Culture Report: Two novelists

Judith Sudilovsky interviews Ayelet Waldman and Assaf Gavron, participants in the recent International Writers Festival held in Jerusalem.

Judith Sudilovsky interviews Ayelet Waldman and Assaf Gavron, participants in the recent International Writers Festival held in Jerusalem (photo credit: REENIE RASCHKE / COURTESY INTERNATIONAL WRITERS FESTIVAL)
Judith Sudilovsky interviews Ayelet Waldman and Assaf Gavron, participants in the recent International Writers Festival held in Jerusalem
While Israel is certainly not the world’s largest literary market, the fourth International Writers Festival held in Jerusalem May 18-23 was an important cultural event for the country, says novelist Assaf Gavron.
An international writers festival “is especially crucial in Israel where budgets for culture are so limited and always redirected for security and military and other causes,” Gavron asserts to The Jerusalem Report, as he prepares to move his family to Omaha, Nebraska, where he will teach Hebrew literature and creative writing at the University of Nebraska for a year or two.
Gavron’s most recent book “Hilltop” will be released in English translation October 28, in the US, by Scribner. A short story anthology he co-edited with Etgar Keret, “Tel Aviv Noir,” also will be out in English soon.
In its relatively short existence, the biannual festival has come to be known as the country’s foremost literary event, exposing local readers to international writers whose books have been translated into Hebrew along with best-selling Israeli authors, and giving space to new local writers, as well.
Although there was some concern that some foreign authors might be pressured by the anti-Israel boycott movement, the organizers saw no evidence of this.
Some writers did decline invitations to come citing personal reasons, but no one said openly that they would not come for political reasons.
This year, the festival included intimate conversations between local authors and guest writers from abroad, readings, creative-writing workshops, and master classes. There was also an exhibit of bookcover illustrations and a special tribute to the late Israel Prize laureate and longtime Jerusalem resident, poet, translator, and essayist Yehuda Amichai, who would have celebrated his 90th birthday this year.
The writers from the US, Argentina, UK, Vietnam/Australia, Germany, France, and Colombia who participated in the festival included Nicole Krauss, Maria Kodama, Ayelet Waldman, Name Le, Jake Wallis Simons, Ruby Namdar, Jan-Philip Sendker, David Foenkinos, and Laura Restrepo. In addition to Gavron, they were joined by lsraeli authors Eshkol Nevo, David Grossman, Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, Meir Shalev, Sayed Kashua, Etgar Keret, Shimon Adaf, Leah Aini, Nir Baram, Oudah Basharat, and Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, among others.
“Hilltop,” Gavron’s fifth novel examines with irony the issue of West Bank settlements and delves into the heart of political questions affecting the Jewish State. His previous novels cross boundaries and genres, such as crime and science fiction. Several of the genres are found in the just completed first draft of a novel he hopes to finish during his sojourn in the American Midwest.
The opportunity to spend time in the Midwest might also give him the chance to start working on another novel idea, whose Midwest setting he has been pondering for numerous years, he says. “The idea is based in a specific place in the Midwest, not Omaha, Nebraska. This trip is kind of coming at the right time. I might go back and explore the idea,” says Gavron, 45.
“It is important to broaden your horizons. America has always fascinated me, and I mean the heart of America not just New York and L.A.”
He and his wife consider Israel their home base, but also enjoy traveling and spending extended periods abroad. Israel is so intense, Gavron says, that traveling and writing while abroad sometimes allows him to take a step back. His “Croc Attack,” which received Cologne’s Book for the City award for its German translation was written partially in London.
Writing part of “Hilltop” in Berlin gave him time to relax and the needed perspective to write about the settlements, which he believes are “one of the most fascinating stories shaping our current society.” Over a period of two years Gavron, who lives in Tel Aviv in an admittedly left-wing artistic environment, made weekly forays into settlements, particularly Tekoa Daled, which was the inspiration for his fictional settlement.
“It is a fascinating story, those small settlements in the middle of nowhere, in the midst of incredible nature, in a very tense, frightening area where ideology is the main force, like Israel used to be,” he says. “They are the last places where we have ideological passion that comes before personal matters of the West, as most Israelis live.”  “Hilltop” was recently awarded Israel’s annual literary Bernstein Prize.
Gavron relates that he has felt some of the wave of anti-Israel sentiment at a few international events, such as when he was awarded the Cologne prize and more recently, in June, when he presented his book “Hydromania” at the Leggendro Metropolitano Festival in Cagliari in Sardinia, where the organizers received pro-Palestinian e-mails pressuring them to drop Gavron from the guest list. They did not. But, he admits that he doesn’t know if he has ever not been invited to a festival because of boycott issues.
Another author participating in the festival was Israeli-born, American-raised Ayelet Waldman, who had not been in the land of her birth for 22 years until she accepted the invitation of festival organizers. She partnered with writer Lihi Lapid (wife of the Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid) in a session on literature, writing and maternity, a subject which earned Waldman some notoriety, after writing an essay explaining why she loved her husband more than her children, and a book of mothering essays called “Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace.”
