The Arty Semite

Embezzlement Drama Wins Israel's Top Literary Prize

By Beth Kissileff

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The biggest point of contention with this year’s Sapir Prize, Israel’s equivalent to the Booker, was who the judges were and how they came to their shortlist of five nominees. But controversy should not take away from the achievement of winner Noa Yedlin for her “Ba’alat Bayit” or “House Arrest,” her second novel. Yedlin works as a journalist and is currently the deputy editor of the weekend magazine of the Ma’ariv newspaper; her first book was a collection of her columns “You ask, God replies” (2005), and her second a novel, “Track Changes” (2010). As winner, Yedlin will receive a 150,000 NIS prize, translation of her novel into Arabic and into another language of her choice.

The novel is about a family from the elite Ashkenazi echelons of Jerusalem society and their house on Al-harizi Street in Rehavia, a prestigious and older neighborhood, quiet and leafy. The Fogel’s 40-year-old son, Asa Fogel, a divorced and unemployed PhD in New Age culture from a critical perspective, lives there and pays rent to his mother, Elisheva. She is a professor and the head of a prosperous center for peace studies. She is also accused of embezzling 3.4 million shekels from the research institute. The Fogel siblings, a real estate agent and a psychiatrist who is developing a reality TV show to give psychiatric advice to adolescents, fall out on different sides of the question about the guilt of their mother. Asa, is most entangled — his ex-wife had an affair with the journalist who first broke the embezzlement story and he does not know whether his mother is using him as a cover for her own dealings or not.

Shira Atik has translated the first section of the novel into English and Yedlin’s agents will be seeking a publisher for the English version. In an email to the Forward Atik wrote: “The thing that stands out most in my mind about translating her book is that it made me laugh out loud, something I don’t easily do. Her book offers us a glimpse into a certain segment of Israeli society, and her insights deserve to be taken seriously, but she never loses her light touch and her sense of humor. She was also a pleasure to work with. I’m so happy to hear that she won the Sapir Prize.”

The other short-listed nominees were Yishai Sarid for “Naomi’s Kindergarden,” Dror Mishani for “A Possibility of Violence,” Yehudit Katzir for “Tzila” and Ora Ahimeir for “Kallah/ In Search of my Mother’s Secrets.”
The winner for best debut novel was “Oksana” by Merav Nakar-Sadi, a sociologist and professor at Beit Berl College. The novel is a tale of foreign workers in Israel and it includes actual sociological data between chapters. In her acceptance speech, Nakar-Sadi said that though her work is fiction it is based on the real lives of women like Oksana.

There have been many questions over the years about the judges and their connections to the authors. In 2009, the prize to Alon Hilu was revoked because jury chair Yossi Sarid (father of Yishai Sarid, one of this year’s shortlisted candidates) was the uncle by marriage of Hilu’s editor, Rana Verbin, and also had business dealings with his publisher, Yediot Books, both not disclosed when he was appointed head of the committee. This year, as in the past, the names of the judges were revealed only at the ceremony held and televised February 5 in Tel Aviv.

But in the end, these prizes are about connecting readers with books. Shira Levy is an aspiring writer who works at the Sipur Pashut bookstore in the Neve Tzedek neighborhood of Tel Aviv, and as one of the editors of a Hebrew version of the Granta literary magazine that will be published in May, knows as much as anyone about Israel’s literary scene. She wrote in an email that “We definitely feel that the exposure helps people become aware of contemporary Hebrew writing. After the nominations and the awards there is a lot of interest in the books and the writers involved and of course it’s always nice to see local writers being supported and appreciated.”


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