There is an art to writing short stories – being able to create a character, depict a scene and bring a tale to fruition in a few brief pages. I admit I’m a fan of the genre. I appreciate being able to enjoy a story in full as I read in bed, before I fall asleep at night.
David Ehrlich definitely has a talent for creating such vignettes, painting vivid but fleeting pictures of life.
Some of the situations in Who will die last: Stories of Life in Israel could only take place here. For example, in “How the World is Run” a man finds God where he least expects Him and how he least expects Him, in an industrial area in Jerusalem, near the former editorial offices of The Jerusalem Post, as it happens: “Of course, Jerusalem; where else would they make all the great decisions about the world? But wouldn’t you know, he really wanted to work in Tel Aviv.”
“Reserve Duty” concerns the intimate secrets of an officer doing his annual miluim service in the IDF. And “The Sol Popovitch War” tells the tale of what happens when an American-Jewish multimillionaire philanthropist looks to finance a project in the IDF, as long as it is named after him.
Other situations, although set in Israel, have a more universal feel – road rage, jealousy, and the search for love, truth and identity are not unique to this country, after all.
I confess feeling nervous when I was asked by another editor to review Who will die last. Author Ehrlich is a former neighbor with whom I have stayed friendly – he’s the sort of person who is easy to like and fun and interesting to talk to. What would happen if I liked the author, but not the book? I accepted the assignment on condition that if I didn’t think I could give it a fair review, I wouldn’t write about it. From which you can deduce that I came to the conclusion that I would have enjoyed the collection even if I hadn’t known Ehrlich. I liked some stories more than others, of course; a few of them which had me hooked came to what felt like contrived endings or no real resolution, but the writing itself was always sharp and a pleasure to read.
I admit, while I’m in confessing mode, that I got a special kick out of those stories set in Jerusalem where I could imagine both scene and scenery, but those with a different backdrop – the story of a home for sale in a small, closed rural community that wanted to stay that way, for example, in “The Store” – were also pleasing.
I could imagine a gardenless neighbor turning the traffic circle into his own plot and nurturing it, a la “Green Island” (a masterpiece in one page).
And the cafe whose patrons don’t come for the cakes and coffee but for the smile and warmth of the waitress was also easy to see, as I read “Lilly.”
Similarly, who hasn’t some time wondered what happened to a former boy/girlfriend, or met up again by chance years later to be hit by the truth that time has not stood still and nothing is as you imagined it would be (although, spoiler alert, I found “Utterly Nameless” one of the most powerful stories let down by a weak ending).
Not surprisingly, since Ehrlich lobbies for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights and was a founder of the Israel AIDS Task Force, several of the stories revolve around gays, in the closet and out, but Ehrlich radiates a gentle intelligence and avoids an inyour- face approach.
Who will die last – the name is taken from the last story in the collection, reflecting the mad search for the next great TV reality show – was mainly compiled from Ehrlich’s books in Hebrew: Habekarim Shel Shlishi Vehamishi (Tuesday and Thursday Mornings), Yediot Aharonot, 1999; and Kahol 18 (Blue 18), Yediot Aharonot, 2003.
Ehrlich is not only a writer of considerable talent, he is also a major figure behind Jerusalem’s literary scene. I can recommend his Tmol Shilshom bookshop/cafe/literary salon for both food and atmosphere. Books have been written at the tables within its arched, stone walls and readings by some of the country’s bestknown authors are regular events.
Ehrlich’s style has been likened to many – most often to Israeli master storyteller Etgar Keret – but he has his own style: humorous, sarcastic, incisive and poignant.
The stories are translated by different people – and I admit I know a couple of them, too: The world is big, but Jerusalem is small, and the paths of writers and translators easily cross. Nonetheless, it’s Ehrlich’s voice that comes through in the pages of this slim volume. Ehrlich looks at life in Israel – the funny and the absurd, the uplifting and the disappointing – in a way that is always moving.
Open the pages of Who will die last, and allow yourself to be touched, one short story at a time.
David Ehrlich will be talking about his book at Tmol Shilshom, 6 Salomon Street Jerusalem, at 7 p.m. on March 23. More info: (02) 623 2758.