Issue 182, Fall 2007
In 1987, to mark the twentieth year of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the editors of the Israeli newsweekly Koteret Rashit dispatched the young novelist David Grossman to the West Bank for seven weeks. Grossman, a fluent speaker of Arabic, visited Palestinians in refugee camps and cities, kindergartens and universities, as well as Israeli settlers in their fortified enclaves and army officers patrolling the Palestinian territories. The resulting article filled an entire issue of the magazine and created an uproar in Israel. Grossman had made clear that the Palestinians, who had been suffering the daily brutalities of the occupation for a generation, would be docile no more. “It was a real shock,” Tom Segev, one of his editors, told me. “We did not know, then, how much they hated us.”
By the following year, when Grossman’s report was published in English as The Yellow Wind, the Palestinian intifada was fully underway. Grossman’s dispatches had become prophetic, launching their author—whose earlier novels had been acclaimed in Israel but not yet translated—to international prominence.
Grossman was born in Jerusalem in 1954. His mother was born in Palestine; his father came from the Polish province of Galicia. As a child he began working as an actor and reporter at Kol Israel, the state radio station, where he was employed for more than twenty years, returning after a four-year stint in the army to serve as a journalist and news anchor. He began to write fiction in his early twenties, and published a book of stories and two novels while working full time at the station.
Grossman’s first novel, The Smile of the Lamb (1983), was the first Israeli novel to be set on the West Bank. It is the story of a young soldier, Uri—the eponymous lamb—who befriends and is then held hostage by Khilmi, a half-blind, elderly Palestinian tale-teller. Khilmi’s yarns are spun in a languid, fevered prose, a hybrid of stream-of-consciousness and the musical phrasing of Arabic folklore. Grossman’s second novel, See Under: Love (1986), remains his masterpiece, a wildly inventive work of historical reimagination in four parts that Edmund White compared to The Sound and the Fury, The Tin Drum, and One Hundred Years of Solitude; George Steiner called it simply “one of the great feats in modern fiction.” It begins with Momik, an Israeli child growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust, ends with a fantastical set of encyclopedia entries detailing the adventures of aged children’s book heroes raising a child in the Warsaw zoo, and in between rescues the Polish writer Bruno Schulz from death by turning him into a salmon.
Grossman followed The Yellow Wind with an account of the lives of Palestinian citizens in Israel, Sleeping on a Wire, and a book of essays on the conflict, Death as a Way of Life. He has published six novels in all, including two “lighter books,” as he calls them, The Zigzag Kid and Someone to Run With; a play; several books for children; and an exegesis of the biblical tale of Samson, Lion’s Honey. Today he is widely recognized as one of Israel’s greatest writers, the foremost novelist among the generation that followed that of Amos Oz and A. B. Yehoshua.
Our interview took place over four days in July, at Mishkenot Sha’ananim, a cultural center within sight of the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, and on the veranda of Grossman’s home in the hills of Mevasseret Zion, just outside Jerusalem, where he has lived for twenty-five years with his wife, Michal, and their three children. In the basement Grossman has a modest office, with a computer perched in one corner and, along the far wall, vines growing up to the ceiling; there is a poster on the wall from the popular film adaptation of Someone to Run With. Across the hall is a sparse room with two armchairs, where Michal, a clinical psychologist, sees her patients.
July marked the first anniversary of the start of the Lebanon War, and the end of a tragic year for Grossman and his family. In August 2006, Grossman’s younger son, Uri, a tank commander in the Israel Defense Forces, was killed in the final days of the war against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Two days earlier, Grossman, along with Oz and Yehoshua, had made a public statement demanding a cease-fire. Grossman delivered a eulogy at Uri’s funeral on Mount Herzl, in Israel’s national cemetery: “I won’t say now anything about the war you were killed in. We, our family, have already lost in this war. The state of Israel will now take stock of itself. We, the family, will withdraw into our pain, surrounded by our good friends, enveloped in the powerful love that we feel today from so many people, most of whom we do not know. I thank them for their support, which is unbounded. May we be able to give this love and solidarity to each other at other times as well.”
Grossman has always worn his worry on his youthful face, but the events of the last year have left the lines heavier. His gentle demeanor—open, inquisitive, welcoming—conceals the intensity and, more recently, the anguish, of his inner life. In conversation he is contemplative and searching; he speaks quietly but decisively about his own writing, contemporary Israel, and the aims of literature. At the beginning of our first meeting I told Grossman we should delay talk of politics to concentrate on his fiction. A playful smile came to his face, and he said, “Where have you been all my life?”
What was the first book that meant something to you?
When I was eight, my father brought me a story by Sholem Aleichem, who wrote about the lives of the Jews in the shtetls, the little towns and villages in Galicia, in Russia, and in Poland. I was the only child in my neighborhood who read Sholem Aleichem. This was a source of embarrassment—it was not cool to dive into the diaspora past. Israel was then a new country, a strong military power surrounded by enemies. It had to be like a clenched fist. Memories about weakness, about humiliation, were not very popular. But the stories enabled me to create for myself an enclave of the Jewish shtetl amid the reality of Jerusalem.
