In his last posts, Assaf Gavron wrote about hanging out in the West Bank, moonlighting as an Israeli mover in New York City and about Israeli fast food. His most recent book, Almost Dead, is now available. He’s been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog series.
As a soldier in Gaza in the first Intifada, I unknowingly started the research to a novel I was to publish 18 years later (22 years later, this month, in English translation). Gaza hardly appears in the pages of this novel, Almost Dead, but what I saw in its refugee camps, their streets and their houses, was the main inspiration to the story of Fahmi, one of the two storytellers of the novel.
That period of a few months in 1988 was the first time I was exposed to Palestinian life. The first time I understood what “occupation” means, how it works, and how life under it looks like. How young kids behave when they are given power over other people, and how those people react to them.
Living in Tel Aviv in 2002 was the starting point for the second storyteller of Almost Dead, the Israeli 30-something hi-tech engineer Eitan “Croc” Enoch. The surreal and chaotic atmosphere, with suicide bombs going off on a daily basis in Israeli cities and people living in trauma and paranoia while trying to conduct their “normal” daily life, almost called me to deal with it through writing.
So here I was, with these two sides of the coin, two stories running parallel and at the same time bitterly colliding, so close and so apart, so similar and so different and all the other cliches (though cliches are sometimes true). I wanted to look into this point in time and to go deeper, to write about life at this time and place, as lived on both sides of the fence.
For Croc’s story, I only had to look around me. The people, the jobs, the city, the sensibilities were all around me. For Fahmi’s, I had to work harder. So I started with my Gaza memories for the looks, the smells, the alleys and the curfews. But my story takes place a decade and a half later, during a different, bloodier second intifada, and in the West Bank. And now it was much more difficult for me to gain access to this place. In fact, the actual refugee camp where Fahmi lives in is forbidden ground for Israelis. So I read books and magazine articles, watched the many documentaries made by Israelis as well as foreigners on suicide bombers and on the occupation, and traveled where I could — for example, to visit a friend doing a reserve army service in Ramallah.
The final part of getting Fahmi’s story right was to find Palestinians who can read Hebrew and would be prepared to read the texts and give me their comments. Through internet forums and cooperation organizations I found two readers, professors of Hebrew in the Gaza University. Connecting with them and sharing my texts with them was exciting and tremendously useful — their comments on things as small as the brand of cheese my character would eat and as big as the way he would behave near a woman were crucial. Most importantly, their overall approval of Fahmi’s character and reliability gave me the final courage to publish the book.
Almost Dead was just published by HarperCollins in the US. It was published in Israel in 2006, and since then has appeared in German, Italian, Dutch, and soon in French. A movie based on the novel is in production by Neu Filmproduktion from Berlin (“Goodbye Lenin”, “Run Lola Run”). He has blogged all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog series.
In his last posts, Assaf Gavron wrote about moonlighting as an Israeli mover in New York City and about Israeli fast food. His most recent book, Almost Dead, is now available. He’s blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog series.
The Jewish settlers in the West Bank have fascinated me for many years, and especially those living in the illegal outposts — a few mobile homes on remote hills with no running water or electricity, who are in a constant cat-and-mouse chase with the authorities. Regardless of political opinion (if such a thing is possible in our region, especially in this part of it), the extreme situation in which they live seemed like the perfect setting for a novel: the combination of lawlessness, lack of clear borders, the sense of adventure and of conquering new frontiers, as well as the breathtaking landscapes, religious fanaticism and the violent national conflict, make it feel like a modern, surreal kind of Western -â€“ it is, in fact, the Wild West Bank.
The West Bank (often referred to as Judea and Samaria) is geographically nearby the Israelis who donâ€™t live there: from Tel Aviv, where I live, it is less than a 30-minute drive. Yet most Israelis keep as far away as possible. Seen as dangerous and controversial, some of it blocked by walls and parts forbidden, it is indeed â€œabroadâ€ for many. Yet it is ever-present on the news, on political and at dinner tables discussions. So after I realized it could be a great setting for a novel, I decided to go there. For over two years I traveled, sometimes once a week, sometimes more, sometimes staying overnight, or for the day. I went all over the West Bank -â€“ the desert lands of Judea; the greener, hillier Samaria; bigger, established settlements; and the tiniest outposts.
I wanted to see life behind the news headlines. I wanted to test the stereotype of the settlers as a crazy, secluded, fanatic, violent and racist bunch, armed with Godâ€™s orders to settle the Promised Land by Jews, regardless of other inhabitants, international law, Israeli government decisions or other petty â€œearthlyâ€ matters. I was curious to learn about the people, their thoughts, their way of life, and the ways in which their private life converge with the larger, political story. I wanted to find out what actually happens on the ground when the president of the U.S., the most powerful man on earth, forces Israel to freeze construction in the settlements, and how it actually affects the inhabitants of the mobile homes in a tiny outpost on some neglected hill in Judea (hint: they donâ€™t care much).
