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Two novelists
Judith Sudilovsky interviews Ayelet Waldman
and Assaf Gavron, participants in the recent
International Writers Festival held in Jerusalem

WHILE ISRAEL is certainly not the

worlds largest literary market, the fourth
International Writers Festival held in
Jerusalem May 18-23 was an important
cultural event for the country, says
novelist Assaf Gavron.
An international writers festival is
especially crucial in Israel where budgets
for culture are so limited and always
redirected for security and military and
other causes, Gavron asserts to The
Jerusalem Report, as he prepares to move
his family to Omaha, Nebraska, where he
will teach Hebrew literature and creative
writing at the University of Nebraska for
a year or two.
Gavrons most recent book Hilltop
will be released in English translation
October 28, in the US, by Scribner. A
short story anthology he co-edited with
Etgar Keret, Tel Aviv Noir, also will be
out in English soon.
In its relatively short existence, the
biannual festival has come to be known
as the countrys foremost literary event,
exposing local readers to international
writers whose books have been translated
into Hebrew along with best-selling
Israeli authors, and giving space to new
local writers, as well.
Although there was some concern that
some foreign authors might be pressured

by the anti-Israel boycott movement,

the organizers saw no evidence of this.
Some writers did decline invitations to
come citing personal reasons, but no one
said openly that they would not come for
political reasons.
This year, the festival included intimate
conversations between local authors and
guest writers from abroad, readings,
creative-writing workshops, and master
classes. There was also an exhibit of bookcover illustrations and a special tribute to
the late Israel Prize laureate and longtime Jerusalem resident, poet, translator,
and essayist Yehuda Amichai, who would
have celebrated his 90th birthday this
The writers from the US, Argentina,
France, and Colombia who participated
in the festival included Nicole Krauss,
Maria Kodama, Ayelet Waldman, Name
Le, Jake Wallis Simons, Ruby Namdar,
Jan-Philip Sendker, David Foenkinos, and
Laura Restrepo. In addition to Gavron,
they were joined by lsraeli authors Eshkol
Nevo, David Grossman, Amos Oz, A.B.
Yehoshua, Meir Shalev, Sayed Kashua,
Etgar Keret, Shimon Adaf, Leah Aini,
Nir Baram, Oudah Basharat, and Ayelet
Gundar-Goshen, among others.
Hilltop, Gavrons fifth novel

examines with irony the issue of West

Bank settlements and delves into the
heart of political questions affecting the
Jewish State. His previous novels cross
boundaries and genres, such as crime and
science fiction. Several of the genres are
found in the just completed first draft of a
novel he hopes to finish during his sojourn
in the American Midwest.
The opportunity to spend time in the
Midwest might also give him the chance to
start working on another novel idea, whose
Midwest setting he has been pondering
for numerous years, he says. The idea is
based in a specific place in the Midwest,
not Omaha, Nebraska. This trip is kind of
coming at the right time. I might go back
and explore the idea, says Gavron, 45.
It is important to broaden your horizons.
America has always fascinated me, and I
mean the heart of America not just New
York and L.A.
He and his wife consider Israel their
home base, but also enjoy traveling and
spending extended periods abroad. Israel
is so intense, Gavron says, that traveling
and writing while abroad sometimes
allows him to take a step back. His
Ayelet Waldman: My Jewish identity
is very much wrapped up in Israel




Croc Attack, which received Colognes
Book for the City award for its German
translation was written partially in
Writing part of Hilltop in Berlin
gave him time to relax and the needed
perspective to write about the settlements,
which he believes are one of the most
fascinating stories shaping our current
society. Over a period of two years
Gavron, who lives in Tel Aviv in an
admittedly left-wing artistic environment,
made weekly forays into settlements,
particularly Tekoa Daled, which was the
inspiration for his fictional settlement.
It is a fascinating story, those small
settlements in the middle of nowhere, in
the midst of incredible nature, in a very
tense, frightening area where ideology is
the main force, like Israel used to be, he
says. They are the last places where we
have ideological passion that comes before
personal matters of the West, as most
Israelis live. Although it hasnt appeared
on the best-sellers list, Hilltop, which
was recently awarded Israels annual
literary Bernstein Prize, has sold well in
GAVRON RELATES that he has felt some
of the wave of anti-Israel sentiment at a
few international events, such as when he
was awarded the Cologne prize and more
recently, in June, when he presented his
book Hydromania at the Leggendro
Metropolitano Festival in Cagliari in
Sardinia, where the organizers received
pro-Palestinian e-mails pressuring them
to drop Gavron from the guest list. They
did not. But, he admits that he doesnt
know if he has ever not been invited to a
festival because of boycott issues.
Another author participating in the
festival was Israeli-born, Americanraised Ayelet Waldman, who had not been
in the land of her birth for 22 years until
she accepted the invitation of festival
organizers. She partnered with writer Lihi
Lapid (wife of the Israeli Finance Minister
Yair Lapid) in a session on literature,
writing and maternity, a subject which
earned Waldman some notoriety, after
writing an essay explaining why she loved
her husband more than her children, and
a book of mothering essays called Bad
Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes,
Minor Calamities, and Occasional
Moments of Grace.
Interviewing Waldman is like talking

to your best friend. Even before she sits

down you feel like she is letting you
into the secret intimacies of her day.
Her language is sprinkled with words
friends use liberally in enthusiastic
private conversations, as they dissect and
analyze personal topics. She is amused
by the fact that her latest book Love and
Treasure, a fictionalized account of a true
story about a Nazi train filled with looted
Jewish-Hungarian treasures discovered
by American-Allied soldiers at the
conclusion of World War II, was placed
on shelves together with translated Israeli
authors instead of in the foreign section in
an Israeli book shop.

