Israeli literature is undergoing a quiet sea change that will likely prove to be more consequential for how the young country understands itself and is understood outside its borders than a thousand cubic meters of compacted peace plans and op-eds denouncing anti-Semitism. The immediate impetus for this refashioning was the death last year of the two greatest stars in the country’s literary firmament: Aharon Appelfeld and Amos Oz. What comes after them is likely to reflect the new realities of a country that appears to be escaping the limiting categories that Western observers project from afar in accordance with their own mythologies.
The resulting, distinctly Israeli sensibility is something new and powerful, with its own strong gravitational field, which is reshaping previous definitions of Jewish literature—while also exerting a notable pull on American television, which is chock-full of repackaged Israeli shows and Israeli creators.
But first a note about the two dead stars. Appelfeld, deservedly acclaimed, especially in Europe, was the greatest living Hebrew-language writer, and a successor of sorts to Israel’s solitary Nobel Prize laureate in literature, S.Y. Agnon. Where Agnon was deeply rooted in the rich lived experience of European Judaism and portrayed life in both Europe and Israel as in some ways continuous with the text of the Mishna, Appelfeld’s sensibility was born out of the wholesale destruction of the world that Agnon came from. And despite the fact that he lived in Jerusalem, Appelfeld was never an Israeli writer. He was a European Jewish writer whose childhood relationship with Europe was terminated by the Nazi orgy of terror and killing—which is why Appelfeld could only write in Hebrew.
Two years after his death, Appelfeld’s place in the Jewish literary canon seems secure enough; his great books, like Badenheim 1939, Katerina, and Iron Tracks, are likely to rest on the bookshelves of 20th-century Jewish fiction somewhere alongside Agnon, and Isaac Babel, and Kafka, adjacent to the literary memoirs of Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi. What future generations of Israeli readers will make of Appelfeld’s books is hard to imagine. Though he wrote in Hebrew, he had relatively little to say to them directly.
Instead, Appelfeld made his sensibility felt in Israeli fiction mainly though his palpable yet hugely understated influence on his students, the most notable of whom was Amos Oz. The literary connection between Appelfeld and Oz seldom occurred to foreign critics. Appelfeld was a quintessentially European writer, while Oz was the quintessential Israeli.
Yet it was not hard to see or imagine the influence of the teacher who survived the killing fields of Europe on his best student, the handsome kibbutznik. “Appelfeld never wrote about gas chambers, never wrote about executions, about mass graves, atrocities and experiments on human beings,” Oz told Israel’s Army Radio after his mentor’s death in January 2018. “He wrote about survivors before and after. He wrote about people who did not know what was about to happen to them and about people who already knew everything but hardly spoke about it.” Oz’s own trick was to apply Appelfeld’s method to the lives of his Israeli kibbutzniks, whose emotional reticence signified the depths of the losses and betrayals that they had experienced, both personal and national. Oz’s death in December 2018 was rightly an occasion for national mourning.
Oz was a more gifted craftsman than Appelfeld, but the teacher was in touch with the depths of the human character and the perversity of individual and historical experience in a way that his prize student could never be. So while it seems likely that Israeli students will continue to read Oz’s novels, I am not sure that Americans or Europeans will, with the possible exception of Oz’s early period fiction—which will offer continuing detail and color about an Israeli socialist communal moment that now seems remote.
For the living, what is chiefly interesting about the twinned deaths of Appelfeld and Oz is the revelation of the existing literary world that was overshadowed by their gigantic reputations. Absent these two, it is clear that the reigning genius of Israeli letters is not David Grossman, whose fiction has become increasingly wooden, and who seems like the heir to Oz’s literary-political mantle, or A.B. Yehoshua, whose quasi-Orientalist fictions, so rich in exotic sights and smells, were long ago declared to be the officially sanctioned alternative to Ashkenazi-centric fiction. Grossman and Yehoshua both had their moments, but that was three decades ago—and the deaths of their peers only make them look old.
