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The Ascent of Eli Israel
By Jon Papernick
Jon Papernick is considered one of a new generation of American Jewish writers such as Joan Legant, Jonathan Wilson and Nathan Englander who are all grappling with questions of 21st-century Jewish identity.
The Ascent Of Eli Israel (Arcade Publishing, 2002), Papernick's first short-story collection, has garnered considerable praise. The New York Times Book Review commented on the collection's "muscular certainty," and Moment magazine heralded the arrival of a writer of "enormous talentâ€¦ and wit."
The stories showcase a motley array of characters, including hassidic rebbes, Holocaust survivors, Christian healers and felafel store owners. Odd and rakish, they muddle through a maze of exploding buses, red heifers and holy sepulchers in a post-Rabin-assassination Jerusalem. Papernick wrote the collection after spending 1995-6 in the capital working as a stringer for UPI.
Having just finished a term of teaching at the Bar-Ilan University's MA program in Creative Writing, Papernick sat down with The Jerusalem Post to discuss his unique subject matter.
You've lived the vast majority of your life in Canada, moving to Boston in the last few years. Why choose Jerusalem as a place to set your fiction?
It's such a rich place. It's easy to put a frame around what you see and make a story out of it. Everything is fraught with so much conflict, history. The spiritual aspects are apparent, and the political situation is totally in your face. Tel Aviv is in many ways a bubble; there's not much of a sense of political reality. Here there's this palpable intensityâ€¦ and there's a sense that what happens in Jerusalem today will be tomorrow's history. When I was here I felt I knew Jerusalem well enough to write these stories. I felt I knew it like the back of my hand. When I came back this time around, I got lost on the streets.
Perhaps, in retrospect, I didn't know it as well as I thought.
The Ascent features a story, "Lucky Eighteen," where one of the main characters, Shawn, hears the explosion of the No. 18 bus and runs down to shoot photos of the wreckage for their esthetic value. These are the shots that bring him artistic kudos. You portray him as a vivacious but morally reprehensible character. Where did you get your inspiration?
When I was here in 1995-6 I met so many North Americans who came to Israel and treated it like a playground. I have a number of friends who are photographers, and they're a pretty perverse and perverted bunch. I kind of melded these characters to piece him together. He was a good engine to drive the story.
It seems to be one of the most immediate and gripping stories in the collection. Would you agree?
I think everyone feels differently about each of the stories. But I was living in Rehavia at the time of the bombings and was woken up by the explosion. It was the first time I had ever seen a dead body. It was a story I covered for UPI, one of my first, and I remember that among the charred body parts there was this perfect apple rolling on the ground. I was struck by how it could have escaped unharmed among the wreckage. It was pretty unforgettable.
One of your other stories, "The Art of Correcting," tells of a relationship that develops between an aged hassidic rabbi and a hokey Christian healer who ends up attempting to proselytize the rabbi. What sparked this story?
Well, it grew out of a seed of an idea, which is how it is with most of my writing. I had this notion of a rabbi suffering from chronic back pain, and I saw where that led me. As someone who has suffered from chronic pain, and been immensely frustrated by it, I knew that people will do anything for somebody who can give you relief. The end of the story is ambiguous. It isn't clear what the rabbi will do; whether he will manage to keep his faith or lay it down, quite literally, for this man.
Your book is populated by a lot of religious characters. How did you come to know this world and be so fascinated with it as a secular Jew?
Well, I spent a lot of time speaking to people, interviewing them, wandering around religious neighborhoods. And I think that although my parents were secular, some of the inspiration for the characters trickled down from my grandparents and even my great-grandparents. My great-grandmother was born in Poland, and she was alive until I was 21.
She may have been the influence for the rebbe's wife in the Art of Correcting. But with writing, you can't really pinpoint the influences.
There's a sense of a collective psyche among Jews. After The Ascent of Eli Israel came out, people told me that some of the stories bore a close resemblance to Isaac Bashevis Singer, but I had never read them until that point.
Also, although I am not a practicing Jew, I do feel a deep spiritual and religious yearning. It was a kind of religious education writing these stories: you don't write what you know. You write what you want to know.
Was it always apparent to you that writing is what you were set to do? Do you come from a literary family?
I really don't. There are no writers in my family whatsoever. My father is a lawyer and my mother is a chocolatier. She developed allergen-free chocolate. But ever since I was a little kid I've considered myself a writer - not necessarily a very good writer, but a writer. At 18 I wrote a novel which featured a villain influenced by Goethe and Henry James. I had 200 copies printed and recently threw away about 60 of themâ€¦ 18-year-old hubris. When I was studying for my MFA in fiction at Sarah Lawrence I read a lot of Nathan Englander's short stories and they gave me the confidence that I could do it, that I could write - and write about Jewish culture and identity. I was the only one there whose writing was very "Jewish," and people asked me why I bothered with all this "Jewish stuff." It's just what interested me.
One of your strengths as a writer is your talent for straight storytelling. An almost old-fashioned sense of pace, timing and structure...
I think that so many modern stories aren't about that at all. They're more about the concept than a plot. Personally, I think you should pick up a story and need to read to the last sentence; otherwise there's no need to write the last sentence. I know that it's not necessarily what publishers are into, but that's what I like to do. It's one of the reasons I admire Nathan Englander's work; he's not post-modern, not ironic. He tells a story without bells and whistles.
There aren't two different centuries and seven different narrators.
You've just finished teaching the summer semester at the Bar-Ilan MA creative writing program. Was it an interesting experience?
It's actually been the best teaching experience I've ever had. We've been dealing with writing in a Jewish context. It's a class where not everyone is Jewish, so that's a pretty interesting starting place. I really got a chance to teach, get down and dirty. We've been dismantling stories, putting them back together, asking what is a Jewish writer, what makes a Jewish writer? Is Etgar Keret? Aaron Appelfeld?
What are your plans for your literary future? What's your next project?
Well, I have this book that I'm trying to get out there. It's set in Brooklyn and it's about a boy who goes back to the borough to look after his cancer-ridden father. The father was a gangster and he himself is on a razor edge between crime and law. It's a disturbing book, one in which the reader watches the character's descent into violence. I don't have a publisher for it yet, so it's been a trying year. Like I said earlier, it's a pretty traditional book, and I don't think that's what publishers are looking for right now.
Beyond that, I've been making mental notes while I've been here, and I'll go back and see what becomes of them.
Jon Papernick's Web site www.jonpapernick.com will be up and running in December. The Ascent of Eli Israel is available at Steimatzky's.