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Literary Festival Draws Crowds, Stirs Drama

This week’s International Writers Festival in Jerusalem

Tal Kra-Oz
May 22, 2014
Jerusalem's Old City. (THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images)
Jerusalem's Old City. (THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images)

The fourth International Writers Festival opened Sunday night at Mishkenot Shaananim in Jerusalem, playing host to 10 authors from around the globe and dozens of Israeli writers. Held every two years, the festival is almost as well known for its backdrop: jaw-dropping views of the Old City and an atmosphere both ancient and effervescent. But like almost everything else in this city, the festival is not without its complexities.

The festival, which runs through Friday afternoon, has a program packed with readings, film screenings, and sessions where Israeli authors engage in dialogue with their counterparts from abroad. Most of the big names of Hebrew literature are on display, with the “three tenors”—Amos Oz, A. B. Yehoshua, and David Grossman—appearing alongside representatives from the younger generation, including Etgar Keret, Shimon Adaf, and Dorit Rabinyan.

A slew of events is devoted to the late poet Yehuda Amichai, who lived in the adjacent Yemin Moshe neighborhood and would have turned 90 this month. Presidential candidate Reuven Rivlin and ousted Labor leader Shelly Yachimovitch read from his poetry, as did Amichai’s three children. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said he would have loved to meet Yehuda Amichai—who famously wrote that “It’s sad/To be Mayor of Jerusalem. It is terrible”—to tell him how much fun he’s been having with the job.

Foreign writers in town for the festival include Nicole Krauss, Ayelet Waldman, and Marilynne Robinson from the United States, Jan-Philipp Sendker from Germany, and David Foenkinos from France. Maria Kodama, the widow of Jorge Luis Borges, participated in a tribute to her late husband’s work. But the festival’s lineup, as in previous years, has been plagued by public calls from the BDS movement that authors not participate. Next month’s Palestine Festival of Literature, run on a shoestring budget, has managed to secure some impressive names for itself, with Michael Ondaatje, Teju Cole, and Sapphire, among others, traveling to the West Bank.

The politicization of the festival, however, has also perhaps served to raise the profile of the event—and its participants. Jake Wallis Simons, author of the Kindertransport novel The English German Girl and a writer for the U.K. Telegraph, recently wrote an op-ed staunchly defending his decision to participate in the Jerusalem festival. He spoke at the festival’s opening night ceremony, calling the boycott movement hypocritical and pernicious. It was “not only a duty, but a great pleasure,” to defy its wishes, he said, earning warm embraces from Barkat and Culture Minister Limor Livnat.

Yet Livnat’s presence was a reminder that not only are Israeli authors increasingly isolated from their global brethren, but they’re hurting at home as well. The new Author’s Act, a bill Livnat strongly supported, recently took effect, severely limiting booksellers’ ability to discount new books—this, in an industry heretofore accustomed to selling three, and sometimes even four books for 100 NIS (roughly $29). Signs placed at the festival’s bookshop state, apologetically, that “these books are new and their price is protected by law for 18 months from the date of their publication in Hebrew.”

But Livnat, facing falling book sales and an industry that has yet to adapt to the new regulatory reality, was unapologetic. “The new law acts as a safety net for authors, and guarantees just compensation for their work,” she said at the opening night ceremony. Add to this the universal writerly fears about the Death of the Novel and the Death of Print Journalism—addressed at a panel chaired by former Haaretz editor Dov Alphon—and you have all the materials for a dirge.

Better, in that case, to enjoy the sorts of encounters only possible in Jerusalem. Ayelet Waldman and Lihi Lapid discovered they had much in common: both popular authors in their own right, they each have successful writers as husbands (Michael Chabon and Yair Lapid, who was a journalist and author before turning to politics), both have children with special needs and both have each written similarly candid, semi-autobiographical books. Waldman, who was born in Jerusalem but left for the United States with her family as a young child, has near-perfect Hebrew and took particular delight in offering sex tips for married couples as a mortified Lapid squirmed in her chair.

A. B. Yehoshua, speaking via interpreter with Nicole Krauss, repeated his by now legendary opinions of diaspora Judaism. “What’s happening here in Israel is the real Judaism. We don’t live through texts any more, the texts have no significance,” he lectured her. “We are living in reality.” Krauss, taken aback, blamed the translator: “I’m sure you didn’t actually say ‘the texts have no significance,’ the translation must have come through wrong! I don’t think that’s really what you’re saying.” She later refused to take the bait, patiently explaining to Yehoshua that there is more to Judaism than just Zionism.

Despite differences of language and opinion, the festival had its select blissful moments. Krauss, who worked on her novel Great House while staying at Mishkenot Shaananim some years ago, spoke about her current work-in-progress, which she said was about “a manic, failed, Warner Herzog-ish attempt to make a film about the life of King David, in the Judean hills.” The Judean hills were in the distance, and Mt. Zion, home of David’s tomb, was barely 200 yards away. And though King Solomon’s burial site is unknown, he too must have been almost within earshot as some of Yehuda Amichai’s greatest love poetry was recited: “On every day of our lives together / Ecclesiastes erases a line from his book.”

Tal Kra-Oz is a writer based in Tel Aviv.