A Magical Evening: Etgar Keret at the JCC

I'm a big fan of Etgar Keret, and I missed his reading last year at the 6th and I Street Synagogue, so when I see he's going to do a reading at the Jewish Community Center, I ask a friend if she wants to go.

And she says, Who?

He writes supershort stories based on magical ideas, I explain. Seaside restaurants that serve talking fish, small bouts of insanity passed among friends, that sort of thing. The stories are always hilarious, and he tells them in simple language, you know, like the way people talk. Another thing, I say, is that his stories don't really have endings. They go on for a while and then just sort of stop.

And my friend says, "Sure. Sounds great." So we go.

The JCC is built like an ancient temple, and after we've climbed the front steps, past a cardboard replica of the building that has been soaked and battered by the rain, we discover that the main entrance door is always locked, and that the real entrance is around the corner. Which is strange, but fine, although what's more strange is that we had walked right by the side door, with its cordoned entrance maze and banners overhead, and had somehow not even seen it.

Inside the JCC we go through a dark hallway that leads to a theater. The stage is set to resemble the corner of a private library, with two curved-back club chairs, an elegant rug, and a little table for drinks.

Keret is appearing with his buddy Nathan Englander, another great short story writer who also has a book out. The JCC's Lili Kalish Gersch introduces them with the best author introductions I've ever heard. Her trick is to not say anything about the writers themselves. Smart. Because the audience already knows who the writers are, right? So why mention it? I'm not kidding, it was a great introduction.

Gersch also explains that the talk was made possible by the Serendipity Fund, a gift from longtime JCC supporter Marjorie Watson.

"Marjorie's only rule," Gersch says, "is that there be rugelach at every event. So, later, there will be rugelach."

Keret starts by reading a story. It's the interior monologue of a writer being interviewed in his home by a German public television reporter and her crew. The reporter asks the writer to sit at his desk and write something. "At first," the writer says, "I just made believe I was writing, but she said it wouldn't work. People would be able to tell right away that I was pretending."

The writer's son returns from kindergarten and gives him a hug. The hug seems real, even though the boy knows he's on camera -- the kid's a natural. The writer's interior monologue begins to wander. He talks about how, since the death of his upstairs neighbor's wife, the upstairs neighbor is always being visited by whores. His son stops the whores in the hallway of the building and asks what animal they are.

"And they get it right away," the writer says, "and throw out the name of an animal: an elephant, a bear, a butterfly. Each whore and her animal." Other people don't catch on, but the whores just go along with it, he says.

The writer begins to wonder if, the next time he is visited by a film crew, he should bring in one of the whores to play his wife. "They look great," he says. "Cheap, but great. And my son gets along with them better, too." The reason the son doesn't get along so well with his mother, the writer explains, is that whenever he asks her what kind of animal she is, she says, "I'm not an animal, sweetie, I'm a person. I'm your mommy."

"'Great,' the German reporter says. 'I love it. The crease in your forehead, the frenzied keystrokes." She asks for another shot of the boy running up to hug the writer. After a few more lines, the story is over.

Englander reads another story from Keret's book, called The Story Victorious, which begins with the line, "This story is the best story in the book," and goes on to describe why the story is, in fact, the best story ever written.

When Englander rejoins Keret they have a conversation. It's just like a real conversation, except they are holding microphones and are also partly talking to the audience.

Keret explains that he wrote the story about the writer and the German public television crew after he was interviewed in his home by a German public television crew. The television reporter asked Keret to pretend to make coffee, then pretend to drink the coffee he had pretended to make, and then pretend to talk on the phone, all of which he did. But when the reporter asked him to pretend to write, he balked.

"I came a long way with you," he told her. "I pretended to make coffee, drink the coffee, all of that. But I can't pretend to write. It doesn't work like that."

"Why not?" the reporter asked. "I've filmed lots of other writers. Salman Rushdie, Philip Roth. They all pretended to write for me. Why are you so special that you can't do it?"

"And I'm the children of Holocaust survivors," Keret explains to the audience. "And, you know, the thing about being a survivor is that you have a lot of guilt. So I immediately felt guilty, and told her that I would pretend to write for her."

Keret tells other stories, each as strange and funny as his fiction. Like the story about the time he was at a dinner party with the mayor of Cologne, Germany, and his hand began to shake. (Keret's hand shakes whenever he begins to worry that his hand will shake.) Keret's shaking hand caused him to spill his glass of wine, which prompted the mayor to confess that a member of his family belonged to the S.S.

He talks about his late father, who used to say proudly that he had served on the front lines of six wars but had never hurt anyone. He tells the story of the moment he realized he wanted to be a writer, a story so hilarious and absurd and beautiful that telling it here would feel like stealing, so I'm afraid I can't repeat it. (Sorry.)

What I'm saying is, Keret has a gift for recognizing the absurdities in life and translating them into fiction. It's amazing how he does it.

"Writing is kind of like surfing," he says, in answer to another of Englander's questions. "You go out there, and hang out, and wait for a story to come. When one comes, you jump onto it, and try to ride it out. If you can stay with it, until the end, you have a story. It might not be a great story, but it's a story."

He also likens writing stories to trust falls, the exercises actors and couples in therapy sometimes do.

"You fall," he says, "and you trust that the story will catch you."

After the reading, caterers with silver trays of rugelach work the crowd. The signing line is long but moves quickly. Keret signs his name but, instead of writing a dedication, quickly sketches a portrait of each person in line. Nathan Englander tells me it's the last city on their North American tour. To be honest, he and Keret do look a bit worn down.

Later, at Massa 14, the maitre d' tells us we can't sit out front without ordering dinner, but that we're welcome to have a drink on the rooftop bar. He gestures to the central staircase in the restaurant, which I had always assumed was a purely decorative structure. But why had I thought that? Who builds a central staircase as a decoration?

When we get to the roof, it's like walking into a dream, with the night sky above and everyone in the bar looking happy and making so much noise. We circle the roof, thinking for a moment that the bar will be full, but in fact there's one table left. It's sitting in the corner, all alone, just like it had been waiting for us.