What’s interesting in Israel now are the women. If the Nobel Prize in literature was still being awarded, or mattered to anyone, the best candidate among Israeli writers would be Orly Castel-Bloom, author of the harrowing Dolly City and Human Parts. If Israel had a poet laureate, Castel-Bloom would be it. My personal choice for the next Israeli writer on a postage stamp would be the fantastic detective novelist Batya Gur, who died in 2005, or Ronit Matalon, who died in 2017—both of whom are now having posthumous moments in English translation.
Among my current favorites is Dorit Rabinyan, a passionate and gifted teller of love stories and an instinctive and deadly emotional street fighter. The wounded bird aspects of her female characters are part of their plumage—they serve to distract, just as they may part to reveal deeper reserves of distinctly feminine strength and courage. Her recent All the Rivers and her insanely great debut novel Persian Brides put her in the front rank of a new generation of Israeli fiction writers that includes the ferocious and unforgiving Ayelet Tsabari. Julia Fermentto, an Israeli novelist and short story writer who also writes for TV, is less visible to English language readers, but she should be. Along with Assaf Gavron and Etgar Keret, they are the present and the future of Israeli literature.
One conclusion that is easy to draw is that there is something about being female in the Israel of the past two or three decades that contributes to writing resonant, original fiction that travels. While I am generally suspicious of gender- and race-based claims to literary quality, the logic in this case is clear: Men are the parties to wars in the Middle East, and so their identities and emotions and even their betrayals are inherently less personal and less interesting in fiction, because they are inherently overdetermined. Women have more room to be human.
I spoke with Rabinyan during a summertime visit to my house in Brooklyn, during which we sat out on the stoop, drank tea, ate fruit, and talked about spies, love stories, and how to choose a watermelon. She also met my youngest son, Elijah.
What follows is an edited, partial transcript of a longer, more personal conversation, which contains auguries about the future of both Israeli and American Jews. We began by talking about our mutual interest in and acquaintance with spies, who move between cultures.
Dorit Rabinyan: I think being a spy is a lot like being a writer.
David Samuels: Except, when you are a spy, the people whose lives you are playing with are real, and your power rests in betrayal. That makes me queasy, sometimes. But it’s true that these two kinds of work require a similar understanding of psychology and motivation, and the same kind of willingness to break bonds and hurt other people—even though you promised never to hurt them.
So, you cannot see it as romantically as I do.
I don’t see writing romantically, either.
I think the connection has to do with the two loyalties that a double agent has. A kid goes into the adults’ world like a double agent. And he studies their codes and their behaviors as if he is reporting to a controller.
Being a writer, you also go back and forth between two loyalties, from this persona that tells the story and the one that goes and dips in the water by itself. Think about a day after a good writing day, when life is so right, and the colors are so wonderful and you’re intoxicated by just being alive. Just by giving meaning to this, putting things in order, having the chaos framed, and living in beauty.
Maybe that’s why spy novels are enjoyable, but so few of them are actually great novels—maybe Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent and John le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. The spy novel as a form is generally too literal, because all novels are spy novels.
On the subject of passion, you have a great description in your recent novel All the Rivers of the lover who is seized by a passion in his work and how annoying it is to be around that person. I identified with that.
Oh, you made it that far?
I read the whole book!
You didn’t! I just sent it to you.
Of course I did. It’s a terrific book.
Oh, I’m so appreciative. Thank you so much. Thank you so much. You’re a devourer. You really swallowed it.
That’s quite a series of metaphors there! For me, it was really a perfect love story. I liked the awareness of the characters that their love was both addictive and transient. It was happening in a bubble, which is true of all love. And you kept that awareness inside the awareness of the characters in their own specific relationship, which is so hard to do.
So many compliments in one sentence! I love it. Do you know how many times I was interviewed by somebody who was admitting or not admitting that he only read the first chapter?
I loved the book. And I love that you’re a real Nirvana fan, because not only did you mention Nirvana in the first chapter, but then toward the end of the book you did the married/buried rhyme from “All Apologies,” without crediting Kurt.
So tell me, what is it like to be translated and read in so many languages? I recently had lunch in Paris with my French translator, Louis. It was the strangest experience because it was like meeting someone who had been living inside my body without telling me.
How come you like vanilla? I like chocolate!
There was some quality of feeling in my writing that he completely connected to, in some very personal but entirely French way, that of course was ultimately foreign to me–and which at the same time I was incredibly grateful existed.
