The Moral Lives of Israelis explores the last ten years of life in Israel, a sixty-one-year-old country that has never not been in a state of war. The last words given to David Berlin by his father, a Sabra who had fought for Israel's independence, were not words of love for his son and his grandchildren, but this command: "Look after my little country." These words set off a huge voyage of exploration and remembrance for Berlin.
The result is a thrilling blend of memoir, reportage and original thinking on the place of Israel in the world. The fundamental question that floats over every page of this passionate book is, with so many missteps and in a region deeply fraught with antagonism, racism and misunderstanding, how can Israel move forward? After many dead ends and twists and turns, it is the nineteenth-century visionary father of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, who ultimately sparks Berlin's dream for Israel in the twenty-first century--it is Herzl's insistence on a secular and cosmopolitan state that Berlin sees as a way to move beyond.
David Berlin's brave inquiry brings a startling new perspective to a question that resonates well beyond the borders of Israel.
Excerpted from The Moral Lives of Israelis by David Berlin. Copyright © 2011 by David Berlin. Excerpted by permission of Vintage Canada, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
20 Writerly Questions for David Berlin
1. How would you summarize your book in one sentence?
The Moral Lives is a memoir about an elusive future which we Israelis are pursuing.
2. What inspired you to write this book?
The last words which my born in Israel father said before he died in a wan hospital near Tel Aviv were “take care of my little country”. The book was my way of doing him the honour.
3. How long did it take you to write it?
4. Where is your favourite place to write?
I write in a small room on the second floor of our home in the Annex. But I think while I walk and I walk everywhere and always.
5. Did you do much research?
I read everything I could get my hands on, travelled back and forth to the Middle East a dozen times: interviewed every political leader and thinker who would see me, drove all my friends and family crazy with questions that were driving me crazy.
6. If there was one book you wish you had written what would it be?
I should have liked to write Nietzsche’s Posthumous collection. I would have written it differently.
7. What’s the best piece of writing advice you have ever received?
Avoid talking to yourself; Chanel: pose a question to yourself and then wait till the answer begins forming. If that takes forever, then wait forever.
8. If you could talk to any writer living or dead who would it be, and what would you ask?
I would have loved to talk with both the British historian Tony Judt and with the American philosopher Richard Rorty.
9. Do you listen to music while you write? If so, what kind?
No. My wife is a violinist and I try not to listen to her either.
10. Who is the first person to read your manuscript?
My wife, in part because she is absolutely not interested in anything I write. If I can somehow get her through the manuscript then, at the very least, I know I have created an interest rather than exploited one that someone else created.
11. Do you have a guilty pleasure read?
To read anything while I am writing is to feel the rub. But I wouldn’t give up reading my weekly New Yorker and New York Review of Books, even if it meant that I had no choice but to drown the guilt in gallons of expensive single malts.
12. What are you reading right now?
At the cottage this last weekend I read Camus’ recently published The First Man and Richard Gwyn’s John A.
13. What was your favourite childhood book?
As a kid I read all the time. Early on I loved Norse and Greek Myths. In my early teens I read Ian Fleming and J.D. Salinger, and Ken Kesey and then I got into the South Americans and the Russians and the New Journalists and and and.
14. Were you always interested in writing?
Yes. That, sex and music.
15. What do you drink or eat while you write?
Almond butter. I eat lots of Almond butter.
16. Typewriter, laptop, or pen & paper?
Typewriter? No longer. Laptop, pen and paper, sometimes chisel and stone.
17. What did you do immediately after hearing that you were being published for the very first time?
I was very young and it was a poem that I more or less cribbed from Dylan Thomas. I spent the next year hoping Thomas wouldn’t find out.
18. What was the most surprising fact you uncovered while writing your book?
One day I woke up and found out I wasn’t who I had always thought I was. It was like Samsa waking up to find he had turned into a cockroach. That is what happens when you screw around inside. Luckily I threw a four and a three rather than cats eyes.
19. If readers learn one thing from your book, what do you wish it to be?
That things with Israel are not as they seem – that for all the often crazy and heartless stuff we read about - there is still something far more serious going on there than is usually written about in our philosophies.
20. What is the best gift someone could give a writer?
From the Hardcover edition.
I came to Israel because I thought the new state was all about getting it right: Zionist thinkers and political leaders were brimming with cosmic ambition. They seemed intent on showing the world what it means to create a country that is at once a secure state and a refuge, a welcoming new home for strangers. To my adolescent eyes it seemed clear that such an experiment would necessarily entail establishing the best modes of social, political and economic organization. Secular Jews in Israel would insist on such things, driven by the prevailing idea that Jewish morality itself needed to find secular expression. The concept that drew me in, along with hundreds of thousands of Jews and non-Jews alike, was the possibility that we could show the world what it means to found a country upon this morality, which Judaism had long ago introduced to the world.
This was the intense, and I'd argue virtuous, spirit that permeated Israel at the time. Which is not to suggest that when I arrived in Tel Aviv in the late summer of 1969 everything was perfect. It was, in fact, far removed from the rather blurry image that I had packed into my duffle bag when I left my parents' home in Toronto. But it was also a good approximation, a believable beginning. There was, to my chagrin, not a single decent snooker table, not a single croissant or movie theatre in all the land. And yet this experiment in creating a state spilled forth sufficient promise to keep us all there, noses to the grindstone, or in my case for the next three years, eyes to the sights of a rifle, as I did my stint in an elite unit of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF).
Every scholar and artist, every social activist and politician, seemed bent on looking in on Israel's grand experiment, seeing for himself what exactly was happening there, trying and failing to define precisely where it was that this country thought it was headed. For the next few years—until October of 1973 and the Yom Kippur War—this idealistic spirit of experimentation was everywhere. It was present in the twinkling eye of our grandparents, in the cold, witty pragmatism of my parents' generation, and in the innocence of my own generation, who had not experienced and were not privy to the real story of the great conflict between "our" version of the war of independence and the "Naqba," or Catastrophe, which was how the Palestinians remembered things.
From the Hardcover edition.