Like Kissing Through a Handkerchief

 
By Josh Spiro, Tel Aviv University
 
A recent talk by popular Israeli authors Etgar Keret and Alona Kimhi drew students to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem from as far as Haifa, Be'er Sheva, Tel Aviv and Arad, through rain that would have made Noah double-check his caulking. If the students were expecting unorthodox opinions, they were not disappointed. At one point, Keret characterized the ties between Diaspora and Israeli Jews as being "like an S & M relationship."
 
"[There are people who say] we serve in the army, and if not for Israel there would be pogroms in Wisconsin. I find this attitude annoying. There should be a dialogue between us. We are like brothers who have a lot to learn from each other."
 
The unofficial topic of the event, moderated by Haaretz commentator Avirama Golan and organized by Masa Israel, was Israeli literature and Jewish identity over the past sixty years, so perhaps it was no surprise that the talk went an hour over schedule and was wildly discursive.
 
The audience dribbled into the auditorium, slowly shedding umbrellas and overcoats and shmoozing until the writers were introduced and took the stage. At Golan's urging, Keret read a story from his first published collection, called Pipelines.
 
In the selected story, "Pipes," a man with a "severe perception disorder" works in a factory making pipes, when one day he builds an oddly convoluted pipe for the fun of it and discovers that the marbles he drops into it disappear. Intrigued by this impossibility, he builds a larger replica of the pipe and crawls through it himself to discover a heaven for all the people who were misfits on earth.
 
The audience laughed appreciatively at the story's close and were then let in on another story: that of Keret's irony-laced first realization that he wanted to write.
 
Keret wrote "Pipes" when he was 19 and doing his army service and after he had finished the story, he took it and "showed it to my brother. It was early in the morning and I came to his apartment and woke him up. He said, 'I'll read the story while I walk the dog.' But my brother was very into reading and it was more like dragging the dog; you could see the dog bumping over the pavement. When he finished the story he said it was beautiful, and then he asked me if I had another copy. I said I did, so he bent down and picked up the dog [s**t] with it. I think that was the most important moment of my life, when I realized I wanted to be a writer."
 
Golan, opening a discussion, referred to Keret and Kimhi as part of "the first generation [of writers] to separate from the establishment and be rebellious." She also referred to them as "not the youngest generation of writers," to which Kimhi tartly interjected that they were "young at heart."
 
Keret then responded to critics who called his work apolitical.
 
"For many years politics was synonymous with a simple, pragmatic point of view that could be summed up in three or four sentences," he said.
 
"When someone told you [how they felt about politics] he wasn't trying to share an idea but to say what group he was in; like he was telling you his favorite sports team or what color shirt he is wearing."
 
He added that some people think "life is an American film: you have to figure out who the bad guys are and if they disappear from the face of the Earth we would be happier." But, he concluded, "if I had that point of view I wouldn't be able to write fiction."
 
Golan then steered the conversation towards the issue of the expectations for and influences on an author that are peculiar to Israel. Kimhi noted that "this country creates a certain curiosity in other people disproportionate to its size."
 
Keret approached the question differently, saying that he saw Israel's diversity as one of its great literary boons and that "many great writers have been immigrants or children of immigrants which gives them more perspective on the culture that they are living in."
 
"In Israel there always was and is a sense of urgency," he said. "I once wrote for a satirical show (The Cameri Quintet) and the critics said it wasn't funny, not here, maybe in Switzerland. They're shooting at us, don't tell me a story about your dog because we have our priorities here. When we have peace in the Middle East, then you can talk about your dog."
 
One question from the audience was why so many of Keret's stories were told from a child's perspective. The author explained, "I think I like to write from a child's perspective because children are allowed to ask questions adults can't ask. They are being initiated into society [and told] this is the world and this is how it works. [Once] you are an adult, you can be critical of the system but you are still a part of it."
 
The conversation then turned to the Hebrew language and the issue of translation. Keret commented that for him, "there is no language better to represent reality as I experienced it than Hebrew." He also said that beyond being appropriate, Hebrew is enjoyable to work with because it is very "open to colloquial speech, adopting words from other languages, [and] using slang in many creative ways." Another question from the audience noted that Keret's English was very good and asked if he thought his work lost meaning in translation.
 
He referred to a quote by Bialik that, "reading a work of art in translation is like kissing somebody through a handkerchief." He added that his translator sometimes has particular difficulty translating his style of language and once said to him "if I keep this sentence in English it would be half Shakespearean and half rap jive."
 
One of the last questions of the evening, was how Diaspora Jewry influenced the way Keret and Kimhi perceived their own culture. Keret said, "Although there are many Israeli writers I admire, I feel the writers that have most influenced me are Diaspora Jews."
 
He also credited the Diaspora as the place where the renowned Jewish sense of humor developed but expressed the opinion that Jews outside of Israel are sometimes too fearful of criticizing her citing the example that "when I criticize people who I love, it doesn't challenge my commitment to them."
 
Josh Spiro came to Israel to study at Tel Aviv University for a semester and he will return in the future.  He hails from New York and goes to college at Oberlin.
 

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