Stories with Happy Endings:
In the summer of 2014 – after a conflict that caused many Israelis, Jews and Arabs, to feel a growing despair for the possibilities of peace – prominent Israeli Palestinian writer Sayed Kashua announced his plans to immigrate to America. Afterwards, in a public exchange of letters, Kashua wrote to Etgar Keret, a popular Israeli Jewish author, to further discuss his decision. The two, longtime friends, discuss their lives and families among lingering possibilities of peace and coexistence while expressing exhaustion with continuing violence and conflict.
Sayed Kashua’s original statement about leaving Israel and the exchange of letters between him and Etgar Keret that followed occurred in the aftermath of two major events in the summer of 2014: the kidnapping and murder of three teenage Israeli boys and a retaliatory kidnap and murder of a Palestinian boy; and Operation Protective Edge, an IDF campaign in Gaza. Background information on these two events will provide some context for the entire piece. See:
- The Kidnappings
- Operation Protective Edge (to come)
Background on Sayed Kashua
- An Israeli Palestinian writer, born in 1975 in the city of Tira, in the “triangle” region of Galilee, where a majority of Israel’s Arab citizen’s lives. His father was a bank teller and political activist and his mother was a teacher. He is married to Najat Kashua and they have three children.
- Kashua was first exposed to Jewish Israelis when he received a scholarship to attend a prestigious Jewish boarding school in Jerusalem for high school. He then studied at the Hebrew University. Afterwards, Kashua and his family lived in both Arab and Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem.
- Kashua writes in Hebrew and says he is more comfortable in Hebrew than Arabic. He writes across many genres – including novels and weekly newspaper columns. Kashua is also the creator and writer of the popular television show Arab Labor. One of his novels, Dancing Arabs, was adapted into a movie. His work tends to focus on the experience of being Palestinian in Israel, and is often darkly satirical.
- His main audience is Israeli Jews and foreign readers. He is controversial among Israeli Palestinians, many of whom accuse him of “selling out” to Israel and using cheap stereotypes to betray his own people in order to make Jewish Israelis laugh.
Suggested video: Kashua on writing in Hebrew: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u-Ukrd2JRDo.
Suggested supplement: A toolkit discussion guide provides more information on the works of Sayed Kashua. It is geared towards teachers of literature who may be interested in delving deeper into his works. This can be done in total or in part.
The Decision to Leave
On July 19, 2014, Kashua published a piece in London’s The Guardian entitled “Why I Have to Leave Israel.” While he had been planning to leave Israel for a one year sabbatical at the University of Illinois, in his op-ed, Kashua said that he was now committing to a permanent move:
“The original plan was to leave in a month for a year's sabbatical. But last week I understood that I can't stay here any longer, and I asked the travel agent to get us out of here as fast as possible, "and please make them one-way tickets."
– Sayed Kashua, “Why I Have to Leave Israel”
Kashua’s announcement caused shockwaves and received extensive publicity both in Israel and abroad, especially because of his commitment to Jewish-Arab coexistence in Israel. Many of his admirers were upset to hear that one of Israel’s most popular writers emigrated to America. In Israel, emigration (at least of Jews) has been seen as an act of abandonment and rebuke—a decision to abandon the national project. While the taboo of emigration is less acute today than in the past, much of the cultural resonance still lingers.
In reading Kashua’s article, challenge your learners to consider questions like:
- List and define any terms or people you hadn’t encountered before.
- What is Kashua’s argument?
- Who is his audience?
- How does the essay challenge you? What feelings did you have as you read it? How is it similar to, or different from, what you’ve previously read about Israel, especially Israeli Arabs?
- What is the role of books, literature, and language for Kashua? Catcher in the Rye plays a prominent role in the essay. Why is this novel so powerful for Kashua, and why does he give his copy of the book to his daughter? If you’ve read the book, think about how you reacted to it. How was your reaction similar to Kashua’s, or different?
- How did Kashua’s family influence his decision to leave Israel?
- Kashua lived in West Jerusalem, while most Israeli Arabs live in East Jerusalem. How does this affect him and his family? Have you ever been a visible minority in your neighborhood?
In a public exchange in the New Yorker magazine in September 2014, Kashua explains his decision to his friend and Keret responds. They speak about despair, coexistence, and the role of narrative. The letters also talk about the details of everyday life – from cucumbers to pizza toppings and the wonders of outlet malls. They are normal letters in a not-normal context.
Before engaging with the letters, it is important for your learners to understand the personalities of both Kashua and Keret. If your students have not experienced Section 1, a brief biography of Kashua is included there.
Background on Etgar Keret:
- Jewish Israeli writer, born in 1967 in a suburb of Tel Aviv. His parents were Holocaust survivors. He lives in Tel Aviv with his wife, Shira Geffen, and their son. He started writing during his army service to combat his boredom and depression.
- He is most popular for his short stories, some of which are very short at less than a page. He writes in informal, slangy Hebrew, and focuses on the absurdities of daily life. His style is radically different than earlier Hebrew literature, which was often more formal and concerned with grand questions of Zionism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He also writes children’s books, graphic novels, and essays, and has worked in television and film.
- Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Everything Is Illuminated, and a close friend of Keret’s, feels that it is precisely Keret’s insistent lightheartedness that makes him so admirable. “Hebrew is a very hard language to not make sound difficult,” Safran Foer said. “I took a class with Amos Oz once, and he said that trying to write in Hebrew is like trying to whisper in a cathedral. Etgar has learned to whisper.”
Suggested video: Ira Glass and Etgar Keret in conversation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sSdG3XNxYCA.
Suggested supplement: A toolkit discussion guide provides more information on the works of Etgar Keret.
