Book Review: A loaded pita

The ‘Post’ diplomatic affairs reporter also finds time to write about the lighter side of life in this country.

Herb Keinon interviewing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Herb Keinon interviewing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Herb Keinon is the funniest guy I know from Denver, Colorado – perhaps even from west of the Rockies.
But his folksy Midwest charm and Twainian anecdotes belie the fact that he‘s also one smart writer – one who has appeared on more front-page stories in The Jerusalem Post than any other writer over the last 15 years or so.
Regular readers of the Post know that Keinon is not only one of the country’s premier diplomatic reporters and analysts – he’s also been gracing the paper’s pages for over two decades with perceptively droll “slice of life” Out There columns that have fellow immigrants from English- speaking countries simultaneously nodding their heads in agreement, breaking out in guffaws and wiping a tear from their eye.
Full disclosure time: I’ve been a fan and a friend of Keinon’s for over 20 years, and because I’ve been a loyal reader of his column, he even asked me to write one of those pithy blurbs on the back jacket of French Fries in Pita, his new collection of those columns. I whipped up something quotable including words like “poignant” and “hilarious,” but only after sitting down recently and reading the book did I realize how right I was. And that my sides hurt from laughing so much.
Because this isn’t a book about politics, diplomacy or regional strife – there’s none of the browbeating, angst and Left- Right polemics that generally permeate books about Israel. It’s about the process of aliya once the luster has worn off, once the idealized adventure becomes a Zionist version of the sitcom Parenthood.
As he writes in the book’s introduction, it is meant to be “more than just an immigrant’s tale. It also strives to shed a different light on Israel, and to portray it as a land not only of endless strife and conflict, but rather as a real land populated by real people, who live and love, laugh and cry, give birth and raise children, emigrate from and immigrate to.”
French Fries in Pita is not a soul-searching book about Zionism that weighs the pros and cons of living in Israel compared to the US, with the possible outcome that the writer chooses the latter destination.
Keinon has thrown his lot in with Israel, warts and all, and has survived the five stages of transition he describes in the introduction – idealization of the adopted country (Mahaneh Yehuda is wonderfully multicultural); rejection (Mahaneh Yehuda is full of rude people); regression (I miss Walmart); at ease (I have my favorite fruit and vegetable vendor now); and reverse culture shock, where the old homeland with its super-sized ethos seems totally foreign compared to the in-your- face vibrancy of the shuk.
“As immigrants, we have a tendency when we move here to look down on everything Israeli,” Keinon told me recently, as we semi-successfully attempted to put friendship aside for an author-journalist interview. “But Israelis know what they’re doing – whereas we, to a certain degree in a new country, don’t. If they don’t hang fruit in their succa, there’s a reason for it [one column explains the reason]. And if they keep their windows open in the winter, it’s not because they’re idiots, it’s because it keeps mold off the walls. But we don’t get that at first because we come with a certain arrogance.”
Many of the book’s columns, rather than being divided chronologically, are sectioned off by season and the Jewish holiday schedule. And they all – in one way or another – deal with how that arrogance melts away as the author and his growing family become more and more Israeli.
Keinon, who first arrived in Israel in 1981 as a student and officially became an Israeli in 1985 (the year he began working at the Post), began writing a personalized column titled Bringing Up Dad in the late 1980s, in the local supplement In Jerusalem under the pseudonym Dean Bloom.
“I used a pseudonym because I wasn’t sure how good it would be, and I didn’t want to embarrass myself and I didn’t want to embarrass my wife,” said Keinon, adding that he was inspired to veer off from the bread and butter of daily news reporting thanks to writers from his youth that had stayed with him.
“I grew up reading columns like that, and it’s the thing I most enjoyed about newspapers,” said Keinon, citing writers like Chicago-based Pulitzer Prize-winner Mike Royko, former New York Times columnist Russell Baker and home-life humorist Erma Bombeck.
“When I started to have a family, I felt that I had something to contribute as well.
When my wife was pregnant, the whole thing could have passed by real quickly; unless you sit down and contemplate it, and for me, write about it. A lot of things in life are like that, especially with kids.
There’s so much there, and for me, writing about it helps me appreciate it more.”
It took another two years until, after a barrage of positive comments from unsuspecting Shabbat dinner guests regarding this mysterious Dean Bloom columnist, that Keinon decided to reveal himself and tackle a new column titled Out There under his own byline. Since then, more or less monthly and sometimes more often, Keinon has found the time between accompanying prime ministers to Washington and China, stalking the corridors of the Foreign Ministry and meeting European ambassadors at the King David Hotel, to write about parent-teacher meetings, the communications skill sets of teenage boys, the social pecking order in shuls and the dilemmas of the one-bag limit on international flights.
But it’s how he writes about these potentially commonplace issues – pulling out the nuances, the wisdom and yes, the poignancy and hilarity, that most of us simply let pass by as we roll through our daily existence.
“When you sit down to write about subjects like this, it makes you think. Life is made up of small moments amid the mundane, and if you don’t capture them, they slip right by. This caused me to capture them,” said Keinon.
“The bottom line is that I write the column and I wrote the book because I enjoy it. It’s my way of expressing myself. Some people paint, some people sing, I write.”
And that’s a good thing for the rest of us: Because French Fries in Pita is a valuable document for anyone who has made aliya, is considering moving here or needs some reassurance that they’re not crazy to stay here.
Another tidbit I wrote on the book’s back cover was that reading it was like plopping Dave Barry down in the middle of Jerusalem with the Yiddishkeit wisdom of Shalom Aleichem. But in hindsight, it’s not Barry or Aleichem that’s the reference point, it’s all Herb Keinon and his own unique style – one that combines self-deprecating humor, an eagle’s eye insight into the always-evolving Israeli psyche and more than enough french fries to fill the pita of our souls.