Catching up With Tuvia Tenenbom
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.
So, do you think you’ll find something in Israel markedly different from what you found in Germany? Or do you think you’ll be writing the same sort of book featuring people with different names?
If the citizens of Israel turn out to be the same as the citizens of Germany, then I will be writing the same book. If they turn out to be stubborn racists, that’s what the book will say. If they are not, that’s what the book will say. It’s not going to be a propaganda book.
Is there any place you won’t go because you think it will be dangerous or maybe even boring?
I will go anywhere I can. But I’m not going to spend time negotiating trying to get somewhere. If I can cross into Gaza, I’ll go into Gaza, but I’m not going to spend two months negotiating with the Israelis and the Palestinians about the conditions. I’m not going to spend this kind of time; I’ve already done it before. I’m not going to risk myself for the sake of risking myself, either. I’m not there to find the CIA files, the Mossad files. I’m there to find a portrait of the country; it’s a more spiritual thing.
So you’ll talk to whoever talks to you.
That’s the point. I never give up on any human. Maybe I’m naive, but I believe this is the essence of open-mindedness, the essence of what liberalism should be, not what it has become in reality.
I’ll talk to you when you come back and see if you’ve changed your mind.
It will be fun. You cannot write about this with a heavy hand.
Sure, you can.
Well, you can, but it would be boring. Very few people will read you.
Are you an American citizen?
Do you vote?
I don’t. As a matter of principle. If you’re a journalist and engage in public debate, you shouldn’t be voting. At no point should you feel like you have a stake in this.
Did you ever?
Before I was a journalist, yeah. When I was in Israel as a young kid, I did. I voted one time for Menachem Begin, and the next time I voted for Shulamit Aloni. And that was the extent of it.
So, do you think what you write will upset a lot of people?
This is not my aim. I’m like an iPhone — I record what people think, who they are.
Maybe that’s true to an extent, but you can’t be completely innocent or objective in the process.
I try to be. As much as I can, I try to let you convince me.
And will you be speaking in English? Hebrew? Arabic?
Whatever. My Arabic’s not as good as my Hebrew and English, but it’s good enough. But the point is, I’m going to talk to whoever will talk to me, and I will say: “Take me on a journey to your world. You are my actor. You are my stage. I am the audience. And if you take me on a long, beautiful, dreamy trip, I’m going to join you. And if you take me on a dark trip, I’ll join you, but it’s not going to be fun.” I’m very interested in what I’ll learn. I’m very interested in whose side I’ll wind up being on.
Whose side are you on now?
I am so confused at this point.
You think you won’t be when you come back?
I hope that some characters will stick with me. I hope that I’ll see the people more than the ideas.
What are you most confused about now, on the eve of your trip?
What it means to be a Jew. What is Jewish? Who am I? Who are the Palestinians beyond the stereotypes? Who are the settlers beyond the stereotypes? Who are the ultra-Orthodox? Who are the Zionists? Do they still exist? And what about Israel? Will it exist in 50 years?
Do you think it will?
At the moment, I don’t. I don’t know if this kind of animosity between groups can sustain a country for a long time when they are so opposed in such a small area. If you do a two-state solution and give the Palestinians everything they want, you have Palestine on both sides and Israel in the middle. How can that survive? And if you don’t do that and you go for a one-state solution, you have to give everybody the vote. But I’m talking to you through what I’ve learned through the media.
I wonder if you’ll come back with any clarity or just more contradictions.
Everything is possible. I might come back with more questions than I have answers, more confused than I am now.
Maybe you’ll come back a convert.
To anything. Take your pick.
Maybe I’ll become a Hare Krishna; you never know. I’ll sing “Hare Krishna.” Or maybe I’ll get the Jerusalem syndrome and I’ll become a messiah. Next time you see me, I’ll be riding a donkey.