Waldman, 49, whose maiden name was
Ayelet Yaari, says her father changed
his name to Yaari when he came to the
fledgling Jewish state from Canada.
Although she claims her Hebrewspeaking level has remained at the very
articulate toddler level it was when she
left the country with her family, when
she appeared with Lapid she wowed
the audience with her wit and snappy,
girlfriend style, managing perfectly fine
in Hebrew.
There is a reason I didnt come to this
country for 22 years. Its like a complicated
personal, familial, political dilemma. Its
mesubakh, she says, using the Hebrew
word for complicated. But when I first
got off the plane, its crazy, but this felt
like home. Having written the book, I
realized that I needed to come. In a very
real sense, the novel was an exploration
of Jewish identity, and a personal one
in addition to a general one. My Jewish
identity is very much wrapped up in Israel,
so I had to overcome my resistance and see
the country.
She marveled at the changes Israel has
undergone over the past two decades.

Not one to shy away from controversy,

while in Israel she also visited Hebron
with a Breaking the Silence group and
wrote an essay on the experience for The
Atlantic magazine entitled, The Shame
of Shuhada Street, blasting the presence
of Jewish settlers in Hebron and the West
Bank in general.
The vast majority of the responses [to
the essay] were very positive. There were
the usual hysterical religious Zionists,
many of whom made a very bizarre
argument what happens in Hebron is no
worse than what the Nazis did to us, she
says. Yeah. Thats the bar, apparently.
Were no worse than Nazis. Crazy.
The kidnapping and murder of the
three teenaged yeshiva students in the
Hebron area after her visit is a terrible
tragedy, she says, but changes nothing. If
anything, it makes it more clear that the
horrific abuses in the West Bank have to
stop. Those abuses make people desperate
and hopeless. Desperate, hopeless people
do terrible things.
Having raised a lot of money for US
President Barack Obamas presidential
campaign, Waldman could have been in
line for an ambassadorial appointment,
like many of her friends, she notes, but,
true to the stereotype of the fiery redhead,
Waldman says she knew that with her
mouth it was not about to happen.
Waldman says the worldview of Labor
Zionism was like a religion to her family,
while growing up in suburban New Jersey.
Her older brother, Yossi Yaari, stayed in
Israel when the family left and went on
to become a decorated soldier during the
Yom Kippur War. She flirted with the idea
of making aliya as a youth, visited Israel,
studied here, had a kibbutz boyfriend, but
her attempt to live here ended a short six
months after taking the plunge. Then, she
says, she was left with a sort of emptiness
after all those years of the Labor Zionism
WALDMAN BEGAN reading about the
Holocaust so voraciously it seemed her
whole Jewish identity now was based
on a secondhand trauma. Though her
grandparents, who came from Eastern
Europe in the nebulous country that was
Russia/Belorussia/Poland, lost all their
family in the Holocaust, no one in her
immediate family with whom she was in
contact was affected by the Nazi genocide.
Married to Pulitzer Prize-winning


Assaf Gavron: Delves into the heart of political questions affecting the Jewish State

author Michael Chabon and mother to

four children, Waldman left her life as
an attorney and turned to writing. After
having published 12 books, she finally
decided she had acquired enough writing
experience to tackle the Holocaust, a
subject with which she had been obsessed
for years. Being Jewish is an integral part
of her identity, she says, and that need
had been filled by the ethos of Labor
Zionism. When that was gone, she says
she needed something to fill the void and
the Holocaust just slipped right into that
empty slot.
Writing this book was in a way a
means to confront this problematic Jewish
identity I had forged for myself, based on
a kind of fetishization of the Holocaust,
she says.
She found the subject for her book one
day while preparing to visit a friend,
who had been appointed ambassador to
Hungary. Waldman was also intending

to write about art and simply Googled

Hungary, art and Holocaust and came
up with the little known incident of the
Hungarian gold train.

I try with every book to write about
something new so I can teach myself
something. You are a writer, what do you
do all day? You sit in a room and stare at a
keyboard. And l have four children so my
life is fairly circumscribed. My life is not
full of adventure and, unlike, say, Ernest
Hemmingway, I cannot blow up my life

periodically to give myself something to

write about. So, if I were to write what
I know, I would basically be writing
nothing but the most tiresome domestic
dramas until the end of time, she says.
She calls the novel her best work to
date and is glad her father, who shared
her obsession with the Holocaust (which
propelled him to come to Israel in the
first place) was able to read the completed
novel before his Alzheimers progressed.
Waldman says the way all the riches
of the train the personal treasures of
Hungarian Jewry just disappeared,
auctioned off for some $152,000, is a
perfect metaphor for how the culturally
rich and diverse European Jewish
community disappeared into dust.
I think part of this book is to reassert
and reclaim the meaning of what it means
to be a Jew and the magnitude of the loss
of the Holocaust, she says, tapping on the
table for emphasis. 

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