberg said, is unlearning what you thought you knew about novel writing. “You have to change as a person. You have to permit yourself to grow, which means giving up on the former self you’d nurtured for so long, which is the version of yourself you naturally want to cling to. So maybe it took eight years to make that change and just a year to write the book,” he said. 

“Or maybe writing novels is just insanely difficult,” he added, laughing. 

Since he married a Londoner, the English capital has become his new phantom home and an antidote to Israel’s brusqueness. “London totally agrees with my nature, which is exactly the reason I could never live there permanently.”

Fourteen years later, Rindsberg said he’s still settling into Israel and grappling with what it means to be an Israeli. 

“I’m still falling in love with the people, who are stubborn and generous and gracious and infuriating — just like me,” he said. “All the years I’ve been here, I’ve wondered when I’d ever become truly Israeli. It took me 14 years to realize I always was.”