This article originally appeared in the Yiddish Forverts.
When Etgar Keret won a prestigious Israeli literature prize that includes a translation into Arabic and any other language, he made the surprising choice of Yiddish, the first in the prize’s 20-year history to do so.
But you don’t have to read far into Keret’s winning short-story collection, “Fly Already,” to understand the choice. His mix of comedy and horror in the titular story about a father and son who alternately perceive an impending suicide as disaster and entertainment fits neatly into the tradition of the great Yiddish writers Sholem Aleichem, I.L. Peretz and Isaac Bashevis Singer.
“I have been published in 47 languages, and if I had picked Swedish or English, it would feel for me a little bit like cheating,” Keret said in an interview.
Israel’s Sapir Prize for Literature, established in 2000, is named for a former finance minister and administered by Israel’s state lottery. It includes an award of 150,000 shekels — about $40,000, and is the most lucrative literary prize in Israel. Keret was previously selected in 2003, then disqualified because his book, “Anihu,” did not meet the 60,000-word length requirement, which has since been dropped.
Keret, 52, neither reads nor speaks Yiddish. He was born in Israel to Polish-Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, and explained his attachment to Yiddish literature partially as an homage to them, especially now that they have passed on.
Like many Eastern-European immigrants, they used Yiddish as a secret language in their adopted country. “The paradox is that their secrecy created a kind of family intimacy that to this day makes me feel there is something cozy about this kind of ignorance,” Keret said.
But in some Israeli circles, speaking Yiddish was also seen as subversive of the young state. Keret recalled demonstrators outside Tel Aviv theaters that mounted Yiddish-language productions holding up signs admonishing the actors to “speak in Hebrew!”
In the interview, Keret expressed his love for Israel’s “epic and wonderful sense of Hebrew literature,” as well as an affinity for Yiddish as a language refreshingly free of bombast.
“The Israeli avatars of Hebrew literature — Amos Oz, David Grossman, A. B. Yehoshua — wrote out of a ‘national conscience,’” Keret said. “They positioned themselves as our leaders and mentors.”
But, he added, “If they had been my sole influences, I would never have wanted to write fiction. I am like the guy on a train you tell your troubles to, somebody who’s in an even worse spot than you. My inability to see a solution to the human condition — that’s what I am drawn to in a story.”
Keret floated an uncomfortable idea about a literature that comes out of a strong, well-defended Jewish state, placing some of the blame at the feet of none other than the father of modern political Zionism, Theodor Herzl.
“Herzl’s conviction was to make Jews become like all the other nations,” Keret said. “That meant losing the alienation, the self-doubt, the self-deprecation that underlies a distinct Jewish sensibility, including a coruscating wit.
“We Israelis have traded in the Jewishness of a Kafka and a Babel for the military generals we love so much,” he added. “Indeed, we may even have forgotten that our most heroic biblical characters are memorable for having argued with God.”
Keret acknowledged the historical need to create a functioning country that makes the humiliations of diaspora life a thing of the past.
“And yet when we gained a militarily powerful country, we inevitably lost something else — a mindset, a worldview — that was uniquely Jewish,” he lamented. “For me, much of that uniqueness was our humor.
“Jewish humor is the humor of the weak,” Keret continued. “And that weakness came from not having a country, from not having an army. Humor was the Jewish way of maintaining self-respect among people who disrespected you.”
Not that Keret would abandon Israel to go back to the shtetl. Nor does he rue his masterful command of a Hebrew language that — like Yiddish — happily incorporates words, phrases and philosophies from a wide array of cultures and languages.
“Fly Already” includes a story about a dad who turns into a rabbit in which one character, Ella, says “I don’t want anyone to eat Dad with mashed potatoes.” Another, about a sadsack who experiences bliss after being shot out of a canon, has the line, “Do me a favor and shoot me out again.”
Among the languages Keret’s work has already been translated into are Arabic, Bulgarian, Belarussian, Chinese, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, French, Galician, Georgian, German, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Korean, Lithuanian, Malayalam, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swedish and Turkish. “Fly Away” will also be published in Kurdish, Keret said, adding that he regretted that politics prevent him from traveling to Iraq for its launch next month.
Adding Yiddish to the list feels especially meaningful.
“The diaspora Jewishness we Israelis have lost — the old Jewish way of reconciling our religion and our peoplehood with our absurd condition in the world — this is what I hope to reintroduce through my writing,” Keret said. “What better vehicle to do that than Yiddish, the language of religion, doubt, displacement and comedy?”
The Yiddish translation of “Fly Already” is now available for purchase