Dalia Betolin-Sherman is the first Ethiopian woman to publish a volume of short stories in Hebrew. In conversation, she speaks modestly about the success of “How the World Became White,” which won the 2014 Ramat Gan prize for debut literature. I met her at the Tel Aviv café Tola’at Sefarim Maazeh, where she told me in Hebrew that she came to Israel in 1984 when she was 5 and that she doesn’t really remember her life in Ethiopia, where she was born. Betolin-Sherman, who holds degrees in both social work and literature, says she writes intuitively and only afterwards understands the meaning of what she has written. Among her favorite writers are Flannery O’Connor, Alice Munro and Alice Walker.
The stories in “How the World Became White” concern the experiences of Ethiopians living in Israel, although color and race are not mentioned specifically.
“Writing connects all parts of identity,” Betolin-Sherman told me. “People go from place to place, crossing borders, and that is what books do too. They tell something about the human condition.”
Sarah Blau had an interesting way of dealing with turning 40 — she wrote a one-act play about a writer working on an adaptation of the biblical story of Yael and Sisera. She will also perform in this work, which was accepted to the Mercaz HaBama Festival in Jerusalem on June 12. We met in Tel Aviv when she was getting ready to go to Germany to speak along with the writers Meir Shalev, Aviad Kleinberg, Yali Sobol, Fania Oz-Salzberger and Assaf Gavron. (Gavron could have been included on this list for his novel, “The Hilltop,” coming out in English this fall. He also translated into Hebrew the screenplay for Natalie Portman’s upcoming film adaptation of Amos Oz’s memoir “A Tale of Love and Darkness.”)
Blau’s first novel, 2007’s “The Book of Creation,” concerns a single religious woman who can’t find a spouse so instead creates a golem. Her second, “Those Well-Raised Girls,” is about the 93 girls in the Warsaw Ghetto who killed themselves rather than let Nazis rape them. Blau hosts a show on the Israeli army radio station with another writer, Nir Baram, every Saturday night and frequently speaks and lectures on writing and Tanakh. In 1999, when she was 25, she began organizing a yearly “alternative Holocaust Remembrance Day” to make Yom HaShoah more relevant to her generation. Each year, she asks 10 different speakers to give a talk about what the Shoah means to them.
Blau says that she considers herself wholly a Jewish writer — albeit a “Gothic Jewish writer” — as her “DNA is in the Jewish myths” and because she is a religious Jew.
In person, Dror Burstein has the demeanor and appearance of a serious writer. If one passed him at the café where I met him in the Neve Tzedek neighborhood of Tel Aviv, one would think him another serious 40-ish guy with brown hair and glasses. However, on the page, Burstein is far from ordinary — he has written five novels, a book of poetry, a book of stories, a nonfiction book about the stories of people on Kibbutz Lohamei Ha’Ghetta’ot, and a book of literary criticism. This is all in addition to his full-time teaching duties at the Ofakim program at Tel Aviv University, and at Alma, a pluralistic center for Jewish learning started by current Knesset member Ruth Calderon. He is only 44; one wonders how he has managed to be so prolific. Burstein’s answer? Getting up at 5 a.m. and working before anything else, alongside his childrens’ hamster. He feels that this way his writing is “a continuation of night, of sleep.”
Burstein’s book “Netanya” is a fascinating and unclassifiable blend of fiction and memoir, science writing and travel writing. Burstein elucidated the textual strategies he employs as we spoke about his professorship in a program focused on intertextual approaches to literature. He says he wants his students not to “proceed in a linear route” but rather to move “sideways,” and he tells me that this is how he writes and thinks as well. His Talmud studies taught him this sideways type of thinking, as talmudic teachings proceed by theme, not logic, he says.
The author’s best friend is a painter, Meir Appelfeld (son of writer Aharon — yes, Israel is a small country), and Burstein tells me that he has learned from the way Appelfeld works. Burstein says he finds editing to be one of the most valuable parts of the writing process; what moves him most, he says, is the “process of second thoughts and structuring after the first burst of creativity.”