Iddo Netanyahu’s first-produced play, “A Happy End,” about a Jewish couple living in Berlin on the eve of World War II, will premiere in Los Angeles May 21 as a staged reading at The Museum of Tolerance. Here he talks about also being a doctor, why writing shouldn’t be a full time pursuit and why his position in Israel’s most prominent political family would never prompt self-censorship.
Professionally, you are both a doctor and a writer. Did you feel you needed a more practical, economically stable career in order to also pursue the writer’s life?
You can’t become a good writer without devoting to it plenty of time, and fortunately my medical career has enabled me to do so. But beyond that, I’m not even sure it’s a good thing to be a full-time writer. You’ll be lacking life-experiences, and with them the substrates that feed your writing. And by being an outsider of sorts to the writing “community”, you’re less likely to be mentally and psychologically locked into the ruling notions of what constitutes acceptable writing. Such notions can be devastating to original thinking, without which there can be no good writing.
One of your early published works was “Yoni’s Last Battle” about the raid on Entebbe which resulted in the rescue of Israeli and Jewish hostages but the death of your brother. You also worked on publishing a book of his letters, a collection of poetic missives he had written over the course of his life. What did you learn about writing from reading your brother’s prose?
I have no doubt in my mind that while working on compiling the letters and preparing them for publication I came under the influence of Yoni’s way of writing – not only because of his clean, clear prose, but also by the originality and depth of his musings and descriptions. He was able to unconsciously achieve great literary beauty, which is doubly amazing because he often wrote the letters on the fly, when he had a few spare moments to jot something down.
Describe the political sensibility of your fiction.
I don’t go much for fiction which tries to “lecture” us and “educate” us on how we should be thinking, politically or otherwise. It often becomes a form of propagandizing, and when it does so, it’s just plain boring. Which doesn’t mean you can’t have politics in art – it really all depends how it’s done. In fact, I myself wrote a satire about Israel, “Itamar K.”, which certainly relates to political thinking and events there.
The medical profession also has elements of art to it. Is being a good doctor more about science or creativity?
Creativity is certainly necessary for medical research, but that’s a different thing from day-to-day medical work. Being “creative” when treating patients? Very dangerous.
Your first short story was based on an account of an experience you had in the Israeli military. Because of your brother’s position as Prime Minister, and your family’s national prominence, do you ever feel you have to censor yourself when writing about Israel?
I never censor myself. But you don’t need to be the brother of a Prime Minister to go the route of self-censorship. All you have to do is succumb to what is considered “correct” thinking by the powers-that-be. When you do that, which happens all too often, you stop being an artist and become something else, perhaps something closer to a politician. While politics is a fine career for those who like it, it’s not art.
What’s the hardest thing about being a writer?
Not having enough time to write. A true artist finds it intolerable not to be able to create, because you feel there are important and interesting things inside you that you want to communicate to the world – and to do so in an artistic form.
Your play “A Happy End” is about a couple living in Germany on the eve World War II who amongst mounting tensions in Berlin must decide whether to stay or go. Do you worry audiences will roll their eyes at another World War II story?
Not once they see it. And it’s not a WWII story at all, not even a Holocaust story. It’s much about how we perceive events around us, how we truly judge them and what role self-delusion might play in our most important decisions – and in the case of case the Berlin couple a life-and-death decision. The play is set in the shadow of the Holocaust only because that way I could be sure that the audience knows what choice the couple should be making. All playwrights, when they write about the past, are really writing about today.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that with the play’s premise, the title is probably ironic. Do you believe in happy endings?
We certainly have happy moments in life. But life flows without a break – not until we die – and so by definition there is no “ending”, happy or sad. That’s one of the reasons we are so drawn to stories and plays and such things, since they represent contained pieces that do indeed have endings of sort and so provide us with something we crave so much.
Some say Jews are not an optimistic people because we’ve lived through too many horrors. Your father Benzion might have agreed with this, since he famously told The New Yorker, “Jewish history is in large measure a history of holocausts.” Would you say your family has a hopeful outlook even if not an optimistic one?
To be a Zionist, by definition, means to be hopeful – to believe in your power, as a nation, to change the course of your own history, and to be able to stop the cycle of holocausts, whether the numerous and horrible mini-holocausts throughout the ages or of the huge one in WWII. To be willing to struggle for your survival and national prosperity, despite the costs, is to me being optimistic. So yes, the optimism is there, without a doubt.
What book had the most influence on you?
Hard to say, but probably Anna Karenina. I’m afraid I’m not very original here.
Would you say you’re more attracted to comedy or tragedy?
Oh, definitely to both. I love the full range of the human experience which I try to express also in my writing.
Why’d you become a writer to begin with?
It just happened one day on its own. Who knows what motivates the human soul? That’s what’s so interesting about being a writer – the search inside ourselves is endless.
“A Happy End” premieres Monday May 21. Museum of Tolerance. 9786 West Pico Blvd. No charge, but advance reservations required. 310-553-9036 or register online at www.museumoftolerance.com/ahappyend