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Arts & Culture Best-selling Authors Compare Notes on Jewish Families, Israeli Influences

June 12, 2006
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In their first meeting, Nathan Englander and Etgar Keret playfully joust about influences and literature and how experiencing Jewish and Israeli life informs their writing. Englander, 36, a former Long Island yeshiva boy turned darling of the American literature scene and his Israeli counterpart, Keret, 38, in turns adored and excoriated for his fantastical and rebellious short stories, came together recently at a conference sponsored by Bar-Ilan University’s master’s program in creative writing.

Their rapport was instant and full of good humor. When audience members at a public discussion between them requested that they speak up, Englander offered, “I’ll project from the diaphragm.” Keret quipped, “and I’ll try to speak from Nathan’s diaphragm.”

Englander’s 1999 debut collection of short stories, “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges,” became an international best seller with its tales of the secret desires of Orthodox wig makers, condemned Yiddish writers awaiting death in a Stalinist prison and Jews on a train to a concentration camp who transform into acrobats and tumble their way to safety. His upcoming novel, “The Ministry of Special Cases,” eight years in the making, is about the Jewish community in Buenos Aires on the eve of Argentina’s 1976 military coup.

Englander eventually rejected his Orthodox upbringing and immigrated to Israel, where he wrote his first book in a Jerusalem cafe. He sees the book as part of his transition out of the Orthodox world.

“It was clear it was about my leaving the religious community,” he said. His upcoming novel, he said, is about “the idea of community as a whole, how it functions and how it corrupts.”

He at first did not intend the book to focus on the Jewish community, but Jews “kept creeping in.”

Englander said being labeled as a “Jewish writer” following the publication of his first book did not bother him.

“It’s not a tag. There is nothing for me to shake off,” he told JTA in an interview.

Unlike Englander’s rich, literary prose, Etgar’s stories have a casual, zany tone. Modern Israel is his usual backdrop, populated with slackers, soldiers and factory workers. His work has been praised for tapping into the Zeitgeist of Israeli youth with witty, but often less than pretty portraits of alienation and fear.

Keret’s most recent collection, “The Nimrod Flip-Out,” published last month in the United States, was written during the second intifada and was influenced, he said, by the daily toll of violence.

In one story, a pathologist examines the body of a woman killed in a suicide bombing only to discover tumors had taken over most of her body and that she would have died within weeks. The pathologist cannot decide whether or not to tell the woman’s bereaved husband.

Breaking ranks with Israel’s old guard of writers who try to infuse their work with ideological themes, Keret’s cheeky stories seem to mock the country’s literary conventions and convictions. Keret was born in Israel but feels himself an outsider. Englander, at odds with his Orthodox upbringing in America, for a time chose Israel as his home.

It was in Israel that he met a group of young Argentine immigrants who would become close friends and whose stories would help inspire the idea for his novel. It was also in Israel that he began to feel how politics imprints itself onto life.

“Living in Israel made me understand when politics is in your front yard,” he said. “Living in Israel obviously I learned a lot. I became shaped. I became a different person from living in the center of Jerusalem.”

Keret, although often hailed as the voice of young Israelis, feels himself more a Diaspora Jew than a native son.

“I feel very connected to the Diaspora,” he told JTA. “My stories seem to me to have more in common with Kafka and Isaac Bashevis Singer than A.B. Yehoshua.” He added: “I was born here but I am the son of immigrants and I feel part of this but also feel on the outside. I think that is something very Jewish but something Israelis have lost.”

As the son of Holocaust survivors, Keret finds a sense of eerie triumph that his books sell best abroad in Germany and Poland.

His mother, who grew up in Poland and was the only member of her immediate family to survive the war, was especially moved after she read his work translated into Polish. She told him he wrote like a Polish exile.

When she visited him in Germany where he was a visiting instructor at a Berlin university a few years ago, she told him a story that had haunted her. During her father’s last days alive in the Warsaw Ghetto, he told her she would survive and one day avenge the family.

“They want to erase our name. But you will stay alive and everyone will know our name,” he said, recounting the words his grandfather told his mother so many years ago.

She told him she had lived to see her father’s vision — the sight of German bookshops filled with his books and the long lines of people waiting to hear him speak.

“I was very glad to hear that,” Keret said. “To see that there are some circles that do connect.”

Englander’s visit to Israel to speak at the conference marked his first time in the country since he left five years ago.

He said it was not the bombings and tension that had kept him away but his complete focus on writing.

As difficult and as messy as it was to leave, Englander said he knew he would thrive once he returned to New York. Arriving for this visit, the clerk stamping his passport at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport asked why he had been away for so long.

He answered, “I became Israeli. So I left for New York.”

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