I haven't checked the weather, but I know it is a perfect day to chat about adult Jewish literature. I'm Sheryl Stahl. Thanks for joining me here at nice Jewish books. Like many people, one of my favorite times of the year is award season. And of course, you know, I'm referring to the association of Jewish libraries adult fiction awards. There were two honor books Atomic Anna by Rachel Baron Baum, who had the pleasure of speaking with several months ago. And Thistlefoot by GennaRose Nethercott, who I hope to interview in the future. But for now, it is my honor and pleasure to be speaking with Omer Friedlaender. The winner of this award for his collection of short stories, the Man who sold air in the Holy Land, so welcome Omer and congratulations on the win.!
Thank you for having me.
So, one thing that the committee and other reviewers have commented on in your, in your collection, is the diversity of viewpoints. How do you put yourself in the mindset of so many different people, girls, boys, different ages, from different backgrounds?
Right. I mean, I think it starts with discovering the right voice for the character, and thinking about what they want, and what their sort of their, what their secrets are, what they're obsessed with. And once you kind of figure those things out, through the process of writing the story, I think, because I don't, I don't sort of plan it in advance. But I kind of discovered the character, I always try and put the character in the most difficult position for them in this story. So every story is kind of its own, its own version of hell for that character, the most difficult. And I think when you put them in a, in a position that, that test them, it's sort of a kind of tailored test for this character, then the character starts to reveal themselves. So I found that it kind of made me put it more simply that the character is always connected to the story. They can always be separated.
Yeah, it was really wonderful reading through, you know, seeing through the eyes of, you know, children and the elderly, and Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Mizrahi, Bedouin. Right. A couple of your stories kind of incorporate magical thinking, one of the stories that really stuck with me, was Jellyfish in Gaza, where there were two twin boys, I'm not sure how old they were maybe five or six, who kept doing all these rituals that they hoped would keep their father who was serving in Gaza would keep him safe. So every time they had a bad thought about him, or thought that something might go wrong, that would have to perform a ritual.
Yeah, with that story, I was interested in the viewpoint of a child and I'm a twin myself. So. So one of the stories are about brothers or brothers feature. And then and this one is, is really about twins. And, and I was interested in, I guess, the kind of secret language that twins sometimes have. And with these brothers, the secret language was part of this ritual, like you said, that they believed would keep their fathers safe. And I wanted, I guess, it was important that the point of view was that of a child, because I think, even if the story isn't, isn't magical, there's something about the way a child sees the world that you can maybe, you know, express through the writing that that feels more curious and more alive and in a way may be more magical than the way an adult might see the world. So it was really important for me for that story to keep the children's point of view.
And in terms of their connection, they often ended up injured doing these rituals. But as they told each other about their injuries, they said it didn't matter whose it was, whatever injury it was it was theirs, their communal injury. Right. And then they were both so confused when their father did come home sound and body but not in mind. And they had no idea of posttraumatic stress, and they were just convinced that someone or something was inhabiting his skin that this was a mask that something else was wearing instead of their father. I imagine that that situation is common. Anywhere where there is a parent or a family member going off to war.
Yeah, I was really interested in Is the idea of, of a disguise or someone not being you know who they say they are in, I guess, especially when someone that close family member or someone like their dad comes back from a war, and he's changed, it feels like there's someone in disguise there, that it's not really their father. And I guess I followed in a way, the logic of a child, because it's a thought that maybe as an adult, rationally, you wouldn't think. But children can still sort of they can reach sort of strange conclusions. They have the same sort of set of the kind of circumstances but they reach weird conclusions. And I was really interested in that kind of child's logic where if the father was so different than what they knew he must be a different person in disguise.
Yeah, which makes perfect sense from from their point of view, right? It's probably isn't really politically correct to me to say, but I found two of your stories kind of annoying. The endings are ambiguous. It's like, in both Sheherazad and High heels the endings are ambiguous. So I think that the character died, but no, no, they didn't die, but maybe they died. And so I was just curious, what your thoughts about ambiguous endings are as a, as a reader, and then as a writer?
