Omer Friedlander is the author of the short story collection "The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land." (Photo/Yam Traiber)
Omer Friedlander is the author of the short story collection "The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land." (Photo/Yam Traiber)

Debut short-story collection by young Israeli writer is One Bay One Book choice 

The short stories that make up Omer Friedlander’s “The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land,” this year’s selection for the Jewish Community Library’s One Bay One Book program, are tightly written, intimate portraits of lives lived in Israel. Not accounts of larger-than-life heroic lives or devastatingly tragic lives bound up in the constant political violence, but beautifully crafted tales of individuals from many backgrounds reaching out for love and connection across ethnic and religious boundaries.

One story recounts an elderly Jewish farmer’s memories of his boyhood friendship with a Palestinian neighbor, a relationship that ends in betrayal. Another describes the acrimony between two young girls in a ma’abara, one of the tent camps for new Mizrahi immigrants established in the early years of the Jewish state. Another brings to life the alte sachen, men who hawk used furniture and other junk they pull through the streets on wagons, a type familiar to anyone who has lived in Israel.

All the stories are set in Israel, but while the country’s troubled history is always present, it’s not the focus.

“The stories aren’t linked, but together they create a big picture about life in Israel, a very satisfying sense of place,” said library director Howard Freedman, who sits on the One Bay One Book selection committee. “It’s very direct writing, very attuned to the life of the individual. Even though there’s sometimes a strong historical or political backdrop, the focus is on the inner life of the characters.”

The committee, composed of library staff acting with input from the community, selected “The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land” from a long list of more than 40 new books, Freedman said.

All the stories are set in Israel, but while the country’s troubled history is always present, it’s not the focus.

Born in Jerusalem, Friedlander, 28, now lives in New York. He earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Cambridge University and an MFA from Boston University. Published in April, this is his debut collection, although several of the stories have won prestigious awards on their own. The title story, about a Tel Aviv con artist who sells bottled air to gullible tourists, won Moment Magazine’s short fiction award in 2020.

“I was really happy to discover him,” Freedman said. “He’s very good, very young and very Israeli.”

Friedlander also writes in English, which is a growing trend among young Israeli writers, Freedman noted. (He cited Ayelet Tsabari and Shani Boianjiu as examples.) That’s partly practical, a way of reaching a larger audience and helping control the translation process. (Books written in Hebrew are usually translated into English, and that English version is used for all further translations.) It’s also a literary device writers can use to distance themselves from the subject matter, something Friedlander references in interviews.

One Bay One Book focuses the Bay Area Jewish community on a single book across an entire year of discussions, culminating with an author appearance in May. This fall and winter there will be virtual discussions of short stories by several Israeli writers, including Friedlander. Events focused specifically on “The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land” will take place next spring.

The program debuted in 2012-2013 with Nathan Englander’s short story collection “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.”

“The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land” can be ordered from Afikomen Judaica in Berkeley and online retailers. A limited number of books are available through the Jewish Community Library’s Book Club in a Box program.

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].