Personal tales

It’s all fiction for Michael Oren, when sharing his short stories

The former ambassador to the US has been writing since he was a young teen, pouring out his soul in poems, stories and screenplays

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Then-deputy minister Michael Oren reads his fiction to a crowd at Jerusalem's Tmol Shilshom on January 4, 2018. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Then-deputy minister Michael Oren reads his fiction to a crowd at Jerusalem's Tmol Shilshom on January 4, 2018. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

It has always been about writing for Michael Oren, the former ambassador to the United States, historian and currently deputy minister for the Kulanu party in the Prime Minister’s Office.

He has written books, articles and essays on Middle Eastern history and power struggles. He also, it turns out, writes fiction.

On Thursday night, a cold, rainy evening in Jerusalem, the salon with bookish flair at cafe Tmol Shilshom was packed with people waiting to hear Oren’s short stories, read by Oren and interspersed with his anecdotes and tales of growing up in suburban New Jersey.

His stories, heavy on detail and channeling the tones of Philip Roth, whom Oren mentioned as a personal literary hero, displayed a different side of Oren and his interests, which range from archaeology and special needs to some deeply personal stories.

“For something like four-fifths of my life, I’ve been a writer,” said Oren. “I was a disaster as a kid; fat, slow, I spent a lot of time in my room. I wrote poems, depressing stuff.”

He was, however, ambitious. When he was still a young teen, Oren brought his manuscript of poems to a series of publishing houses in New York City, eventually receiving a supportive rejection letter that he remembers and recounted with vivid detail.

“Little did I know that it was the first of dozens, if not hundreds, of rejections,” said Oren, to great laughter from the audience. “Each rejection hurts, because you’re putting your soul into it.”

He kept on plugging, eventually getting published in “Seventeen” magazine, switching out of the “slow” class in school, thanks to an attentive teacher. He wrote poetry throughout high school.

He added other forms of writing, working on short stories, plays and screenplays, even working one summer as a gofer for Orson Welles.

It was after Oren moved to Israel, served in the army for an extended period of time and then taught at Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University, that he began writing about Israeli history, writing several books, including the award-winning “Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East.”

But there were novels as well, he said, including two “critically acclaimed but sparsely purchased” works, one titled “Reunion,” the other “Sand Devil: A Negev Trilogy,” both still available on Amazon.

Now he continues to write fiction, bemoaning the fact that he cannot write in Hebrew, as the “language of my soul, alas, is English.”

For now, he is working on a novel about a junior high guidance counselor in a town “a lot like West Orange,” where Oren was raised, and some science fiction, too.

“It’s an attempt to let my imagination go,” he said.

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