Conversation with… Etgar Keret

Acclaimed author and filmmaker represents the new Israel

By Judie Jacobson

Etgar Keret

Internationally acclaimed Israeli author and filmmaker Etgar Keret will open the 20th Annual Mandell JCC Jewish Book Festival in West Hartford when he joins New York Magazine film critic David Edelstein in conversation on Sunday, Nov. 18 at 7 p.m.
Born in Ramat Gan in 1967, Keret is the son of Holocaust survivors. The author of several bestselling books that have been published in 31 languages and 35 countries, Keret’s latest book is “Suddenly, A Knock on the Door.” In addition, he has written several feature screenplays, including “Skin Deep (1996), which won First Prize at international film festivals and was awarded an Israeli Ophir film prize. His film “Jellyfish,” co-directed by his wife, Shira Geffen, who also wrote the screenplay, won the coveted Camera d’Or prize for best first feature at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. In 2006, his film “Wristcutters: A Love Story” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. “$9.99,” a stop-motion animated feature film, was released in 2009. Written by Keret and directed by Tatia Rosenthal, it is an Israeli/Australian co-production featuring the voices of Geoffrey Rush, Anthony LaPaglia and other leading Australian actors. Keret has also worked in Israeli television, including three seasons as a writer for the popular sketch show “The Cameri Quintet.”
Keret recently made headlines when, on Oct. 20, he took up temporary residence in a Warsaw, Poland art installation designed especially for him by Polish architect Jakub Szczesny.  Billed as the world’s narrowest house, the structure – known as Keret House – is wedged between two 1960s buildings located near the old World War II Jewish ghetto. It measures just shy of four feet across at its widest point.
“I needed to design an architectural structure that would envelop life — a revitalization of an empty space, a connector. I also needed an Israeli freaky enough to stay in a very narrow space, who would play the role of an external eye observing and commenting on how Warsaw is changing drastically and rapidly,” says Szcaesny. “The idea was to say [to Israelis], ‘Look – a guy from your country is not just treating this as a space to run from; he has his second residency here.’”
At the time, Keret’s works were starting to appear in Polish. “He was the representation of ‘new Israel’ to me,” says Szczesny. Szczesny made contact and flew to Tel Aviv to meet Keret. The two worked together for three years to make Keret House a reality.
Recently, the Ledger asked Keret about his books, his films, and his new residence.

Q: Regarding Keret House – the narrow house built on the edge of what was the infamous Warsaw Ghetto, not far from where your mother, a Holocaust survivor lived and where much of your family perished – you were quoted by the New York Times as saying: “For me, it’s a kind of metaphor for my family reclaiming a place in Poland.” When you went to Poland for the home’s opening, did you feel as if you were going home?
A: I didn’t feel as if I was going to my own home, but to my family’s home. For me the house is a way to commemorate the memory of my dead grandparents and uncle whose death had left no mark in Poland until now: They have no grave, their house was demolished during the war and this narrow house is a way of saying that our family is still a part of the city.

Q: Did your mother share your excitement and eagerness to “reclaim” your Polish roots? Has she been back to Poland?
A: My mother had never returned to Poland. She is afraid of the memories and traumas such a trip could bring. She does take great pride in my success in Poland and was very happy to hear about the Narrow house project.

Q: Your latest book, “Suddenly, A Knock on the Door,” was translated by Nathan Englander. Do you think his translation was influenced at all by his own writing style? And, if so, is that a plus or a minus?
A: I’ve felt that Nathan’s translation was sensitive to my original text but the fact that he is a talented writer was an amazing gift since his translation wasn’t only loyal to the original text but also to the spirit of storytelling.

Q: What writers are you inspired or influenced by?
A: The writer who gave me the courage to write was Kafka. I read “Metamorphosis” during my basic training and I’ve not only felt that this writer knew something about my soul, but also that a writer could be a flawed creature sharing his flaws with his readers. This model of writing was very different from the Israeli one in which the writer was always a pillar of wisdom and morality leading the way.

Q: Clearly, you are of a very different generation than other well-respected Israeli writers such as Amos Oz, David Grossman and certainly Aharon Appelfeld. How do you think your generational vantage point — as an Israeli born in 1967 – has given you a different take on life in modern Israel? In other words, how is your perspective on modern Israel different than theirs…and how is that difference reflected in your work?
A: The first thing that comes to mind when I think of the generational difference is the language we use. I feel that the writers of the older generation treat Hebrew with a care and respect of those who had just received a new gift. I feel that writers of my generation feel more comfortable when it comes to using a lower register of the language or colloquial speech, making the historical distance between the spoken language and the written one less noticeable.

Q: Your film “Jellyfish,” which will be screened in Hartford in a couple of weeks, doesn’t seem to have a political bone in its body. That is, no one seems to be beating his or her breasts over the ‘occupation,’ the treatment of Palestinians, the country’s claim to statehood, or any other of Israel’s moral sins, imagined or otherwise. Kind of odd for an Israeli film, no?
A: Filmmaking is very individual and I feel that people should be true to the story they want to tell. I do not think political movies are any worse or better than non- political ones. I did feel that in the case of “Jellyfish” we wanted to film a fairy tale taking part in Israel and it seemed as if the obvious political issues would seem forced.

Q: Along the same lines… In discussing his recent film “Footnote” – which also is not political – Joseph Cedar was quoted as saying: “I’m used to speaking to journalists as an Israeli, and it always has a political side to it.” Do you find that’s true for yourself as well? And, if so, can the world accept an Israeli film that isn’t, well, an Israeli film?
A: The world for sure, can accept such a film and the Israeli audience too. And the fact that Footnote and Jellyfish brought big audiences both in Israel and overseas proves that people are open to hear all kind of stories as long as they’re true and are told well.

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