Yeah, that's a good question. Both of those stories, the ending is, is ambiguous, it isn't clear. It is sort of left to interpretation of the reader. I think they both operate in a kind of fairytale logic. Sheherazad, there's all these allusions to fairy tales. And I wanted, I wanted to sort of leave the ending to the reader, in a sense that they could complete, you know, this kind of retelling of the fairytale and in their own way. So I didn't, I guess I won't say what the ending is. Or maybe I don't know, it took me a while to, to write the ending for sure hairs that I remember sort of rewriting it a bunch of times, until I kind of reached this this point, because I felt like at least for that story. I couldn't wrap it neatly. Or I couldn't exactly say what happened. But I kind of, I guess, leave clues with the structure of the fairy tale of what you might guess, happens if you kind of complete the story.
So you have no sympathy. You have no sympathy for people like me, who like, spelled out in black and white. This is what happened next.
Right? Yeah. Yeah. No, it's a bit cruel to the reader. Yeah. I think as a writer, it's fun to write those kinds of those kinds of, I guess, more playful endings. But endings in general, are, are difficult. And I think for several of the stories, they're the part that I worked on the most endings and the beginnings.
And the short story that doesn't leave too much left in the middle.
It did want to talk to you more about high heels, because I thought that was a really fascinating, parallel story. So it takes place current day in Israel, about the son of a shoemaker, whose nickname is shoelace? Is it sorrow? Yeah, exactly. Yeah. And they have a pair of like this mythical pair of shoes, that the family story says was worn by this famous ballet dancer who, who perished in the Holocaust. And it was just, there was a lot of information about shoes. And it was just sort of interesting, in a relationship to, to shoes and to family stories, and to, and to history. There's just so much woven into this one story.
Thank you. It was a fun story to write. I did start the story did start with the I wanted to write a story about the dancer, Francesca man, and the kind of legends surrounding her. But I figured I couldn't really write it directly, I think with some subjects, and I think the reading about the schwa for example, is something that is difficult to do directly in fiction at least. And I needed to find a way to to approach it indirectly, I think and I realized that I could do it through the this kind of parallel story. So I became, I guess, interested in, you know, in shoes, because it's such a big part of Francesco monster. And it was fun to kind of just to keep researching, I had no idea about cheese. So that was really fun. I also talked to a friend of mine who designs shoes, and she kind of showed me you know, how to describe certain things and elements of the making of it. So I'll get, you know, some of the details, right, at least for someone who, you know, who isn't an expert. And, and yes, so I kind of interwove those stories. And it was also important for me to have this kind of thought in slopeside, where he is he isn't really sure if this story is true, that is brother tells him about or just come on in her shoes, or if he made it up. So I wanted to leave it kind of to have it, I guess, become part of the central conflict. If you do you risk your life to bring back these shoes that have this great meaning to you. Even though you might know that the story behind them is completely made up. And they're worthless. So I wanted this kind of tension to exist in the story.
Yeah, but it almost doesn't matter if the story is true or not. It's a family story. And so that carries its own truth, whether the it's a historical story or not.
Right, and it kind of is maybe more significant, because it is the story is also about person between saw him and his father. And the way they both betray each other maybe in different ways, the father with this story that may be true or not. And so with kind of bringing these two people into into the shoe shop into their lives, you monkey and gecko that are been net climbers,
the sun and these two other characters, like climbing roof, trap roof taps and cranes, with other construction going on. Yeah,
that was kind of I'm kind of scared of heights. So I never did that. Part of the research was I just watched you know, videos and read about it. But even watching the videos is scary. But I wanted to leave, I wanted the ending to leave the reader, I guess, kind of hanging and unsure of what happens.
You're successful. So it sounds like you did have to do a lot of research into that story to do research on most of the stories.
