May 17, 2011
Hebrew lit club agrees to disagree
Although it feels like an art gallery — with its dark wood floors, white walls and oversize paintings — this Beverly Hills condo is home to another kind of art for the evening. Between a cream-colored leather sofa and a dining table obscured by colorful appetizers are two rows of chairs. On many of the chairs, Hebrew books sit waiting.
“Shalom aleichem [peace be upon you],” each person said in greeting as they entered.
This word-of-mouth club for Los Angeles-based Israelis meets at alternating members’ homes once a month to discuss Hebrew-language fiction by Israeli authors. Recent discussions have included works by S.Y. Agnon, Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua and Amichai Shalev. With 60 people on the mailing list, attendance at club meetings averages around 30 people; tonight there are 24. After 22 years of coming together, the members of this club have become, in many ways, like an extended family — sometimes grumbling over annoyances, but offering support whenever needed. New members and visitors are also welcome to attend.
“We all know each other so well,” said Orna Yaron, who, along with her husband, Meir, helped start the club in 1989. “We analyze the literature, but everybody comes from his own experience. It’s like group therapy sometimes.”
In discussions, Yaron said people often bring their life events into the issues that arise. “Sometimes it’s very personal … you learn about people’s background, family life and history, how their views are formed and their political background,” she said. “Many times, as I read the book, I guess how different people will relate to the issues, because I know them.”
The club keeps the group connected. “It’s a social event with much more, because we discuss different issues,” Yaron said. “I like to meet people for social purposes, but it’s nice to have intellectual discussions as well.” Ten of Yaron’s good friends are also in the book club; aside from monthly meetings they also get together for parties, hiking, singing nights, folk dancing, movies, theater, family events and Shabbat dinners.
“Here, you run into people that enjoy reading Hebrew; it’s a rare breed,” Uri Talil, a real estate investor and the club’s informal organizer, said. “For most people in the group, friendships are there to start with — a friend brings a friend.” Talil introduced one of his best friends to the club four years ago.
“Israelis are very forceful and straightforward,” he said. “A lot of times, we do things that Americans don’t do, like calling people on their s—- and asking direct questions. We pick people’s brains but also console people when needed.” Talil recalled a time two years ago when a longtime member’s husband died; 30 club members went to the funeral.
Without the literature discussion, however, Yaron said she wouldn’t go to monthly meetings. “I go to discuss what I read, and it’s always interesting,” she said. “I sit with people who love reading and who read quite to the depths. It’s very exciting to me; I personally gain a lot.” Yaron said roughly half of the members have participated for more than 10 years.
“It’s like any other social group — some people help you learn, and some are windbags that just talk with their head,” Talil said. “They always think that they are smarter, brighter and know best. For the most part, they’re full of it. It’s usually the people who do know what they’re talking about that don’t need to flaunt it — they’re confident.” He said what really gets people going in the meetings is the same as with any social gathering — politics.
“Listen, we are political creatures,” he said. “When I came to America, I was told to avoid two subjects in mixed company: politics and religion. I didn’t know what else you would talk about!”
Group moderator Deborah Steinhart, who holds a doctorate in comparative literature from UC Berkeley, said: “When politics arises, it’s a mess. Yet, the literature today is still really political; you can’t avoid it really — it’s a small country with a lot of trouble.” Still, the group tries to avoid politics in its discussions.
“The meeting conversation is limited to literature, but from time to time we do touch on politics because of the book,” Talil said. “Sometimes it’s interwoven and hard to separate.”
A recent book, “Goof Shaynee Yacheed” (“Second Person Singular”), by Arab Israeli novelist Sayed Kashua, focuses on how Arab Israelis see their identity as citizens of Israel. “It was all political, so of course we discussed it,” Yaron said. “We try to be careful, because politics can create a lot of tension, but we’ve learned to be polite to each other.”
Talil said the group mostly supported “peaceful cooperation with Arab Israelis and reception to the Palestinian narrative.” Most of the group leans to the left, promoting peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors with a resolution to the conflict, including pre-1967 borders and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. Only two or three people, Talil said, lean right politically, advocating Jewish settlement of the West Bank.
“We generally don’t speak about specific events, unless it was the main news that day,” Talil said. “Nothing for us is really major news. We pretty much know [that] whatever happened has been happening for 25 years and is going to happen again.
“Nobody has a good answer — they forgot a long time ago what they’re fighting for,” said Talil, who identifies as politically left. “It’s all about, ‘You hurt me, now I hurt you.’ When two people are caught on a narrow bridge, nothing happens.”
Though direct political discussion is avoided in book club meetings, it became clear to Talil that people nevertheless wanted to talk about politics. Last year, he started a subgroup of the book club to do just that. At the first meeting, 30 people came to discuss the Kibia affair — a 1953 Israeli reprisal to avenge the murder of a Jewish mother and her two children that resulted in the killing of more than 60 Arabs in the Jordanian village of Kibia. At the next meeting, which is not yet scheduled, the group plans to discuss the assassination of Rudolf Kastner in 1957. He was accused of collaborating with the Nazis in Hungary during the Holocaust, and although he was found guilty in 1955 by an Israeli court, the Supreme Court of Israel overturned the judgment in 1958.
“I like most of the people — well, actually, I like all of the people in the club, even though we don’t always agree,” Yaron said. “What [the members of this] club have in common is that we love to be involved with Israeli culture. I love to read all the new books, but it also gives me a connection to my homeland.”