What’s the difference between Jews and Israelis and why is everything in Israel so contradictory?
Etgar Keret is a famous Israeli writer known for his absurdist short stories, graphic novels, screenwriting and columns in The New York Times. In addition to many Israeli and international prizes, in 2010 he received the French Chevalier Medallion. Here he explains to YOMYOM what’s so special about Tel Aviv, what’s wrong with Israelis, why Jewish humour didn’t survive aliyah and how the main superheroes from both DC and Marvel comics were invented by Jews. He also gives his own explanation of the phenomena of Israel as a “start-up nation”.
The Israeli culture and way of life seem very contradictory to me, a newcomer. So I’d like to ask you about some of the local realities. Here’s the first one: Before coming to Israel I imagined Jews to be like me and my friends back in Moscow — four-eyed, skinny, clumsy students of philology and linguistics, definitely not athletic. But when I came to Tel Aviv, I couldn't believe my eyes. Where do all these demigods with perfect bodies and a perfect tan come from? And how can they be the same nationality as me?
— Some people think that Jews and Israelis are synonymous, but actually, ideologically they are almost opposites. When Theodor Herzl planned the creation of a Jewish state, his idea was to cure the Jews from their Jewishness. Skinny and unfit diaspora Jews didn’t know how to work in fields or serve in the army; they didn’t know how to protect themselves. The entire idea of creating a Jewish state wasn’t just to put them all in one place, but to make a new kind of Jew-Jewish Vikings!
To tell you the truth, “Israeli” is something I have problems with. I believe there is something beautiful in the Jews of the diaspora; they are more special, more reflective and more cosmopolitan. The spirit and the hierarchy of values of Jews and Israelis are very different. The leaders of Jewish communities in the diaspora were always rabbis, philosophers and spiritual people. Meanwhile, Israeli leaders were always generals and military men. The best example of this contradiction is Jewish humor — it’s something that you can find anywhere in the world, except Israel.
Aren’t your books an example of Jewish humor?
— I call myself a “Jew living in the diaspora of Israel”. Jewish humor came from the fact that Jews in the diaspora had two identities. I bet when you lived in Moscow, you were both Russian and Jewish. You could go down the street in Moscow and see a lot of drunks, pushing each other and laughing and you would say: “Wow, those Russians are crazy!” And then your grandmother would take you to a Synagogue on Shabbat where you saw people talking on cell phones without giving a fuck about other people, and you would say: “Those Jews are crazy!”
Do you know that the main superheroes from both DC and Marvel comics were invented by Jews? Superman was created by Joe Shuster, a hardcore Jew, and if you think about Superman you’ll see that he’s a very Jewish character in the sense that he has a lot of Jewish psychological problems. He came from a world that doesn’t exist anymore — he’s a Holocaust survivor. Shuster invented the concept of secret identity and I don’t think it was accidental. Superman goes into a phone booth, changes his clothes and comes out as a superhero. A person goes into a telephone booth, puts on his yarmulke and he’s a Jew now.
I’m sure you’ve been in a situation where somebody said to you: “Oh those Jews! Somebody should beat the shit out of them”. And you answered : “Actually, I’m Jew”. Because unlike Africans or Asians, it’s hard to see our identity from the outside. The fact that diaspora Jews have two identities makes them feel inside and outside all the time. Everyone thinks you’re one of them but really you never truly belong. This is the state of mind that created “Jewish Humor”.
For example when an American makes a joke about rednecks or hippies living in trailers and having sex with their relatives — these people are strangers for him. American humor is something like: “Oh. Look at those stupid fucks”. A Jew, on the other hand, wouldn’t waste a good joke on a stranger. He makes jokes about those closest to him— mothers and wives. And this sense of humor somehow creates warmth. Most of the humor you’ll find in Israel is closer to American humor than Jewish humor. But I’m trying to keep the tradition. I think the only other writer who has this kind of Jewish humor in Israel is Sayed Kashua, because as an Israeli Arab he has the same experience of dual identity.
Jewish humor simply didn’t survive aliyah. And when you admire those muscly and sexy sabra guys playing Matkot on the beach, I actually feel the same admiration when I go to Moscow and see those skinny Jews. I wish I could take them home with me in my suitcase.
Here is another contradiction: When you walk through the streets of Tel Aviv you mostly see half-ruined, ugly buildings, trashy streets and hippy-looking young people. But the prices here are as if everything was made of gold. The balance of quality and price makes no sense here. How does this work?
