Former ambassador Michael Oren publishes book of short stories

DIPLOMACY: The short stories range from ghost stories, to murder mysteries, to science fiction, to tales about Jewish suburban angst and discovery as well as the coming out of a gay cleric.

Deputy government minister, Knesset member, ambassador, historian, paratrooper, fiction writer, Hollywood cue card holder and wiper of Orson Welles’s brow. Welcome to the résumé of Michael Oren.
You know Oren; he has been a prominent public figure for years, especially since becoming Prime Minister’s Benjamin Netanyahu’s ambassador to Washington, from 2009-2013, doing battle on behalf of his boss with Barack Obama’s administration.
“It was a crisis,” he said in a phone interview this week. “It was a crisis that almost never ended. There was no day or night. There was almost no chance to sit down.”
As a result, there was no time for Oren – during this period – to engage in his passion: writing. Yes, he wrote a memoir about this period – an engaging and informative one that did not go over well with that crowd which could brook no dent in Obama’s halo – but he didn’t write that until he returned wrote home. It’s tough to write when you’re on the front lines.
“I couldn’t write in Washington,” he said.
And Oren loves to write, both history and fiction. Two of his books of history, one about the Six Day War and the other about the history of America’s engagement in the Middle East, were widely acclaimed New York Times best sellers. And his third book of fiction, a collection of short stories called The Night Archer and Other Stories, is to be released on September 1 by Wicked Son Press, a new imprint that features Jewish fiction under the direction of Adam Bellow, Saul’s son.
But before delving into Oren as a fiction writer, about that Orson Welles thing.
In the middle of his undergraduate years at Columbia University, a couple of years after winning at the age of 18 a national PBS prize for young filmmakers, Oren – who started writing poetry at 12 and had written a couple of plays and movie scripts by mid-college – was at a crossroads: Hollywood or Israel.
“There are two sides of me, the writing side and the Israel/Jewish side,” he said. “I was involved with Israel since I was a kid, and came to kibbutz every summer to work. I had to decide whether to go to Hollywood or go into the IDF.
“I went to Hollywood and, believe it or not, became an assistant to Orson Welles – I was his gofer. I clipped his cigars, I helped him on and off with his cape, I chamoised his forehead – wiped off his sweat. I held the cue cards for his Paul Masson wine commercials.
“I decided in Hollywood, ‘Okay, I’ve seen this; I’m getting older.’ I wanted to be in the paratroopers. I had to be a paratrooper. So I decided I was going to try the IDF and see what happens. I thought I could always go back to Hollywood. So I came to Israel and ended up not going back, loving this country very much. I guess a major theme of my life has been to try and reconcile the two halves – the creative half and the Israel half. So in many ways this book represents this reconciliation.”
THE BOOK is a collection of 60 short stories, not at all thematically linked, something that Oren acknowledges is unusual for a volume of short stories. They range from ghost stories, to murder mysteries, to science fiction, to tales about Jewish suburban angst and discovery as well as the coming out of a gay cleric.
The stories, like Oren, are shot through with Judaism and Israel.
One story, “The Reenactor,” is based on an experience he had accompanying an IDF delegation to Auschwitz. The story tells the tale of a 26-year-old Polish peasant who earns his livelihood playacting as a Jew – with fake beard and pe’ot, black kaftan and shtreimel – at the Le’Chayim Restaurant in a village once populated by Jews, before the Nazis came and murdered them all. Now tourists roll through for the shtetl experience.
“You see, the secret of this town, it’s only advantage, is Jews. Not real Jews, dead Jews,” said the hero of the story, making his livelihood off live Jews romanticizing about the shtetl. Oren says he wanted to write from the perspective of “one of those people reenacting Jews.”
And this ability to be anything you want, to write about anything you want, is what Oren says he most loves about fiction writing.
“To me the writing experience and the freedom that it gives are inherently Jewish. Especially the short story.”
Queried what exactly that meant, Oren explained:
“The essence of writing is freedom. It is the freedom to be anybody, any place, anytime you want. If I want to write about a slave to a sultan in the 16th-century Ottoman Empire, I can be that. If I want to be a conquistador in 1538, I can be that. I can be a woman, a man, have different orientations, anything I want. It is the ultimate freedom.
“Freedom is a core concept of Judaism. Hebrew has a lot of words for freedom. It is amazing when you think about it. We have herut, and dror, hofesh, atzma’ut – a long list of words.
“But Jewish freedom is interesting. It is not like the free love of the ’60s. True freedom in Judaism is freedom that comes with limitations, and I think that is the message of the Exodus of Egypt, and also of Sinai. That true freedom comes with law. This is embedded in the Passover story.
“We are probably the only people in the world who have a religious holiday that celebrates freedom, but that holiday imposes upon us all these additional restrictions. So the paradox of freedom is hardwired into Judaism.”
And this paradox of freedom, Oren continued, is reflected in the structure of the short story.
“Short stories are the ultimate discipline – they are the haiku of fiction. What a novelist can do in 300 pages, a short story writer has to do in three. Create characters, plot, dialogue, story lines, all in three pages. So it is incredible discipline. On the one hand you have this delirious freedom, on the other hand the toughest strictures. And therein lies the joy.”
Oren, to further stress the point, told of a childhood friend, a very assimilated American Jew – one, he said, who bordered on self-hatred – who once visited him in Israel, where Oren took him to a synagogue on Simhat Torah.
“People were dancing around with the Torah, and he couldn’t wrap his mind around that,” Oren recalled. “He told me, ‘They are celebrating a book that tells them all the things they can’t do. I don’t get this.’”
This, Oren said, is the “paradox of Jewish freedom.”
In real life, not in one of Oren’s short stories – though it would make a good one – this friend “became obsessed” with this paradox and “today is haredi [ultra-Orthodox], living in upstate New York.”
A number of the stories are set in the East Coast, reflecting suburban American Jewish life in the early 1970s. Oren said that one of his influences is Philip Roth, and this comes out in a short story called “Afikomen.” In it Oren sets the scene around the Seder table of a suburban Jewish home, which anyone who ever attended a Seder in the US in the 1970s could easily recognize: the overbearing uncle, the knee-jerk liberalism, the wine-stained Haggadah, the boredom of the adolescents. The story takes a Rothian turn when the hero – an adolescent boy – searches and finds the afikomen.
The stories in this collection were written when Oren returned to Israel from Washington and was serving as a Knesset member and later deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office.
“I sat down every morning and wrote,” he said. “I didn’t think of the stories; they kind of came to me and presented themselves.”
Aware that this idea begs for an explanation, he obliged: “Let me give you an example. I’d be sitting in shul and reading from Genesis, and all of a sudden it occurs to me: At what point did God endow human beings with souls, and how did that happen? So the inspiration came to me that this was a conversation between God and Satan, and Satan persuades God to give men souls, and that becomes the story “Day Eight.” That is the inspiration.”
Other stories, obviously, drew on deep personal experiences. Which is what makes the book very Jewish.
Oren said there is no contradiction in writing fiction and writing history, though they flow from different sources.
“I can’t say which I like better,” he said. “It’s like asking, ‘What do you like better, your right hand or your left?’ There is great joy in writing history. But it is a different type of joy. It is not a spiritual joy, it is an intellectual joy. There you go: fiction writing is a spiritual joy, and nonfiction is an intellectual joy. It is very different. It is heart and mind.”