In one outpost, a stunning place on the edge of the desert, I found a small hut to sit and write. The bath and toilet were outside under the sky, the floor was hard rock and the wind whistled through the cracks, but it was inspiring and authentic. I met the locals and encountered their architecture, their pets (including a camel), their organic fields and olive groves, and their Arab neighbors. Obviously, I have found a much richer and more complex world than the stereotype predetermined. The novel is still in progressâ€¦
The Outpost (working title) will be published in 2011 in Israel. Assaf Gavron’s most recent book, Almost Dead, is now available. He’s blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog.
On Monday, Assaf Gavron wrote about moonlighting as an Israeli mover in New York City. His most recent book, Almost Dead, is now available. He’s blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog series.
My book Eating Standing Up started life as a weekly column for the Jerusalem local magazine Kol Ha’ir in 1995. The concept was simple, and is clearly evident in the title: to review each week one of Jerusalem‘s hundreds of fast food joints — sandwiches, burgers, pizzas, shwarmas, humus places — and the jewel in the crown: falafel.
Jerusalem prides itself, among other things, for its fast food, which derives its inspiration from the unique multicultural experience of the city: east and west, oriental and European, Arab and Jewish, ancient and new. My colleagues and friends found the idea that I should undertake such a task anywhere between disgusting and astonishing. But I -â€“ despite a couple of undesired stomach troubles along the road -â€“ simply loved the job, and within weeks the column became widely popular. My rave reviews were framed and hung on walls of the lucky joints, while angry reactions, threatening phone calls in the middle of the night and a handful of lawsuits were filed by the victims of my less favorable reviews.
As the column gained popularity, a story started to emerge within its pages, the ongoing story of “The Eater” – a single, frustrated Jerusalemite in his mid-20s, along with a regular cast — his faithful right-hand man “The Arab-Issues Reporter,” “The Most Beautiful Girl in Jerusalem” (who was the target of The Eater’s desires), “The Vegetarian Commentator” — and several other recurring characters. As much as it was their story, it was also the story of Jerusalem in the mid-90s, a city in transition from the optimistic, quiet, peace-process days, through the Rabin assassination and the following bloody suicide bombings and their depressing aftermath.
In 2009, the one hundred or so reviews that appeared between early 1995 and the end of 1996 were collected in a book by the Jerusalem publisher Uganda. Even thirteen years later, with about half of the places reviewed not existing anymore, the book was received as an authentic slice of life, a memento from the not-so-distance past of the city. And for those visiting Jerusalem, here are a couple of must-eat joints which scored high on the Eating Standing Up scale:
Shalom Falafel, 34 Bezalel St., Jerusalem
A small, falafel-only joint just outside the center, with the unique, orange-colored falafel balls and a perfect, always fresh and inexpensive portion.
Burekas Musa, 30 Jaffa St., Jerusalem
Another tiny shop not far from the old city with only one item on the menu -â€“ a large, triangular burekas (Balkan pastry filled with salty cheese), served with a hard-boiled egg, hot tomato sauce, tahina and a divine pickled cucumber.
Eating Standing Up was published in 2009 in Israel. Assaf Gavron’s most recent book, Almost Dead, is now available. He’s blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog.
To research my novel Moving (published in Israel in 2003), I traveled to New York to work in the moving business for three months.
It is known, at least among Israelis and American Jews, that the moving business in New York has been largely taken over by Israelis in the last decades, as exemplified by firms such as Moisheâ€™s, Shleppers and dozens of smaller companies in New York and elsewhere, owned by Israelis and employing young Israeli men after military service. This phenomenon has led to the creation of an Israeli movers community in New York, with its own habits, lingo (a specific kind of â€˜Hebrishâ€™, Hebrew-English), blocks of residence in Manhattan, New Jersey and elsewhere, favorite restaurants and clubs to hang out in, and so on.
The idea to write a novel based on this community, and their experience as a group of young foreigners in a unique pursuit of the American Dream, came to me following a series of conversations with a close friend who had worked as a mover in New York for three years in the early 1990â€™s. This friend set me up with his contacts and I was invited to work in a moving company in New York.
Between January and May 1998, I became a mover in Trio Moving and Storage, a small company based in midtown Manhattan. I moved the furniture and personal belongings of families, offices and companies all over the U.S., and had an intimate inside look at the way the business worked, the life of Israelis in it, and the way they experienced America, its landscapes, roads, culture and people.
I worked in New York, but also traveled long-distance: to old-age homes in Florida, to Minnesota with Russian immigrants, to Texas, to northern Michigan with hippies, to Chicago, Boston and more. Being in a small company enabled me to quickly learn the different parts of the job and to reach the position of driving a truck on my own on long distance trips.
The experience was fascinating and inspiring, and provided me with plenty of fodder for the resulting thriller-comedy that is Moving. As I write in the first chapter of the book:
â€œWorking as movers, you see changes all the time. Youâ€™re part of them. You see people at the moment of changeâ€¦ You see America from right inside its soft underbelly, right inside peopleâ€™s fragile lives.â€
Moving was published in Israel in 2003 and was a bestseller; It will be published in German translation in October 2010. A movie based on the novel is in production by Lama Films from Tel Aviv (Paradise Now, Jellyfish). Assaf Gavronâ€™s most recent book, Almost Dead, is now available. He will be blogging for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearningâ€™s Author Blog.