You find it funny.
Because it’s funny.
So imagine having 22 of these. It’s like this feeling of being in a way maybe of those men who fertilize women in all those islands and ports.
My French translator, he’s this intellectual for whom translating my book was an adventure of his identity. I heard him say on the radio, “Liat Binyamin, c’est moi!”
And he was rewriting it like a true writer does.
Maybe French guys are like this.
I think that there are two great literary cultures left in the world. There’s the French, and there’s the English. And you have to choose between them.
And what about the Germans? Germans read the most fine literature in the world!
The Germans mutilated themselves. Their culture is a living fossil.
Because they can’t connect to their own history and culture in their own language anymore, without either sounding like monsters or denying that they were monsters. It’s puts too much weight on everything. Maybe soon every language will suffer that fate, and we will all communicate in Kim Kardashian emojis.
What is a fossil, something fake?
If you watch the nature channels, you’ll see they’ll have a special on living fossils. An animal that’s existed exactly the same way for 70 million years. It was alive when dinosaurs were alive, and it looked the same way that it does now. But it never evolved into anything, it just stayed the same, like a giant prehistoric lizard or a strange-looking shark with three dozen rows of teeth.
Ah, it’s something that is fixated in the stone.
Right, but alive.
I don’t know why I have this imagery of, how do you call it, when you cut the brain into two, where they sever the connection between the hemispheres? When you said mutilated, this is what I saw. So this mutilation has to do with the connection of the past to the present?
But you know they refer to themselves as going through a crisis and being hostage to a manipulator. But they do have a long past, a glorious past, that they try to be connected with.
The explanation that an entire nation of German innocents was held hostage by a bad man who came from the sky and could have arrived anywhere on Earth just isn’t very convincing, and they don’t actually believe it. That’s why they created the European Union.
And the French?
The French remember their history very well, so they encouraged the idea of the EU because they didn’t want to be invaded by Germany a third time.
But now the English are leaving Europe with Brexit. It’s very Jewish, if you think of it. I mean, they are shifting their loyalty from the continent to a loyalty that is more abstract, to the English language. It’s funny, it’s so Jewish.
I don’t really think of the English as Jewish. Have you ever slept with an Englishman?
[laughs] I’ve never in my life had an interview that started a question with these words.
Ok, fine. Yes. I did. It wasn’t that fantastic.
Right. I had an English girlfriend once. They’re not, in the end, warm people.
It’s true, it’s true. There is a frost.
They’re shy. But it’s not smoke, its fog—or frost.
This is why they are so infatuated with Italians.
And why they love Arabs.
It’s true, but their infatuation with the Arabs is more in the interest they can see in the Arabs.
That’s now, maybe. But before the banking interests and the oil, there were the Orientalist scholars who sat in Oxford and Cambridge and thought of the lithe young boys riding Arabian horses through the desert.
I think it was a result of fortune and their imperialistic ambitions, which the scholars turned into a cult, this exotification of the Arab man, of the Arab woman, the vastness of the desert.
On the subject of exotifying Arabs, do you want to take this opportunity to thank Naftali Bennet for heroically banning your book?
I’m so disappointed with your question, David. Because this is the most common Israeli remark.
I’m a very common person. It’s why I like Israelis.
The question is ignoring the scratch, this ugly nasty scratch that the ban had created to our democracy. Freedom of speech in Israel is so fragile, and this book was attacked as a symbol, for its vulnerability.
Yet when I read the book—
You didn’t find it to be so radical.
Not only is it not radical, it’s—
This is the danger. They didn’t want those long-skirt girls to read the book because I’m falling in love with an Arab. The identification danger of young religious Israeli girls who will imagine themselves to be Liat.
I don’t consider it to be a danger. But somebody was trying to please the fears that these leaders are stoking, the mythological Jewish ancient fears that have to do with a diaspora, where having these walls of the ghettos meant the actual preservation of the identity.
But that’s not our reality today. We have our own country now, and it’s the Arab who is the other there, not us.
This word “identity” is really starting to bug the shit out of me. My identity is that I am a writer. That’s my job.
You also have an identity as a Jew. It’s a fun thing to own in New York.
