Ron Leshem and his imagination

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Israeli journalist and novelist Ron Leshem was surprised to hear that the American Jewish World reprinted his opinion article on the “tent protest,” the ongoing demonstration for social justice, that has rocked the Jewish state since mid-July (“Israel’s only chance for a liberal state,” 8-5-11 AJW).

“Oh, wow. I didn’t know that it was translated at all,” Leshem responded, regarding his op-ed reprinted from the English-language Web site of Haaretz, the influential Israeli newspaper.

During a recent telephone interview with the Jewish World from Tel Aviv, Leshem discussed the massive demonstrations peopled by Israelis from all walks of life, his career as both a journalist and creator of fiction, and his upcoming appearance at the Sabes JCC.

Leshem will be the first writer featured in the Culture Blvd. — Israeli Author Series on Sept. 22. The event is sponsored by the Israel Center of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation.

Ron Leshem: Israel is like a huge mental institution — and for people who write, this is heaven. (Photo: Courtesy of Sabes JCC)

Asked for an update on the protests — often called the “J14” movement, in reference to the July 14 kickoff of demonstrations — Leshem said that the protests were continuing, but “the media is quite bored now” with the issue.

(Subsequent to the interview with Leshem, 400,000 Israelis — including 300,000 in Tel Aviv — took to the streets on Sept. 3 in what was reported to be the largest demonstration in the nation’s history.)

Recalling the op-ed reprinted in this paper, Leshem expressed his criticism that Israelis have not “acted like a community.” He said that various sectors of society have demonstrated for redress in the past, but failed to gain mass support.

“We don’t have a community life, and society cannot live for long without solidarity and community life,” Leshem explained about his article. “None of us went to the streets when the social workers were fighting; and they lost this fight.”

He critiqued the recent protests for emphasizing economic grievances (the cost of infant formula, motorcycle insurance and rent), but generally steering clear of demands for political change.

“They are afraid to be seen as left-wing… I don’t think it’s a right or left issue,” commented Leshem, who added that the current government is comprised of both left-wing and right-wing factions. “We really deserve better leadership.”

The upsurge in activism, with Rothschild Boulevard the scene of a tent encampment stretching for blocks, is a change for young secular Tel Avivans, whom Leshem characterized as “so apathetic,” and focused on body worship, going to the beach and dining in trendy restaurants. Before J14 exploded, only the “shutting of a sushi bar” would spark a protest.

When he comes to Minnesota, Leshem likely will be asked to comment on the social turmoil in his homeland; but he intends to address “the writing process in Israel” when he speaks at the Sabes JCC.

“Israel is really like a huge mental institution,” Leshem remarked, “with really horrible doctors… and everyone comes from a different disaster, a different catastrophe, a different exile.”

The analogy of the Jewish state as an asylum doesn’t sound so appealing; but “for people who write, for people who create, this is really heaven,” said the 36-year-old author, who is best known for his 2006 novel Beaufort.

The book is about a contingent of Israeli soldiers manning an outpost in southern Lebanon (the Crusader-era Beaufort castle), in the waning days of Israel’s occupation. Leshem won the Sapir Prize, Israel’s top literary award. The film adaptation of the novel, which Leshem co-authored with director Joseph Cedar, was Israel’s entry as best foreign language film in the Academy Awards. It also took the best director award at the Berlin International Film Festival.

Regarding Beaufort, his novel and screenplay, Leshem said he served in the Israel Defense Forces, but was posted to Tel Aviv. He got the idea for the story after talking with Israeli soldiers posted in the Gaza Strip, who recounted their experiences in Lebanon.

Leshem also has worked as a journalist, and was a senior editor at the Israeli dailies Yediot Achronot and Maariv, prior to 2006, when he became the deputy director for content and programming at Channel 2 (Keshet), Israel’s main commercial TV network.

Now he is on “vacation from being an executive,” he said. “It’s a very exciting period in my life.”

The engaging writer also mentioned his second novel, which has not been published yet in the United States. The book’s Hebrew title is Megilat Zchuyot Hayareach, which Leshem said translates in English to The Lunar Bill of Rights. It has different titles in French and German; and the U.S. edition will be called The Amateur Revolutionary.

Like Beaufort, the novel is based on fact and a specific place — in this case, Tehran.

The novel is from the point of a 19-year-old in Tehran, a character who comes to the big city from a small town on the Caspian Sea and meets others in Tehran’s underground youth scene.

As an Israeli, of course, Leshem has never visited Iran. Rather, he befriended some Iranians on Facebook. “I finally met them in Europe,” he recalled. “Young Iranians are not easily allowed to leave the country.”

Leshem said that he wrote the book with his “two and a half” friends in Iran. “We started a process,” which allowed Leshem to imagine what it would be like living in Tehran.

“What would I have done if lived in a place where women are being stoned to death for adultery, and gay people are being executed… and women are not allowed to sing or ride a motor bike?”

Leshem might have more to say about his imaginary life in Tehran, when he addresses the audience at the Sabes JCC next week. He looks forward to an exchange of views.

“They told me that it’s going to be an open discussion,” he said. “I’m really excited for this meeting.”

Ron Leshem will appear 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 22 at the Sabes JCC, 4330 S. Cedar Lake Rd., St. Louis Park. A reception with light refreshments and a book signing will follow his presentation. Tickets are $12 for general admission, and $10 for students, seniors and JCC members. For tickets and group orders of 8 or more, contact the JCC box office at 952-381-3499 or e-mail: tickets@sabesjcc.org.