Etgar Keret, Beach Bum
By Jerry Portwood
Photo by Daniel Tchetchik
When Etgar Keret says he hangs out with beach bums, it doesn’t sound so strange. After all, the Israeli author is known for his humorous takes on life’s cruel absurdities. In Suddenly, a Knock on the Door, his latest book in English translation and perhaps his most popular, a character finds a zipper under her lover’s tongue and animals often talk. It’s all whimsical -- until it gets dark.
We’re sitting at a table at a Tel Aviv café with the milky Israeli version of iced coffee after nearly being run over while crossing the street. Keret saved me by putting his hand out to stop the driver. “In Israel, you don’t ask people to do things, you make them do things,” he said with a goofy grin.
Now he’s explaining why the beach may be one of the few apolitical geographies in Israel. “They say no bomb has ever exploded on the beach,” he begins, and explains how people found solace at the beach during the first Gulf War due to its apparent safety. “At my beach there are Arabs from Jaffa, people from border patrol, rich high-tech billionaires, homeless people. But they are all with swimsuits; you don’t know these things. It’s this kind of place where we decide: We’re going to take off our clothes and be human beings.”
Keret’s work may not make an obvious case for political change—but that doesn’t mean his writing is not political. A self-described “left-wing liberal” and an optimist, Keret uses his fiction to explore unusual characters and situations that most of us wouldn’t want to experience if confronted with them. “Politics is made out of emotions, desires, fears. All those xenophobic, racist, or homophobic political parties -- it comes from fear,” he explains. “For me, art is a way to deal with ambiguity and ambivalence, and literature is a safe haven of a sort, where you can try to figure out what happens in other people’s minds.”
Despite feeling that the government is sliding toward a more conservative agenda, Keret calls Tel Aviv his creative home, and it’s where he lives with his wife, Shira Geffen, and their young son. He says it’s the strong clash that “makes it a very interesting place to live and create in.” But the intensity and conflict of all the identities “squashed together” isn’t always positive, he concedes. “I see this fantasy about tolerance and, like all fantasies, it’s only partially true.”
Etgar Keret’s Tel Aviv Must List
Meir Park: When I visit a new city, the first things I look at are its children and dogs. Grown-ups are accustomed to hiding a place’s secrets, but children and animals will always tell you where you are. Meir Park is a place in which you can meet children and dogs, as well as elderly people and their caretakers.
Tamara’s Fresh Juices: Ben Gurion Boulevard starts at the Tel Aviv beach and ends in the square in which Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s late prime minister, was assassinated. At its middle you can find Tel Aviv’s best juice stand. Intersection of Ben Gurion Blvd. and Dizengof St.
Abu Hassan’s Hummus: Some say this place serves the best hummus in the world. They might be right. 1 Ha’dolphin St., Jaffa
Frishman Beach: A safe haven for everyone: soldiers happy to take off their uniforms, foreign workers thinking about their loved ones, and some American tourists from the nearby hotels. All of them share a sunset view in one of the most beautiful spots I’ve ever been.
The Gordon Swimming Pool: My father used to run the cafeteria at this pool in the late ’60s through ’70s. I’ve been going there ever since. Near Gordon Beach.
Watch Keret read from "What Do We Have In Our Pockets" from his collection, Suddenly, a Knock on the Door