Writing in Jerusalem: On Living a Jewish Literary Life by David Stromberg
In December 2007, I visited Jerusalem for three weeks to collect material for Zeek: Russified, a volume of works by contemporary Russian-Jewish writers, poets, and artists. During that time, I was introduced to a wide circle of individuals. In a way, I was given access to the heart of one of the city’s – and even country’s – cultural milieus, and I saw that there were people in Jerusalem whose artistic, existential, and historical concerns I shared. These involved immigrants and sabras, people who spoke all kinds of languages – Hebrew, Russian, English, French – and who not only came from all over the world, but also stayed despite having the chance to move elsewhere.
Within a very short time, I visited the living rooms and working studios of one person after another. Not all of their work was as relevant to me as their histories, as well as their ability to find a place for themselves within this city. I remember walking with translator Masha Buman across Ben Yehuda, the central pedestrian shopping street in Jerusalem, and her pointing up to the top floor of a building and saying, “There, at the very top, lives Mikhail Gendelev – the great Russian poet.” I remember thinking, “What’s a ‘great Russian poet’ doing living in the center of Jerusalem? How does that work?” But little by little, I saw with my own eyes that Jerusalem had plenty of active literary and artistic personalities who traveled abroad to present their work and yet related most intimately to their Jerusalem surroundings.
Now, my first trip to Jerusalem came in 2004, when I went to stay with my mother for a month in the outlying neighborhood of Neve Yaakov. She’d been living in Jerusalem for fifteen years through good and bad times, which included economic hardship in the 1990’s and the Second Intifada in the 2000’s. Throughout my childhood, she’d come to America to visit me and my older sister, and when I now came to stay with her, she took me on walks through all the different neighborhoods to show me what the old houses looked like, and where new ones were being built. Once, walking with her along the walls of the Old City near Jaffa Gate, I told her that Jerusalem was an ancient place for people who liked history, and that I didn’t consider myself one of these people. At least not then.
The truth is that I didn’t know much about history then – that I’d avoided it almost purposefully for most of my life. But when I became interested in the particulars of our family’s personal history, it turned out that I needed to learn a lot of historical facts, like why there was a Russian Revolution, how the Soviet Union was structured, what the Cold War was all about, why Jews were let out of the Iron Curtain. Actually, my problem had been not that I wasn’t interested in history – in fact, I was – the deeper issue was that I didn’t know how to relate to history. By 2007, much of that had changed. In 2004, I had enrolled in the CalArts School of Critical Studies, where I had a chance to read theoretical, historical, and journalistic works in a context that helped me relate it directly to my writing as well as to my broader thinking. Though in my own fiction I was aiming for neither theory, nor journalism, nor necessarily critique, these were all elements that I began to internalize and play with.
I also knew very little about Judaism beyond the strong conviction that I was an Israeli-born Jew. It was only after moving to New York in 2006 that I sought the chance to explore both Jewishness and Judaism. Just as at CalArts I learned to integrate critical thinking with aesthetic production, in New York I began to integrate reflection on Jewish themes and concerns with writerly efforts. I read Martin Buber’s Between Man and Man, a Jewish existential work of philosophy that had no less influence on me than French phenomenologist Maruice Merleau-Ponty had at CalArts. I was also introduced to an Orthodox Jewish young man – a Russian-speaking book-designer who worked around the corner – and thanks to his initiative we met weekly during our lunch breaks to study Maimonides. I was not yet sure whether I wanted to become strictly observant, but it became more and more important for me to learn about Judaism in order to better understand my cultural heritage.
In 2006, Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua angered part of an American Jewish Committee audience for asserting that only Israel, and not Judaism, could ensure the survival of the Jewish people. I’d like to reformulate that sentiment: I believe it’s hard for a Jew today to understand all the different things that a Jew can be without firsthand experience of Israel. Israel represents a particular and important line in modern Jewish history – perhaps one of the greatest Jewish miracles – but this history has to do with much more than the Holocaust. It has to do with Kabbalists, Zionists, Socialists, Refuseniks, as well as a plethora of writers, architects, artists, actors, musicians, day-laborers, politicians, loafers, punks – all kinds of Jews from a variety of cultural and social strata that extend from the Middle Ages to today.
I also believe it’s difficult to live in a religious city without having any idea about religion. It’s far from impossible, but it’s hard – and my own tolerance for certain situations would be lower without it. And if I’m honest with myself, as secular as I claim to be, I’m much more religious by dint of living in this city than I would be in any other city in Israel. I have some degree of understanding of Jewish traditions – respecting them even if I don’t strictly observe them – and this helps me live in this city. Yet I can’t say that I studied Judaism in order to move to Jerusalem. Quite the opposite – it was only after arriving repeatedly in Jerusalem that I found, having studied Judaism, a certain kind of familiarity and even logic in the place as a daily environment.
Also, unlike Tel Aviv, which is a kind of provincial cultural center, I’ve found that Jerusalem – partly because of its troubles and partly because of its majesty – has more international traffic. And though the increasing Orthodox population is in some ways pressuring certain secular “freedoms,” it also endows the city, for better or for worse, with a life of tradition. And, in the end, unlike Tel Aviv, which prides itself on being a generally calm Westernized city, Jerusalem is unable to cover up the fact that it is located in the Middle East and is an active issue within the region’s conflict. The place is a paradox: on the one hand, it’s a tall hill in the desert with decent weather and beautiful white stone, and on the other it’s a kind of spiritual center for which many people are willing to sacrifice their lives. I remember that when I first moved to Israel, I would sometimes tell people that I had come there from New York. Tel Avivites looked at me in dismay – “Why?” But most Jerusalemites would simply nod. They knew exactly why someone would move from New York to Jerusalem.
