David Grossman is Anti-Indifference

The writing process and politics of one of Israel’s most famous native sons

After almost two years of explaining to people back in the U.S. that living in Israel is not exactly the same as moving to the Upper East Side of Manhattan, last Sunday night, my husband and I walked into Beit Shmuel in West Jerusalem and he immediately remarked, “Oh, I guess we’ve finally found the 92nd Street Y here.” The variety of snacks, the book signing tables, the older crowd that all seemed to know each other’s grandchildren certainly did feel familiar.

David Grossman, one of Israel’s most famous living authors, is slight and unassuming in black-rimmed glasses and a navy sweater. His once strawberry hair has now faded in a way that reminds me of a warning given to me by a fellow redhead — “we don’t go grey, we go pink.”

Although he has travelled extensively (he was, in fact, speaking at the aforementioned 92nd Street Y just earlier this year), upon sitting down to be interviewed by The Times of Israel about his latest book, Grossman remarked how odd he felt to be speaking English rather than Hebrew to a Jerusalem audience. But you could have fooled me. While a few endearing moments gave him away as a non-native English speaker — his accented pronunciation of “biscuits” sounded more like “bisqueets,” he described the act of mocking as “making laugh” of someone, he used the Israeli term “chaser” to describe a shot of vodka, which always confuses me (What is it chasing?) — he was both disarmingly funny and insightful throughout the night, something most of us struggle to achieve in one language.

Like many non-Israelis who have read and been moved by Grossman’s translated work, I know him best for both the magical realism and hard truths in “To the End of the Land.” I also know of the high profile and tragic loss he suffered when his son perished in the 2006 Lebanon War. Learning that he has a sharp sense of humor as well was not a total surprise given his dexterity with language, but I was certainly not expecting to laugh as much as I did. (It was perfect advertising for his latest book, “A Horse Walks into a Bar”, in which the protagonist is a stand-up comedian.) When David Grossman explains what a terrible a navigator he is, for example, he says, “If you took the dead cat away from the entrance to my street, I wouldn’t recognize which one it was.” And at one point he sighed back to his interviewer, “Don’t ask me where good ideas come from. If I knew where good ideas came from, I would sit there all day.”

Discussion of his writing process centered on two main themes: movement and painstaking research, even for works of fiction.

An avid walker, he and his wife rise before 6:00 am each day to get in four to five kilometers, he has to move when he writes, because as he sees it, when you move, you challenge your body and your mind. He chose to rent his current writing space not for the monk-like aesthetic, but for the long corridor that allows him to pace back and forth, creating “marks of burns” on the carpet.

His super detailed research, another Grossman characteristic, comes from a deep belief that “there is something in being there” that is vital to telling a story well. Or as he would put it, if he is going to create “flying towers” in his fiction, the bricks should at least be solid.

Most famously, this has meant walking across Israel the way his character Ora did in “To the End of the Land.” But it has also meant convincing authorities to let him drive a train (while heavily supervised), because talking to train drivers or driving his Mazda 3 is not the same as feeling the horsepower of a locomotive. It has meant asking his dentist to let him faint after a miscalculated dose of anesthetic so he could truly understand the sensation. It has meant traveling to Hebron as an Israeli and experiencing the fear of being hated for what you represent, rather than who you are as an individual.

Despite the focus on the book, politics hung in the air, as is the case in most discussions in Jerusalem. I found that Grossman was often able to give responses to questions that addressed both his art and the state of his country. Ever the writer, he was forthright in his opinions, yet lyrical in his explanations. One of the most poignant moments of the evening was when he explained that indifference, not trying to understand how another person must feel, is one of the ugliest forms of cruelty. It doesn’t work for writers hoping to convey the inner thoughts of a character and it doesn’t work for a country that now has a 50-year history of occupying another people. For Grossman, this subjugation deeply damages the idea of Israel because the occupier cannot help but eventually think of the occupied as “less than,” a decline in equality that by definition weakens any democracy.

He is not always popular for expressing these views, but at least to an outsider like myself, his criticism seemed to stem from a genuine love of a country that has shaped him as a person and an artist, and a deep sadness for the path on which Israel has found itself today. People, including many of his characters, can feel stuck in the established versions of their own stories, and so can nations, he explained; “generations can also be trapped by stories.”

I left inspired by Grossman, and not just because we share similar political views, Polish ancestry, and hair color. But the evening highlighted yet again the divided nature of Jerusalem in 2017. I didn’t see any Palestinians in the audience, despite the fact that much of what he had to say would probably have inspired them as well. I believe Grossman also would have liked to see them there, perhaps out of their comfort zone, and trying to understand the perspective of this particularly talented and empathetic Israeli.

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