Visitors to the central branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia could be forgiven if they thought that this was Israeli Culture Week.
Visitors to the central branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia could be forgiven if they thought that this was Israeli Culture Week. In addition to a cooking class on Monday night on the art of Israeli salads, two Israeli authors, Michael Oren and Etgar Keret, appeared at the institution this week to discuss their new memoirs.
“It was actually programmed completely by happenstance,” said Andy Kahan, the Ruth W. and A. Morris Williams director of author events at the Free Library. “Oren and Keret have been here for their previous books, so it was serendipitous, rather than thematic.”
For readers, both author events offer insights into the lives of Israeli life, politics and culture. Oren, who wrote Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East, and Power, Faith, and Fantasy: The United States in the Middle East, was in town June 24 to promote his new book, Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide. The new memoir chronicles his experiences as Israeli ambassador to the United States from 2009 to 2013.
He was in conversation with Daniel Pipes, president of the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum.
Kahan explained that in addition to being an incredibly topical speaker, based on the amount of media coverage his observations on the complicated relationship between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have generated, Oren is an interesting guest — he has the unusual experience of being “an American who grew up in upstate New York, made aliyah and went to Israel [in 1979] and lived there for a while, doing military service.” He returned to the United States for a few years to earn his Ph.D at Princeton University.
Kahan continued, “But he has also done interesting stuff, like working for Orson Welles and for various think tanks” like the conservative Shalem Center. “He’s important because he is an American, and now an Israeli, who has an intimate knowledge of both countries. It [was] interesting to have him talk about the relationship between the two countries, as well as Netanyahu and Obama — although the book is predominantly a memoir.”
Etgar Keret is best known for his fiction, short stories that can sometimes be as short as a paragraph or a page. His new book, The Seven Good Years, however, is his first foray into nonfiction, a memoir about his life as framed by the birth of his son and the death of his father. He was in conversation with Kahan on June 25.
Keret has appeared at the Free Library in the past, for his books The Nimrod Flipout and The Girl on the Fridge. This new book is destined to be a classic like those titles. It is typical Keret: quirky, deadpan, and darkly hilarious. The Seven Good Years is also, like his best work, heartbreaking. What is so exceptional about Keret’s writing is the way he captures an epiphany about relationships and human nature, as well as insights on aging, loss, and memory. These elements are all deftly intertwined in the memoir.
When Keret talked during an interview about his approach to writing and cockeyed perspective on the world around him, he brought up his Cannes award-winning 2007 film, Jellyfish, which he co-directed with his wife, Shira Geffen. “My fiction is optimism and sadness, and that is very natural,” he explained. “When you are an optimist, you promise yourself things will get better, and most of the time, they don’t, which creates the sadness. Life is not what we expect it to be, but there is goodness in it. Rationality cannot contain our life experience, but we should not reduce life to rationality. Situationality is important, but most of the time it is overrated.”
Even when he is describing his father dying from cancer in The Seven Good Years, Keret is hardly depressing. His writing is witty and wily.
Kahan effused, “The appeal of Keret is, where does he get his absurdist, Kafkaesque ideas from? From the first title chapter, and the first line of The Seven Good Years, you are in the absurd universe he creates. He provides a very moving context of both his own family and the country.”
Kahan then read the first sentence of the opening chapter entitled, “Suddenly, the Same Thing,” aloud:
“I just hate terrorist attacks,” the thin nurse says to the older one. “Want some gum?”
It is a perfect example of how Keret walks the tightrope between realism and surrealism. He catches readers by surprise with the unexpected, disarming aside of “Want some gum?” This is the basis for his singular form of literary magic, and what makes his work so beguiling.
The author talked in the interview about seeing life from the point of view of being both a son and a father. He claimed, “I think that acknowledging the fact you are ‘a second generation to something’ is really acknowledging the fact that your parents’ past had scarred you, too. And that you have to confront those flaws and be self-critical.”