OMER FRIEDLANDER writes with the wisdom of a much older writer — and that is a compliment. Speaking from his New York home, the Israeli-born writer explains that his first collection of short stories, The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land, is about characters who have struggles: “The kind of characters you write in fiction need to make mistakes and be problematic, to have conflict, because that’s what drives the story. And it’s not the kind of characters you want as your friends.”
He continues that it is more fun to write about characters with flaws, and, while they may come across as cartoonish, especially the villains Gecko and Monkey in “High Heels”, he hopes that they are not one-dimensional.
Brought up in Tel Aviv, Friedlander read English at Cambridge, where he was taught by the nature writer Robert Macfarlane. The university’s love of formal occasions left a lasting impression. “The way people like dressing up in Cambridge — but I’m an Israeli, where people are very casual, and don’t really dress up, except for a wedding. I didn’t know how to tie a tie; so my housemate would always do that.”
Cambridge also provided a fresh framing for the author’s Jewish identity: “One of the times where I felt more strongly that suddenly ‘Oh, I’m Jewish,’ was when I moved away from Israel. So, when I came to Cambridge to study and suddenly it was strange for me being away from home, I suddenly feel different kinds of identity.”
The author was not brought up in a religiously observant household, but his grandmother in Jerusalem kept Judaism’s holy days, and fasted on Yom Kippur. “I didn’t grow up with religion in that sense: it was more a cultural influence.”
The combination of an academic appreciation of the natural world with writing in a second language lends his prose an anthropological quality. “It does give me some distance, and it allows me to be more playful. I lived in Princeton, New Jersey, with my parents and my brother for a couple years. When I arrived at six years old, I couldn’t speak any English, and I felt out of place. Writing this book in English about a place that’s familiar to me, I wanted to get that sense of being a bit of a stranger in my home.”
The author drew on nature guides to depict Israeli flora and fauna in settings from the Negev to Galilee and Gaza. “I wanted to get that sense of being a stranger in my home, and, I guess, writing in English allowed me to experience that again.”
© Yam TraiberThe author Omer Friedlander, an Israeli-born writer
Conscious that he was writing for a non-Israeli audience, there is a focus on the less well-known aspects and areas of his homeland. “Places like Israel have a lot of national myths and stories — just like any place — that are intertwined with politics and religion. I wanted those stories to be in the background, but to approach the ones I’m writing through this subterranean layer, trying to see if I can get at a kind of more intimate truth, the kind we don’t see daily in the newspapers.”
In the acknowledgements in The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land, Friedlander quotes David Grossman on the disparity between people’s “official story” and the more personal and complicated story that lives inside. All the stories in the collection skewer characters’ “official stories” to reveal something more vulnerable underneath. In “The Sephardic Survivor”, two school students kidnap an elderly man to bring to school on Holocaust Day, so that they will be able to triumph over their classmate nemesis whose grandfather is a Holocaust historian, “the Elvis of the Holocaust”.
Friedlander writes: “The story was inspired by my grandfather’s life and his childhood. He grew up in Prague, and spent the war years hidden in a Catholic monastery. His parents tried to flee, and were caught and sent to Auschwitz. He was very young when he was put in a Catholic monastery in France. He was very serious about his studies, and forgot all about his earlier childhood. He was ready to go into the priesthood. And then, at the end of the war, one of the priests told him about his parents and who he was. I’ve been interested in the way identity can be malleable, in the way you can hide certain parts of yourself.”
He continues: “We studied some of his book in school, and someone called him the Elvis of the Holocaust. So it’s always been a subject that has been very present in my family.”
Another inspiration for “The Sephardic Survivor” was meeting New York friends of Iraqi Jewish heritage, who felt separated from Holocaust history. “It’s interesting, the way that trauma acquires a kind of social cachet.” He says that some historical events are too monumental to face head-on in fiction. “Similarly to ‘High Heels’, there’s certain subjects which are better written about indirectly.”
Friedlander’s grasping of weighty issues in an engaging way has won him early career awards, including a Saul Bellow Fellowship. “I wanted there to be also humour to it, mixed in with some of the tragedy.” And he hopes that readers’ charting of his characters’ journeys will support them on their own. “By spending time with the characters, and being transported in some ways to a place that’s maybe different.”
Susan Gray writes about the arts and entertainment for The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Times, and the Daily Mail.
The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land by Omer Friedlander is published by John Murray Press at £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop £13.49); 978-1-399-80394-6.
Listen here to Omer Friedlander in conversation with Susan Gray in this week’s Church Times Book Club Podcast. This is a monthly series produced in association with the Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature.
Tickets are now on sale for the 2023 Festival of Faith and Literature in February, at the University of Winchester and Winchester Cathedral.
THE MAN WHO SOLD AIR IN THE HOLY LAND — SOME QUESTIONS
- In the titular story, how is Simcha made such a sympathetic character despite his ingrained dishonesty and failures as a parent?
- “High Heels” and “The Sephardic Survivor” concern the memorialising of the Holocaust. What part does collective and individual myth-making play in the stories?
- In “Checkpoint”, Alte Sachen and Walking Shiva, the main characters, are locked in grief. How does Friedlander show a possible path to release?
- The line between fantasy and reality, past and present, and premonitions and contemporary events is often blurred. How does Friedlander hold the balance between emotional truth and verifiable facts?
- Scheherazade is one of many lone heroines in the collection. Are the female characters afforded the same degree of agency as the men, or are they always simply reacting to events?
- How does the limited viewpoint of child protagonists in “Jellyfish In Gaza” and “The Miniaturist” add emotional depth to the exploration of Jewish history in the past century?
IN OUR next Book Club page on 3 February, we will print extra information about our next book, The Inseparables by Simone de Beauvoir. It is published by Vintage at £9.99 (£9); 978-1-78487-718-7.
The Inseparables is an autobiographical novel that was never published in Simone de Beauvoir’s lifetime, as it was considered too intimate for publication at the time of its writing in the 1950s. It covers the real-life story of de Beauvoir’s adolescent relationship with Zaza, which had a profound effect on the philosopher’s thinking and writing. Zaza died at the age of 21. In the book, Zaza is represented by the character Andrée Gallard, and the author appears as the narrator, Sylvie Lepag. Set in France just after the First World War, the story follows their ten-year relationship from the age of nine, describing their in-depth discussions about equality, justice, and religion. Their teachers deemed them “inseparable”.
The late Simone de Beauvoir (1908-86) is heralded as being one of the most important philosophers and feminists of the 20th century. She worked alongside the French philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, and became one of the leaders of the existentialist movement. Her writing included work on philosophy, feminism, fiction, autobiography, and politics. Her books include the novel The Mandarins (1957), which won the Prix Goncourt. The author is best known for her influential philosophical work The Second Sex (1949) — a work of feminist philosophy which was put on Vatican’s Index of Prohibited Books.
BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS
March: For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
April: The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak