'I am pro-Israel, I support you, I’ve always felt that way'

After 40 years, novelist John Irving returns to Jerusalem, where new novel is partly set

Award-winning author speaks at the Mishkenot Sha’ananim cultural center, nostalgic about his time in Israel but not revealing much about about his work-in-progress ‘Queen Esther’

Novelist John Irving speaks at the Mishkenot Sha'ananim cultural center in Jerusalem, July 3, 2024. (Ethan Freedman/Times of Israel)
Novelist John Irving speaks at the Mishkenot Sha'ananim cultural center in Jerusalem, July 3, 2024. (Ethan Freedman/Times of Israel)

Working on his latest novel “Queen Esther,” writer John Irving, of “The World According to Garp” and “The Cider House Rules” fame, made his long-awaited return to Jerusalem, 40 years after his last visit.

Speaking at the Mishkenot Sha’ananim cultural center to a full, engaged audience in the Gilbert De Botton Auditorium, Irving gave an update on his new work, saying, “I did complete it… but I left spaces in it.”

Now 82 years old, Irving sported a shock of stark-white hair along with dark tattoos on his arm that reference Moby Dick and the region he once called home, New England.

Many of Irving’s characters have some link to Judaism, which he says stems from childhood Jewish acquaintances he made when he took up wrestling, due to their shared sense of not belonging.

“Growing up in a small New England town, I always felt that I didn’t belong there; I always felt like a foreigner,” Irving said.

“I’m not Jewish, but I’ve always been pro-Israel, and I’ve always been pro-Jewish. My earliest exposure to Jews were the wrestling teammates I had. And they had a hard time too. But we were all doing the same thing together, so it was natural, or it seemed natural to me, that I sort of stayed with them,” he related.

Novelist John Irving in Jerusalem, July 3, 2024. (Ethan Freedman/Times of Israel)

“You’re a Jewish of honor,” the moderator, Gili Izikovich, said, in broken English.

The interview was interspersed with readings from Irving’s works, including “The World According to Garp,” which was read in Hebrew by Adi Gilat.

Irving, towards the end of the event, decried the “fascism of the imagination,” a phenomenon he described as the limiting of thought to only the experiences of the self, rather than engaging with the broader world with an open mind.

Irving was set to visit the Jerusalem cultural center during the annual International Writers Festival held in May, but he came down with a case of COVID-19. He instead conducted a Zoom interview with Ari Folman, known for his film “Waltz With Bashir.”

Novelist John Irving was scheduled to appear at the Jerusalem Writers Festival opening May 27, 2024, but had to cancel his in-person appearance due to a bout of COVID-19. (Courtesy: Derek O’Donnell)

“Queen Esther,” named for the titular Bible character, is set to take place, in part, in 1980s Jerusalem, which was the last time Irving visited the Holy Land. Few details are available about the novel, due to Irving’s proclivity for keeping quiet about his works in progress. However, he did read several excerpts at a literary event in Buffalo in March.

Irving had previously proclaimed his excitement about the trip to Israel. “There’s no small amount of nostalgia attached to this trip,” Irving told The Times of Israel in May.

“I’m 82, there’s almost nowhere else I can go that won’t remind me of the people I was with, but that is not a feeling that will be out of place in the novel,” he said.

Novelist John Irving speaks with moderator Gili Izikovich at the Mishkenot Sha’ananim cultural center in Jerusalem, July 3, 2024. (Ethan Freedman/Times of Israel)

Asked by The Times of Israel about whether he has a message to Israelis after October 7, Irving said, “I am pro-Israel, I support you, and I’ve always felt that way. But it’s not my business to give messages, because it is not my country.”

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