Some of my favorite reading spots in Tel Aviv are public gardens. A peaceful, out-of-the-way place to read is the garden on Arnon Street. The entrance is small and hidden, lined with stocky, gnarled old olive trees. There is a playground with a yellow slide and a blue swing covered by a tarp for shade. Next to it is the neighborhood bomb shelter. The garden was made famous by the poet Leah Goldberg as the setting for her children’s book My Friends from Arnon Street, about a pair of twins who find a precious shilling coin, buy a heap of candy with it, and then stash their haul for safekeeping in the garden. I grew up on the next street over, and I remember going to the garden with my twin brother almost every day. We spent entire afternoons sliding down the sloped concrete roof of the bomb shelter.
There is a rich tradition of literary cafés in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, but some of the most famous are gone by now. In Tel Aviv, for example, Café Kasit, which was frequented by bohemians and poets such as Nathan Alterman and Abraham Shlonsky, no longer exists. There is Bookworm near Rabin Square, with its logo of a bespectacled worm, and The Little Prince on King George with its garden patio and mismatched chairs; both are a combination bookstore and café.
There are also cafés and bookstores that have themselves inspired books. In Jerusalem, one of the most famous literary cafés is Tmol Shilshom (Only Yesterday), named after the novel by Nobel laureate S.Y. Agnon. It was patronized by such literary greats as Yehuda Amichai, Amos Oz, David Grossman, Orly Castel-Bloom, Batya Gur and Meir Shalev. David Ehrlich, the owner of the café, who, like Shalev, recently passed away, wrote a book, Café Shira, that is a collection of character portraits inspired by the café’s patrons and employees. In Tel Aviv, at the end of a small alleyway off Allenby, across the street from the Great Synagogue, wedged between a hardware store and a kiosk, is Halper’s, a secondhand bookshop that became the inspiration and setting for the owner Josef Halper’s Bibliomaniacs: Tales from a Tel Aviv Bookseller.
It is very difficult to come up with a catalog of books for a literary tour of Israel. No matter how long the list, there will always be disagreements and arguments about the canon, what is included and what is left out. Some of the most interesting voices in Israeli literature, in my opinion, are ambivalent and conflicted in their relationship with Israel, Judaism or the Hebrew language. Their work feels like an ongoing argument with themselves, the pull-and-tug of identity and belonging. Here are a handful of writers, then, who are particularly good at observing this strange place and bringing it to life on the page in all of its complexity.
One of the most original and powerful contemporary voices in Israeli literature is the author Sayed Kashua, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who immigrated to the United States and currently lives in the Midwest. I’d recommend starting with his novels Dancing Arabs and Second Person Singular, which deal with the conflicting duality of Palestinians’ identity in Israel.
Kashua’s relationship with the Hebrew language is complicated: “Struggling with the language, hating it, loving it, trying to make room for myself in it while fighting it, became essential to my writing.” The narrator of Second Person Singular drives through the narrow streets of East Jerusalem, “sunglasses shielding his eyes.” He looks over at the main intersection, “where hundreds of day laborers waited to be picked up…What did they make of Arabs like him, citizens of the state? With their luxury cars and ostentatious lifestyles, the ones like him, who came for college and stayed for financial reasons, immigrants in their own land.”
As an Israeli author writing in English, I have a particular affinity for Ayelet Tsabari’s work. In her excellent short story collection, The Best Place on Earth, Tsabari has a talent for conjuring place vividly. In the story “Casualties,” she describes the Carmel market in Tel Aviv with its “buses and people and cars and sirens and vendors and street cats and taxis and car alarms.” The frantic list evokes much of the chaos of the place, the market with its colorful hills of za’atar, sumac and paprika, tubs of olives and glass jars of pickles floating in brine, knockoff Adidas shorts, fake Zippo lighters, plastic water guns, Coca-Cola-flavored gummy worms and crumbling mountains of halva with pistachios. “Before I moved here,” she writes, “I used to think Tel Aviv was all long beaches and white houses with rounded balconies, but Allenby is lined with crumbling buildings in gray and yellow, leaning against each other like a row of crooked yellow teeth.” By the way, for a study of the Tel Aviv of “white houses with rounded balconies,” I’d recommend Nahoum Cohen’s Bauhaus Tel Aviv: An Architectural Guide.
Any literary tour of Israel would have to include the Jerusalem of Amos Oz. In his memoir A Tale of Love and Darkness, people in Jerusalem “walked rather like mourners at a funeral, or latecomers at a concert.” They stroll through “leafy Rehavia with its gardens and its strains of piano music” and visit the cafés with gilded chandeliers on Ben Yehuda Street. In the Land of Israel, a record of conversations Oz had with a diversity of people living everywhere from the settlements to periphery towns, reveals the deep fractures of Israeli society that have only grown wider over time. Here he describes the Geulah Quarter of Jerusalem, an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood: “From porch to porch, the entire width of the alleyways, stretch laundry lines with white and colored clothes…pious Jews in black garb, bearded, bespectacled, chattering in Yiddish, tumultuous, in a hurry, scented with the heavy aroma of Eastern European Ashkenazi cooking.” His story collection Between Friends explores life on an invented kibbutz. In the kibbutz, the land was planted with seasonal flowers, rock gardens, cactus and grapevines. At night, “a hot summer moon shone red as it rose above the tall cypress trees.”