I did yeah, in different ways. Sometimes the research came after, after I wrote a story. And I needed to kind of fill in the blanks or to give the world of the story kind of a more concrete sense of reality, and sometimes the research inspired story. But yeah, I'd say different kinds of research, you know, reading, reading about certain historical periods, or watching documentaries, and things like that, but also talking to people do some experts in. So for example, in the jellyfish and Gaza story that we talked about, I talked to someone who wasn't in several wars and kind of now works with, with people suffering from PTSD. So that was kind of really interesting to hear his perspective on the story and some of the kind of described some of the reactions that you know, people have and in surprising ways. So things like that, I think were even if they didn't make it directly into the story, you know, following the conversations, it was, it was really interesting. To learn more about it.
I just have to ask one silly question. I know you're on the East Coast. Have you been to the Shoe Museum in Toronto?
No, I haven't actually gone.
It's fascinating. It's totally fascinating. Just everything you could possibly wonder about shoes.
Wow, okay. I'm gonna go, yeah.
In the Miniaturist, there's so much going on in, in a short story. So these were two who made illuminated manuscripts in Spain, and then were kicked out and both. So these were competing family in Spain, and they both left and went to visit Isfahan, Iran, and again, kept this competition going for generations and generations and generations. And then they both ended up in the both families end up in the same refugee camp in Israel, right after the formation of the state. And so it's this friendship between the two girls of this family and I mean, it's It's so funny that they have nothing left except this competition and this rivalry. The father says, Oh, don't speak to her.
But it's also difficulties between the girls because one has inherited the family talent and is an enormously talented illustrator. And the other one, not so much. And then people are asking her to draw this for them, draw that for them do a portrait, and Adina. The not so talented one is feeling really bereft of the friendship because Esther is off doing something else. And just sad that she doesn't have this talent and isn't getting this attention. And I'm just smiling because you have a funny word plays. So when she's talking to her father about it, she asks about the the mini-tsuris instead of miniaturist so that the mini problem, right? So yeah, I don't think there's many places where you need to know Hebrew to to catch a word. That was one of them. It's like, oh, I understood it. Yeah, I was just gonna ask if those were historical houses, if that if there was such a rivalry.
It's so it's not really, I made I made the rivalry. But I started have, I talked to professor who, who studies these illuminated manuscripts. And I showed him, you know, a draft of the story. And we kind of figured a way to, I guess, that I could write it that. That wouldn't be totally implausible, maybe. But I did sort of I made up this kind of rivalry, but I was interested in, in, I guess, a kind of rivalry that stretches for generations. And how these two girls find a way to, in some ways, overcome it and become friends. But also, the tensions are still there. And for that story, the beginning and ending, if you remember, it starts with a big snowstorm. That ends with a big snowstorm. So the those were the biggest, I guess, snowstorms in Israel. So I think, you know, 1950 and then 2013 were kind of especially harsh winters. And, and I wanted, I guess, that kind of connection, even if it's just an image or something, because I jumped forward, you know, so much in time. And the narrator's remembering our friendship with Estelle, I wanted the snow to kind of remind her of her time in the tent city. And that took me a while to sort of figure out that I needed another snowstorm. But I think once I figured that out, the story sort of had its own its own logic, even though it was It felt kind of a risk to jump forward, you know, several decades. But I hope, you know, the snow storm kind of connected it.
Yeah, it did. And another thing about that story, is that it really brought home the different experience of mainly Ashkenazi Jews coming from Europe, and the Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews coming just a little bit after that. And that they were, I mean, it makes the point without making the point, that their situation was so much worse, and that they were they were in these tent cities for years, waiting for housing to be built and villages to be built and all that.
Yeah, exactly. And I think that's part of Israeli history that's still sort of swept under the rug and ignored and it's, it's sort of I think people are, are returning to it again, and again, but it feels it at least it felt to me like something that that I wanted to, to explore with the story. And it's something so I guess I know a little bit from my grandmother who came from Egypt and was in my bar for about a year and a half, I think. So maybe not some of the longest but still a long time. But she sort of never talked about it. But I became I became interested in it, I guess because of the silence around it. The mystery.
