The “People of the Book” are the People of the Torah. But Jews don’t only love the Torah – they love all kinds of books. “Book Week” is beginning in Israel, when book buying reaches a crescendo. In just about every city of the country, you’ll find crowds of book lovers flocking to outdoor book fairs, lured by the discounted prices on the season’s new book, as well as on classics from the past. To put our Jewish Press website fans in the mood for a little book reading as well, we’ve decided to interview our new blogger, Tzvi Fishman, who is also a popular and prize-winning novelist, about some of his books and the role of literature in Jewish life.
Yishai Fleisher: Let’s start out with your popular novel, Tevye in the Promised Land. In Israel, it’s been a longtime bestseller. Especially in the national religious community, everyone’s read it, adults and young readers alike. For Jewish Press readers who may not be familiar with the story, the novel begins where “Fiddler on the Roof” left off, with Tevye the milkman and the Jews of Anatevka being expelled from their beloved village. Your action-filled adventure brings Tevye and his family to the Holy Land where he becomes a pioneer builder of the Land. What motivated you to write the story?
Tzvi Fishman: When I became a baal tshuva and left Hollywood, I felt bad about leaving Tevye behind in galut. Like millions of other Jews, I loved Sholom’s Aleichem’s famous character, as if he were a part of my own family. When I saw the film of “Fiddler” as a totally assimilated teenager, it blew me away. Outside of the movie “The Ten Commandments,” it was the first time I had ever seen something “Jewish” on the big screen. I fell in love with the character. His lively relationship with God gave my soul a poke that awakened something Jewish inside. I didn’t become a baal tshuva on the spot, but the movie planted the seeds. When I finally made aliyah, I wanted to bring Tevye along with me, to share in the incomparable blessing. So I repainted the character and set him in the middle of the amazing pioneer saga of how Israel was reborn.
YF: You hear a lot of people claim that aliyah is difficult, but no one has ever encountered more challenges than Tevye. He faces highway robbers, storms at sea, mosquito-infested swamps, plagues of malaria, Turkish thieves, marauding Arabs, locusts, secular Zionist suitors who sweep his daughters off their feet… yet he always clings to his incredible faith in God.
TF: Just like the Jewish People. He’s a symbol for all of us. The trials he faces are a miniature version of the trials we have had to face as a People throughout Jewish and in rebuilding our homeland.
YF: Your book of humorous and satirical short stories about Jewish life in Israel and the Diaspora, Days of Mashiach, was recently published in France. How did that come about?
TF: Among the avid lovers of Tevye in the Promised Land was a person who worked as French translator. She took it upon herself to translate the novel, which was subsequently published in France. When the book sold a lot of copies, she translated my book of short stories and some non-Jewish publisher grabbed it, which is sort of a miracle because the book is super right-wing, religious, pro-settlement Israeli. But the publisher insists that the stories have a universal message and compares my writing to Kafka and Voltaire, whatever that means.
YF: It means he thinks you’re a good writer. In your novel, The Discman and the Guru, you have your young Holden Caulfield-like protagonist, Sam Singer, set off from LA on a quest to find God which takes him to London, Paris, Rome, India, Mecca, and finally Jerusalem, where he nearly sets off World War III for trying to pray on the Temple Mount. Is his journey autobiographical?
TF: Every writer writes about himself to a certain extent. Some of the adventures in the book happened to me. Others I invented. The scene where he climbs the wall of the Temple Mount is something I’ve thought of on several occasions, but never had the guts to do.
YF: Young readers especially enjoy your novels. Are they your target audience?
TF: Not really. I think that came about because I wrote an illustrated book, The Kuzari for Young Readers, which is used in schools to teach the basic ideas contained in Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi’s original classic on Jewish Faith. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of good kosher Jewish literature around, and I suppose that young people like my fast-moving, movie-like style of writing.
YF: Your newest novel, Dad, seems geared for the whole family. It tells the story about a harried, well-meaning father with a nervous wife and 5 wild kids, who also does his best to take care of his aging parents, a mother struggling with Alzheimer’s Disease and an irritable father whose life is falling apart. If there was an award for honoring one’s parents, your fictional hero would win hands down. Any resemblance to you in the story?
TF: The book jacket features a photo of me escorting my parents to a senior citizens club. It’s a challenge we all have to face as our parents get older. In my case, when my Mother started showing the early signs of Alzheimer’s, and my Father couldn’t deal with it alone, I flew to Florida, packed up their bags, put their house up for sale, and took them on aliyah, so they could be close to us in Israel. After the plane landed at Ben Gurion, and we were driving toward Shilo, where I was living, my mother looked out the car window and remarked, “For Florida, there sure are a lot of signs in Hebrew.” Because of their many medical needs, we moved to Jerusalem and found a building with two adjacent apartments. Taking care of them with my Mom’s worsening condition, and with the battery of doctors they needed wasn’t easy, but I’m sure it wasn’t easy for them to raise me and my brother, so it all comes full circle. That’s what the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents is about. When I wrote the novel after my Dad passed away, I set it in America so that my family wouldn’t be embarrassed by all of the intimacies that I revealed. So, in answer to your earlier question, yes, writers write a lot about their personal lives.
YF: What’s the role of Jewish literature? Now that you are religious, why do you continue to write novels and not just Torah commentaries like your popular books on Rabbi Kook?
TF: Rabbi Kook writes that it is precisely literature which will awaken up the spiritual sensitivities of mankind, when the writers of Israel undergo a process of inner purification and tshuva. In other words, when the Philip Roths, Norman Mailers, and Joseph Hellers stop hating themselves and their Jewish mothers, and sit for a few years in yeshiva, instead of adding best-selling heresy to the world, their books will bring mankind closer to God. This is what I try to do in my novels, to give the reader a fun, well-written adventure filled with the spirit of tshuva, Torah, and emunah.
YF: Through literature, dafka?
TF: Not everyone can relate to the intellectual heights of Torah. The majority of people operate from an emotional level. That’s why the Writer of Writers, the Holy One Blessed Be He, brought us out of Egypt with miracles and wonders and trapped us at the Red Sea with Pharaoh’s army in fierce pursuit. Imagine the tension! Thunderous waves and a foreboding black ocean on one side, and the murderous Egyptians fast approaching with their chariots! Talk about action! It was to bring us to an overwhelming, emotional catharsis of faith, so that the tension and fear, followed by our great relief at seeing the Egyptians drown in the sea, would plant the belief in God eternally within us, not only in our minds, but in our kishkas as well. That’s something that the emotional power of good literature can do as well.
YF: Hatzlacha with your books and happy “Book Week” to everyone!
About the Author: Yishai Fleisher is a Contributing Editor at JewishPress.com, Chief Editor at JNi.media, talk-show host, and International Spokesman for the Jewish community of Hebron, an Israeli Paratrooper, a graduate of Cardozo Law School, and the founder of Kumah ("Arise" in Hebrew), an NGO dedicated to promoting Zionism and strengthening Israel's national character. Yishai is married to Malkah, and they live on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem with their children.
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