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Posts Tagged ‘Israel’

The In-Between Space: An Interview with Shelly Oria

November 25, 2014 | by

Photo: T. Kira Madden

The eighteen stories in New York 1 Tel Aviv 0, Shelly Oria’s debut collection, are beguiling, bizarre, and wise. (One of them, “My Wife, in Converse,” appeared in The Paris Review earlier this year.) Her sentences, with their clear-eyed, authoritative calm, underscore and complicate the unlikely circumstances in which her characters find themselves, and the chaos of their inner lives. Here, for example, is the narrator of “This Way I Don’t Have to Be,” on her addiction to sleeping with married men:

I always look them in the eye throughout, and that can be tricky, because they mostly try to avoid the intimacy of eye contact. I wait, and then suddenly it’s there, passing through them like a wave. In that moment, their entire lives turn to air … For one brief moment, they go back in time, they make different choices, they are different men. And my body is the time-travel machine that takes them there.

Born in Los Angeles but raised in Israel, Oria moved to the United States at twenty-five, five years after finishing her compulsory military service. Though she was fluent in English, she thought—and wrote—in Hebrew; hoping to attend the writing program at Sarah Lawrence College, she taught herself to write fiction in English, an experience she describes as “one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.” Her prose is both energized and measured, and perhaps this is the effect of customary Israeli volubility short-leashed by an inner translator—a tiny version of the author herself who sits at her little desk inside the brain, reading the rough transcripts as they are faxed up from the heart, and forever sending notes back down that read, Yes, but is that really exactly what you meant to say? All authors live with a version of this little demon; it just happens that Oria’s is bilingual and combat trained.

I should mention that Oria is my colleague at the Pratt Institute. She is also a life/creativity coach and hosts a reading series in the East Village. Between all of that and a book tour, she is very busy, for which reason, though we would have much preferred the pleasure of each other’s company, this interview was conducted via e-mail.

I find myself returning to the scene in the title story where Pie—who is in a three-way relationship with a woman and a man—divides herself into “Me No. 1” and “Me No. 2.” No. 1, “the Israeli who was taught that being tough and being strong are the same thing,” is ready to walk out the door on both lovers immediately. No. 2, “a woman who successfully impersonates an American” and “has a lot to prove,” wants to stay. Pie seems to think that No. 1 has the right take on the situation, but it’s No. 2’s position she adopts as her own, and I for one am hardly convinced that she’s wrong. Might you speak, then, to the risks and allures of pulling off a successful impersonation?

The thing is—and maybe this is obvious—both Pies are wrong. By which I, of course, also mean that they’re both right. And to me that’s what the story is trying to do, and what the book is trying to do, and what I’m trying to do, not only as a writer but as a human—challenge this idea of either-or, hang out a bit in the in-between space. Or really, the both space. As far as I’m concerned, that goes for nationality, for sexuality, for identity in general. We’re hardwired toward this dichotomous way of thinking about and constructing identity. It’s almost an addiction—a cultural addiction to categories. Read More »

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On the Slaughter

July 31, 2014 | by

A political poem’s ironic new life.

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Bialik at around age thirty.

ON THE SLAUGHTER

Heaven—have mercy.
If you hold a God
(to whom there’s a path
that I haven’t found), pray for me.
My heart has died.
There is no prayer on my lips.
My hope and strength are gone.
How long? How much longer?

Executioner, here’s my neck:
Slaughter! You’ve got the ax and the arm.
The world to me is a butcher-block—
we, whose numbers are small
it’s open season on our blood:
Crack a skull—let the blood
of infant and elder spurt on your chest,
and let it remain there forever, and ever.

If there’s justice—let it come now!
But if it should come after I’ve been
blotted out beneath the sky,
let its throne be cast down.
Let the heavens rot in evil everlasting,
and you, with your cruelty,
go in your iniquity
and live and bathe in your blood.

And cursed be he who cries out: Revenge!
Vengeance like this, for the blood of a child,
Satan has yet to devise.
Let the blood fill the abyss!
Let it pierce the blackest depths
and devour the darkness
and eat away and reach
the rotting foundations of the earth.

Political poems lead strange lives—they often wither on the vines of the events they’re tied to. Old news gives way to new, and the whole undertaking starts to seem, well, an expense of spirit in a waste of shame. For many and maybe most American readers, “poetry and politics just don’t mix.”

But sometimes they do. Quite violently.

On June 12, three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped while hitchhiking home together from their West Bank yeshivas. They were murdered—most likely within hours of being taken—and, eighteen days later, after an extensive search, their bodies were discovered under some rocks in a field near Hebron. Israel mourned, and raged. Emerging from a cabinet meeting convened just after the corpses were found, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed his condolences to the families and quoted the great modernist Hebrew poet Hayim Nahman Bialik: “Vengeance … for the blood of a small child, / Satan has not yet created.” He went on in his own words: “Hamas is responsible—and Hamas will pay.” For good measure, the Prime Minister’s office tweeted the lines as well.

