I’ll try to summarize the new problem of writing a detective in Hebrew in a simple way. The biography of the typical hero of Israeli canonical literature, from its beginnings, is more or less this: he’s a man; he was born in Europe, or in later periods to a family of European origins; he has survived the Holocaust, or was born to a family of survivors. He grew up in a kibbutz, joined the army and served in one of the elitist units, was maybe even injured in 1967 or 1973, and sometime later on joined the Mossad.
Unfortunately, the protagonist of the realistic crime novel set in Israel cannot have this biography. The Israeli police force, from its early days until today, is composed mainly of Mizrahim (Israelis coming to Israel from Arab or Muslim countries) and those who grew up in the social and cultural peripheries of Israel.
Thus, the cultural image of the police force and the police investigator in Israel is always slightly dejected. For example, the most memorable image of the cop in Israeli culture is by no doubt that of “Policeman Azoulay,” the protagonist of the popular comic film made by Efraim Kishon in 1971. Azoulay is from Moroccan origins, and he is a pathetic – although heart-breaking – character. He can certainly be the protagonist of a popular comedy, but can he be the serious hero of a detective novel, meaning a character that’s supposed to be brighter, sharp, and more intelligent than others?
This is, in brief, the dilemma that an aspiring crime writer faces when trying to write an Israeli realistic police-procedural that also aims to be canonical literature: Should he break the rules of Realism and create a police investigator that might have the same biography of the typical Israeli protagonist and thus can be accepted as a potential hero of Israeli culture? Or should he stick to an ambition to be realistic and create a Mizrahi police officer working in the peripheries of Israeli society, and face the probability of being condemned to literary marginality?
Or in other words: Can Israeli culture accept a Mizrahi police officer as the protagonist of a serious realistic canonical detective series, meaning as one of its heroes, just as Holmes is a hero of British culture, as Inspector Maigret is a hero of French Literature and culture, and as Phillip Marlowe is an American hero?
So why is it so difficult to write a detective novel in Israel? Aren’t we supposed to be a literary culture that appreciates a sharp character who knows how to solve a riddle? And didn’t we produce one of the first recorded murder cases (that of Cain and Abel) and one of the first thrillers about an attempted murder prevented at the last moment (that of the Akeda)? As all detectives do, in order to solve the mystery I had to turn to history for some answers. And, in this case, it was the history of modern Hebrew literature.
I knew that modern Hebrew literature (i.e., literature in the modern and European sense, written not within liturgical or other religious contexts) began in the 18th century, in central and eastern Europe, mainly in what is today Germany, Poland, Ukraine and Russia. During the 19th century many of the newly-born modern European literary forms immigrated into Hebrew literary writing. And, although from its beginnings it understood and described itself as a national literature—like the German or the French—modern Hebrew literature has developed under unique circumstances, unfamiliar to most other national literatures.
First and foremost, it developed out of an unspoken language, meaning a language that was not used for daily purposes and communication. Jews in Central and Eastern Europe in the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century mainly used local languages and the different local versions of Yiddish, the language of European Jewish Diaspora. Hebrew was the sacred language of the Bible and some of the Talmudic texts, a language of Midrash (study) and of prayer, and therefore a language known to a limited social stratum.
Secondly, and partly because of this unique linguistic condition, modern Hebrew literature has developed in special economical circumstances. Hebrew readership, meaning the number of readers who could read Hebrew and were also interested in modern or “enlightened” Hebrew literature, consisted of just a few thousands of readers.
Thirdly, the development of modern Hebrew literature can not be understood separately from the Jewish national project, meaning from the birth and evolution of Zionist thought and action.
Those unique conditions, within which modern Hebrew literature has evolved, had considerable effects on the evolution of popular literary genres in Hebrew, notably on the detective story. Hebrew literature—defining itself as cultural and ideological avant-garde, against the popular and not always Zionist literary writing in Yiddish language—has rejected any form of writing that wasn’t national as unimportant and sometimes even destructive.
And the fate of the detective wasn’t different. Very powerful people didn’t want it written at all.
A few weeks ago I was asked to provide a blurb for an about-to-be-published collection of short stories, The Best Place on Earth, by a young Israeli born writer named Ayelet Tsabari. Set against a backdrop of war, conflict and the army service, with underlying themes of displacement, the quest for ‘home,’ love and loss, the stories in this collection pulse with raw energy as they unfurl along the fault lines within Israeli society. The author stretches herself to write from a broad variety of perspectives, and while not every story works perfectly she captures the particular intensity, urgency and ambivalence of the young Israelis she depicts, and there is a compelling urgency to each of the stories and to the collection as a whole that reflects the multifaceted society she brings to life.