— In the political debates between the right and left, there is this tendency to see Tel Aviv as a rich city. But it’s not true. Rich people live in Herzliya or in Cesaria, not in Tel Aviv. I think Tel Aviv is, more than anything, a state of mind. Most of the people you meet here weren’t born in Tel Aviv and won’t die here. It’s almost like a phase in life. Imagine you were born in Haifa, then you grow up and decide you want to form a rock band or make a movie, so you move to Tel Aviv, wash dishes in a café and you’ll have a pretty good chance at finding a drummer or a cameramen, and beautiful actors — because it’s Tel Aviv, man! People move here when they have a dream. Then they marry, have a couple of kids, a dog, etc. If they manage to make their dream come true, they move to Cesaria, and if they fail... they move to Petach Tikva.
The confusing thing about Tel Aviv is that the hierarchy of values here is a bit different than in other places. People don’t necessarily make more money here — sometimes they live a dog life in unliveable apartments, but they save enough money to go out and drink a beer in a café.
The tensions between Tel Aviv and the rest of the country are really tough. People say that Tel Aviv is a bubble. Of course it is! But I’d prefer the rest of the country to be sucked into this bubble than the bubble to explode and join the surroundings. Tel Aviv is known for being liberal, open-minded, innovative, making money for the country — so what are these horrible things that we’re doing here?
You said that most of the people were not born in Tel Aviv and will not die here. Were you born here?
— No. I was born in Ramat Gan [A town near Tel Aviv]. Ramat Gan to Tel Aviv is like New Jersey to New York. It’s very close in distance but very different. As I grew up, I never knew anybody who did any kind of art, even as a hobby. I never spoke a word to an artist or a singer or an actor. I remember at school there was a boy one year older than me. On Memorial Day for the fallen soldiers he played a flute. He was the closest person to art I knew! I would walk around this boy hypnotized. I didn’t even like what he was playing but I understood that somehow he put an effort into something that wasn’t pragmatic. At that time I couldn't even articulate the word “art”; I thought that the books I read were written by people who lived somewhere on an another planet. I didn’t realize that people manufactured art - I just thought it somehow existed.
Basically I live all my life in a diameter of six kilometers. I’m like Immanuel Kant, but without the brains. But moving from Ramat Gun to Tel Aviv was a huge change for me. For example, before moving here I never set foot in a café. It seemed to me something very decadent, as if people in cafes were criminals or some kind of strange people. The first time I went to a café was when I got my first job in writing for a weekly Jerusalem paper. There was no internet at the time, so my editor who lived in Tel Aviv told me to bring him a floppy disk once a week with my piece and he took it to Jerusalem. Once a week, we met at 8am in a café to have breakfast together and he said: “You can order whatever you like, I pay”. For me sitting in a real café where they don’t sell humus was something incredible. I didn’t want to order eggs because I could cook eggs at home by myself, so every time I ordered pizza margarita. The first time I ordered pizza the chef came out of the kitchen to see who was eating pizza at 8am. I worked for the paper for two years and during that time we would meet the same day, the same time and I would have my same pizza.
In the history of culture there are so many world-wide, famous Jewish musicians, artists and film directors. But since Jews gathered in the Holy Land culture is definitely not the top priority.
— The job of Minister of Culture is the least wanted job among all the cabinet positions in Israel. When Miri Regev got it, she explained: “I said to Netanyahu, please give me anything but culture! Everybody knows that artists are just a bunch of whiners that always complain. But he forced me, and I do my duty for my country”.
When a legendary guy, Meir Har-Zion, told Ariel Sharon to sign on for more years in the army and join his famous unit, 101, Sharon said: “But I want to go to University and study history”. Meir answered him: “Some people study history, some people make history. You choose which one you want to be”. And Sharon said: “OK, fuck the University”. The idea that there are contradictions between cultural or intellectual studies and life is very vivid here: “Those fucking Jews in the diaspora lived in their world ideas, so when the Nazis came and started killing them they didn’t even notice”. You know, when David Bitan, the (now former) head of the coalition, was giving a speech in the Knesset last year, he quoted Albert Camus but couldn’t pronounce the name correctly. People started laughing, so he explained: “Somebody wrote this speech for me. I haven’t read a book in ten years!”.
I’m a professor at Ben Gurion University. To get there I take a taxi to the train station. Once the taxi driver asked me where was I going. I said that I was going to my job at the University. So he said: “Can I ask you a sensitive question? I always wanted to understand, how come most of the people that teach in universities are left wing while most of the people in the country are right wing?” I answered: “It’s a good question. I never thought about it. But I guess it’s because when you read a lot of books about history, philosophy, social sciences you realize that in the history of mankind there isn’t even one ruler of a people who oppressed another people for a long period of time and it worked. It either ended up in genocide or a revolution”. The driver said: “Oh, it’s a very interesting explanation, because I have another one. I think it’s because the people in the universities are just a bunch of pot smoking faggots who never got their face out of a book, so they have no idea what’s going on in the real world”.
When I go to the US I often say to my readers: “In America, when you write a good book, you make a film out of it. In Israel when you write a good book you make a country out of it”. Herzl’s “Altneuland” was a SciFi book that finally became the modern state of Israel. It’s a very Jewish thing to build a country on a book, but the moment the dream came true, it became something different.
