Selling Bottled Air to Tourists in the Holy Land
Omer Friedlander's short story collection is about outcasts of Israeli society searching for intimacy and connection
Like the scrap collector in one of his stories, Omer Friedlander’s prose sifts through the junk of this world to find those whimsical elements that are otherwise overlooked. Rich in imagery and sprinkled with humor and spice, The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land conjures intimate and inventive portraits of Israeli life. Even though Friedlander is only 27, his debut short story collection glides through imagination, reality, and history with the maturity and elegance of a Jewish grandmother’s Shabbat lunch. Seeing right through the small talk around the steaming pot of cholent, Friedlander brings the unseen to the fore, paying tribute to the crumbs on the floor, the twitch of an uncle’s mustache, and the two cousins playing footsie underneath the table, who will forever associate brisket and beans with a kick in the shins.
I first became acquainted with Friedlander’s work during a jazz performance held in a Tel Avivi backyard. After the first set, the upright bassist was approached by an old teacher from his high school, who immediately asked about a certain Omer’s whereabouts. By way of eavesdropping, I found out that the musician, Elam, had a twin brother based in my hometown, New York City, who wrote stories in English about the country in which we both felt like strangers at home. I skipped out on the second set and speed-biked home, where I located the title story of his collection, “The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land,” online, and spent the rest of the evening devouring any material I could find. I was immediately taken by the sensitivity of Friedlander’s approach to character, setting, and detail, and have been looking forward to the release of this collection ever since.
Geffen Huberman: Let’s talk about the title of your collection, The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land.
Omer Friedlander: The title comes from one of the stories in the collection, which follows a divorced con-artist who sells empty bottles of “holy” air to gullible tourists, together with his young daughter and her one-eyed cat named Moshe Dayan. The father takes the form of the traditional diasporic Jewish archetype of the luftmensch, the man of air, a kind of impractical person who can’t make any money, and the only way he can sustain his relationship with his daughter is through these get-rich-quick schemes and his over-developed imagination. I wanted the title of the collection to give a sense of the tone of the stories, kind of absurd, whimsical, and irreverent, fable-like sometimes, and it also locates us in a very specific place.
GH: In your work, there are characters who collect objects, sometimes things that seem like junk to others but to them has special meaning.
OF: Objects are very interesting to me as a writer because they can function like capsules for memory. They’re etched with the personal history of their owner. I think it becomes even more fascinating when the story attached to the object is invented.
In my story “High Heels,” a teenager working at his father’s shoe-repair shop in Tel Aviv is fascinated by a pair of high heels kept on the top shelf of the store. According to his father, the heels belonged to Franceska Mann, a Polish-Jewish dancer who died in the Shoah. Franceska really did exist. I came across an account of her life and this was the inspiration for my story, and yet the boundaries of fact and fiction in her case have become blurred. In the most famous account of her story, Franceska performed a striptease to distract a Nazi officer, then stabbed him in the eye with the tip of her heel, stole his pistol, and managed to fire a few rounds before she was shot. In another account, she was believed to be a Nazi collaborator. No one really knows exactly what happened, and this is an amazing opportunity to write into the gaps of the conflicting historical accounts.
In “Alte Sachen,” two brothers who are junk collectors struggle with the burden of the memory of their dead father. The memory of the father is contained within a recording device, and they listen to his mechanical voice over and over again. The younger brother believes his father’s spirit is literally reincarnated in the object. I’m very interested in objects acquiring significance because of their history, or in objects being imbued with meaning by their owners through the act of storytelling.
GH: Many of your stories deal with characters on the fringes of society. Why do you think you’re attracted to writing about these unlikely encounters: a love story of a Jewish girl and a Bedouin boy, a friendship between an Arab and a Jew?
OF: The stories in the collection are filled with characters that are outcasts. Junk collectors, con artists, smugglers, loners, and people who, though still alive, seem to only haunt the world. The characters are all looking for intimacy and human contact, yet constantly face the difficulty of shedding their roles. The stories explore the possibility, difficulty, and hope for relationships across divides and boundaries, political and physical borders, between generations and collective identities.
The characters that populate the stories often struggle with an inherited weight of memory, negotiating the burden of living in a war zone during times of violent conflict. But the stories mostly don’t aim to portray directly the violence that constitutes their background landscapes. Rather, they explore private moments of fragile intimacy that are formed through humor and absurdity, and an eye for the grotesque and fantastic in the midst of what for others are sharply drawn lines of conflict.
With such loaded subject matter, I think it was very important for me to approach the stories through character and with empathy. I wanted to avoid it becoming a lecture about politics. It’s my job to raise questions, not to provide easy answers, so I never write in order to make people change their mind about anything. It makes me think of Amos Oz, who had two pens on his desk. One pen to tell stories, and another pen to tell the government to go to hell.
GH: The theme of imagination, of contriving an alternate reality, is salient throughout the stories. Can you speak on the relationship between imagination and writing?