For a vital and important report on the occupation, there is David Grossman’s The Yellow Wind. Walking around the Dheisha refugee camp south of Bethlehem in early 1987, Grossman observes the density of cement houses piled together, “rusty iron beams spread throughout as sinews, jutting like disconnected fingers.” I would also include Grossman’s novel To the End of the Land as some of the best Israeli literature ever written. The book follows Ora, a mother who is haunted by visions of army officers coming to deliver news that her son Ofer, a soldier, has been killed. Grossman describes a country going to war, with the long convoy twisting along, “a stammering band of civilian cars, jeeps, military ambulances, tanks, and huge bulldozers on the backs of transporters.” Engaged in a desperate kind of magical thinking to protect her son, Ora refuses to listen to radio broadcasts or read the newspapers and instead goes trekking in the Galilee, wandering “to the end of the land.” Grossman describes the mist as it rises from the warm, fragrant earth and “elongated puddles” and frogs leaping into the stream and “not a human being in sight.”
And to complete the trio, of course, A.B. “Bulli” Yehoshua. I would start with The Lover, which is set in Haifa shortly after the Yom Kippur War. “Four months have passed now since the end of the war and the land is still uneasy, men wandering about in a vague search for something, for some account that remains to be settled.” Yehoshua expertly evokes a particular kind of post-war listlessness, an entire country suffering from insomnia. In one scene, teenagers in the summer are “sinking into drowsiness” on the beach. They are “roasting in the heat, diving into the cold water, swimming, sinking, floating…coming out and lying on the water line, wallowing in the muddy sand, digging holes, then going to buy falafel or ice cream…” There is a flowing, breathless quality to the prose, which captures the “slow rhythm of the sea, sun, and sky.” I feel a particular fondness for Yehoshua’s work, not only because of his incredible storytelling but also because my grandmother would often tell a story about him from her childhood. They were friends, and sometimes he would hide under her bed and listen to her secret conversations with her cousin. I grew up on stories like this one, stories that make Israel seem even smaller than it is.
Speaking of smallness and brevity, I’d like to reiterate my affection for the short story form. In the absurdist tradition exemplified by Etgar Keret, there is also Jerusalem Beach, a highly recommended debut collection by Iddo Gefen. One of my favorite characters in Gefen’s collection is the 80-year-old Golani recruit in the story “The Geriatric Platoon.” The surreal premise (an elderly man recruited to the army) feels totally believable because of Gefen’s brilliant details. The old man packed “four undershirts, five pairs of underwear, a flashlight, two cans of sardines, a biography of Moshe Sharett, and anti-chafing cream…then he canceled his subscription to the Lev Cinema.” Deep in the maze of Dizengoff Center in Tel Aviv, there is an actual Lev Cinema, with its plush red velvet chairs and its antiquated, kitschy sign with a cartoon heart. The real cinema feels like a bizarre imaginary movie theater conjured up by a short story writer.
I’ll end with perhaps the most celebrated poet in Israel, even two decades after his death: Yehuda Amichai. In his poem “Tourists,” Amichai writes about the Tower of David, an ancient citadel near the Jaffa Gate entrance to the Old City of Jerusalem. “Once I was sitting on the steps near the gate at David’s Citadel and put down my two heavy baskets beside me. A group of tourists stood there around their guide, and I became their point of reference. ‘You see that man over there with the baskets? A little to the right of his head there’s an arch from the Roman period.’” Amichai ends the poem by imagining instead a reversal. “I said to myself: Redemption will come only when they are told, ‘Do you see that arch over there from the Roman period? It doesn’t matter, but near it, a little to the left and then down a bit, there’s a man who has just bought fruit and vegetables for his family.’”
If you want to ignore this entire list of recommendations, here is an alternate literary tour of Israel: Put a book of poems by Amichai in your back pocket. (Luckily, Amichai was generous to his readers, insisting that all of his poetry books be printed in the same format of 10×18 centimeters so that they could easily fit in a reader’s pocket.) Then wander around until you find a hidden garden or a café, and get into an argument with a stranger about books.
Omer Friedlander was born in Jerusalem and grew up in Tel Aviv. He is the author of the short story collection The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land, the title story of which won the 2020 Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Fiction Contest. He teaches creative writing at Columbia University.
Moment Magazine participates in the Amazon Associates program and earns money from qualifying purchases.