Still, every city needs a key, and for me the key to Jerusalem came in the form of journalism. Even before I moved, I started contributing to the English edition of Haaretz, and I don’t want to say it was easy – because Israel is a small and often difficult country to navigate – but within a few months I found a niche at the Jerusalem Post‘s weekend supplement, where I wrote all kinds of articles. Every article I undertook meant going to some place in the city or country and meeting someone, and this way I got to know lots of people, a few of whom became friends.
In a little over a year, I’d published over sixty feature articles on everything from the attempted closing of the Jerusalem Russian library, to members of “lost” Jewish tribes from India and China, to interviews with writers Aharon Appelfeld and Gail Hareven, to exhibits at the Israel Museum and the Bezalel Gallery in Tel Aviv, to op-eds on the Russia-Georgia war, to articles on the Biblical Zoo and the Botanical Garden at the Hebrew University, to profiles on Israeli artists of whom most people abroad haven’t heard, but who actively participate in the Israeli art world. By the time that Mikhail Gendelev passed away in March 2009, I was in Jerusalem not only to attend his funeral, but to pay tribute with the first English-language memorial article about this great Russian poet.
I remember Gail Hareven once telling me that an important element of abstract thinking is boredom – and that routine is essential to writing fiction. I wholeheartedly agree with her, and I would add that for an artist – and this includes a Jewish artist who is interested in being part of a certain tradition which includes more writers than can be quickly named – equally important is the cultural context in which one works. There’s no one “cultural context” that’s “right” – it’s more a question of there being one, and its being a natural one that fits the writer’s artistic and personal interests and concerns. Just to be clear: I don’t mean implanting oneself in a pre-established clique, rather instituting for oneself or growing into a collection of like-minded people who are themselves engaged in related tasks in a specific time and place. Again, I’m not speaking about a particular social milieu or entourage – these constructs can be destructive cultural swamps that suck the life and meaning out of artists and their work. What I mean is a cultural participation that involves both contributing and receiving – a rhythm of life, an interaction with close people, an engagement with a particular geography and its population.
In this sense, one of Jerusalem’s strongest values for me as a writer is its everydayness. It’s the only place I’ve lived where my contact with other writers, artists, and journalists naturally crosses back and forth from professional to mundane matters. I once described this to a Polish artist from Warsaw, and she complained that the art world etiquette in Europe required people to refrain from talking about “unimportant” or “personal” matters with their professional “colleagues.” But in Jerusalem, I and some of the people I’m closest with often discuss personal, professional, and artistic matters within a single conversation, and this seems to allow the different natures of these preoccupations to intermingle. Then the artistic gains an everyday hue, and the everyday gains an artistic hue, and so a balance is formed in which each aspect of life has its place among others. The Jewish life, the personal life, the writing life – they work together, and one’s concerns are focused along parallel realms. For me, this has become a fruitful way of opening up possibilities for writing.
And yet isn’t Jerusalem anything but an “everyday” matter? We are talking, after all, about the Holy City – Ir Ha’Kodesh. And yes, this is something of which Jerusalemites are self-conscious – not every second of every day, but often enough. Yet whenever I recall this, I think about Martin Buber’s description of Rabbi Nahman and his visit to Jerusalem. As Buber describes it, the trip was anything but pleasant: Nahman’s travels to Erets Yisroel were full of difficulties and humiliations along the way. And he believed this kind of suffering was a prerequisite to reaching the Holy Land – so much so that he explained the Baal Shem Tov’s failure to reach Erets Yisroel by the greatness of the his stature. All that to say that reaching and living in Jerusalem is not about it being easy. And it’s also not about being an important figure. It’s about humility, before you arrive, while you’re here, and when you depart – either to another place on earth or to the heavens.
Recently, a painter friend, contemplating moving to Tel Aviv, said: “I’m tired of fighting for this city just to live here.” I can understand him. Among other things, Jerusalem is not as culturally robust a city as Paris or New York, or, in many respects, even Tel Aviv. One or two particular people, one or two particular cafes, one or two particular movie theaters or bookstores or galleries can make or break the experience, especially once one has grown accustomed to these particular people, cafes, theaters, and bookstores. And since it’s a high-pressure city, with considerable tension, this leads many young people to leave – if not in their twenties, then in their thirties or forties, particularly when they start thinking of having kids.
But the point is that these people and places exist, and even if someone leaves or some place closes down, others come, new places open, and the process of familiarization starts again. This makes Jerusalem a constantly changing city – a place that’s alive – an enigmatic entity. People who visit are often surprised to learn that busses don’t run on Shabbat – from Friday to Saturday evening – but are equally surprised to see alleys full of bars with young people partying late into Friday night. “How do they get home?” the visitors ask. Well, like in any other place, they either drive home or take taxis. And perhaps this is the most surprising thing: to sense that this ancient city full of historical disagreements is actually a bustling place with a healthy dose of present-day dynamism. For a writer – as, perhaps, for any engaged person – this dynamism is indispensable fuel. It can certainly be found in other places in the world, but when it comes to the Jewish world – encompassing both it’s more and less digestible aspects, as well as its relation to the non-Jewish world – it’s hard to find a place with as wide a variety of Jewish lives. In any case, if such a place exists, I haven’t been there yet.
This lecture was presented on October 12, 2009, at the New School University, during a book tour for the release of David Stromberg’s fourth cartoon collection, BADDIES (Melville House). It presents a personal take on the city he encountered during working trips, his move to the city and his process of discovering its cultural life, and the unique way it allowed him to bring artistic concerns together with mundane matters in an integrated Jewish literary life. In the time since the lecture was presented, the city and country have undergone considerable pressures and challenges. But the piece’s focus on the city’s dynamism offers a recent-historical perspective on today’s Jerusalem – reflecting how the city continues to change.