I guess. But my parents were immigrants, they weren’t American Jews. So I missed out on the whole New York Jew thing—Woody Allen, Chinese food on Christmas, being a 98-pound reject who is really a winner because he is so much more moral and lovely than everyone else, I have zero connection to any of that. It’s part of someone else’s story.
The writers I learned from were WASPs with drug and alcohol problems, and a black novelist named Ishmael Reed, who taught me in college, and said that I should be a writer. Robert Stone. The Jews never cared about me.
It was your wife brought the Jews into your life, then.
Yes, in my adult life. I love her very much for that. She cares about these American Jews and is connected to them in a very genuine and heartfelt way. It is part of her understanding of community, which is very deep. Community is something that women generally understand much better than men. She loves her Jews, and she wants them to be smarter and better versions of themselves.
If your wife loves llamas or sheepdogs, it would be wrong not to develop some fondness for them, too.
Well, I am most appreciative of her Jewish America. I always remember that this affiliation between us is not to be taken for granted. It is such a strong sentiment and I’m always awed by it.
America is a million miles away and still the heart pounds for our small Jewish existence in the Middle East. You can see that Israelis are becoming much more like our neighbors, in this banning of my book and in all these other steps taken by this regime. But when the remote control beeps, you can see these Morse code signs, and we are so grateful that the connection is still there.
One of the things that made me smile throughout the book was the loving way that you named the streets and landmarks in Greenwich Village, which was once my neighborhood. You had this desire to root yourself, the Israeli, in this physical place, even if you knew that the attachment is a willful and transient one.
It’s interesting. So you’re saying it’s an outsider view that wants to have these landscapes internalized, to own it and to be part of it.
I’ll tell you the only part of the book where I felt you unsure of something, or unwilling to say something, was in your portrayal of the Israelis in New York, Liat’s friends. Now I know that the character herself, Liat, is concealing her own heart and feelings from these people and so there’s a deliberate distance there. But you were protective of them, but also unsure of what to depict and therefore it became—
That’s interesting. They were vague just by me knowing them enough or too much or too well. Maybe they didn’t interest me so much. I know them, and they are not interesting.
I don’t want to say that about all Israelis in New York because it’s not true, it’s very, very generalizing. But yes, I wasn’t that interested in them.
If I read your book with political glasses on, I would say that you wrote a very emotionally honest middle Israeli book, right? There’s a dream about loving a Palestinian and having this connection, but it’s a dream you can only have when you’re in New York. When you come back home, the dream is over. And the person who is the object of the dream is going to drown.
But he is not going to drown only, he’s becoming part of her landscape. She demands the land to be hers up until the ’67 line. The Green Line. She wants it to be Jewish. And by him stepping into this space that she declares that it’s herself.
The way they see love is her seeing it as a two-state solution. You know? She sees the relationship to be in need of a boundary. This is harmony for her.
His concept of love is—
Enmeshed? It’s a wonderful word, it sounds like a purée.
By him stepping into her Israeliness, the Jewish land that she demands to be sovereign in, he can’t actually have a place there.
So I, in a very twisted, tragic, metaphorical way, make him get the sea. He owns the sea. She would not be able to look toward the ocean without thinking of him. He would become part of her life in the way she couldn’t have allowed him by calling home and saying step out of my life for 10 minutes.
Many Israelis who are good Israelis, who are in my camp, are reflected in Liat. In the end, they cannot bear the thought of partnership with the Arabs. I am talking about actual real life coexistence, on the ground.
Either you are willing to have babies with them or you’re not. And if you’re not, that’s it. Speaking of which, my son is about to wake up.
There’s a child sleeping upstairs?
His name is Elijah.
He doesn’t feel good?
No, he’s just taking his afternoon nap. And now his naptime is over.
So, you take care of children and write. That’s a very good life. Are you writing a love story?
I write stories about delusion. To imagine something, and then to have that imagination fail, and then the consequences of that failure.
I’m good at that one story. A love story is something completely beyond me. I’m just amazed by yours.
I think it’s a good thing to know your code for the ATM of your stories, where you have your fortune collected.
So, in this drama that you are invested in, which part is the one that you feel you’re most accurate, in the fall or is it the delusion itself?
