It’s hard to pigeonhole writer Tuvia Tenenbom.
He’s Israeli, but hasn’t lived here in 33 years. He was raised in an ultra-Orthodox family (with whom he’s still in touch), but is no longer religious. He’s a journalist, and also a playwright. And he lives in New York, but his biggest readership is in Germany, where he met his wife, Isa, 14 years ago.
It’s pretty clear he enjoys the confusion.
“I’m a jack of all trades, but I don’t like to examine myself,” Tenenbom told The Times of Israel in a recent interview at a Jerusalem cafe. “The moment you start examining yourself, you lose it.”
Examining others, however? No problem. That’s a skill that comes naturally to Tenenbom, whose latest book, “Catch the Jew!” (Gefen Publishing), is all about the art, or rather, his art, of observation.
The book was commissioned by German publishing house Suhrkamp Verlag, following Tenenbom’s previous book, “I Sleep in Hitler’s Room.” As he did in preparation for that book, during which Tenenbom traveled around Germany for six months, he spent seven months in Israel and the West Bank for “Catch the Jew!” interviewing thousands of people, including well-known politicians, writers, leaders and activists, and getting the Jews and Arabs to speak their minds.
Talking to strangers? Not a tough task for Tenenbom.
In person and in his writing, the garrulous Tenenbom comes across as something of a gonzo journalist, always including himself in the story and never refraining from offering his opinion. He’s been compared to the father of this style of non-objective journalism, Hunter S. Thompson, as well as humorists Sacha Baron Cohen and Michael Moore.
But the key, said Tenenbom, is his innate ability to connect with others.
“It’s the only way you can interview people,” he said. “I have to understand and talk to the person, otherwise the person feels intimidated because he or she doesn’t know ‘Are you for or against me?’”
He credits his father, a Holocaust survivor and Bnei Brak rabbi and rosh yeshiva, for giving him the skills.
“He had this ability to become like that,” he said. “If he talked to Germans, he was German, and if he talked to Sephardim, he was Sephardi.”
Tenenbom, in turn, sometimes played Tobi the German in his latest book, an act that wasn’t hard for him to pull off given his head of fluffy blondish hair and faintly German accent. The role sometimes allowed him access to different kinds of information, particularly from Palestinians and Europeans, who he felt would react better to a non-Jew.
Even in his usual role of Tuvia, Tenenbom seems to be able to speak to anyone, and does so in a mishmash of languages: French (allors!), Yiddish (gornischt) and the Hebrish familiar to anyone who lives between Israel and the US.
Tenenbom, who writes about politics and sports from the philosophical point of view for Germany’s Die Zeit, as well as Zeit online, has a knack for homing in on what makes people tick. An interview he conducted for The Forward with Israeli Haredi politician Racheli Ibenboim gained him some notoriety for focusing on sex in the ultra-Orthodox community.
Tenenbom, looking back on it, remembers it as being an opportunity for two people who understood each other to speak about something taboo.
“I never thought for a second that people would react the way they reacted,” he said. “She impressed me, she answered questions. We were straightforward with each other. The problem is that people who are not from the Haredi world don’t get it and see it as an offense. She answered the question because there’s so much cliché in the Haredi world.”
Tenenbom said he uses the same tactic when speaking to anyone else about their culture.
“When I talk to Arabs, I have to go with their culture,” he said. “If an Arab talks to me and tells me Palestine was created 14,000 years ago, we both believe the bullshit. That’s the culture. You say something, and it becomes reality.”
Tenenbom said he has made it a habit to divorce himself from his interlocutor’s ideology. He also said he remains “apolitical” in order to be fully objective in his writing, and no longer votes.
If an Arab talks to me and tells me Palestine was created 14,000 years ago, we both believe the bullshit. That’s the culture. You say something, and it becomes reality
“I’ve been a right-winger, a left-winger, centrist, and now I’m nothing,” he said. “I have to go for the facts if I’m a journalist.”
Tenenbom has been criticized by more than one reviewer for making certain knee-jerk assumptions about his interviewees in “Catch the Jew!”
But he said that when it comes to understanding the person you’re interviewing, it’s absolutely necessary to appreciate the person as a human and separate them from their actions, he said.
“It can be that his ideology is totally foreign to you, but he happens to be a nice person,” he said. “As a human being he’s horrible, but you have to approach it as person to person.”
It’s a tricky business, said Tenenbom. But it works in the interview process.
He brought up Jibril Rajoub, the senior Palestinian Authority official who was the former head of the Preventative Security Services.
“He’s charismatic, a genius, he’s amazing,” said Tenenbom. “He could have put my image [as Tobi the German] in Google and he’d know who I am. He didn’t do that because we matched and clicked.”
There were some people whom he found more difficult to appreciate, such as Israeli peace activists and European foundation employees. During an interview with an employee of a German foundation, Tenenbom, who felt the group was only pretending to be seeking peace in Israel, said, “Listen to me, why are you doing this? We all know the story, Germany and Israel. Why can’t you be a little more sensitive?”
The book, first released in Hebrew, and later in English, has done well, with many but not all reviewers praising it for its humor and sass, as well as for what Tenenbom sees as its major accomplishment: shedding light on what he considers the true nature of European foundations and their presence in Israel.
“There’s a facade of peace and love but it’s all hate and hate,” he said. “The Europeans hate the Jews, they don’t even know how much they hate the Jews. It’s so embedded in their culture, so ingrained in them and that’s what everybody sees but nobody sees.”
Once he completed the seven months of interviews for the book, Tenenbom and his wife rented a penthouse in Tel Aviv, where he took the smallest room in the apartment, one without any windows, and wrote for 18 hours a day until he couldn’t move anymore.
“I couldn’t take one day off because then it wouldn’t work,” he said. “The trick for nonfiction is that it should read like fiction, like a story. Otherwise it becomes brainy and you can’t read it.”
When the book was translated into Hebrew, all the right-wing papers loved it, while the left remained quiet, said Tenenbom. When he received a good review in Haaretz (in addition to a negative one), he was clearly elated, even though Tenenbom remarked that he “blames Haaretz in the book for all the ills in Israeli society.”
In Germany, “Catch the Jew!” (called ‘Alone Among Jews’ in German) hit the Spiegel bestseller list. As for Tenenbom, he’s happy it’s been able to cross borders.
“It’s all been word of mouth, and that’s been amazingly good,” he said. “I think it helped that I introduced humor to the subject; it’s not very brainy, and that makes the reader like it.”
Tenenbom is thinking about his next book, something about the United States. He’s not sure what he’ll do, but he wants to let the wind carry him. His focus? What Americans think of themselves. Do they consider themselves one nation? What is their relationship with the rest of the world?
“It’s a lot bigger, it’s pretty impossible,” he said. “I want to be in the south, and the north, but not New York, because that’s not America.”
It’s uncharted territory for the former Haredi from Bnei Brak, but a logical next installment for Tobi the German.