As anyone who hasn’t lived atop a column in the Congo for the past seven weeks knows, a series of violent, retaliatory acts followed. Israel carried out mass arrests on the West Bank, killing six in the process; a Palestinian teenager was beaten and burned alive by a group of Jews; throngs of Palestinians destroyed tracks and stations on the Jerusalem light-rail line; Jewish gangs shouting “Death to the Arabs!” rampaged through Jerusalem in search of victims—and found them; some thirty-five thousand Facebook users “liked” a page called “The People of Israel Demand Revenge”; Hamas fired rockets by the dozen into Israel from Gaza; Hamas officials warned that “the gates of hell” would open if Israel attacked in retaliation for the killings or the shelling. Read More »

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Waiting for the Siren

July 11, 2014 | by

A letter from Jerusalem.

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Photo: Amir Farshad Ebrahimi, via Flickr

The rockets are back. It wasn’t two years ago they were falling over Israel. Things progress, they regress, they explode, and then you find yourself where you first began. With the rockets come all the accompanying nightmares about the endlessness of this war. We mutter darkly about escalation, look at pictures of the brutal deaths in Gaza. This is what comes when the rockets fall again. But the truth is, I missed them.

In Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, when the rocket siren goes off—a rising and falling pitch, kind of thin, actually—you have a recommended ninety seconds to find shelter. I use a method I’ve written about before to keep track of time: I sing Ghostface Killah’s “Run” to myself, as I run around the apartment looking for my boots. You’re supposed to go to a shelter or a safe room, if your building has one. If it doesn’t, as mine does not, you go to the stairwell, because it’s a reinforced area without much glass. Then you wait, nodding politely to four or so of your neighbors, whose names you still don’t know; smiling sympathetically at their children, who are posting fallout selfies.

The siren stops and you hear the booms of the rockets being detonated midflight by the Israeli defense system—the Iron Dome, love of my life—or hitting open areas that the anonymous geniuses manning the Iron Dome have determined to be okay to hit. They say to wait ten minutes, but nobody does. A few minutes after the booms, you all go back to your apartments, or step outside to catch a glimpse of the wispy, white puffs—all that remains of the rockets. Read More »

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Cutouts

June 19, 2013 | by

cuthoutpotus

A few weeks ago I travelled to Israel to give some talks. Along with invitations to universities I had been contacted by the United States Embassy in Jerusalem and asked if I would participate in an event that would be part of “the cultural outreach program” before President Obama’s visit at the end of March. At first the terms of my employment were loose: I could discuss any aspect of my writing or writing life that I chose. As I was born in London and only came to America when I was twenty-six, I thought I might discuss the seductive appeal that American novelists, especially Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, held for me when I was a young man and how perhaps, more than anything, it was reading their fiction which stirred my desires to move to New York and become, if I could, both an American citizen and an American writer.

The embassy thought this would be fine, but then someone higher up the ladder than the delightful and accommodating woman I had been dealing with decided to intervene. Would it be possible for me, in some way, to link my talk to the theme of “Great American Speeches?” I replied that while I had certainly admired and been impressed by President Obama’s Grant Park election victory speech, and while I had been thoroughly wowed by Aretha’s hat at the fist inauguration, I couldn’t really see how “Great American Speeches” had anything at all to do with my writing. Read More »

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War Memorial

May 27, 2013 | by

candleslarge

They commute with guns. A lot of Israeli soldiers live at home while they do their mandatory service, and, like me, they take the bus to work every day. I’m a student so for me that means carrying four different translations of the Qumran wisdom texts to the university campus. They carry what I think are semi-automatics. We all take the bus together. There is a language to the army uniform that I cannot read. If you know these things, you can tell what part of the armed forces someone is in by the color of his or her beret. The red ones seem tough, I know that. The uniforms themselves are different colors too: a standard green, a nappy white, a khaki. The grey-blue ones tend to have broad shoulders and handguns tucked into their pants. It took me a long time to realize they had holsters under their trousers: I thought the guns were being held in by their underwear elastics, and could fall any moment. From this information, a literate person lays the bones of their expectations for the soldier they see, if she sees them at all. I think most people don’t even notice them. One thing I cannot get used to in Israel is a kind of suspension of horror: that the mechanisms of danger and violence are laid bare and become mundane. Through what I'll call a willful innocence, this is something I resist fully. I notice every soldier, every gun. Guns they tote indifferently on the bus, in the mall, getting ice cream, at the beach. Obviously they can't spend several consecutive years (required service is two for young women, three for men) having anxiety attacks about whether or not it’s emotionally damaging to develop a familiar relationship with weapons. Luckily for them, they have me to do that.

