There are the writers living in Israel, like David Grossman, Etgar Keret, Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua, whose Hebrew words are translated into many languages and published around the world. There are other widely published authors writing from Israel in Arabic. Then there are Israeli writers, penning their works from New York, in Hebrew, and native English speakers who have made Israel their home, writing their books in English and publishing them mostly abroad. And, just as North American Jewish writers of the last century, such as Herman Wouk, set some of their work in Israel, their contemporary counterparts are placing characters in the landscape of the Negev and the streets of Tel Aviv.
All this is to say that Israeli writing takes many forms, crossing many genres and boundaries.
Dalia Rosenfeld, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, moved to Israel two years ago, and made her home in Tel Aviv. She teaches creative writing at Bar-Ilan University and just published her first book, “The Worlds We Think We Know” (Milkweed), an impressive collection of stories set in the U.S. and in Israel. The stories are carefully observed glimpses of life, sometimes melancholy, written with compassion, soulfulness and humor. She is the daughter of Holocaust scholar Alvin Rosenfeld, and the Shoah permeates some stories.
In the title story, an American woman living in Jerusalem regularly visits an old man, an immigrant who eats a raw onion and bread whenever she arrives. She writes, “He always offered me tea but never anything to eat, as though the onion and bread were part of a ritual reserved for him alone, a Jew from Lvov who had lost everything but the taste for bitterness and dry bread.”
The author explains the book’s title in an email: “As familiar as our emotions and passions seem to us, they often assume an unfamiliar face as we experience them. Likewise, the more intimately we get to know other people, the more we discover sides to them that are maddeningly unknowable,” she writes. “Every person is a world unto himself or herself, inscrutable, unfathomable, unpredictable but also endearing, intriguing, lovable—people we want to reach out and connect to so that we can better understand ourselves.”
In other stories there’s much love and longing, loneliness too; motifs of walking, music and books run throughout. The stories leave unanswered questions, and Rosenfeld’s characters and their emotional states linger.
When asked about the anomaly of being an English-language writer in Israel, she says, “This may sound crazy, but because Israel is the only place where I feel utterly at home and at peace with myself and the world, I was worried, when I moved here, that my creative impulses would dry up, that the conflict and inner turmoil writers need to fuel their writing would no longer be accessible to me because I would be too happy to let them into my life. Too well-adjusted to work! And then I landed in Tel Aviv, looked around me, and remembered that there was something called The Imagination (which I’m pretty sure Herzl knew a thing or two about) that writers used to rely on like a friend before the culture of confession came to town. (See: memoir.) That’s one way being in Israel has influenced my writing — I rely less on autobiography. And oddly enough, the farther I get away from my own story, the more authentic I feel, because literature is still, at its core (both for writers and readers), an exercise in self-discovery.”
In “Questioning Return” by Beth Kissileff (Mandel Vilar Press), a Princeton graduate student travels to Israel on a Fulbright to study newly religious American Jews living in Jerusalem, and the reasons behind the choices they’ve made, and the changes in their lives. From the beginning, the student has an unvoiced sense that she may be “drawn elsewhere than unexpected with unknown consequences.” After questioning others and hoping to studying their answers analytically, she comes to question herself in a deep and authentic way, and like many who are affected by the city, she too becomes a searcher. This is a novel of ideas about academic life, returning to tradition and Jewish observance; Kissileff writes with originality about Americans abroad in Israel, Jewish identity and heavenly and earthly Jerusalem. The author, who spent two years studying in Jerusalem, returns there frequently, and her love of the city — and of literature — is evident.
Chaim Citron’s “Wings of Hope: Kna’faim” is the coming-of-age story of Freilich, an Israeli boy who is sent by his impoverished mother to live with his elderly widowed aunt in an isolated shack on a crop-duster runway close to the Mediterranean, a place “where the sand, sky and sea caress.” Sensitively told with scenes of stark realism and, at times, magical realism, the novel describes the experience of growing up in Israel, from a perspective not often considered. There are scenes of the Six-Day War, Bedouin life, abuse, all described with poignancy. This is a first novel for Citron, who was born in Israel and now lives in New York, where he has worked in security at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun for more than a decade. His distinctive voice is infused with a deep humanity.
‘Necessary Stories” by Haim Watzman is a collection of short stories, both fiction and non-fiction, previously published in his column in The Jerusalem Report. Watzman writes with immediacy, attentiveness and empathy, whether he’s describing a pregnant feral cat he names Hagar, who makes her home in the dumpster of his Jerusalem building, or the best friend of the bride at a wedding, or his late son, who was killed in a tragic accident while serving in the IDF. Watzman, who grew up in Silver Spring, Md., and made aliyah in 1978, is also a translator of Hebrew writers into English who has a good ear for dialogue. The stories, layered with meaning, speak to his wide-ranging interests. Watzman also does spoken-word performances, based on this book.