Interviewing Waldman is like talking to your best friend. Even before she sits down you feel like she is letting you into the secret intimacies of her day.
Her language is sprinkled with words friends use liberally in enthusiastic private conversations, as they dissect and analyze personal topics. She is amused by the fact that her latest book “Love and Treasure,” a fictionalized account of a true story about a Nazi train filled with looted Jewish-Hungarian treasures discovered by American-Allied soldiers at the conclusion of World War II, was placed on shelves together with translated Israeli authors instead of in the foreign section in an Israeli book shop.
Waldman, 49, whose maiden name was Ayelet Ya’ari, says her father changed his name to Ya’ari when he came to the fledgling Jewish state from Canada.
Although she claims her Hebrewspeaking level has remained at the “very articulate” toddler level it was when she left the country with her family, when she appeared with Lapid she wowed the audience with her wit and snappy, girlfriend style, managing perfectly fine in Hebrew.
“There is a reason I didn’t come to this country for 22 years. It’s like a complicated personal, familial, political dilemma. It’s mesubakh,” she says, using the Hebrew word for “complicated.” “But when I first got off the plane, it’s crazy, but this felt like home. Having written the book, I realized that I needed to come. In a very real sense, the novel was an exploration of Jewish identity, and a personal one in addition to a general one. My Jewish identity is very much wrapped up in Israel, so I had to overcome my resistance and see the country.”
She marveled at the changes Israel has undergone over the past two decades.
Not one to shy away from controversy, while in Israel she also visited Hebron with a “Breaking the Silence” group and wrote an essay on the experience for The Atlantic magazine entitled, “The Shame of Shuhada Street,” blasting the presence of Jewish settlers in Hebron and the West Bank in general.
“The vast majority of the responses [to the essay] were very positive. There were the usual hysterical religious Zionists, many of whom made a very bizarre argument – what happens in Hebron is no worse than what the Nazis did to us,” she says. “Yeah. That’s the bar, apparently. We’re no worse than Nazis. Crazy.”
The kidnapping and murder of the three teenaged yeshiva students in the Hebron area after her visit is a terrible tragedy, she says, but changes nothing. “If anything, it makes it more clear that the horrific abuses in the West Bank have to stop. Those abuses make people desperate and hopeless. Desperate, hopeless people do terrible things.”
Having raised a lot of money for US President Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, Waldman could have been in line for an ambassadorial appointment, like many of her friends, she notes, but, true to the stereotype of the fiery redhead, Waldman says she knew that with her mouth it was not about to happen.
Waldman says the worldview of Labor Zionism was like a religion to her family, while growing up in suburban New Jersey.
Her older brother, Yossi Ya’ari, stayed in Israel when the family left and went on to become a decorated soldier during the Yom Kippur War. She flirted with the idea of making aliya as a youth, visited Israel, studied here, had a kibbutz boyfriend, but her attempt to live here ended a short six months after taking the plunge. Then, she says, she was left with a sort of emptiness after all those years of the Labor Zionism ideal.
Waldman began reading about the Holocaust so voraciously it seemed her whole Jewish identity now was based on a “secondhand trauma.” Though her grandparents, who came from Eastern Europe in the nebulous country that was Russia/Belorussia/Poland, lost all their family in the Holocaust, no one in her immediate family with whom she was in contact was affected by the Nazi genocide.
Married to Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon and mother to four children, Waldman left her life as an attorney and turned to writing. After having published 12 books, she finally decided she had acquired enough writing experience to tackle the Holocaust, a subject with which she had been obsessed for years. Being Jewish is an integral part of her identity, she says, and that need had been filled by the ethos of Labor Zionism. When that was gone, she says she needed something to fill the void and the Holocaust just slipped right into that empty slot.
“Writing this book was in a way a means to confront this problematic Jewish identity I had forged for myself, based on a kind of fetishization of the Holocaust,” she says.
She found the subject for her book one day while preparing to visit a friend, who had been appointed ambassador to Hungary. Waldman was also intending to write about art and simply Googled “Hungary, art and Holocaust” and came up with the little known incident of the Hungarian gold train.
“I try with every book to write about something new so I can teach myself something. You are a writer, what do you do all day? You sit in a room and stare at a keyboard. And l have four children so my life is fairly circumscribed. My life is not full of adventure and, unlike, say, Ernest Hemmingway, I cannot blow up my life periodically to give myself something to write about. So, if I were to write what I know, I would basically be writing nothing but the most tiresome domestic dramas until the end of time,” she says.
She calls the novel her best work to date and is glad her father, who shared her obsession with the Holocaust (which propelled him to come to Israel in the first place) was able to read the completed novel before his Alzheimer’s progressed.
Waldman says the way all the riches of the train – the personal treasures of Hungarian Jewry – just disappeared, auctioned off for some $152,000, is a perfect metaphor for how the culturally rich and diverse European Jewish community disappeared into dust.
“I think part of this book is to reassert and reclaim the meaning of what it means to be a Jew and the magnitude of the loss of the Holocaust,” she says, tapping on the table for emphasis.