Before writing his seminal book “Der Judenstaat,” the father of the modern Zionist movement, Theodore Herzl, was a writer of a literary form known as the “feuilleton.” These were short articles or essays, usually collected as a supplement to newspapers, consisting of literature and art criticism, discussion of the latest fashions and trends and social gossip and sometimes also stories, poems or personal musings. It was a journalistic form that was immensely popular in Europe but never really caught on in the English-language press in the same way.
The short essays by Israeli writer Etgar Keret collected in this slim volume show that the feuilleton remains alive and well in Israel. Herzl would probably be pleased and proud. Well-known for his stories and graphic novels in Hebrew, Keret is also highly valued in France, the home of the feuilleton, where in 2010 he was honored by receiving the Chevalier Medallion of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. In the United States, he is just beginning to make a mark and has appeared several times on the NPR show “This American Life,” which perfectly fits his somewhat sardonic take on the world.
These short essays cover the period from around 2005 to 2012 between the birth of the author’s son and the death of his father. They are slight but witty — usually with a gentle sting in the tail. They offer some insights into Israeli society, but they are really the musings of an interesting and engaged person trying to make sense of the world around him.
Although the essays encompass the Second Lebanon War and rockets fired from Gaza at Israeli population centers, they are not overtly political. In one rare passage, the author refers to the secret relief of the population during the 2006 Lebanon War to be engaged in a “real war” again rather than trying to suppress the Palestinian Intifada. “Once again, we’re a small country surrounded by enemies, fighting for our lives, not a strong, occupying country forced to fight daily against a civilian population. So is it any wonder that we’re all secretly just a tiny bit relieved?”
The anchoring event of the book is the birth of the author’s son, Lev, and the essays follow him to age 7. At the end of that time, Keret describes the death of his tough-as-nails father in the book’s most moving passages. Sick with cancer of the tongue, the older Keret, a Holocaust survivor, never loses his optimism and humor. Keret describes how his parents celebrated their 49th wedding anniversary, his father sitting at the table “with swollen cheeks and the guilty look of someone who’s hidden nuts in his mouth.” His mother tells her husband he looks like a scheming squirrel. “She allows herself to talk like that because she knows I can’t bite her now,” his father replies. “But don’t worry, we squirrels have long memories.”
Keret amusingly comes to terms with parenting while spending time on the road visiting book shows around the world. He has some interesting observations on his feelings as the child of survivors visiting Germany and Poland. He also muses on the gap between the religious and secular in Israel and the relationship between the defiantly atheist Keret and his sister who became ultra-Orthodox, moved to the most religious neighborhood in Jerusalem and gave birth to 11 children. Still the connection between the siblings is strong enough to endure.
One of the best essays is the final one in which Keret and his family are driving and hear sirens warning of a rocket attack. He and his wife must lie down by the side of the road, and to persuade their young son to cooperate they invent a game in which the three of them turn themselves into a pastrami sandwich with the kid in the middle. The child is so enamored of the game that he makes his parents promise to play again next time the sirens sound. But then he gets worried. What if they never sound again, he asks. Don’t worry, his parents assure him. There will be more sirens.
The writer is a book critic for Washington Jewish Week and vice president for communications at J Street.
“The Seven Good Years: A Memoir”
By Etgar Keret
Riverhead Books, 175 pages