I love them both, truly.
[To Elijah] Elijah! Do you want some watermelon? I’ll give you some. Do you want to hold it just by yourself? What are you saying? Eh?
[To Dorit]: My friend Elijah, for his first year of life and more, was very sick. He still can’t speak. But he understands everything you say to him.
You have recovered, Elijah? Baruch hashem.
Of all my children, he is the most joyful.
Where did you take this from, Elijah?
He took it from the fact that I love his mother.
[To Elijah]: Isn’t watermelon the best fruit you’ve ever eaten?
[To David]: It’s always a matter of luck when you open a watermelon. For many years it was a mystery, but then I said, OK I want to understand, they know something. I got to understand the echo thing. Once the echo is a certain way, the watermelon is ripe and good. It’s like listening to the same voice from an open door and a closed door.
[To Elijah] You are comfortable with me. But still shy.
You have dark skin and hair like his mama. So he is wondering whether you are related to her.
He looks so much like you.
This is a human conversation. Your books are so human. They use language to make us feel more human, and to understand humanity and other human beings better. That feels more and more like a radical act, don’t you think?
Yes, I do.
I feel like books are suddenly very necessary now because language is being so thoroughly corrupted and destroyed by social media and the politics that it fuels. The impulse is to take words and treat them like they cause cancer. They want to find the seven words where the cancer is, and cut them out, and then cut another seven words. It’s a fever, which seeks to control people’s minds through this new kind of internal censorship and self-censorship, which is enforced through mass social pressure. I don’t think it’s limited to any political side, either. It’s a human impulse, which has been unleashed by the spread of new technology.
If I had to take a guess, I’d say it’s happening because people feel like words are so threatening because they are being flooded by words via the internet. I think people want to somehow control the flood of language that is assaulting them through their phones.
They are polluted. Because of this attack from everywhere.
I think books become very powerful in this context, because the act of reading itself has now become endangered. Because people read differently on their phones, and in browsers, than they do in books.
In books, it’s almost like a dream, you’re in this heightened state, but you’re also very relaxed. And you go meet the text in this imaginative space that you created, where no one else can enter, and you relax your inhibitions against fantasy and make-believe, and you become highly vulnerable in that space. It’s an amazing technology.
It’s a very high-tech thing, reading. I sit in Tel Aviv and read Tolstoy, and I can communicate with his mind. It’s such an elaborated state.
The joke is that people read more than they ever did before. They’re always reading. People spend many more hours a day on social media performing scanning and liking functions in relation to snippets of text. Except none of it is actually reading.
[Laughs] None of it is giving a private name to an authentic feeling.
I worry that this fire hose is obliterating the space for the delicate technology of reading to operate. But at the same time, I think that social media can make the true acts of writing and reading even more powerful, like having a superpower.
You were saying before that history has a way to compensate. Like with your son.
For his first year, he was so sick. He was sick and then he got sicker. He threw up all the time, and his balance was off. Now thank God he is feeling better. But now he has to learn to do all the things that normal children learn in their first year and a half of life, and which he was never able to do. Watching him do that every day is a very powerful and humbling experience. All of his muscles are extremely tight. The muscles in his face, in his body, his chest. It has made me very conscious of words in a different way. I was used to language as being a river that naturally carries my feelings and thoughts.
He seems to be a teacher of many things for you.
I feel that my ability to meaningfully affect other people is very small. I want to help them, but I am doubtful that I can. I know that in some ways I can help him, and that is very powerful for me.
Let me ask you: If there are two major archetypal emotions, love and fear, which department would guilt be?
That is a great question. I think people who feel guilt often think that it’s love, when it is actually fear.
It is. It could be an in-between kind of feeling that is split between love and fear. Because you know hate is fear, and regret is fear.
But guilt, it’s more complex. Because it’s made of love and fear.
Feel sorry for me. Have compassion for me. Feel my suffering.
It’s funny. It’s just a fundamental feeling of my existence.
So, do you feel more Jewish here or there?
Of course here. There, we are liberated from being Jewish. We’re Israelis. It’s enough of a burden to be that without worrying about the Jewish part.
