Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Why I Write about Bulgaria

It was a cloudy, spring day and my wife and I were sitting on a bench, waiting for the Regional Historical Museum to open its doors for the day. We were in Vratsa, a small town in northwestern Bulgaria, 2-hour's train journey north of Sofia. A statue of 19th century revolutionary Hristo Botev overlooked the pavement, the hero's arm clenched across his chest as if he were about to launch into a fervent call to rebel against the long-gone Ottoman oppressors. A gypsy boy approached us.

The boy mumbled something in Bulgarian, a language we had failed to master despite several meetings with a tutor who emphasized grammar, rather than conversation. The boy held out his hand.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Touring the Dark Side of Tel Aviv

The short story collection Tel Aviv Noir, edited by Etgar Keret and Assaf Gavron, takes readers on a tour through the city's seedy neighborhoods.

A former police officer escorts visitors to the riverbank where a murdered girl was found in a suitcase; the building where an infamous rapist was caught; and a strip club where a former cop regularly performs in the nude. In "The Tour Guide", a short story by Yoav Katz, the bourgeois Israelis eager to see the grimier side of Tel Aviv are people with full-time jobs, children, and a bit of free time. They are looking for thrills and are willing to be shocked that such crimes take place in Israel. "Fear and sanctimoniousness are a profitable combination"; the tours attract large crowds.

Readers of Tel Aviv Noir, Akashic Books (September, 2014) will feel that they have joined one of these tours. The short stories included in this anthology explore prostitution, drugs, alcohol abuse, gambling, and murder. Like the rest of the series launched in 2004 with Brooklyn Noir, each of the stories here is set in a distinct Tel Aviv neighborhood. A map is provided at the beginning, showing Florentin, Rothschild Boulevard, Neve Sha'anan, Dizengoff Center, and the other locations where the stories take place.

The collection opens with "Sleeping Mask" by Gadi Taub, author of the novel Allenby Street, which was made into a popular Israeli television show. At age 49, Taub is the oldest of the 14 authors who contributed an original story specifically for the book. "Sleeping Mask" tells of a woman who descends into prostitution to pay off her father's gambling debts, and of the older man who falls in love with her.

While most of the book's 14 stories were originally written in Hebrew , one of the exceptions is "Swirl", by Norwegian journalist Silje Bekeng. This story, written from the perspective of a foreign diplomat's wife, tells of the ex-pat life in a luxury apartment on Rothschild at a time when social protesters have set up camp on the boulevard below. Paranoia of someone spying on the woman's life and fruit bats flying through the summer skies make this tale exceptionally enjoyable.

Tel Aviv Noir was edited by two of Israel's most well-known literary voices. Etgar Keret, author of five story collections; three children's books; and three graphic novels; contributed "Allergies", about a couple who adopt a dog and ends up doing increasingly strange things to take care of the pet. Assaf Gavron, author of the recently published novel The Hilltop, wrote the concluding story - "Center", about a murder at a high tech start-up with offices at Dizengoff Center, and the amateur detectives who are hired to solve the crime. The goal of the anthology, according to its editors, was to introduce a younger generation of Israeli writers to English-speaking audiences.

“In spite of its outwardly warm and polite exterior, Tel Aviv has quite a bit to hide," Keret says in the introduction to the book.  Keret assures readers that "Tel Aviv is a lovely, safe city. Most of the time, for most of its inhabitants. But the stories in this collection describe what happens the rest of the time, to the rest of its inhabitants."

Noir fiction can be defined as literature dealing with victims, suspects and perpetrators. Gavron says the stories of this book are not classic noir, but rather detail a dark element in the city. "I think Tel Aviv deserves its status as an interesting city, with culture and literature and with noir as well as everywhere in the world," he said in an interview with the Jewish Book Council.

Tel Aviv Noir reveals a side of the city that most residents and visitors never see. Readers interested in exploring the dark side of Tel Aviv will be fascinated by these short pieces of noir literature.

Buy Tel Aviv Noir and read it now!

