These are the facts: Rachel Shihor is an Israeli writer. She is a professor of philosophy and an accomplished academic. Two of her novels, The Tel Avivians and Yankinton, have been published in Israel. Days Bygone, a series of excerpts f...
These are the facts: Rachel Shihor is an Israeli writer. She is a professor of philosophy and an accomplished academic. Two of her novels, The Tel Avivians and Yankinton, have been published in Israel. Days Bygone, a series of excerpts from Yankinton, is her only work to date that has been published in English. (See this profile of her in The Quarterly Conversation.)
Up until April of this year, that was about all I had been able to discover about this remarkable writer. Meanwhile, everybody I talked to about Shihor’s work had confessed to being captivated by her language, and expressed their hope, to a man, that more would be available for them to read soon. The verdict is clear: Shihor’s fiction is one of those rare gifts readers may encounter once every few years: writing to linger over, to discuss, to share.
I contacted Rachel in April and was delighted when she agreed to meet me in Tel Aviv, both to talk about her work and to learn more about her life. This interview is the result of that meeting and an ensuing email correspondence.
It is also my great pleasure to announce that her collection of shorts, Stalin is Dead, will be published by Sylph Editions in November 2013.
— Mona Reiserer
Many of your novels are set in Tel Aviv. Of course, there is The Tel Avivians, and inDays Bygone the narrator remembers her childhood in Tel Aviv. Did you grow up in here too?
Well, I was born in Poland, in 1937, two years before the war. I remember the day the Germans arrived. My family was on vacation at a well-known resort, Zakopane, popular with Jews and non-Jews alike. We were in a dining room, a very large one, when we heard a cry, “The Germans are here!” All around me I heard chairs falling to the ground. Everything was in uproar, and first of all we just wanted to go home, because we were in a strange city and we needed to be at home before we could decide anything. My family and I spent a year under German occupation. I remember my mother knitting the yellow star to my coat. We came to Israel, then Palestine, in 1940: nobody could believe it when we told them that we came in 1940. I was three years old when we arrived, so yes, I did grow up in Tel Aviv. I remember it all in so much detail … many, many details. As a child of two, the sight of Zakopane – the world returned to chaos – influenced my whole life.
Most of my writing is about this connection between being peaceful and being frightened to death at the same time. It is a riddle, an absolute riddle, how the people who survived the Holocaust are still able to live. My writing is about trying to understand this.
When did you begin to write?
I began maybe 15 years ago. I always felt that I wanted to, but I did not start properly until I was near the end of my professional life. At school I was always good at writing compositions, but I was also interested in philosophy, so I made teaching it my profession. But through all that time I always felt the impulse to write fiction.
I know you have written academic papers about religion and the philosophy of religion, and your fiction too is often concerned with questions of God, belief, and the implications of belief. It seems to me that many of your characters are suspicious of belief and tend to see it as a delusion. Am I correct in this assessment?
God fulfills a very important role. And of course this topic always resurfaces in literature. You cannot read Kafka and remain ignorant of religious thought and theological questions. You cannot read The Castle, for example, and escape the idea that the human race is ensnared by hierarchies. Religion depends on these hierarchies. It depends on the fact that there are people who want to reach the castle, and their idea that reaching it will fulfill some deep and persistent need. But actually the castle is not so sacred and important; it is nasty and corrupt and disgusting. It is savagery behind closed doors.
However, the quest for the castle is not unequivocal: not ev