A New Spirit in Israeli Culture




IN JERUSALEM RECENTLY, I asked Tamar Gur of the Jerusalem Season of Culture (a nonprofit doing cultural programming in Jerusalem since 2011) if there were any young Israeli novelists that I should know about. She steered me to Yair Assulin, who has published two novels in Hebrew: The Drive, (also known as Voyage) which won Israel’s Sapir Prize for best debut novel in 2011; and The Things Themselves, which was published in 2014. He also writes short stories and poems, as well as a column in Haaretz, the left liberal paper; teaches; and is working on his first TV series. We met at the Bagel Café on Emek Refaim. Yair, who was born in Israel and has lived in Germany for a year, was accompanied by his wife, Devora, who was born in the United States. Our conversation was in English, with Devora occasionally helping out with a word. Our conversation, accordingly, has been condensed and edited for clarity, and the final version was reviewed and approved by Yair. Given that Yair’s work has not yet been translated into English, I could not read his work beforehand, and our conversation is a reflection of that as well.

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YAIR ASSULIN: My first novel, The Drive, which won the Sapir Prize, which is like Israel’s Booker Prize, is about a soldier who is going with his father to meet with an Army psychiatrist. This is the story: the drive to the psychiatrist.

TOM TEICHOLZ: It’s a monologue?

A long monologue in the first person — it’s all in his mind. It’s about this decision to see the psychiatrist. It’s a very short book. It’s something like 120 pages in Hebrew. It made a lot of noise in Israel — more than 30 remarkable reviews. It’s the first time that someone raised this subject. We admire soldiers and so on, but we don’t speak about how hard it is to be a soldier when you’re 18 and you have to go into the Army and you don’t have any other choice besides giving up your liberty.

A little bit like Waltz with Bashir [an Israeli animated film about an Israeli on a mission to recall what he did during the Lebanon war].

Yes, but there is also a deep difference between them — that Bashir took place in a war. This is set during a very banal time; it’s an everyday story. My hero — he’s not much of a fighter. He just doesn’t like being forced to serve, meaning, again, the question of losing your freedom in such a total system.

Is it autobiographical?

It’s not autobiographical. These are things I heard about and that I saw when I did my Army service. And my second novel, called The Things Themselves, which was published a year ago, is concerned with Religious Zionists at the time of the Second Intifada. It talks about the changes that came after [Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin’s murder [Rabin was murdered by Jewish extremists]. And how the Religious Zionists became much more right-wing. Especially those Religious Zionists like Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked of the Jewish Home party. Naftali Bennett went to the same high school as me.

Is that right?

Yeah. This big change — people who were religious becoming more right-wing — came after Rabin’s murder and Oslo [the Oslo peace accords]. The Things Themselves is the story of three young guys who are going to do their National Service. One has been in a yeshiva for a year. And the novel is about how they deal with this restricted community, and all of the questions it raises. I also published a book-length poem called Munchen [Munich] in 2014. I lived in Munich for a year teaching Jewish philosophy at the Jewish Community Center.

So how was it that you decided to become a writer?

I usually say that I got the idea in Temple. As a boy, I went to synagogue with my father, and when I was young, I thought: “This is the Temple of the words.”

Was your father born in Israel?

No, my father was born in Morocco. My mother was born in Israel. I usually say that it was from this place, the synagogue, I learned about the power of words. This is where the beginning was for me as a writer, in this place. After this I was writing.

Were you writing in high school?

Yes, I was writing poems and short stories. I started to publish very young. I think I published in Haaretz when I was around 20. I was already working on my first novel when I was in Munich — I always say that I had to step away from Israel to be able to write about the Army.

You went to Hebrew University?

I went to Hebrew University. I studied philosophy and history. In addition to my creative writing, I write a column at Haaretz every Friday which is a cultural/political column.

What’s it called?

The ending paragraph.

The last paragraph?

Yes — the last paragraph. It’s on the back page of the paper.

How long have you been writing the column?

Almost four years now. For the last year I also have been writing a long essay of around 2,000 words about “small journeys” into the physical territory and the consciousness of Israeli society, in a magazine called Liberal, which is a political culture magazine, something like a combination of Newsweek and The New Yorker.

Is your column in Haaretz reported or an opinion column?

It’s much more about what I think. Not fiction.

Your thoughts on anything and everything?

Yes, I have very free range. I can write almost about everything. For example, for this week I wrote about literature because it’s the week of the Israeli book fair. It’s a sign of Israeli society. So that’s what I wrote today. The week before, I wrote a letter to Miri Regev, who became the Culture Minister.

What did you say to her?

That she can change our culture. She doesn’t represent my political point of view. Not at all. But I think that she can bring a new spirit to Israeli culture. We became a little bit bourgeois in our literature. I think it should be changed.

How? In what way?

Our literature should be much more interesting. Much more powerful. Bold. This is what literature is about: to change the world … But, going back to my column, it’s a mix between cultural and political topics, and sometimes things that are a little bit fictional. Short stories about people … it’s all observational.

When you’re writing your column, does it make you want to write fiction? And when you’re writing fiction, does it make it you want to write your column?

Actually, it’s a good question. Yesterday I sat here with two people with whom I’m developing a TV series based on my experience in Munich. About Israelis who come to Munich for one year and what happens to them there and the process they go through.

For?

For HOT, an Israeli cable station. So I’m developing it for them with some women that I am working with; and we sat here in this café with some other screenwriter and we talked about this: how writing for a newspaper affects one’s creative writing and vice versa. And I think it’s had a positive effect on me.

