Out In Israel: Catching Up With Etgar Keret
By Jerry Portwood
I first discovered the beautiful, bizarre stories of Israeli writer Etgar Keret when his first collection, The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God, was published in the States 10 years ago. Since then I've been impressed by his output of work that are both unusual critiques of popular (and unpopular) culture and employs a sort of urban surrealism that is able to expose hypocricy and beauty at the same time.
One of his stories was adapted into a feature-length movie, Wristcutters: A Love Story, and another into the animated feature $9.99. He and his wife, Shira Geffen, co-directed the successful Jellyfish, which won the Camera D'Or at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival and was adapted from one of Geffen's stories. He's also featured regularly on This American Life and in American magazines, including the New York Times Magazine, the New Yorker, and Newsweek.
While in Israel last week, I had an opportunity to catch up with Keret over a "cold coffee," the Israeli version of an iced coffee which is heavy on the cream, for a conversation about the state of Israel, his latest collection of stories, Suddenly a Knock on the Door—which he called his "big break" since the audiobook (and which he recommends) has so many other great American literati reading his stories—and how he the beach is the most apolitical place.
As he explained, his stories haven't gotten necessarily more political, just more overtly so. "Politics is basically based on the emotions and desires of people. If you look at the racist, homophobic actions, it comes from fear...I always say the difference between Right Wingers and Left Wingers is, it's the difference between optimistic and pessimistic. The Right Wingers say, 'This is as good as it gets, man. It's not nice to search people in the airport, but if we don't the airplanes are going to blow up.' The Left Wingers say, 'Things can get better, we can have healthcare for all. So when you write a story with emotions, it's always political. You don't have to write a story about crossing the '67 border, you can write about xenophobia."
The most elegant analogy that Keret made, who claims to be a part of a group of "beach bums," was about the beach and how it's the safest place in the city. "No bomb ever exploded on the beach," he explained. "And if a chemical missile hits, the wind of the sea will take it in to the city and if it falls into the sea, it's safe. The thing is, when you go to the beach, everybody takes off his clothes. In my beach, there are Arabs from Yaffa; people from the border patrol; rich, high-tech billionaires; homeless people, who don't have work; but you know, they're all with swimsuits, you don't know that. It's this place where we say, you know, we're gonna take off our clothes, we're gonna be human beings. It's a break."
For a taste of Etgar Keret's sense of humor, check out this video from a recent Happy Ending Series, when he "took one of the best risks ever," according to event organizer Amanda Stern.