Photo credit: Marion Ettlinger
The following is excerpted from my diaries of late summer/early fall 2015, which I spent in Israel, finding my way to what became my new novel, Moving Kings
— Joshua Cohen
The plan was, if my brother and sister-in-law had a girl, to fly just after the birth. If they had a boy, I’d fly the next week, just after the bris. They had a boy. The boy had a bris. Between the birth and the bris I bought a ticket (expensive). At the bris, my brother announced that he was naming his son after his, and so my, paternal grandfather, Benjamin (nickname: Benjy? Benji? Not Bibi).
I ate, I drank, I stopped by my apartment for my bag, and got to Newark still tipsy-ish about three hours before my flight. Check-in and security sobered me up. About an hour before the scheduled departure, the screens reddened: Delayed.
Nearing midnight, the flight was cancelled and rescheduled for the next morning.
Flights to Israel are the worst flights to cancel — the worst for airline employees, that is. One woman, just one, a woman so short that even standing on a box she could barely clear her desk, now had to deal with over 100 Long Island Jews, and the enraged coordinators of a massive bar mitzvah party from Teaneck.
I stayed over at the airport, camped out on the floor. A guy in a knitted kippah — a fellow stranded traveler — stretched out too close to me on the tiles.
“What do you do?” is how he introduces himself.
I say, “I’m an uncle.”
Avi’s from Woodmere, Long Island — “I’m an uncle too. What are the chances?” He has a sister and nieces in Jerusalem. Then, suddenly, he’s talking about the Holocaust. He’s trying to explain how and why his parents came to be in the States and not Israel — he thinks that requires an explanation. Then he’s trying to explain why he didn’t make aliyah, like his sister did — he thinks that also requires an explanation. He says he thinks he knows a friend of mine, from yeshiva.
Tel Aviv. Staying in too-cool-for-school Florentin, south Tel Aviv, on a street called Hazanovich, in what’d been described to me by the friend of a friend, whose family owns it, as a courtyard apartment. Turns out the courtyard is a parking lot, and the apartment is a room. Not air-conditioned, hot — living here’s like living in the crook of a knee, or inside a scrotum between two chubby legs rubbing up against each other, chafing. The chubby legs in this analogy being two busy thoroughfares: Sderot Har Tsiyon and Derekh Shalma.
The friend of a friend’s grandparents used to live here, their first apartment after coming to Israel from Yemen in or around 1950. The friend of a friend had been listing the apartment on Airbnb, until he was forced off the site for having garnered too many complaints and one-star reviews. At least I’m staying here for free. I keep reminding myself, I’m staying here for free.
I’m here to write a novel about Israel. Which is not what I told the woman who checked my passport at Ben Gurion. I told her I was here to visit cousins.
So many dangers in writing about Israel. So many failures. Especially for Israeli novelists.
To my mind, Israel is the only contemporary Jewish subject, or the last contemporary Jewish subject not kitsch. Reading a popular novel about Israel (there aren’t more than a few) is like reading a Holocaust novel (of which there are many), but backward: the last page (death, or escape from death) coming first, the first page (bourgeois respectability, bourgeois self-loathing) coming last.
Right to left: popular Israeli novels are just novels about the Holocaust read right to left.
“The politics of the novel”: the meaning of this phrase has changed in my lifetime. Or maybe just my interpretation of it has.
Once upon a time, pre-online, the phrase used to mean: “the politics espoused in a novel, by its characters and author.” But now, it seems, I take the phrase to mean: “the politics implied by the very act of writing or even reading a novel in the year 2015, with everything beautiful gone to blazing hell, and so much else to do, especially so much else to do that’s easier and more comforting.”
To exercise literacy has become a political act in and of itself.
The politics of the novel are now just the novel.
About cousins (not mine): In line to pay at Hummus Beit Lechem, unable or unwilling to ignore the discussion in front of me, I’m reminded that Mizrahi Jews — Jews from Arab countries — have strange ways of talking about their cousins. They will refer to a male cousin in the feminine, which sounds to me and to most Ashkenazi Jews — Jews from Europe — like a grammatical mistake. But it’s not a mistake so much as a sign of how intensely invested Mizrahi Jews are in filiation, which itself is just a sign of the importance of blood to Judaism. To refer to your male cousin but in the feminine (ben dodah
, literally “son of aunt”) signifies that your relation to him comes through his mother — it defines his mother as the sister of one of your parents. Similarly, to refer to your female cousin but in the masculine (bat dod
, literally “daughter of uncle”) signifies that your relation to her comes through her father — it defines her father as the brother of one of your parents. The genealogy of this grammatical quirk seems Arabic, which has eight different terms for cousin, each describing a different kinship type: son of paternal uncle, son of paternal aunt, son of maternal uncle, son of maternal aunt, daughter of paternal uncle, daughter of paternal aunt, daughter of maternal uncle, daughter of maternal aunt. In Arab countries, as among Arab Jews, everything, apparently, is about your blood. For me, however, everything is about your language; it is the conduit of the only consanguinity you can choose.