OF: Imagining an alternate reality is definitely a preoccupation of some of the stories, but not in the sense of escapism. I think writing a slightly skewed, absurdist world which is fabulous and fantastic and unreal, at least in the conventional sense, sometimes allows us to see more clearly the strangeness of our own world. When Kafka writes that Gregor Samsa woke up one day as a cockroach, it may not be realistic, but the emotion feels so true.
I think of writing as a form of play. You have to be able to be seriously playful (or playfully serious) even when you’re writing about the most politically charged topics. My writing process is one of discovery. My stories aren’t planned out in advance. It’s a bit like improvisation in jazz. My twin brother and many of my close friends are jazz musicians. They improvise on a certain melody or theme. My writing is the same, at least in the earlier stages of drafting, I’m improvising, seeing where the story takes me.
The theme of imagination is also related to my interest in fables and fairy tales, which comes from my father, who collects old, illustrated children’s books. When I was growing up, I remember my father going to flea markets and used bookstores to scavenge for these books. What I find exciting about fairy tales is that they offer the possibility of metamorphosis, transformation. There’s an instability in fairy tales, boundaries are blurred.
When you’re writing fiction, the world may be invented, but the emotional core behind it is always true. Etgar Keret says humor for him is related to empathy. It appears in times of conflict and despair. It’s like the “airbag in a car,” released only in a state of emergency.
Writing allows us the possibility to imagine a different world. If we can’t imagine anything different, we are doomed to despair, to be stuck in a purgatory of the status quo.
GH: Your stories, some of which are historical in nature, directly deal with topics integral to the Israeli canon such as the Holocaust, but with a refreshing, somewhat distanced perspective.
OF: I remember my final-year high school history exam in Israel, it was all about the Holocaust. The way it was taught was problematic. It was this petrified, nationalist symbol. When I was writing about it, years later, I knew that I needed distance and humor. One of the stories in my collection, “The Sephardi Survivor,” is about two brothers who are jealous of their Ashkenazi classmates whose grandparents and relatives are Shoah survivors. It was inspired by a conversation I had in Brooklyn with some Israeli friends. One of my friends, whose family is from Iraq, said that growing up he’s always been jealous of his Eastern European Ashkenazi classmates, who had relatives that were Shoah survivors. It was such a strange, but understandable, sentiment. To be jealous of another person’s suffering was an odd idea, of course, but the Shoah has such prominence in all Israeli discourse, it strangely becomes a kind of social cache, a matter of prestige to have relatives that are Shoah survivors.
In my absurdist story, the brothers decide to kidnap a survivor, Yehuda, to bring to class for a school “Show and Tell” on Holocaust Memorial Day. The story frames the memory of the Shoah in an unusual way, that is absurd and ironic, but more importantly, it focuses on the individual, the human. It’s not abstract, it’s not numbers in a textbook, it’s a person, Yehuda, with his own eccentricities, flaws, and tender longings. This is what fiction can do—it can transform the abstract into the intimate.
GH: Your mother tongue is Hebrew. Why do you write in English?
OF: My decision to write in English, whether conscious or not, has to do with me feeling like both an insider and an outsider in Israel. I have never felt like I truly belonged in Israel, even though I was born in Jerusalem and grew up in Tel Aviv. And yet, even though I feel like a stranger sometimes, it is still my home, the place where the people’s way of laughing and being friends and getting into arguments is most familiar to me. Writing in English allows me a certain distance that is necessary in order to be more probing and ironic, to see all the strangeness and particularity of a place, with its many contradictions and complexities.
Some of my favorite writers write in Hebrew. It’s a fascinating language because it was used for prayer and ritual for two thousand years. It was a holy language, and it was considered sacrilege to even ask for a glass of water in Hebrew. It was revived as a spoken language only in the 19th century, and the gap between Biblical Hebrew and its modern day equivalent is probably not as large as Chaucer’s English and today’s English. As Amos Oz says, Hebrew is a minefield of Biblical allusions. When you’re writing a domestic scene about a son asking his parents for pocket-money, you have to be careful not to bring in Isaiah and the Psalms and Mount Sinai. It is like playing music in a cathedral, he says, there are a lot of echoes.
Hebrew is also constantly changing and adapting. Many of the new slang words introduced into the language come from military jargon, which is so prevalent in day-to-day life in Israel. As Yehuda Amichai writes:
“to speak now in this weary language, a language that was torn from its sleep in the Bible…a language that once described miracles and God, to say car, bomb, God.”
In his poetry, Amichai was always finding new ways to combine the vernacular, everyday Hebrew with the weight of Biblical resonances, creating playful juxtapositions between the sacred and the profane.
GH: You’ve mentioned a number of Hebrew-language authors: Grossman, Oz, Keret, Amihai. Do you view your writing as a continuation of the Israeli literary tradition?
OF: I love the work of Oz and Amichai, but I don’t know whether I’m writing out of this particular tradition. If I am part of a tradition, maybe it’s that of writers that write in a language other than their mother tongue. Maybe it has to do with feeling out of place in your own home. I think many writers have a kind of internal restlessness. They don’t feel at home anywhere. Even at home they’re strangers, but that’s the only way they’ll have the perspective to see clearly.