We’re a start-up nation here, but the truth is that people here work way too slow and don’t always do a good job. You wait for a plumber to fix your toilet for ages and then it will break the moment he goes out your door. The local internet sites look like they were made back in 90’s and haven’t changed since. How can this be?
— I think that the success of Israeli startups has to do with our ability to innovate and question things. Usually when you put a person in a job, he does his job. But when an Israeli gets a job he starts asking: “Hey, why are you doing this? Maybe if you do something different it would be faster?”. People here always check how far they can go without getting fired, how much they can push you before you complain. To come up with new ideas you need to have the “chuztpah” [“impudence” in hebrew] to push the limits, to ask people for money, to fight for it. In start-ups the Israeli character gives you a lot of advantages. We like to innovate but it’s hard for us to maintain. In a music album or TV series there’s usually a song or episode that is different — a piece that is quirky, different from the rest of the story, like an episode from the eyes of a dog, for example. The way the majority of people think and work in Israel is that offbeat episode. But we don’t have the beat here! If in Moscow you stand in a queue and a guy tries to push his way to the front of the queue, people would say, “go to your place!”. Here in Israel everybody wants to push their way to the front, and if somebody is standing and waiting patiently for his turn, people say, “he must be a tourist”.
Recently two Dutch guys made a movie about me, they told me that the genius of the Dutch is that they managed to create a society in which the friction between people is minimized. Everything is easy, you can live your whole life without having to be in a conflict with anybody. I think Israel is the opposite. Here a day doesn’t go by without conflict, though it doesn’t have to be always negative. For example, when I was young I had a very long hair. Once I got into a taxi the taxi driver said to me: “Why do you have such long hair?” “Because I like it”. He said: “Yes-yes, I know you like it. But why? Are you homosexual?” I said to him: “No”. And then he said: “Do you want to meet a really nice girl?” And he started showing me photos of his niece. “I don’t know why she isn’t married yet. She’s 23. You can cut your hair before you meet her, or you can keep it — she doesn’t mind…”. In Israel you can never keep your distance. So often you almost start to fight with someone and then the next moment, he gives you half of his sandwich saying: “You must eat it, my wife makes the best sandwiches ever”.
The last contradiction I’d like to ask you about is a very well known one. Is this a religious or secular state?
— “Jewish” is a very tricky term. If you ask my sister who is ultra orthodox, she would say, “of course it’s a religious term”. But I believe it’s a question of a cultural identity, of heritage. For me there are Jewish values that don’t ask me to be religious. The ideas of self-reflection, doubting, critical thought are all apart of our tradition. Einstein knew very well Newton’s physics, but he said: “Yes, it’s great, I know… but maybe there is something different”. The same way Torah is learned in pairs because we learn through questioning and doubting. If you look at Christian saints they are famous for submission. If you look at Jewish heroes they are famous for arguing with everybody including God. God said to Yonah: Go to Nineveh, and Yonah said: “Fuck off, I’ll go to Tarshish”. Abraham said to God: “Come on, don’t destroy Sodom”. Moses said to God: “What’s wrong with you!”. Polemic is something that is at the core of our culture. For me being Jewish is something more than just the question whether I believe in God or not.
Today, Israel finds itself in the most important inner conflict in its history: Are we the liberal Jewish state or the Jewish liberal state? People like Naftali Bennett [Minister of Education] says we are the chosen people. There may be a very complex and intellectual religious interpretation of being Jewish, but many people just think: “I don’t really know much about this Bible shit, but I know that God said I’m better than other people”. So quite often the interpretation that you may hear from right wing Jews is very close to racism.
People like me say: “First of all we are human beings, and after that we can carry out beliefs”. This country was made by secular Jews. The majority of the Zionist Congress were not believers. In Israel there was a very clear status quo between religious and secular people, but in the last decade we see how things are getting more and more religious. My son goes to a secular school, in a secular neighborhood and has secular teachers, but when they taught him the safety rules for driving, he was told that before putting his safety belt on in a car, he needs to pray.
Is there anything that can make you want to leave the country?
— I don’t feel so much that I live in the country, as I do that I live among people who surround and inspire me. I don’t wake up and salute the flag, but of course life in Israel is something I’m aware of and responsible for. There’s a struggle inside Israel society, and as long as I believe that the reality may be shifted it’s my job and my son’s job to say: “I don’t want to say this prayer!”. Wherever Jews tried to resist they were told: “Shut up, this is not your country. Go somewhere else”. My parents are Holocaust survivors and now I live in a country where nobody can tell me that this country isn’t mine. I want it to be improving and I want to criticize what needs to be criticized. If your apartment is dirty, you may change it for another apartment, but there is also an option to try to clean it.
Text Asya Chachko
Photo Masha Kushnir