Writer Ayelet Gundar-Goshen is teaching a semester-long course on Israeli arts at S.F. State University, spring 2018. (Photo/Courtesy Schusterman Visiting Artists)
Writer Ayelet Gundar-Goshen is teaching a semester-long course on Israeli arts at S.F. State University, spring 2018. (Photo/Courtesy Schusterman Visiting Artists)

SFSU visiting novelist Ayelet Gundar-Goshen tells Israel’s story through its arts

On a campus with a reputation for conflict, dissension and dogma when it comes to Israel, the arrival of Israeli novelist Ayelet Gundar-Goshen to San Francisco State University offers something of a counterbalance.

The award-winning author of the novel “Waking Lions” is teaching a semester-long class in the Jewish studies department, where she is introducing students to the complicated psyche of the Israeli people through the study of contemporary Israeli writers. In this way, she hopes to offer American students a more nuanced picture of Israel than they might get from the headlines. “Our culture is much more divided and diverse and rich,” she said.

The 35-year-old writer is a Schusterman visiting Israeli artist, a program of the Israel Institute that for 10 years has brought prominent Israeli writers, filmmakers, musicians and choreographers to teach in colleges across the U.S., with the aim of inspiring a deeper understanding of Israel.

cover of Waking Lions by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen

Gundar-Goshen’s class, “On the Cultural Frontlines: Contemporary Trends in Israeli Art,” is an introduction to some of the exciting new writers working in different mediums, from film and television to fiction and poetry. “Everybody already knows about Amos Oz,” she said, referring to one of the nation’s more famous literary voices.

Gundar-Goshen will interview some artists in class via live video links: people like Avner Bernheimer, who wrote the screenplay for the award-winning film “Yossi and Jagger,” depicting a love affair between two male soldiers; poet Orit Gidali; and Yoav Shutan, a writer for the TV series “Kipat Barzel,” about three ultra-Orthodox men who choose to serve in the IDF.

Students also will see how Orthodox Judaism and the LGBT community are represented in Israel, be exposed to Mizrachi voices and feminist works, and learn how artists approach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Fred Astren, chair of the Jewish studies department, said Gundar-Goshen is an exciting addition to the program. “On this campus, where the emphasis often goes to the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict, this is an important corrective,” he said.

“I wish I could take her course,” said Marge Goldwater, program director for the Schusterman visiting artists program.

Gundar-Goshen herself could be in any syllabus about new and gamechanging Israeli artists. “Waking Lions,” her second novel in English, published last year by Little, Brown in a translation by Sondra Silverston, is generating international attention.

The novel is set in Beersheva, where a neurosurgeon driving at night accidently hits and kills an Eritrean refugee. The dead man’s wife blackmails the doctor into working at an underground clinic while the doctor’s wife, a detective, tries to figure out what happened to the victim. The New York Times called it “part psychological thriller, part morality play” and later named it one of the 100 notable books of 2017. Tablet magazine said it was one of seven new works of Jewish fiction to read that year. The book was the co-winner of the Wingate Prize, awarded by the U.K.-based Jewish Quarterly. The film version, with a screenplay by Gundar-Goshen, is currently in production.

“Waking Lions” is also being turned into a television show — albeit with a different setting. The American show will be set in Beverly Hills instead of Beersheva. It will be produced by Gideon Raff and Israeli production company Keshet, the team behind the Israeli drama “Prisoners of War” (which inspired the U.S. show “Homeland”).

Gundar-Goshen is also the author of “One Night, Markovitch,” which won the prestigious Sapir Prize for debut fiction in 2013, as well as “The Liar and the City,” not yet available in English. As if that’s not enough to keep her busy, she’s also the mother of two young children and a working psychologist.

“There’s such a direct link between writing and doing therapy,” she said.

But through the end of this semester, her focus will be on reading, thinking and teaching about Israeli arts. She’s looking forward to opening her students’ minds, and her own.

She also has public talks scheduled: one for faculty and students at UC Berkeley on Feb. 26; at Jewish Community Library on March 11; at San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El on March 13; and at the Contemporary Jewish Museum on May 17.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.