Interview'When I wrote them, I didn't think anyone would read them'

Israeli writer brings his homeland to life in new English story collection

27-year-old debut author Omer Friedlander, now living in New York, paints vivid pictures of characters, tales and times gone by in ‘The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land’

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel

Author Omer Friedlander and his new book, 'The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land.' (Yam Traiber)
Author Omer Friedlander and his new book, 'The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land.' (Yam Traiber)

A bereaved mother monitoring soldiers at checkpoints. A shoemaker’s son who climbs cranes and water towers in the dark of night. An IDF soldier holed up in Beirut in 1982.

In “The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land,” a new collection of short stories published this week by Omer Friedlander, these characters and more dance across the page in 11 snapshots of life in Israel from past and present.

Friedlander, a native of Jerusalem who grew up largely in Tel Aviv, is making his publishing debut with a work in English, writing his tales in a language that is not quite his mother tongue.

“I think it’s a way of being both familiar with a place but also having a bit of an outsider’s point of view when I write in English,” he told The Times of Israel in a recent interview. “I think it creates a little bit of distance, which allows me maybe to write about it in a way that’s more clear or at a different angle.”

The stories in the collection range widely in setting, tone, time period and narrator, tied only loosely together by a connection to the State of Israel. Protagonists include a young Iranian immigrant girl in an absorption tent city in Israel in 1950, two brothers awaiting their father’s return from fighting with the IDF in Gaza, an old man in an orange grove in Haifa carrying decades of guilt — and, in the titular story, a father and his little girl peddling bottles of “holy air” to rich tourists.

Friedlander, 27, described his choice to write in English as something that “wasn’t a decision really.” Though he grew up in Tel Aviv, he spent two years in Princeton, New Jersey, as a child of academics, and later completed a BA in English literature at the University of Cambridge in England before earning an MFA from Boston University.

As he works, he said, “I write notes to myself — a lot of times they’re in Hebrew — and when I’m actually writing it’s in English… I guess I think in both [languages].”

With an audience of English speakers, Friedlander — who signed a two-book deal with publishing giant Random House that has him working now on his second publication, a full-length novel titled “The Glass Golem” — worked to achieve the authentic feel of a Hebrew-speaking environment while providing clarity for English speakers.

Immigrants at a transit camp in Israel, 1950. (Jewish Agency/Wikipedia)

“I think it is a sort of balance… it was something that I was thinking about, and also when I was working with my editor we were thinking about it together,” he said. “Certain things I did need to put into context, but I also didn’t want to give up a certain kind of authenticity,” he added. “I wanted it to be clear to the audience even if they aren’t familiar with the place, but also, I didn’t want it to be some kind of tour guide.”

Despite almost every story being set in the Jewish state, Friedlander said he did most of his writing overseas, though with the fabric of the country firmly imprinted in his subconscious.

“The stories definitely aren’t autobiographical in any way,” he said. “So it’s not exactly memories that I’m using, but… I spent most of my life there and grew up there. So I think, it is certain details, or certain ways that people would act or say things, even if it isn’t particular memories.”

But while many are pulled solely from his imagination, Friedlander said a handful of the stories in “The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land” do trace back to personal experiences.

The story “Alte Sachen” (“Old Things”) about two brothers who work as scrap dealers in the holy city of Safed, was loosely inspired by Friedlander’s own time in the city while he was completing his national service.

“I did spend a year there, and it was a very important year for me,” he said. “I met a lot of people that are very different to what I was used to in Tel Aviv… the city itself and sort of everything made its way into the story, even though I didn’t meet two brothers who were ‘alte sachen’ [scrap peddlers] but I think something about that year definitely influenced the story a lot.”

A view of the northern city of Safed (Alana Perino/Flash90)

In “The Sephardi Survivor,” a pair of brothers jealous of their Ashkenazi classmates attempt to find a Holocaust survivor to bring to school on Remembrance Day. That story, said Friedlander, traces back to a conversation he had once with Israeli friends in Brooklyn.

“We were just talking and one of them who’s Iraqi was saying, almost as a joke, but also seriously, that he did feel sort of jealous of his classmates that had relatives” who were survivors, the author said. And after thinking about it, Friedlander said he understood the sentiment, “because it is essential to Israeli and Jewish identity. So I thought it was very interesting, and it was a kind of a way of exploring the memory of the Holocaust.”

“The Miniaturist” focuses on two young girls from Iran living in an immigrant absorption tent city in Israel in the 1950s, each descended from rival families who worked in manuscript illumination.

That story, said Friedlander, was inspired in part from a chance meeting with two Iranian brothers in Israel selling carpets and vases and other items, and in part by his maternal grandmother’s immigrant story, who came from Egypt and stayed in such a transit camp for about 18 months.

“She really doesn’t talk about it, so it’s something that I sort of knew, but never talked about with her,” he said. While he was writing the story, he said, “I did call her and tell her about it a little bit, but she was still hesitant to talk about it just as kind of a trauma.”

As the stories touch on themes of war, conflict and historical wrongs, Friedlander is aware that some may place his work under a microscope seeking a political stance or identity.

An illuminated manuscript of the Mishna, part of the Palatina Library’s De Rossi collection, dated to the 11th century. (Courtesy: National Library of Israel)

“When I was writing the stories, I didn’t think anyone would read them,” he said. He penned them mostly long before he signed with an agent and inked a book deal. “And it gave me a certain freedom to write about things that have a lot of weight, and they’re sensitive.”

While crafting each story, he said, “I didn’t want it to be a political manifesto or a debate. I wanted to sort of enter through character, rather than politics.”

But at the end of the day, he said, he is simply writing fiction, plain and simple.

“I don’t see myself as a politician or a historian or someone who is trying to advocate for a certain position,” he said. “With writing, you’re first of all a storyteller.”

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