Wounded in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Yoram Kaniuk moved to Greenwich Village to become a painter. Nineteen and broke, he came to center a rarefied circle of fellow painters, musicians, writers, and actors—Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Willem de Kooning, Tennessee Williams, Marlon Brando, among others. Writes Kaniuk, “I was in the lives of these people by mistake.” Though he may have played a minor role, Kaniuk’s memoir, Life on Sandpaper, is an unforgettable telling of his New York decade, the 1950s. His newest nonfiction book, 1948, not yet translated to English, recently won the 2010 Sapir Prize for Literature. Not long ago, I spoke to Kaniuk about Life on Sandpaper, which was published by Dalkey Archive Press this February.
When did you begin working on this memoir?
In the seventies I used to write for a paper here in Israel, and every weekend I used to publish a story. I wrote many of these stories, not exactly in this form, and when I didn’t have any more true stories, I had to invent them. And then at the start of 2000, I started to work them into Between Life and Death [the memoir’s Hebrew-language title]. I didn’t know what it would mean to people here in Israel, but it was amazing how much the young people loved this book. It opened a door for me—for my novel The Last Jew, and for other books.
Today it seems that there are more Israelis outside of Israel than in Israel itself. Soldiers taking a gap year in Europe, in India, in Tibet; scuffling jazz musicians and installation artists in downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn; Israelis “making the business” (in Israeli English) in Panama and Buenos Aires. There once was a stigma attached to this expatriation. When one goes to Israel, one literally “goes up,” or “ascends”—makes aliyah. When one leaves one is said to have “gone down,” or “descended”—yerida. Was there the same stigma associated with leaving Israel back in the 1950s, when you came to that other Jewish homeland, Greenwich Village?
The Israelis coming to America when I came, which was in 1951, were people who had fought in the 1948 war, which was a very tough war, the worst war Israel ever had; almost an entire generation was killed. We came to New York because we were never able to find a way, in Israel, of letting out the grief, the demons. Also, you have to remember that I had been wounded, physically. My first years in America, I didn’t think about Israel at all, I didn’t think about the war, I didn’t remember anything, I was completely in a daze. And later I understood that I had to have my autonomy. But I should say that many Israelis who were there with me in New York, or even in Los Angeles, eventually came back. Still there was a feeling that Israelis at that time didn’t know what their homeland was.