Originally published at The Times of Israel.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Secret to Being a Productive Writer

It rained the other day in Israel. This is an event in itself, because the country goes through a very long, hot, dry summer. When the first rains of the new wintery season arrive, they have a special name - they are called the "Yoreh", as this heavy precipitation literally shoots down from the sky. The rainfall is welcomed by farmers and umbrella salesmen, but it occasionally causes flash floods, not only in Israel's southern desert, but also in the streets and neighborhoods of Tel Aviv.

After one of the season's first storms, my house lost its Internet connection. I stayed home from work the next day awaiting the technician who would come to check out the problem. Sitting at my computer with no online news, Facebook, Twitter, or email to distract me, I ended up accomplishing quite a bit. I made great strides in the editing of my novel, wrote a book review, and finalized a travel article.

In short, not having an Internet connection made me, at least for that morning, a very productive writer! Yet, my creative muse quickly ran out. I began to get itchy, worrying about what was happening in the world. What was the latest news? Were there important email messages awaiting my attention? Did someone tweet to me? From being a very productive writer in the morning, I became a very unproductive writer in the afternoon. Give me back my Internet!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Hebrew-Speaking Bedouin I Met in the Middle of the Jordanian Desert

I traveled to the stunning ancient Nabatean city of Petra in southern Jordan, across the border from the kibbutz where I had lived for seven years.

My wife and I were founding members of Kibbutz Yahel in Israel's Arava Valley, and we lived there starting in the late 1970s. Our home was near the border with Jordan, and even though it was a peaceful border, it was not one we could cross. Israel and Jordan were still technically at war. It was only in 1994 that Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty. The peace between the countries allowed Israelis to visit Jordan, and one of the sites I had longed to see for some time was Petra, capital of the Nabatean traders from the 3rd century BCE.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Beer Made from Hummus

beer made from hummus
Imagine this. You walk into a Tel Aviv hummusiya, order hummus and pitot, and to drink, you select the most appropriate beverage to accompany the meal - beer made from hummus. This unique ale would perfectly compliment Israel's fast food, according to Bryan Meadan, brewer of the world's only chickpea ale.

And, hummus beer is gluten free, making it suitable to anyone with a restricted diet.

"One of the things I missed was beer," Meadan says, having been diagnosed with Celiac disease in 2006. A resident of Har Halutz who made aliyah from Montreal via California back in 1982, Meadan searched the Internet for information how to brew his own gluten-free beer. He began experimenting with different materials and finally honed in on buckwheat (kusemet in Hebrew), a plant grown for its grain-like seeds not related to regular wheat.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Life in the Wild, Wild, West Bank

In Assaf Gavron's novel The Hilltop, an illegal settlement in the West Bank is home to Jewish settlers safe from the threat of evacuation thanks to a "hodgepodge of laws and conflicting authorities."

The settlement is called Maale Hermesh C, an extension of Maale Hermesh A and Maale Hermesh B which doesn't appear on official maps. Considered by the government to be illegal, and a thorn in Israel's relations with the United States, the outpost has so far escaped evacuation because the required resources in the defense establishment are occupied elsewhere.

This hilltop outpost has attracted a handful of colorful, very believable characters. Bearded veteran Othniel Assis has established a vegetable farm that may, or may not be situated on privately owned Palestinian land. Gavriel Nehustan and Roni Kupper, orphaned brothers who grew up on a kibbutz, have arrived at the outpost for completely different reasons - one has experienced a religious awakening and the other has become penniless after pursuing a career in Tel Aviv nightlife and New York finance. There are women settlers as well, including right-wing patriot Neta Hirschson and Russian-born math teacher Jenia Freud.

The outpost's residents raise families, celebrate the Jewish holidays, bring baked goods to the Israeli soldiers who guard their homes, remodel part of their kindergarten to be used as a synagogue, fall in love, and protest the occasional visit of Israeli politicians. In short, they live normal lives in what can be best described as an absurd, off-the-map place to live.