You might be seeing best-selling crime fiction authors Faye and Jonathan Kellerman walking the streets of Jerusalem this spring.
The Kellermans recently purchased and renovated a home in the Talbiyeh neighborhood. COVID restrictions have kept them from spending too much time there, but the couple hopes to be in Israel up to six months a year, starting this May.
Fans might be surprised to learn that the Kellermans are observant Jews.
Jonathan shared a related literary anecdote. “I was corresponding with the late, great Herman Wouk, shortly before his death at age 104. I said, ‘I believe you, my wife and I are the only observant Jewish bestsellers in recent history.’ He said, ‘There’s also Agnon, who when I met him was upset about missing the counting for sefira.’”
Jonathan was raised in an Orthodox home, attended Jewish day school in New York and later in California. At age 15, he spent a year studying at Ner Yisroel Yeshiva in Baltimore and referred to his upbringing as a “standard modern Orthodox” one.
During his junior year at UCLA, he came to Israel “before it was a popular thing. I was very young when I started college. I was 16, so I decided to take a year off and go to Israel, which was then a Third World nation. I went to Kerem B’Yavneh for a year and it was a wonderful experience.” He laughingly recalled that in Israel in 1968, “there were no zippers on pants.”
Although most American students attending Kerem B’Yavneh were housed separately from their Israeli counterparts, Kellerman had the good fortune of living with three Israeli students who spoke no English. He spent the year immersed in a private, domestic ulpan and thus learned to speak Hebrew.
Some memories of Israel in 1968 are still sharply defined. “It was a wonderful time to be there, because of the ahdut [sense of unity]. I could take an Arab bus to Hevron [Hebron] – that’s how different it was. I could walk in the Old City [of Jerusalem] by myself at 3 a.m. But it was a really poor country. In ’68, there were still the occasional horse and buggy on Allenby and Dizengoff in Tel Aviv.
“When I came in ’68, I like to talk about how primitive the country was, because it really was. For me, I’m coming from Los Angeles. I’m a junior at UCLA. I’m writing for the school paper. I have a car. I have a nice life. I have a girlfriend, everything is great.
“I come to Israel and I don’t get hot water for a year. The bizarre thing is, I’m in this country in Asia and I almost immediately felt at home. It didn’t feel strange, [even though] it was so different from what I was used to. I think it shows the spirituality, the power, the draw of our heritage,” he conjectured.
Faye was raised in a more Conservadox home. “We kept some things on Shabbos, but we drove and turned on lights.” Her family attended an Orthodox shul, and Faye attended public school.
Despite growing up in “a very secular world,” she recalls that the 1967 Six Day War made her feel “more Jewish than the rest of the population I grew up with.”
With his more traditional background, Jonathan grew up with an understanding of Israel as “the nation that was promised to our forefathers thousands of years ago.” His grandfather, whom he described as “a kind of hassidishe, haredi guy, was an ardent Zionist, and I still have certificates of [his] membership in very Zionist groups. Ahavat Yisrael [love of Israel and the Jewish people] has always been a very strong part of our consciousness,” he shared.
The couple met in 1970 when Faye was 18 and Jon was 21. Faye’s first trip to Israel was their six-week-long honeymoon in 1972. She called her experience a “love affair with Israel at first sight.”
Faye shared that when she was younger, she had “a mop of dark, curly hair,” which made her stand out among the blue-eyed blonds in Los Angeles. In Israel, the opposite was true. “I said to Jonathan when we got off the plane, ‘Jon, everyone looks like me!’”
In their dozen or more trips to Israel since the 1970s, the Kellermans have noticed that Israelis have gotten much friendlier. Faye related, “They were always very nice, but you had a lot of grumpy old people, to tell you the truth. They were put upon to give service in a restaurant. It’s not like that anymore. They are such nice people!
“The minute Jonathan and I get off the plane, we feel at home. It’s very weird, because we are American, but there is just an ease because we are so Jewish-identified that we feel so much at home there.”
Buying a home in Jerusalem
According to Faye, the couple has been looking at property, on and off, for the past 20 years. “We could not agree exactly what we wanted. This time, when we went prior to COVID in 2019, we had the finances and wherewithal to look. And we agreed upon more things. It’s easier when you’re a little older and your finances are a little higher.”
Jonathan compared visiting Israel today to “going to Paris, going to London, going to Rome. Great cities where I go to have a good time. And I owe this to Faye because, for the last few years, we’ve been coming and staying at a nice suite at the King David, having a blast, going to wineries and great restaurants.
“Faye came to me about three years ago and she said to me, ‘Can we sell our New York apartment?’ I want a place in Yerushalayim.”
Jonathan was skeptical at first. “Why would we switch a place 3,000 miles away for a place 10,000 miles away? She looks at me with her big, beautiful brown eyes and says, ‘It’s my dream.’
“We lucked out! We found the most gorgeous place in Talbiyeh. It’s a duplex penthouse with views of everything. When I put on tefillin and tallis in the morning, I’m on the balcony and I have a clear view of Har Habayit [the Temple Mount]. It’s just great!”