Both men’s work has been translated widely and both enjoy large international audiences. The writers have been close friends for over a decade.
The four letters are divided into two parts. They are complex and challenging, and may elicit a strong reaction. Encourage students to note their reactions and assure them that they will have a chance to react after discussing the letters themselves.
Ideally, students will read all four letters before being assigned to think more deeply about one of them. If the letters are read outside of class, discussion questions may also be incorporated as part of that assignment to include short reflective at-home writing.
One way to analyze the letters is to trace the use of common themes and ideas within them. The thematic labels can help facilitate comparison between the letters and how they treat similar ideas. Possible areas of focus include how the Israeli public – Jewish and Arab – is affected by the conflict, and the possibilities of a normal life under abnormal situations.
Ideas you may want to consider include:
- Their use of language and their writing styles
- The importance and symbol of family
- The use of fiction and narratives
- The way they understand the place of immigrants and their views on America
- How they think about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
- How they describe/form their identity
- The emotions they convey
While we’ve created a worksheet that can be handed out to students, these questions can also become the basis for facilitating in-class discussion.
Questions to consider in the first letter – Sayed Kashua:
- How have Kashua’s children and wife adjusted to their new home? What role did his children play in his decision to leave Israel?
- In this letter, Kashua again explains why he left Israel. In what ways is it similar to what he wrote in The Guardian column? In what ways is it different? To what can we attribute these differences?
- Kashua asks Keret for hope in the form of a story with a happy ending. How do you respond to stories with different types of endings? Do you always prefer happy over sad? How do you think stories (with happy or sad endings) can help us understand and deal with all kinds of conflict?
- Kashua is currently teaching Hebrew literature at the University of Illinois. How does he describe what it’s like for him to teach Hebrew in a place so far from Israel? What role does writing in Hebrew play for Kashua in his identity as a writer? What role do other languages such as Arabic and English occupy? Do you feel different when you express yourself in a language other than your native tongue?
Questions to consider in the second letter – Etgar Keret:
- What does Keret think of Central Illinois? How does it relate to what he thinks about America? What do you think America represents to these two writers? How does it relate to your own understanding of America, especially considering the larger role of immigrants in American and American Jewish history?
- Why do you think that Keret tells Kashua that his son Lev loves Champaign more than any city in the world? What do you think are the keys to quick assimilation? Think about people you know who have moved or emigrated.
- Keret’s letter includes “a story with a happy ending.” He writes in the genre that he is most famous for, the very short story. What do you think Keret is trying to say about the conflict? Why does the narrator’s wife reject the possibility of moving to America? What about the three-state solution? What role do writers have in this short story? Does Keret succeed – is this a story with a happy ending? Is it even a story? What role does it play in the larger exchange of letters?
- What is the importance of coats for both writers? Can you think of any objects that have special meaning for you?
Questions to consider in the third letter – Sayed Kashua:
This letter is the most difficult, in terms of the content and required outside knowledge. You may want to give your students some additional assistance in unpacking it.
- What do you think is the point of the anecdote about corn?
- Kashua cannot find any hope in Keret’s letter. Why? Do you agree?
- What are Kashua’s fears about Israel? What does he think the basis of the conflict is? Why does he reject the idea that it’s not about space?
- How does Kashua explain his comparison to South Africa? Do you think it’s helpful or harmful?
- Despite his criticism, Kashua argues that he still cares about Israel. Do you understand or empathize with him? Are his concerns different than those of a Jewish Israeli? How does he respond to the idea of Arabs as a fifth column, a minority group that undermines the majority group from within?
- What is the role of “ordinary people” for Kashua in the conflict?
- Why is Kashua bothered by questions about ISIS? What does he feel they imply?
- The letter ends with a discussion about emoticons and punctuation. How does it relate to the larger ideas expressed in the letter? About writing?
Questions to consider in the fourth letter – Etgar Keret:
- Keret argues that the issue isn’t fear, but despair. What does he mean? What role does he say violence plays? What do you think of this view?
- Why is despair so dangerous? Does the same danger apply to both sides?
- Keret says Kashua will always be Israeli and includes him in his analysis. What do you think of that? How does this relate to Kashua’s identity?
- Keret argues: “Israel is the stronger side in this conflict, and, as such, it is the only side that can truly initiate change. And to do that it has to part company with that despair, which, like many other kinds of despair, is nothing but an ongoing self-fulfilling prophecy.” What do you think he’s trying to say here? Do you agree? Do you see parallels in history -- in the Middle East or elsewhere? Why does Keret think despair will fail?
- Keret ends with an anecdote from his son. What is the message? What role does his son’s story play in Keret’s larger message?
- Keret has the last word. Does that matter?
There are many ways students can successfully reflect on these letters. Some questions you might want to consider:
- What is your reaction to the letters? Are you moved? Offended? Angry? Depressed?
- How is this different than, or similar to, other things you have read about the conflict?
- What is the effect of reading personal perspectives on your understanding of the conflict?
Depending on your goals, your educational environment and your students, there are many types of projects and/or assignments that can conclude these sections, including:
- Have your students write their letters to Kashua and/or Keret, in order to add their voice into this conversation. Letters that use the methodology of the ones they’ve read (personal perspective, facts, emotion, storytelling, etc.) would be the most powerful. In the letters, they can speak of their feelings on reading the New Yorker magazine letters, or their memories of this time.
- In “For Sayed Kashua, life in the U.S. is good. But still...,” his Jan. 4, 2015 editorial in Haaretz, Kashua reflects on the decision he made six months prior, and the decision about whether to go back to Israel at the end of the year or not. How can we understand comments made in the midst of crisis (whether personal or collective) and what changes when time passes?