Beyond the page

Authors discuss Israel-Diaspora relations at the International Writers Festival.

book 88 (photo credit: )
book 88
(photo credit: )
On Tuesday night, some 200 people gathered under an enormous white tent in Mishkenot Sha'ananim to hear American-born writers Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander and premier Israeli author Etgar Keret discuss everything from Judo to Israel-Diaspora relations. The informal gathering was just one of numerous cultural events that took place throughout the capital from May 11-15 as part of the first annual International Writers Festival. The five-day event drew 15 foreign and 40 Israeli writers, including Amos Oz, David Grossman, Nadine Gordimer, Nicole Krauss and Anita Diamant. The evening opened with readings by Foer and Englander and transitioned to a friendly discussion with Keret, which covered the Israeli-Diaspora divide, the use of tragic events in their writing and reflections on their writing styles. The more spirited debate came when Keret, drawing on a superhero analogy, described the American Jewish perspective as "two-tiered" - at once both an insider (American) and an outsider (Jew). Israelis are also pulled between two identities, Foer pointed out, however, as opposed to Jewish Americans whose religious identity is separate from their national identity. Israelis also created this separate identity for themselves as the strong Jew. Keret disagreed, saying that in the wake of thousands of years of persecution, Israelis have sought to create and maintain one unified strong identity - that of the brazen Sabra. "We wanted to be like this all the time," he said. Keret lamented Israelis' limited knowledge of Jewish cultural history. "We learned all about the Holocaust but didn't learn that Kafka was a Jew." "What is the price of Israeli identity?" Foer said, arguing that Israeli nationalism was threatening to replace Jewish culture. He admitted, however, that American Jews don't have the right balance between their identities either. Englander was a little more critical of American Jews. "We don't have anything to hold onto in America, except for culture," he said. The authors also addressed the abundance of tragic events in their works. "You find all the catastrophes of the 20th and 21st centuries in their [Foer's and Englander's] writings," Keret said. "My first two books were not choices but necessities," Foer said, referring to his connection to the Holocaust and the September 11 terror attacks. "Ideas don't originate, nothing is original, thinking doesn't come out of nothing. As a writer you become more aware of things around you," he continued. Unlike Foer, the tragedies that figure in Englander's works are not personally connected to him. "I wanted to write about a city that was crumbling on its inhabitants - that was Buenos Aires in 1976," he said, referring to his book Dirty War. Still, Englander maintained that he was not formulaic about incorporating specific topics into his writing. "Now I am writing about community, but not in any conscious way," he explained. "I usually never know what is happening until 10 years later." It wasn't all high-brow talk. The authors also joked and jostled with each other to the delight of the audience. "I am not going to speak in English because of my beautiful British accent," Keret laughed. Foer doesn't like it when people around him speak in a different language, he said in jest, saying that he was speaking in English because "Israelis know about Jujitsu right? You had a gold medal winner in it," Foer told the crowd as he explained the scene he was reading from his second novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. A member of the audience quickly corrected him, saying it was Judo. The evening closed with reflections on the art of writing - a topic, it turned out, about which Foer's and Englander's perceptions also differ. "Writing is the ultimate form," Englander said. "I wish there were a way to write a novel without characters or plots or words - they are a hindrance," Foer said. "I am trying to create an experience, a feeling."