My parents were surprised by my immersion in these stories, but they were also proud. I’ll always remember the smile that my father had when he gave me the book. It was the smile of a child, something I don’t remember having seen on his face before, insecure and exposed and transparent. He was reluctant to share memories with me, but the stories formed a kind of tunnel to his youth, since he was a child like the children that Sholem Aleichem describes, from a little village named Dynów, in Galicia. When my father realized how much I was affected by Aleichem, he started to tell me stories about his childhood and about himself.
As a father myself, I can tell you that when my children read my books, I know that they are discovering parts of me that they are not usually exposed to. There’s a mixture of embarrassment, worry, and pride that they are making this effort, that they want to get closer to me.
What was your father’s background?
He came to Israel in 1936, when he was nine years old. His father had died two years before, which left his mother and her two children—my father and my aunt—without any protection. One day she was harassed in the street by a Polish policeman, who insulted her. We don’t really know what happened there. But she came home and said, We’re moving to Eretz Yisrael. She was small, like a toe, all wrinkled—a clever, ironic woman. She took my father and my aunt to Israel, on a long journey by train and ship. This woman who had never traveled even on a bus!
As an adult my father worked as a bus driver. He had to quit driving because of eye problems when he was forty-five, and he became the librarian of Jerusalem’s transportation organization. He created a small library, just two rooms, but it held something like three thousand books. I always think that if life had been less cruel he would have been a university professor.
You started working at the state radio station at an early age. How did that come about?
In Israel we didn’t have television until ’68. So radio was everything. One day the radio station announced that it would be holding a knowledge competition about the stories of Sholem Aleichem. This quiz show was very popular in Israel at that time, in the early sixties. They had quizzes on writers, on cinema, on music. There was a lot of speculation about who was going to win, and it was an important part of life. I told my parents that I wanted to be a contestant. I was about nine years old. They said, No, you cannot go, you are only a child. Part of my family’s code was not to be conspicuous, not to make yourself a target. Use your intelligence to remain in the second row—which is an efficient way to survive. But I wanted to take part in this competition, so I wrote a postcard to the show.
I had never sent a postcard before—to whom would I send a postcard? Jerusalem was provincial, and very small. I never even met a non-Jew until I was, I think, ten years old. There were no Arabs in our neighborhood then, I had only heard about them on the news. They were the enemy, they had wars with us, they were spies. They wanted to throw us into the sea. I asked my parents for swimming lessons for that reason.
So unbeknownst to my parents, I sent this postcard. I was terrified. A week later, I received a governmental envelope containing a letter inviting me to an audition. Well, when my parents saw the letter from the director of the radio station—it was as if the king or even David Ben-Gurion himself had ordered me to come. They wouldn’t dare refuse.
With a mixture of pride and worry, my father accompanied me to the radio building, which would become my workplace for the next twenty-five years. Of course, everybody thought I was accompanying my father. When he explained that I was their candidate, the radio officials were amused. They quizzed me, and I knew all the answers. I had a good memory, the fresh memory of a child, and I was deeply attached, emotionally, to the stories of Sholem Aleichem. They felt relevant to my life, so I just inhaled them. I think I knew them by heart.
What kind of things did they ask you in the audition?
Questions about details. What did Tevye in Tevye the Dairyman say to his daughter after she married a non-Jew? In what words did Shimek reveal his love to Buzie? I passed that exam, then another one, and finally I encountered a problem that was emblematic of Israel in that period. The general director of the radio station decided that it wouldn’t be instructive for a child to win such enormous prize money. The prize money was equivalent to something like fifty dollars today, but this was a major dilemma for them.
Did they think it would be contrary to Israel’s socialist ethos?
Yes, the ascetic ethos. So they started doing something quite nasty, which I only understood was unusual years later, when I became friends with these people. They said that because of my young age, they had to perform many additional tests. So I would come home after school, and the phone would ring—which is something that happened only about once a week in our home—and when I picked up, a man from the radio would say, David, I’m going to ask you three questions, but beware: if you don’t know the answer to any one of them, you will be dropped out of the competition. At some point I got an answer wrong, and he immediately said, We are sorry, we cannot allow you to be a contestant, but we do want you to attend the public recording of this program. If any one of the competitors does not know an answer, we will turn to you. So I would sit there in the audience, and when one of the show’s contestants got something wrong, the host would turn to me for the correct answer.
Were the adults embarrassed that they were being upstaged by a ten year old?
I’m sure they wanted to kill me.
What did your parents think? Did they change their mind about your staying in the “second row”?
I think they became quite proud of me. Suddenly they were willing to accept this strange child who sits and reads those esoteric stories about the galut—the diaspora. After the quiz show ended, someone from the station asked if I would like to be a radio actor. I didn’t know what he meant, but he had me audition, and I passed. By the time I was eleven years old, I was being flooded with radio work. And I earned, I’m sorry to say, more than my father. It was a full-time job. I’d finish school at two o’clock, go home for lunch, and go to the radio station, where I’d work until ten or eleven at night.
I had two jobs at the station. The first was conducting interviews. I traveled throughout Israel, meeting notable people—the president, football players, theater actors, even the most famous poet at the time, Avraham Shlonsky. The other thing I did was perform in radio plays, which were often literary texts adapted for the radio. Back then, in the early sixties, most children’s roles were played by women. No men could do it, and there were no child actors, except for one, Arieh Eldad. Arieh and I were friends as children because we worked together. He is now a leader of one of the most extreme right parties in Israel.