The exception to the soldiers’ invisibility is during a series of memorials, which occur in Israel over a period of two weeks. First is Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day. This is a day of ceremonies: candles are lit, and you will hear testimony from the dwindling population of survivors. This year it was on April 7 (holidays here are kept by the lunar Jewish calendar). It is marked by a one-minute siren at ten A.M. For a memorial siren, everyone stands. No matter where you are, you stop and stand. The entire country has this really effective PA system. It reminds me of that scene in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy before Earth is bulldozed, when every physical object becomes a transmitter. The memorial siren is similar to the siren that sounds when there are rockets falling but it is one single tone instead of a falling and rising pitch. This is so that if rockets fall during the siren, you know to seek cover.

A week later is Yom HaZikaron, Memorial Day; this year on April 15. It is in remembrance of Israelis who have died in war and terror attacks. The year’s dead are added to a list. The day starts the evening prior (in accordance with the Jewish calendar), marked with a two-minute siren. At this point, the entire nation gives itself forty-eight hours to focus on the soldiers. The TV stations play a continuous loop of short documentaries on the lives of the dead—heartwrenching tributes with interviews and blurry home-videos. The radio stations play only sad, traditional music. At 11 A.M. on the day-of, there is a second two-minute siren. There are ceremonies that evening and, at the end of the memorials, Yom HaAtzmaut (Israel Independence Day) begins immediately: whiplashing the nation into July Fourth mode. Opinions on this model, and the sudden change in attitude (grievance to celebration) are mixed in Israel.

My friend just left the army, after six years of service. He asked that I call him Ido instead of using his real name, and who am I to argue. So: Ido. This was Ido’s first post-army Yom HaZikaron. He said this year he was in his car, driving, when he realized the siren would go momentarily. Perhaps they said something on the radio. He pulled over, with every other car on the road, got out, and stood by his car, with the door open. He probably ended up in a Reuters photograph. He said it was strange to be in civilian clothes, to be a civilian, on that day. When you are a soldier, everyone looks at you on Yom HaZikaron: you are at the center of something that now he felt slightly peripheral to. In the past, during the siren, he has raised his hand in salute (a gesture exclusive to officers during the siren); this year he has stood with his hands folded by his car. I asked where he would look (I was never sure where to look during the sirens) in those days. “At the flag,” he said. Read More »

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The Born Identity: An Interview with Sayed Kashua

April 29, 2013 | by

Portrait of the Arab-Israeli author Sayed Kashua.My Skype chat with Arab Israeli author Sayed Kashua started off on a promising note when we bonded over our ineptitude for all things mathematical. Except he, in typical fashion, was being facetious, while I had tried in vain to figure out Israeli time zones. The author—who also happens to be a columnist for the newspaper Ha’aretz and the writer of the popular Israeli-aired TV show Arab Labor—has an intimate relationship with the complexity of what it means to be an enigma in Israeli society. His most recent novel, Second Person Singular, is a delicately interwoven narrative, stitched together by instances of jealously, raw relationships, and the deeply embedded dogma of identity. Sayed’s cautionary tale doesn’t presume an intimate familiarity with the intractable Gordian Knot of Israeli society in order to understand human nature, willful dignity, and self-destructive tendencies. And therein lies the point.

I caught up with Kashua over the audible sounds of his young children shrieking in the background, and we spoke about the paradoxes of being an Arab Israeli columnist who lives in a prominently Jewish neighborhood, and whose daughter shares a schoolyard with the Israeli Prime Minister’s son.

I was just playing with my little boy.

How old is he?

I don’t know exactly…

I think maybe we’re both equally bad at math.

No, no, he is a year and eight months.

Just me then. You just came back from a book tour, which you’ve capped off by saying you want both sides to go to hell. So it sounds like it went well. Did you learn anything new in the interim?

Yes, that the real Jewish state is the Upper West Bank, in New York, and that Montreal can be very cold. I don’t know what I learned this time around, because it’s not my first time, but I think that this feeling that I can run away from dealing with identity, or not to feel like a persecuted minority will not go away if I move to Canada or the U.S. Because most people I met were dealing with issues of identity, language, belonging, and what does home mean. But most of the people that I met were Israeli, or Arab, or Palestinians. I think that identity doesn’t deserve so much thinking, to be honest. I think [from the tour] I have earned my confusion in a very honest way. Being a Palestinian citizen of Israel, it’s okay. We can be confused. I hear criticisms from both sides, but the majority of both sides really listen and like my work, so the tour was great.

Read More »

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