Shalem College
June 11, 2020

Award-Winning Novelist David Grossman Featured Speaker at “The Israel Story” Initiative

Award-Winning Novelist David Grossman Featured Speaker at “The Israel Story” Initiative
Author and Israel Prize winner David Grossman speaks to Shalem students about his novel "To the End of the Land."

In one of the most moving moments of the iconic author David Grossman’s conversation with Shalem students this January about his novel To the End of the Land, he explained that when his son Uri was killed in battle, he had yet to finish writing the book. “On the first day that I sat in mourning for my son, [the author] Amos Oz came to comfort me…. I told him that I was thinking of abandoning the novel, since now that Uri was gone, I didn’t see how I could save it.” Then, said Grossman, “Amos replied, ‘You won’t save the book. The book will save you.’”

It was a particularly fitting recollection, given the context: The conversation was part of Shalem’s “The Israeli Story” initiative, which aims to spark, through the analysis of significant works of modern Hebrew and Jewish literature, a  conversation among young Israelis about the unique Israeli ethos. Or, put differently, it’s an initiative that uses books to save young Israelis—from the dangers of not reflecting on what being Israeli means.

Now in its second year, “The Israel Story,” a joint program of Shalem College and The Asper Foundation, brings notable Israeli scholars, public figures, and authors to campus to discuss a text that reflects or has contributed to the making of a unique Israeli narrative. In each instance, students are told about the choice of book in advance and expected to read the work in its entirety prior to each event. “It’s kind of like a book club, except that one of the people sitting around the table is the author of the book himself,” says Gila Rockman, Shalem’s director of citizenship and service and the organizer of “The Israel Story” events. “We aim for that level of intimacy with both the author and the text. After all,” she concludes, “Israel’s story is their story, and these conversations transform that idea into an experience.”

This was a sentiment echoed by none other than Grossman, the Israel Prize and Mann Booker Prize winning author, during the wide-ranging talk about his life, his writing, and his complex and nuanced relationship to the country he calls home. When asked by a student whether he ever considered moving abroad after the death of his son, Grossman responded: “Everyone needs to ask himself the question, ‘Should I stay here [in Israel]’, so that afterward, he can connect to his life here in a different way,” he explained. “I live here because this is the place in which my life has meaning, to which I want to cleave. It’s a place that has relevance for me in a way that no other place does. I can travel to beautiful places and teach in all manner of universities throughout the world, but the pain of the people in those places… is not my pain. And their joy, at the end of the day, is simply not the same as mine.”

For students, discussing Grossman’s book was both an intellectual and surprisingly personal exercise—exactly, in fact, the goal of the initiative. “I loved hearing Grossman say that after this book came out, both a left-leaning and a right-leaning Israeli came up to him and said, ‘This was my story.’ I also felt that it was my story! I loved that a single book could include so many of the different perspectives and life experiences that make Israel what it is,” said sophomore Ayelet Hod. “I realized that, to my surprise, there is a story that can contain all of us.”

Daniel Dangur, also a sophomore, had a different takeaway from the event. “I connected with Grossman’s explanation of how the very word ‘narrative’ is somewhat constricting and limiting, and how we need to learn, from the lesson of the word itself, to try and free ourselves of those set scripts. Only then,” he explained, “Can we create a new order of priorities and a new future for Israel.”

These are precisely the kinds of responses for which the Asper Foundation hoped when it partnered with Shalem on the project. As Leonard Asper, chairman of the Asper Foundation, has said, “Seeing a campus full of talented, idealistic students in Jerusalem discussing a classic work of Israeli literature would have filled our parents with hope for the future of the Jewish state. As the next generation of the Foundation, it is an honor and a privilege for me and my siblings David and Gail to be part of this important venture.”