Readers of the World: Israel

We’re off on our travels once more for our fortnightly instalment of tales from the Readers of the World…where will we be going to this time? The answer is not so far away, even if the country is…

We last left off by taking a trip to the literary hotbed (or should that be hot geyser?) that was Iceland – now Liverpool Hope University Reader-in-Residence Charlotte Weber acts as our tour guide for the literary wonders of Israel.

‘The man decides to write a story about the situation. Not the political situation and not the social situation either. He decides to write a story about the human situation, the human condition. The human condition the way he’s experiencing it right now.’ –

from the opening of ‘Suddenly, a Knock on the Door’, by Etgar Keret.

As a nation occupied by ‘The People of the Book’, there is no way that Israel could fail to have a rich and provocative culture of reading. From the Bible and the legends of the Talmud, to modern-day Israeli and American authors, story-telling has always been an important part of Jewish life.

As far as literary culture goes, Israel is a nation that has had its fair share of complications and difficulties. To start with, there is the simple issue of language. As a mother tongue, Hebrew is spoken by just 8 million people worldwide (compare this to the 300 million people who speak Arabic, the language of those living in the Occupied Palestinian Territories within Israel), and the vast majority of this number are confined to those living within Israel itself. It is also a language that came dangerously close to extinction as a spoken form during the Middle Ages, until its revival as a spoken language during the 19th century.

Despite its complicated linguistic heritage and the tumultuous political relations with Palestine that continue to cause conflicts in the country, Israel has developed its own distinct literary legacy and boasts number of internationally recognised and celebrated authors. The best-known of these in recent times are undoubtedly the novelists Amos Oz and David Grossman.

Oz was born Amos Klausner in the country’s capital, Jerusalem, in 1939. The son of Russian immigrants, he later changed his last name to the Hebrew word for ‘strength’. After the suicide of his mother following years of depression, Oz left home at age 15 and joined a kibbutz in central Israel, where he remained for 31 years. It was during this time that he began to write and his debut novel, Where the Jackals Howl, was published in 1965.

Like most Israeli’s, Oz served in the Israeli Defence Forces as a young adult. He fought in the 1967 ‘Six-Day War’, then in the Yom Kippur war in 1973, both of which gave him a “gut hatred of war and fighting”. It was following these experiences that Oz became one of the first Israeli intellectuals to speak in favour of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Oz’s 2003 memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, in which he reflects upon, among other things, the early death of his mother, is the biggest-selling title in Israeli history.

Books filled our home. My father could read in sixteen or seventeen languages. My mother spoke four or five languages and read seven or eight … But the only language they ever taught me was Hebrew. Maybe they feared that a knowledge of languages would expose me too to the blandishments of Europe, that wonderful, murderous continent … Words like ‘meadow’, ‘cottage’, or ‘goose-girl’ excited and seduced me all through my childhood. They had a sensual aroma of a genuine, cosy world, far from the dusty tin roofs, the urban wasteland of scrap iron and thistles, the parched hillsides of our Jerusalem, suffocating under the weight of white-hot summer.

David Grossman is a prolific writer, having published novels for both adults and young readers, short stories, a play and collections of essays. Politically left-wing, Grossman is also an outspoken peace activist who has demonstrated against the expansion of the Jewish settlements on Palestinian territory. In particular, Grossman’s 2009 novel To the End of the Land, which was published 3 years after the death of his son Uri in the Israel-Lebanon war, received world-wide critical acclaim.

One of the biggest household names in Israeli literature at the moment, however, is the quirky and subversive Etgar Keret. The son of holocaust survivors, Keret’s unusual and often violent short stories have been printed in the New Yorker and The Guardian since his appearance on the literary scene in the 1990’s. He is credited with heralding a new kind of Israeli writing for a modern age – one that deals less with the political and social questions that have preoccupies Oz and Grossman, and more with the daily quirks and psychological dilemmas of the individual. His most recent collection of stories, Suddenly, a Knock on the Door was released by Chatto & Windus this February, and is reviewed in The Observer here.

Israel also has plenty in the way of literary offerings beyond its home-grown writers. The world-famous Jewish Book Week, celebrated its 60th anniversary in February this year, taking place in both Jerusalem and the vibrant Tel Aviv. The programme boasted contributors such as Simon Schama, Boyd Tonkin, Umberto Eco, Howard Jacobson and Etgar Keret. Tmol-Shilshom (Bookstore-Café) is a cultural gem tucked-away from the busy main streets of Jerusalem. Opened in 1994, this cosy café is a favourite among the Jerusalem literary and foodie scenes, with plenty on the menu to feed both the body and the brain (the cheesecake here is the best I have ever tasted!) It attracts plenty of literary figures as well as the general public – with Amos Oz and David Grossman both known to occupy tables here on a regular basis.

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