Review: The Seven Good Years by Etgar Keret

I’ve truly missed the experience that an engaging Nonfiction book evokes, so The Seven Good Years arrived in my hands at the right time. This wise, witty memoir—Etgar’s first non-fiction book, and told in his inimitable style—is full of wonder and life and love, poignant insights, and irrepressible humor.

I’ve read Keret’s short story collections (Suddenly, a Knock on the Door & The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God & Other Stories) in the past and enjoyed the experience immensely. With the news of a brand new collection dropping in Hebrew and eager to get my hands on it, I decided to check this slim book out in the meantime.

Which is why I was glad to find that The Seven Good Years reads familiar like one of his short stories. Each bite-sized chapter dedicatedly captures knick-knack themes and ideas on everything from Etgar’s three-year-old son’s impending military service to the terrorist mindset behind Angry Birds. There’s Lev’s insistence that he is a cat, releasing him from any human responsibilities or rules. Etgar’s siblings, all very different people who have chosen radically divergent paths in life, come together after his father’s shivah to experience the grief and love that tie a family together forever.

In short, I inhaled the book. It’s funny how I really tried to take my time with it, hoping to save it for the weekend, but I found that the more I read, the quicker I began zooming through the pages. Every time I put it aside, I’m convinced I remember the book to be better than it actually is, but then I start reading again and slip so easily into his writing from chapter to chapter.

It’s this passage, in particular, that I recall made me grow fond of the book’s voice:

“Before I started publishing books, I inscribed dedications only in those I bought to give as gifts to people I knew. Then one day I suddenly found myself signing books for people who’d bought them themselves, people I’d never met before. What can you write in the book of a total stranger who may be anything from a serial killer to a Righteous Gentile? “In friendship” borders on falsehood; “With admiration” doesn’t hold water; “Best wishes” sounds too avuncular; and “Hope you enjoy my book!” oozes smarm from the first H to the final exclamation point. So, exactly eighteen years ago, on the last night of my first Book Week, I created my own genre: fictitious book dedications. If the books themselves are pure fiction, why should the dedications be true?
“To Danny, who saved my life on the Litani. If you hadn’t tied that tourniquet, there’d be no me and no book.”

“To Sinai. I’ll be home late tonight, but I left some cholent in the fridge.”
“To Feige. Where’s that tenner I lent you? You said two days and it’s a month already. I’m still waiting.”

To Avram. I don’t care what the lab tests show. For me, you’ll always be my dad.”

And this passage that I took to heart because it put into words what I couldn’t explain:

“They’re a kind of meditative disengagement from the world. Flights are expansive moments when the phone doesn’t ring and the Internet doesn’t work. The maxim that flying time is wasted time liberates me from my anxieties and guilt feelings, and it strips me of all ambitions, leaving room for a different sort of existence. A happy, idiotic existence, the kind that doesn’t try to make the most of time but is satisfied with merely finding the most enjoyable way to spend it.”

This is exactly what keeping Shabbat means, for me.

However, as much as I enjoyed his silly writing, his approach to certain topics rubbed me the wrong way. The main that came to bother me, which I quickly noticed had a recurring theme in the book, was his not-so-subtle hatred for religious Jews. It shows quite apparent when Keret talks about his sister, who made tshuva by “discovering religion” which he, time and again, refers to as: “Nineteen years ago, in a small wedding hall in Bnei Brak, my older sister died, and she now lives in the most Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem.”

He states that his sister won’t read what he writes, which grants him the opportunity to recklessly bash her religious way of life (which, really, only bothers him because it means that he isn’t the one making all the decisions, like whether or not his girlfriend can come over to visit the family whenever he decides). Instead of taking this chance to look into Judaism to connect on a deeper level with his sister (there’s so much intricacies to discuss), he just brushes it off as some kind of “madness.”

I felt it acutely in the following passage on strangers telling him “what a waste” for a pretty face to not show her body to the whole world because she chooses not to: “And then they’d roll down the window and shout to me how broken up they were about my sister. If the rabbis had taken someone ugly, they could’ve handled it; but grabbing someone with her looks—what a waste!”

His choice of words, full of tension simmering just under the surface, hinted at a lot of pent-up anger towards his sister, which he was now releasing through talking remorselessly about her choices in life. It’s unequivocally unfair towards her and her warm family. The only passage that shows them in a good light:

“As I walked into my sister’s house, less than an hour before Shabbat, the children greeted me in unison with their “What’s my name?”—a tradition that began after I once got them mixed up. Considering that my sister has eleven, and that each of them has a double-barreled name, the way the Hasidim usually do, my mistake was certainly forgivable. The fact that all the boys are dressed the same way and decked out with identical sets of payos provides some pretty strong mitigating arguments. But all of them, from Shlomo-Nachman on down, still want to make sure that their peculiar uncle is focused enough, and gives the right present to the right nephew.”

And it doesn’t end with his sister, he also comments on his older brother’s short-lived period in the yeshiva and then their grandmother’s brother, Avraham, who also turned away from religion; implying that they made the better choice in doing so.

It became all the more taxing when Keret had the audacity to claim all the above, but when an elderly Polish woman in Warsaw does the bare minimum (literally preparing a jam sandwich) he commends her. His behavior can be considered textbook Stockholm syndrome: bashing your own people and hugging the ones that stood idly by while your entire family was annihilated…

Anyway, I left The Seven Good Years after the aforementioned with a sour taste in my mouth; I’ll stick to Keret’s fiction from now on.

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