How so?

I think it makes your work much more sophisticated and more complicated. More complicated because you deal with the real world.

Have you written screenplays before?

No, this is my first. I consulted for HOT before on different series. I also consult for two different Israel film foundations, one of which deals more in documentaries.

Howard Gordon — the American TV writer/producer of Homeland, Tyrant, 24 — said something recently about writing for television that I thought was quite profound and true. He was asked whether he writes his shows with a particular point of view about the issues they raise, and he answered (and here I am paraphrasing) that in television you don’t want to have one point of view or the other. Actually, you want to present both points of view as strongly as you can in conflict with each other because good television is about conflict.

This reminds me of what Harold Pinter said in his Nobel prize speech. He said that when he writes a play, he doesn’t judge his character’s politics. He lets them live, even if he doesn’t agree with them. When you begin to be didactic, it’s not interesting anymore.

The other great quote I once heard, I believe it was John Logan, an American playwright and screenwriter say, “A playwright is a person who’s in an argument with society.”

I say that a good writer is always an opposite to the mainstream. Makes sense.

Israel is a country that, at least to us in America, seems to value and respect writers. Writers such as Amos Oz or Dave Grossman are statesmen, and what they say about politics is listened to. I don’t know if that’s true of any American writer since Norman Mailer. What do you feel about the position of the writer in Israeli society?

I’ll start with what I think. It’s very important to every society that you listen to people who actually think about life, such as philosophers, poets, and writers. I think it’s very important. I think that Haaretz actually gives a platform to such people, more so than other newspapers. However, I don’t think the impact of writers on Israeli politics is that great. If you look at the last elections, Amos Oz called on the public to vote for the Meretz party [an Israeli Peace party] which won only five or six seats in the Knesset [Israel’s Parliament] — a very low amount.

So it has no real-world impact, but I think it affects us mystically. We must scream out what we believe in because it will have some impact on the world, it will have an effect on society, and, I believe, most people will be the better for it. Actually, I feel personally that this is my mission.

When I write in Haaretz or when I’m writing my novels, this is my mission: to look at the world and say what I think about it. It’s not just a job; it’s not only for the money. It’s really to have an impact on Israel — even though I’m really leftist and my opinions are very critical about Israel. I think that the bottom line — Israel is one of the greatest miracles of the 20th century, economically and so on. Also, Israeli society is very complicated, and it’s interesting to investigate it. I think that this is our mission.

Israel is a country with world-class literature. A small country with an amazing amount of incredible writers. But do you feel that there is such a thing as Israeli fiction?

Israeli fiction is fiction written by Israelis. I think that even if an Israeli writer would write about, I don’t know, Alaska, the Israeli characters, the Israeli way of thinking and point of view will be there. It’s a major achievement that there is a really strong Israeli point of view, which is critical, which is asking questions, that wants to know the truth. I think that the Israeli people, even today, even when they try to close their eyes to what’s happening in West Bank, they still, in a deeper sense, want to know the truth. They want to live a moral life. I really believe this.

Do you think of yourself as a Jewish writer, does that have meaning for you?

Yeah, for me of course because I mean … I’m not saying I’m religious, because religious has become a political stance, but I am observant. I think also my literature always has a connection with and is in conversation with my Jewish sources. One of the epigraphs for my second novel was taken from Jacob.

Is your creative life in fiction ever in conflict with your religious life and observance?

I don’t think it should because I write about everything. My writing is very in-your-face. I believe that everything that exists in the world has a place in my literature. I don’t censor myself in the worlds I create. In my second novel, I wrote about a religious society, but I talked about all the sexual conflicts and so on. This is life; you can’t ignore it. The Bible is full of stories like this. If you ignore it, then what you write becomes flat and not interesting.

Who are the writers that matter to you or who inspired you?

I was really inspired by Thomas Bernhard, the Austrian novelist; Jean-Paul Sartre, of course; Thomas Mann; in Israeli literature: David Grossman, A. B. Yehoshua, particularly the short stories that he published in the 60s and 70s.

Who are you reading now?

Now, actually, I’m not reading fiction. I’m reading Gershon Scholem, you know him?

Yes, of course.

So I am reading his book about Sabbatai Sevi. This is one of the greatest books, I think, that was written in the 20th century, and it’s also kind of fiction, yes?

Yes. Scholem’s From Berlin to Jerusalem is also a great book.

Yes, it’s a great book.

At the National Library they have —

His collection, yes, of course.

It’s actually one of the most visited rooms, collections, in the library — in part because people from all over the world are interested in Kabbalah, and his collection of works on the subject is incredible. What I find so compelling in Scholem’s work is that, coming from a German intellectual background, his work argues for a mystical branch of Judaism, an embrace of the ecstatic and the nonrational tradition.

You know, this is not contrary to the German tradition. The German people — their tradition was very mystical and even metaphysical actually. Think about [German Jewish philosopher] Franz Rosenzweig, who is a national treasure. His books are 100 percent mystical. Even when he’s writing about Hegelit was a book about German philosophy, but it was also very mystical. There are many mystical sources in the German philosophy and Jewish/German philosophy, actually. It’s interesting, I think, because people don’t really know about this.

I suppose my point was that Scholem’s intellectual line of inquiry was about an alternative Jewish path, another tradition that was the opposite of traditional German Jewish observance.

Okay, I got it now. This is right, but Scholem is very much intellectual.

Do you follow a particular rabbi?

No.

No?

We are just living our lives.

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Tom Teicholz is a contributor to Forbes.com and The Huffington Post.


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