I’m interested in how American Jewish novelists deal with Israel in crisis, and this is a good season. Three big hitters have come to the plate. Last month Nicole Krauss published a novel set in Israel called Forest Dark, of which she said:
It’s impossible to write about Israel without writing about violence. It is also impossible to write about love and intimacy without writing about violence. I happened to be in Israel during the summer of 2014, when it was once again at war with Gaza.
Last spring I read her former husband Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, Here I Am, because it sets out to imagine the destruction of Israel due to the abandonment of American Jews in its hour of need. It was very good, though Foer couldn’t quite pull the trigger.
And this week Nathan Englander put out a “political thriller of the highest order that interrogates the anguished, violent division between Israelis and Palestinians, and dramatizes the immense moral ambiguities,” as the publisher put it. The book is called Dinner at the Center of the World. So Englander wins the best title prize.
I went to hear the author speak at NYU on Thursday night. It was a young literary audience, and he performed; for an hour he told stories about writing and Israel and sex and Jewishness. Englander is medium height but he plays big, like a movie actor, because he has a long wide handsome head with flashing dark eyes, glossy hair and wide even rows of big white teeth. He is charismatic and instinctual and doesn’t self-censor; and a lot of the people who crowded the three rooms of the fussy/lovely brownstone on West 10th Street were star-struck, and delighted by his rambles.
Englander related writer’s tricks about doing as little research as he could lest the story wear its research; “reading hard,” throwing books that might influence him against the wall; and his high standards as a reader. “If there is a comma out of place I take to my fainting couch.” There was talk about literary status from him and Darin Strauss, the novelist who interviewed him; Philip Roth, The New York Times, The New Yorker were introduced with reverence. And I felt there was a tension between the spirit of the speakers – very Jewish, very male – and the spirit of the audience, which was much more diverse, and mostly women. When a woman in the audience asked if Englander had read Ari Shavit’s book, My Promised Land, which is the hero text for conservative synagogues in the United States, Englander said he had been invited to the book party—and it’s very important to be invited to a party, he said—and got the book but considered it research, and didn’t crack it, because he did only a couple of pages of research on Israel, his main research being about sailing, because he’s never been on the Staten Island ferry.
I began to wonder what this evening was about.
But Englander’s book is partly political and his political message was earnest. He moved to Israel in 1997 because he believed that peace was coming and he didn’t want to miss it. He thought it was more important than his own life. He said he would not sacrifice his life to bring down gun deaths in the US but to bring about Middle East peace, yes! So he had set out to make Aliyah in the late 90s—”going up,” to Israel. He was physically very close to a couple of bombings in Jerusalem, including the Mahane Yehuda market bombing of 1997 (which killed 16), but he carried on by staying in touch with his Israeli friends who told him, This is what we do. The blood is cleaned up and the windows boarded up and you have coffee in that road the next day. When your number comes up, your number comes up.
Then Englander gave up on Aliyah, and moved back to the United States in 2001, having spent a total of seven years in Israel. Now he lives in New York and Madison, Wisconsin.
Peace was obvious in the late 90’s and it is obvious now, he said. We all know what the maps look like, he said twice. Thirty to fifty people stood in the way of peace– Yigal Amir, Hamas, and so on. Now Englander feels he could do peace better than Jared Kushner does it, or Betsy DeVos does Education. He tries to body peace in the novel. Peace is about giving up violence for economic cooperation, putting all the money we spend on munitions into peaceful purposes. Walls are never a good idea. Though to be clear, peace is the two state solution.
He read a passage from the book describing his character’s excitement about peace on the very-diverse campus of Hebrew University in the late-90s, before “Intifada 2” came and everything got burned down.
I got the last question. In view of the fact that you thought of making Aliyah and didn’t, and you seem to lead a safe life here, have you ever thought the answer might be giving up your Jewish right of return, and that Israel should cease to be a Jewish state and become a state of its citizens?
Oh that is a super complex and smart question about right of return and Jewish identity and things like that… You know what, I’m a fiction writer, not a–. That is so not even on my radar… Yes, I hope for peace, if we’re talking about — that’s the same as asking me how to split up the water in the Jordan River, you know, what Jordan should get and what’s coming from Syria…
Yeah, that is an excellent question, I just literally don’t think it’s upon me to have to like– I’m not trying to make any personal statement like that. Like when somebody becomes the ambassador, like an Israeli of American birth is going to be the ambassador to the States and has to give up his citizenship–
No. I would say as a Jew and my Jewish history, I’m collecting as many passports as I can get. My wife has Canadian heritage. I think Toronto’s lovely this time of year.
But you’re asking a serious question, and I totally don’t think I will entertain the question now, but I have never even thought about having to take a personal stand like that as being imperative upon me.
But I will think about it. It’s really interesting, it’s a put-your-money-where-your-mouth is question.
This answer is by Englander’s admission not a serious one. And it’s culturally-bound. The heart of it is the confession about Jewish unsafety, the passports bit. That seems to me unengaged by the many different cultural/historical experiences in the room. And though this is beyond the scope of this report (and unfair to Englander’s book, which I have not read), his answer may also be a reflection on what it means to be a Jewish Writer today: what sociological experience one is compelled to echo in order to make it, and the narrow borders of that experience.