Yeah, I was about to ask if she told you stories. Yeah, unfortunately, I think that's a lot of grandparents who left difficult situation didn't want to talk about it, even if they left a good situation. still wanted to look forward and not back. One story that had me laughing out loud a couple of times was the Sephardi survivor. About some kids in In school, during Holocaust Remembrance week when a lot of the Ashkenazi kids are bringing in their elderly relatives who are Holocaust survivors, and they were Sephardic and didn't have one, although I do want to jump in and say that many, many Sephardic families did indeed experience the Holocaust. I think that's another myth that people think it was only the Ashkenazim. But yeah, there were plenty of them, affected us. But they had this holocaust envy or survivor envy, I forget exactly what word you used. And so they found this confused old man on the street and brought him home. And basically, he decided he was going to be their survivor. And not just any survival story, they had him surviving the most outlandish series of events. So tell me more about that story.
Yeah, it came into me because I was in. I was actually in Brooklyn with some friends and Israeli friends. And one of my friends whose family's from Iraq, he said something like, you know, I was always jealous of, you know, my Ashkenazi classmates who had relatives that were survivors. And I thought it was kind of a strange, strange thing to say. And it really kind of interested me. And so I, I figured that the only way to write this kind of story is to make it absurd, and sort of, you know, strange and kind of little magical about this kind of, you know, rivalry. So, so I had the kids find an old man and sort of kidnap them, I guess, make him pretend that he's their grandfather, but I wanted this kind of symmetry of, they want a different kind of story for their family, maybe, and you the survivor, that they then find, and pretend he's their grandfather, he also wants a different kind of story. So it's a it's a kind of story about storytelling, in a way and they each kind of the, with him, they rehearse a different kind of story of survival, even though his story is, you know, I made a kind of like, they watch all these movies, and they have this kind of vision in their head, and they wanted to make it more exciting, or this kind of, I was interested in the way in the Holocaust is, is represented in, in popular culture and films, and because that's maybe some of the, you know, the, the only ways you know children see it. And especially now that survivors are, are so are so old, the ones that are left, it's sort of becoming harder and harder to hear testimony, and, and pretty soon, you know, it won't be possible firsthand. So I was interested in that kind of that representation. And I mean, it's a subject that was always kind of hovering in the background, because my grandfather is a holocaust historian and survivor, and I didn't, I didn't grow up reading his books, through video. But when I was older, when I was older, I did read some of his work. And so it's something that's definitely you know, in the, in the atmosphere in the house.
He also became entrenched in the house briefly for that week or so he was there. And he was yelling at the kids to clean their backyard to clean up the garden. So it seemed like it a little bit worked both ways. He's like, Okay, I'm gonna be the grandpa. This isn't the kind of yard I would live with.
Yeah, exactly. I guess I needed needed both sides to have some kind of goal or, you know, or something. They, they wanted a reason for him to stay and a reason for them to keep him there. And so the garden became part of that story, you know, why is he staying in the whole situation? It's sort of absurd that they would kidnap an old man but I guess the logic of this story is that you go with the premise.
Yeah. And that was kind of the idea behind your title story. Also, the man who sold air in the Holy Land who is I don't want to say a con man that's putting it way too strongly. But he was basically trying to sell bottles. air from the Holy Land and he got his very cute daughter to become engaged in this to to be a salesperson.
Yeah, exactly. I was interested in the idea of, of a kind of Con. But But I guess, like you said it's not it's not really sort of malevolent it's it has this kind of almost childish quality to it.
It's sort of people play along. I mean that, well, obviously, no, this is ridiculous. But yeah, they play along.
And I wanted it to be part of the kind of strange dynamic that he has with his daughter, that it's a relationship that's, you know, partly about this kind of imagination and the stories they have together. And part of that is, though, you know, when they go to the dolphin area, which is the kind of wreckage of what once was a nightclub. And before that was kind of an actual Dolphinarium, where dolphins I guess the tricks and stuff where they go there and imagine that there's still dolphins there. So the whole story is kind of about this relationship between them. And the way that the daughter who's very young, the way she kind of starts to realize that starts to not believe her dad, and in the stories that he tells her think he also realizes some of that at the end.