After they finished renovating, “COVID hit and we couldn’t use it! It was like Greek mythology. The grapes are dangling,” he analogized.
In November 2021, they were finally able to come and spend a month in their new Jerusalem home, and they are now hoping to come for several months each year.
The Kellerman’s children all live in the US, but both Jonathan and Faye have siblings and much extended family living in Israel.
“The last time we were there, we had a ball!” Faye enthused, visiting with siblings, nieces and nephews.
Jonathan emphasized their awareness that “this is our homeland. And yet, we’re Americans. My family was [in America] in 1902. Faye’s family goes back to the late 1800s. Her grandfather fought for America in World War I. Our fathers fought in World War II. We’re American, American, American. And yet, we still feel the ahdut and the attraction and the genuine love [for Israel].
“We’re hearing about a lot of people moving to Israel because of antisemitism. That was not it for us. For us, it was a purely positive, love-based thing. We’re not worried. We’re not running away from anything,” Jonathan confirmed.
Faye concurred. “It’s more of a feeling that this is our 3,000-year-old homeland and we belong.”
About LA, she said, “There are a lot of shuls here. There are kosher restaurants. There’s kosher meat. It’s not hard to be a Jew, but everyone around you is not a Jew. I wanted a place there because it’s the feeling that this is what God wanted us to have and this is where we belong.”
“As culturally assimilated Americans as we are,” Jonathan shared, “there’s just a feeling I have when I’m in Israel. I’m not a minority.”
“And let me emphasize this,” shared Faye. “Jerusalem is a beautiful city. It is ancient. The stones are beautiful. There’s a lot of gorgeousness in the city. We just like to walk around and say, ‘Oh, look at this little alley.
“People visit there because it has an exotic appeal. And here we are, having the privilege to live in a 100-year-old house. It’s really a fascinating place to be!”
The cultural offerings of Israel have great appeal to the Kellermans, including music festivals and theater. Jonathan plays the oud and the guitar and especially enjoys the Jerusalem International Oud Festival.
“Honestly,” Jonathan confessed, “we’re in a financial situation where we can live it up and do what we want.”
“A lot of the things we like to do, Jon and I, involve walking and observing. I want to emphasize that it’s just a fascinating place to be. And they are constantly digging up more fascinating things, like wine presses and olive presses and ancient tile work. You don’t have that in Beverly Hills. That’s the kind of spirituality that Jon and I enjoy,” Faye shared.
“What Jon and I also love about Israel is the mixed culture. It’s a much more diverse Jewish community than it is here. We can go to a kosher Turkish restaurant. We can go to an Ethiopian festival. We do much more international and diverse things there than we can do here.”
To the question of whether they will eventually make aliyah, Jonathan said, “Probably not, but who knows? I never say never. The impediments are that we have four kids and, so far, 11 grandkids, all here [in America]. And I have a 102-year-old mother here [in America]. We have a lot of ties to community. Plus, we have a great life. But you never know.”
Faye added, “I don’t think ever really full-time, but I could see spending more time. Six weeks at a time. Maybe at some point a half a year. But I have ties here [in America]. I love America. I’m American. America was very good to the Jews when no one else was. I don’t take that for granted.”
“I want to emphasize that for us, it’s 100% positive. We just spent the money and spent the time to buy a gorgeous place because we love it. It’s as simple as that. This [apartment] is where we want to spend a lot of time,” Jonathan added.
Avid Kellerman fans readily recognize openly Jewish characters and story elements in Faye’s Decker/Lazarus series. In The Lost Boys (2021), Faye said Detective Peter Decker and his wife, Rina Lazarus, even contemplate buying a place in Jerusalem.
Jonathan published The Butcher’s Theater, his only novel set in Jerusalem, in 1988. “I’ve had this story since I was there in ’68. It took a lot out of me. I don’t think I’ll ever do it again. It was too much.”
The couple have already written approximately 100 books between them. Now they hope to slow down and enjoy all that Israel has to offer.
“I want Israel to be a place where I just relax,” Jonathan shared.
Faye said, “Our books are not political books. They are there to entertain. If you want to do something topical, write an essay, write a nonfiction book. Our books are so somebody can sit down for two or three hours and leave this world with all its problems.
“Jon writes secular books. My books, since they have Jewish characters, tend to integrate a lot more Jewish things, but not always. By the nature of my characters being Jewish, there are integrations. This can be a major integration, but oftentimes it’s an interesting side point to give depth to my characters, rather than a focal point of the novel.”
Jon added, “My goal is to help my beloved readers escape all the unpleasantness and all the nonsense.
“In terms of being a Jewish writer, it was a willful decision on my part. As identified as I was, as a former yeshiva bocher, I decided as a novelist, I wanted to ignore that and to write books that would attract as many people as possible. I wanted to be a universal writer. I just wanted to be a novelist and not to be identified [as being Jewish].
“It’s almost that I lead a double life. I’m a guy who goes to shul and puts on tefillin, and I’m the guy who writes these novels.” ■