The politics of the novel are now just the novel.
Florentin: the neighborhood reminds me of Williamsburg c. 2000, which is not a compliment. Of course, by “Williamsburg” I mean “north of the Williamsburg Bridge.” Because south of the bridge are the Hasidim — more Hasidim than in all of Tel Aviv. I miss them something terrible.
My daily routine, now that I’m finally over the jet lag: wake up at 6 a.m., write for four hours, get to Hummus Beit Lechem just when it opens. Order a hummus with egg, which is served with pita, pickled veg, and half a raw onion. Eat while reading Haaretz
. Buy cigarettes and smoke my way back to writing by noon. I can choose between two routes; rather, between two sides of Herzl Street, neither of which give any shade from the sun. One side has a store that sells bird cages. The other side has a store that sells birds. Both are run by Ethiopian Jews and both are called “Song of Sheba.”
I quit by 7 p.m., and head out again for a shwarma or a falafel or a sabich, then wind down the day at a bar, reading the books I bought at Ha’Nasich Ha’Katan and Robinson, and drinking beer and arak until I’m sleepy (by 11 p.m.). The books, in Hebrew: Dolly City
by Orly Castel-Bloom, Hitganvut Yechidim
by Yehoshua Kenaz, and last but not least, Ha’Yored Lemala
by Yoram Kaniuk
, a great writer who was once very generous and kind to me, and whom I can’t avoid, or can’t avoid missing, not just because Tel Aviv was very much “his city,” but also because it’s been two summers now since he died.
In English, translated from the Arabic: The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist
by Emile Habiby.
I’m not going to Jerusalem. That’s my decision, and I’m enjoying its perversity.
It’s insane to visit Israel but skip Jerusalem — to resist its gates, to refuse its walls — to fail in my duties to God, family, and the Ministry of Tourism.
I remember how back when I dated H., I took her to Katz’s Deli and she ordered a salad. Another time when I took her, she ordered nothing.
Denying herself and/or provoking me was the thrill.
I wonder whom I’m denying and/or provoking here.
A guy at a café who talks about his life exclusively in terms of “terror”: Instead of saying, “I was born,” he says, “I was kidnapped.” Instead of saying, “My parents took me for a year to Ann Arbor, Michigan,” he says, “My parents took me hostage.”
A book about IDF vets — but not in Israel, where everyone’s a vet (almost everyone). So: they’ll have to be abroad. They’ll be going on their gap-year, after completing their compulsory service — trying to transition, trying to adjust, not just to civilian life, but to life in another country (having never before been abroad).
Or maybe the book to write is about Israelis who don’t serve? About the religious and the mentally- and physically-disabled.
I mention that idea to an American friend who emails me back: “Religious and disabled — there’s a difference?”
I would’ve laughed at that in New York. Not here.
Whenever army service comes up in café conversations, or just in café conversations with me, everyone says, “I was the worst soldier in my unit.”
A mysterious line by Avot Yeshurun (Ukrainian-born Israeli poet, 1904-1992): Should it be translated, "The isolationist life of a roof"? "The separatist life of a roof"? "The secessionist life of a roof"?
No, no, the translation by the great Harold Schimmel
(Israeli poet, born in New Jersey, 1935) is still the best: “The dissident life of a roof.”
A novel about Israelis going abroad after finishing their mandatory stints in the army, so as to grow out of the army and come back, or not come back, as men (you can’t become a man in the army). It’s set at the moment of waking, when you realize you’re accountable. (Alternately — after last summer’s Gaza War.)
Didn’t even try to go to the beach.
I go about breaking, or half-breaking, my vow as I ride in the crowded nosepicker’s sherut to Jerusalem.
But all I do there is get a cab — still, because I’m going east, to the West Bank, it takes me a while. No one’s keen to drive me.
Y., a Palestinian, drives me out to a checkpoint, where I’m asked what I do and why I’m here. Intimidated by the uniform, intimidated by the gun, I mumble something in English about tourism, and it’s only after I put the barrier wall behind me and get out of the cab, it’s only after I get out of the next Kia Picanto converted into a cab — after the settlements, after the ruined fields, after the blockaded roads, and all the plastic and aluminum garbage glowing in the sun along the only open road to Jericho — that I come up with a more honest answer. I’m an uncle.
÷ ÷ ÷
was born in 1980 in Atlantic City. He has written novels (Book of Numbers
), short fiction (Four New Messages
), and nonfiction for The New York Times
, Harper’s Magazine
, London Review of Books
, The Forward
, and others. In 2017 he was named one of Granta
’s Best of Young American Novelists. He lives in New York City. Moving Kings
is his most recent book.