Yeah, there's a certain point where she can't just play along anymore that she needs to grow up, basically. Exactly. So is there anything that I haven't asked that you would like to answer?
I mean, I thought the questions were so great. I always get asked about writing in English, but instead of Hebrew, but
what's it like writing in English? Obviously, you're brilliant at it. So I didn't ask.
It's, yeah, it's, I guess, it's a certain way of having a little bit of distance from the material. Maybe. And I guess, because it's all set in, in Israel. And even even if it's historic, and all that sort of subject matter feels familiar in some ways, then writing it in English gives me a little bit of that, I guess, perspective on it. So that's part of the reason. But yeah, it wasn't sort of, I wasn't a conscious of this decision. It was more, it just happened. Because I, you know, I lived for a couple of years in New Jersey, with my parents and in learned English there for the first time, and it sort of stuck me in. Yeah, so I guess, kind of by accident.
Do you write other types of things?
I mostly fiction. So now I'm working on a novel, which was pretty different to the stories, but but I've mostly been mostly interested in fiction, you know, a little bit of kind of nonfiction memoir things here and there. But what I'm mostly interested in inventing
is asking if there are other types of things that you write that you would write in Hebrew rather than English. Maybe about if you're writing about the United States, would that be in Hebrew to? Is it that outsider look?
Wow, yeah, that's a good question. Maybe we'll have to see. It always takes me a while, after I live in a place to write about it. So I haven't written about about the US at all, but maybe maybe in a couple of years.
Sounds good. And I usually ask if people are working on any other projects, and it sounds like you're working on a novel.
I am. Yeah. And it's, for now, it's still a secret.
I usually end by asking people if they would like to have a soapbox moment. If people were to use your book as a stepping off point for tikkun olam for fixing the world, what would it be? Or really, you can just talk about any issue that you would like right now?
I'm not sure about, about using my book for it. But I guess if we're sort of, you know, it's a podcast that is associated with the libraries. One place that people could could take a look at is the Lewinsky garden library until the view. So it's in the southern part of Tel Aviv, and it's a kind of library in this park the garden, and it's mostly for the residents of that neighborhood, which are refugees from Sudan and Eritrea. So and then they do really, really good work. So I guess that would be my, my pitch.
Okay, wonderful. And if someone wants to get in touch with you, what would be the Best way,
the best way would be through my website. So there's a contact page. So I get those emails.
And your website is
just just my name.
Yeah, exactly. Okay,
great. All right. Well, thank you so much for speaking to me. It has really been a pleasure. And congratulations again on winning the association of Jewish libraries adult fiction award.
Thank you so much.
That was well deserved.
Thank you. It was great talking to you.
If you are interested in any of the books we discussed today, you can find them at your favorite board and brick or online bookstore, or at your local library. Thanks to de Yon ki for use of his fraleigh which definitely makes me happy. This podcast is a project of the Association of Jewish libraries. And you can find more about it at WWW dot Jewish Library's dot org slash nice Jewish books. I would like to thank ajl and my podcast mentor Heidi Rabinowitz. Keep listening for the promo for her latest episode.
This is Martha Simpson, chair of the 2023 Sidney Taylor Book Award Committee. I'll be joining you soon on the Book of Life podcast. I'd like to dedicate my episode to my husband John, who called out more books from ourselves. Every time we receive another package of books, and he cooked dinners so I can have more time to read them all.
The Book of Life is the sister podcast of nice Jewish books. I'm your host, Heidi Rabinowitz and I podcast about Jewish kidlet. Join me to hear my conversation with Martha Simpson, chair of the Sidney Taylor book award committee to hear about the 2023 Sidney Taylor Book Award winners at Book of Life podcast.com