Tsabari is an Israeli of Yemeni descent, and her stories are all told from the perspective of Mizrahi Israelis. I realized as I was reading it how rarely I have seen that sector of Israeli society represented in fiction and how hungry I am for more fiction about the lives of non-Ashkenazi Israelis. A recent visit to Ethiopia intensified that interest, so if anyone can recommend fiction by Mizrahi and/or Ethiopian Israelis that has been translated into English I would really appreciate it. (I wish I didn’t have to rely on English translations or books written in English as Tsabari’s is but, alas, my Hebrew is not up to the task) You can write to me at email@example.com.
I was born and raised in Israel, and my novel The People of Forever Are Not Afraid takes place in Israel. Because of that, many people wonder why I wrote my book in English. Someone asked me if I had something against the Hebrew language. One Israeli person speculated online that I chose to write in English because I was looking for a shortcut into getting published widely.
That’s not at all true, but the question of why I chose to write in English is a valid one.
The truth is—it happened by accident. I wrote my first book while I was studying at a US college. That’s the only reason I wrote it in English. It wasn’t really a conscious choice, and I never expected the book to get published, so I didn’t give the decision to write in English too much thought.
Whatever I write next may be in Hebrew, or it may be in English. It all depends on what I feel like doing. I am terrible at writing English with pen and paper—I never quite got used to drawing those strange Latin letters, and I need my spell check, so it is easier for me in some ways to write in Hebrew because I don’t need a computer for that.
Yet I believe writing in a foreign language helped my fiction. There is something about writing in a language that does not truly belong to you that is liberating. It is easier to create a new world from scratch when the words you are using are not the ones you used as a child, or those you use to talk to the people you love. Just the knowledge that the characters and places I was describing belonged to the Hebrew language meant that by using English, I was firmly footed in the realm of fantasy, where anything I wanted to make happen could happen as long as it made sense in the world of the story.
Additionally, writing about Israel in English meant that I sometimes had to translate Hebrew phrases and metaphors. The process of navigating between the two languages often resulted in some of the most significant parts of my book. My title, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, is actually a translation of a Hebrew bumper sticker and slogan.
I also found that at times it was advantageous not to know all the words that I needed. I often knew what I wanted to say, but did not have the words to say it in English. This forced me to turn to a dictionary, then to others’ fiction. To consider different possibilities, to examine how the new words I considered using were used by others. When writing in English, I am often at a loss for words. I have to fight harder for what comes naturally to native speakers. In Hebrew the choice of words is quickly obvious to me. I don’t have to discover them.
My book is in the process of being translated into several languages, and I have found in my interactions with my translators that they ask the best questions. In my book, I describe the hairs inside a mean base commander’s nose as looking like “the life lines of spiders.” My Croatian translator recently asked me about that image. She wanted to know whether I meant “‘life lines’, the ones you throw into the water when somebody’s drowning or just life + line?”
The truth is I meant both meanings, but even I didn’t realize that was the case until my translator asked about it. She needed to know which of those two meanings I meant in order to accurately translate the text.
Unlike most readers, translators are forced to care about every word and comma. They really read what is in front of them. They press me to explain what I fully meant by every image or dialogue line. Is it a common Hebrew metaphor? Is it an American figure of speech? Did I just invent that image on my own? Could this or that line be a combination of a common metaphor and invention? I myself translate fiction, so I understand exactly how translating forces you to engage with a text in a way merely reading it never does.
I wrote my book in English, but when I wrote it I was often translating from Hebrew in my head. English was an accident, but not, I think, a bad accident.
The characters in my novel, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, are Israeli. Because of that, my writing will undoubtedly be considered to be Jewish fiction. Yet the truth is there are only a few instances in which Judaism as a religion is a topic in the novel. The most significant instance involves the book of Jonah.
Religious feelings, if we narrow religion to mean having something to do with God, are perhaps not a large part of my novel because they haven’t been a big part of my life. For me, being Jewish had nothing to do with God or even the bible. All of my friends at school were Jewish. Nearly all the people in my town were Jewish. I have fasted on Yom Kippur since I was in second grade and observed Passover, but never once went to temple while I was growing up. In my house, we never once discussed the existence of God, or the meaning of the bible.
At my secular school, as in all Israeli schools, Bible was a required subject. Yet our teachers never stressed theological issues, and the bible was taught just as literature was taught—the focus was on the bible as stories. The emphasis was placed on understanding what a parable meant, or on learning to understand biblical grammar and vocabulary.
Although my first book is just being published, I’ve learned from the few interviews I have already had that people love asking writers whether or not their fictional stories are based on real life experiences. I don’t know why that is. Almost none of my book is based on my own experiences. The few details that I did draw from my own life are small moments that are in service of a larger narrative that comes directly from my imagination.
The part in the book that most closely resembles a personal experience is the section in which one of my characters describes studying the book of Jonah when she was in middle school. My character, Yael, is frustrated by having to learn about the book of Jonah three times in the same year. She finds that even though she is lectured about the book repeatedly, it still doesn’t quite make sense to her.