Etgar Keret: Outside the Israeli Bubble

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A woman sprawls face-down on a table, her face in a breakfast dish and a banana peel near her knee. Soon she wakes and arises with jerky but highly choreographed movements coordinated with a whimsical soundtrack. She turns on the television, a Japanese announcer appears, shuffling papers, and she quickly shuts it off. As she turns away, the television flicks back on of its own accord, and we’ve entered the slightly magical but recognizable world of an Etgar Keret story, recently made into a short film.

The film is based on the short-short story “Outside,” about a post-pandemic future in which traumatized citizens have to be driven out of their self-isolation by the military and police. Keret is a popular Israeli writer, and the story was published in early July as part of New York Times Magazine’s The Decameron Project—a collection of 29 new short stories “inspired by the moment,” modeled on Decameron, the 15th century collection of novellas by Giovanni Bocaccios. Keret’s story, written in Hebrew, was translated into English for the magazine by award-winning translator Jessica Cohen, and recently Keret and his collaborator Inbal Pinto, a choreographer and director, released their delightful short film.

The story itself has no conspicuous cultural markers, and could be set in any contemporary city. The film adaptation exploits that ambiguity, placing the action squarely inside an unnamed woman’s apartment (the story uses the second person “you” to convey a kind of universal protagonist). Most interestingly, this film, made by an Israeli director based on a story written by an Israeli writer in Hebrew, makes no use of Hebrew at all. It even places the narration in the voice of a Japanese television announcer, interrupted by only one word of English from the protagonist.

At one time, this conspicuous absence of Hebrew from an entirely Israeli production, its use of other languages, and its placement in an ambiguous cultural space would have been anathema in Israeli literature or film. But increasingly, Keret’s work belongs to a contemporary movement in Israeli culture that purposely turns away from Hebrew and its hyper-nationalistic associations with Zionism in order to consciously explore subjects like globalization and the role of language in national culture and politics.

Etgar Keret has long been popular in the United States. His postmodern short-short fiction has been widely translated, and one of his novellas has even been made into a feature-length English-language film. Keret is, tellingly, a darling of the radio show and podcast This American Life, where his work has often appeared. This in itself is an interesting paradox of globalization, since he’s not American and his work does not depict a typically American space, but rather, like “Outside,” inhabits a kind of every-space. His most recent memoir, The Seven Good Years, about the period between the birth of his son and the death of his father, was published in English before it was published in Hebrew, by Keret’s choice. (In an interview with Peer Friedman, Keret explained that, since the content was so personal, it felt easier to tell it “to someone on the train than to your neighbor.”)

This history of crossing cultural and linguistic boundaries links Keret to a new generation of Israeli writers and artists, including Ayelet Tsabari, Shani Boianjiu, Ruby Namdar, Maya Ara, and Mati Shemoelof, among others, who produce literature in non-Hebrew languages or from non-Israeli locales. Like these writers, Keret, and this film, push back against Zionist conceptions of Israeli culture as monolingual (Hebrew-only) and tied exclusively to the country’s geography.

The “father” of modern vernacular Hebrew, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, famously insisted that his son never hear a word of another language, refusing the boy any playmates or nannies who might accidentally speak one of the many other languages native to Jews in early twentieth century Palestine. Nearly 100 years ago, the Hebrew poet Avraham Shlonsky decried Jewish multilingualism as a “catastrophe” comparable to “tuberculosis, gnawing away at the lungs of the nation.” To these Zionist partisans of Hebrew, who built Israeli culture around the language, other Jewish and non-Jewish languages represented a threat to the constitution of a new, revitalized Jewish national body in the land of Israel. Keret and Pinto’s production, then, testifies to an Israeli culture secure enough in itself and its place in a globalized world to expand our understanding of what constitutes a national culture.

In “Outside,” we know the white protagonist, though confined in her small apartment, is connected to the world through her television screen, where the Japanese news anchor appears even when she turns the TV off. It’s inescapable—she can’t turn away from the world. Other elements of the fantastical appear to connect her with the foreign announcer: He can see and talk to her through the television, and she can understand him even though her one spoken word is in another language, English. They both seem to be experiencing the same thing at the same time; the walls close in on each of them in their own spaces. At the end, they appear next to each other, the television on the floor with the protagonist next to it. Both the protagonist and the anchor are looking at each other as if lying together in bed. This connection suggests that everything is happening to everyone in the same way simultaneously. But it also emphasizes the separation between them—he is still inside the television after all!—and the different ways their shared experiences manifest in different spaces.

Significantly, the shared universal experience described at the end of the story —“you” go outside, see a homeless man begging near an ATM and ignore him—is of the communal and personal consequences of capitalism. Likewise, the film’s insistence on a transcultural space points to the way globalization and the marketing of global culture both opens the world—we learn about and experience other cultures, lands and people—at the same time as it closes the world, just like the walls closing in on these characters—it has led to a flattening of culture, a planet in which we all consume the same music, television, and TikTok videos no matter where we are. And, of course, in which we all walk right by the man next to the ATM.

Even the production of the film itself points to the ways in which technology and markets have shrunk our world—the Japanese anchor was filmed remotely in Japan while on a video link with the Israeli director. But it also demonstrates how far Israeli culture has moved away from Shlonsky’s characterization of Israeli multilingualism—the closest the early 20th century came to globalization—as a disease. In contrast, the scholar and literary editor Haim Weiss has more recently claimed, “The isolation of a language, and the self-isolation of a culture, is a death sentence. Such a culture will wither and become devoid of meaning.” Etgar Keret and Inbal Pinto’s “Outside” is yet another foray of Israeli culture away from the rigid national distinctions and linguistic demands of early Zionism toward a more globalized world. While once Zionists imagined Jewish multilingualism and multiculturalism as the death of Jewish nationalism, contemporary Israeli artists like Keret and Pinto see globalization as the key to a robust and relevant Israeli culture, with or without Hebrew.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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