For an Israeli reader, an encounter with Etgar Keret in English – or, for that matter, in any language other than Hebrew – is a rather strange experience. In fact, for an Israeli reader, writing about Etgar Keret in any language other than Hebrew is a strange experience. Yet, information keeps coming: Etgar (us Israelis tend to skip last names, we do not believe in formalities) is the most popular writer in Poland, in Australia, in Japan; a story of his is published in the New Yorker. Nevertheless, for Israelis – especially those who were born in the 1970’s, the baby-boomers of the 1973 Yom Kippur war – “Etgar’s” stories were a part of growing up. His first two collections of short stories, Pipelines and Missing Kissinger were high-school sweethearts. The fact that some of the stories were included in the Israeli matriculation exam seemed to us a profound misreading of them. Indeed, despite his suggestive name (Etgar=Challenge in Hebrew) Keret seemed to have nothing in common with the educational figure of the “Observer for the House of Israel”, who had been so often identified with the Hebrew writer.
Then high-school was over, and the army service was over. This was the heyday of Israeli film-schools. Everyone wanted to be a filmmaker (and many of these dreamy-eyed filmmakers to be, ended up as studio directors for reality shows), and young filmmakers who needed screenplays turned to Etgar. Once again, simply Etgar. It may very well be an urban myth, but through the years I kept hearing that Keret had never turned down a film student who wanted to adapt a story of his into a short film.
But these early brilliant short stories were only a part of Etgar Keret’s influence. Israeli culture underwent a tremendous change since the1990’s, and Etgar Keret was perhaps the first to deeply and genuinely understand this changing reality. Writers of older generations such as Amos Oz, A.B Yehushua and David Grossman reflected in their writing on the very apparent and immediate political changes: The Palestinian up-rise of the 1980’s and early 1990’s, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the painful failure of the Camp-David talks. For all these, it seems, the Israeli Canonic writers were ready and well trained for.
It was, however, the younger generation of Israeli writers, and especially Etgar Keret, who understood that the change that Israeli society had gone through was too great for literature alone to reflect on: it was also time for advertising and comics to step in, along with commercial television that took its first steps in the 1990s. And it was Keret and the writers of his generation and milieu – among which Uzi Weill and Asaf Tzipor –to whom television barons turned to. They wrote TV series, TV commercials along with their short stories. It was a short-stories- generation. Keret once defined them as an “asthmatic” generation – a generation of writers who wrote as if they were short of breath.
Israel spoke the language of Etgar Keret. In many respects, it still does. I look forward to see how Chicago reads him and speaks this asthmatic language of his, which seems to shine in every language.
Tamar Merin is a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University’s Crown Center for Jewish Studies. Merin specializes in Hebrew and Israeli Literature, with a focus on Israeli women’s prose and its dialogic relations with the Canon of Hebrew literature.
2012-Keret: Thu, Apr. 26 6:00 - 7:00 PM
Tags: Chicago Humanities Festival, Etgar Keret, Israeli writer, Pipelines, Missing Kissinger, Tamar Merin, Northwestern University Crown Center for Jewish Studies, Hebrew literature