Last year, journalist, playwright and critic Tuvia Tenenbom made quite an impression with the publication of “Allein Unter Deutschen” (“Alone Among Germans”; English-language title: “I Sleep in Hitler’s Room”). A frank and funny portrayal of modern-day Germany and the persistence of anti-Semitism there, the book rankled publishers, editors and journalists, while vaulting onto Der Spiegel’s best-seller list. Buoyed by his triumph, Tenenbom, perhaps best known in America as the founder of the Jewish Theater of New York, is now working on a new project for his German publisher. This time, he will be bringing his outsized personality and disarming interview techniques in order to create a portrait of a different country — Israel. He and his wife, Tisi Tenenbom, will be spending six months there, after which he will complete a book tentatively titled “Allein Unter Juden,” “Alone Among Jews.” As of yet, there is no American publisher or English-language title. “Maybe it will be, ‘I‘Il Sleep in Herzl’s Room,’” Tenenbom joked.
The Forward’s arts and culture editor, Adam Langer, caught up with the Tenenboms for lunch a few days before their trip to Israel, where Tuvia Tenenbom will be filing occasional reports with the Forward. He discussed his expectations and preconceptions for his Israeli sojourn.
ADAM LANGER: So, where will the trip start?
Tuvia Tenenbom: I’ll be based in Jerusalem. From there we’ll go everywhere — the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip, everywhere.
When was the last time you were in Israel?
Four or five years ago. I was born there. But I was born to an anti-Zionist, ultra-Orthodox family. I’ve been in Israel since, but only for very short durations. I have been close by many times, because I go to the Arab world a lot, but I haven’t been in Israel for four or five years.
What will your approach to writing be?
The way I like to do it is very simple. When I go, I combine journalism and theater; I use the tricks of the actor. Sometimes I have to switch and become a different character. Sometimes I’m a kid or an angel or a UFO, whatever I need to be to let people tell me their stories. I try, as much as I can, to take all of my prejudices out and let the people teach me who they are. The idea is to get a portrait of a nation. In Germany I found out that they are obsessed with Jews. I didn’t know that before, but I was able to find out because I blocked my own thinking about Germany.
So, what preconceptions are you bringing into Israel?
It’s a huge challenge, because Israel is kind of the mecca of journalism. There are journalists of all kinds and shapes and colors and theologies. So many people are writing about it, and you have to write something new. You have Jews and Arabs and you have the religious and the nonreligious, and in the religious and the secular you have 10,000 variations. But by the end of the day, I’m just going to let people talk to me. Some places are not going to be easy; some places are not going to be safe. I am well aware of that.
Where will you go that won’t be safe?
Last time I was in Ramallah, it was not fun. People followed me on the street. And then when you go to see the extreme Israelis, the settlements, you have to be careful, too; you say the wrong word, and you’re out. You have to be careful that you don’t say anything that will make people stop talking to you.
So, what’s the character you’ll be playing? Will you be Jewish?
Depends who’s asking.
But people know you now. You have a profile. People can Google you in Ramallah.
They can Google me anywhere, but most people don’t because it’s immediate. I don’t make an appointment, I just meet people. And if you like people and you have a likable personality, people immediately respond to it no matter what. My idea is this: No matter what you think or who you are, we are human. I might dislike what you think, but that doesn’t mean I dislike you.