Jews here in America lived through a dream after the Second World War. Behind the dream was the suffering of the Depression and the war, and the knowledge that their families, their cousins, brothers, sisters, were murdered in Europe. The fear of what could happen to them here. But that was all below the surface.
In public, and often to themselves, what they experienced was, “We love America. America loves us! We’re such a special kind of American!” They felt accepted, or increasingly accepted. They became part of the elite in this country. It was a dream that lasted from 1945 all the way until maybe 2001 or so.
Can I suggest that it was a liberal ethos, a liberal dream? It was dreamt, not by an individual but a tribe? And this has a contradiction within itself. Because in the end, it’s a tribal dream.
Yes. That’s right. Except, the tribe gave the dream to society as a whole. Jews and America were a perfect fit, at least for a time. Jews gave America so much that was at once Jewish and at the same time held the key to what America was, or wanted to be.
Jews created a mirror in which Americans could see themselves. But now, that mirror has cracked. And neither Jews nor America will be the same.
I’m telling you something that I know, which is hard for American Jews to really think or talk about. That’s why I really enjoy talking with Israelis, even if you are not really Jewish. Israelis are much more confident and more coherent. The ones who don’t like the politics are very coherent. They understand exactly what they are criticizing and why.
“I hate Bibi.” Why? They’ll tell you exactly why, and it’s very self-aware. “I don’t love Bibi, but I have learned to tolerate him.” Why? They’ll tell you why.
American Jews are fundamentally lacking in self-awareness these days. I feel that they are confused people who are busy blocking out many unpleasant things about themselves and their situation in order to maintain a semidelusional state in which they feel more comfortable because it feels more familiar. Dealing with people like that is difficult, because what do you say to them?
Yeah, they are in a crisis of thought about their positioning in this society. I met Jewish students on my book tour who are really eager for me to equip them with good answers for those who attack Israel, and how to be able to answer coherently.
The only suggestion I can offer them is first to empathize with the narrative that is confronting them, because we shouldn’t be solid in our position.
But in Israel, we are entitled to have much more of a liquid view. Because of the reality.
But what people talk about in America and in Europe when they talk about Israel and the Palestinians isn’t about reality.
No, it’s about a myth. But why is that myth so important in America?
When you’re talking to a student from a Palestinian family or an Israeli family, it’s completely different. They’re talking about their family, their reality. They have skin in the game.
Here, it’s about American society and the role of minority groups and who “white people” are. There’s an entire theology behind it, which I can trace directly to John Calvin, who came before the Puritans.
Here, 18-year-olds from middle-class families are still children. There is no army service. They’re mean to each other in the way children are mean.
So what do you tell these children? I don’t know.
What I say to them is you’re entitled to your ambivalence. You shouldn’t be devoted to one side, just because there is no justice in this region.
American Jews need Israel more than Israel needs them. Without Israel, all they have left is the Holocaust, and some self-centered nonsense about how they are inherently better, more progressive people because they are Jewish. I’d rather hang out with Armenians.
You disconnect their connection. I need this connection. I strive to get it back to the golden days when that connection wasn’t based on mythology.
They belong to the tribe of Jews. It’s a long history.
It goes back to Judas.
[Laughs] No, it doesn’t go back to Judas, Dorit. It goes back to Judaea. Although I think I like your interpretation better, actually. Jews are the people of Judas.
[Laughs] I don’t want your prescription to work. I want a recipe that will include Zionism.
The most important thing to tell these kids is that if anybody tells you “kiss my ass,” tell them “go fuck yourself.” It’s the precondition for all pleasant and productive discourse.
The other day I met somebody, well not somebody—Salman Rushdie. And I asked him, “How did you manage to keep on writing when writing demands self-abandonment, when you’re being hunted, you’re being persecuted?”
He said, “You should tell them, ‘Fuck you.’” And I said, “Did you know how to say ‘fuck you’ before it all occurred?” And he said, “No, I didn’t know.” So I said, “This turmoil taught you to detach and to be able to say ‘fuck you’ and keep on writing?” And he said, “Yes, this is what you have to learn from this experience.”
David Samuels is most recently the author of Seul l’Amour Peut Te Briser le Coeur, a collection of his writing about America, published by Seuil.