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09/09/2022 11:43:20 AM


Snapshots of Israel

By Robin Jacobson, Library & Literary Programs Director

Israeli author Omer Friedlander, only 28 years old, made a stunning entrance onto the literary stage this past spring. Big-name publisher Random House published his debut short story collection, The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land, and announced that it would also publish Friedlander’s upcoming novel. To add to the excitement, the prestigious One Bay One Book program run by San Francisco’s Jewish Community Library selected The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land for its 2022-23 book.

Even if you’re not usually a short story reader, try one of Friedlander’s beguiling tales, set in Israel in different locations and time periods. In the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee, you can encounter intriguing characters and explore Israeli communities rich with culture.

An Israeli Author Writing in English

Born in Jerusalem in 1994, Omer Friedlander grew up in Tel Aviv, except for two years spent in Princeton, New Jersey, as a small child. Friedlander’s parents are academics – Tel Aviv University professors Eli Friedlander (philosophy) and Michal Grover Friedlander (musicology). Friedlander’s paternal grandfather, Saul Friedländer, is a renowned Holocaust scholar honored with the Israel and Pulitzer Prizes, among other notable awards.

After completing his Israeli national service, Friedlander studied for three years at the University of Cambridge in England, receiving a BA in English literature, before earning an MFA from Boston University.

As a native Israeli, Friedlander is often asked about his decision to write his first book in English, rather than in Hebrew, his mother tongue. In a recent interview, Friedlander explained: “Writing in English gives me some distance from [my] home. It allows me to do more probing, to see Israel’s strange contradictions and complexities more clearly.”

Portraits of Israeli Lives

Although Friedlander’s stories encompass Israel’s wars, tumultuous history, and current conflicts, these are mostly in the background. Friedlander says he chose to focus on the  personal struggles and longings of individuals  – the universal human experience.

Some of the stories in The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land stem from Friedlander’s own life. The story Alte Sachen (Yiddish for “old things”), about two grief-stricken brothers continuing their late father’s junk-collecting business, was sparked by Friedlander’s childhood memories of hearing the early morning alte sachen call from the street beneath his window. Friedlander decided to set the story in Tsfat, with its distinctive blue-domed synagogues and narrow cobblestone lanes, where he served during his national service.  

A conversation with an Israeli Iraqi friend inspired The Sephardi Survivor. The friend confided to Friedlander, that, as a child, he had felt jealous of Ashkenazi classmates who had Holocaust survivor relatives, which had become a status symbol of sorts.  In Friedlander’s story, two brothers of Sephardi heritage befriend an elderly Holocaust survivor and try to convince him to pretend to be their grandfather for the school program on Shoah Memorial Day.

The Miniaturist, about two young girls from Iran living in a refugee absorption camp in Israel in the 1950s, is partly based on Friedlander’s maternal grandmother’s painful experience after emigrating from Egypt to Israel.

The title story, The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land, riffs off a classic Jewish archetype, the luftmensch, a man of impractical dreams, to create the character of Simcha. This con artist sells empty bottles of “holy” air to naïve tourists. Simcha relies on two loyal sales assistants: his young daughter, Lali, and Lali's one-eyed cat, Moshe Dayan.

The stories are laced with sensitivity, compassion, humor, and whimsy – and all share a strong sense of place – the age-old, yet ever-new Land of Israel.



Fri, July 19 2024 13 Tammuz 5784