The Deronda Review
THE KING OF THE CLASS: AN INTERVIEW WITH GILA GREEN
[Note: Gila Greenís novel The King of the Class is set in an Israel of the near future where Orthodox and secular Israelis have had a civil war and established separate states. This divisiveness plays out in the lives of the two central characters, Eve and Manny.]
EC: You might begin just by telling a little of the background that led you to begin writing this book. Am I right in assuming that you yourself come from a secular background, but have had some contact with the Orthodox community? I assume this was in Israel?
GG: I should tell you off the bat that I reject these labels of Orthodox and secular and all of the labels in-between. We are all in process. Thinking of people as Orthodox almost says: they've arrived, that's it. That is not true. All people go through stages in life where they feel closer or further away from God and spirituality. No one has arrived at any final destination.
I realize that human beings need to organize the world in their heads so that they can function and thus, the need for labels, and in every day conversation labels at times serve a necessary purpose, so sadly we need them, but they should be put in their place.
Growing up in Ottawa, I never in my life heard such labels. People were Jewish or not (mostly not) and if they were Jewish they were Shomrei Shabbat or not. I have never thought of myself as someone who 'comes from a secular background" or anyone else for that matter. I come from a Jewish background. I attended a Jewish day school that accepted all Halachik Jews and moved to Israel in 1994
I wrote as a reaction to what I saw taking place around me in Israel between Jews, all Jews. As you know Bet Shemesh made headlines when a Jewish man spat on a Jewish girl. At this time, I was approached by some people in the community. They felt that as a writer I should speak out, write something. They asked me if I had connections at the New York Times or Washington Post and if so, didn't I want to write an article that would help the situation. I understood their concerns, but rejected their ideas. I felt that each article or blog post was preaching to the choir. It wasn't changing anyone's attitudes.
But when the situation on the ground worsened, when a woman had her life threatened only three blocks from my home, I refer here to Natalie Moshiach, I couldn't sleep for days. It was painful for me to internalize that here in Israel a Jewish woman had to fear Jewish men, no matter who was wearing what. It was completely antithetical to my entire being. I could no longer hold my position that speaking out only fanned the flames of hatred, was ignored or preaching to the choir. But I wanted something more effective than a here today gone tomorrow article or post and I wanted to reach a much wider audience. I decided to give them what they seemed to be asking for. I created a world in which Jews lived across from each other, across hostile borders, had undergone a civil war. But I didn't want to use a heavy hand because that doesn't reach a wide audience either. So, I wrote a satire and used a lot of humor, drama, action and of course, a love story. If you want people's attention, a love story is usually good.
EC: Needless to say, I share your dismay about the violence you mention, and I appreciate the thinking behind your approach to the problem, even though my own thinking about it is somewhat different. My perception is that from an "Orthodox" standpoint it is not just about individuals getting closer to or farther from G-d or being in process, it's about the need to keep (or pull back) the people into a collective form, which is something greater than the individual's spiritual quest, and which is constantly under attack from outside -- one century it's the Inquisition, another it's the Internet. So that "secularists" are seen not as following their own paths but as capitulating to outside pressures.
GG: The internet is not attacking anyone. It's a tool just as the printing press was a tool. It's reality. It's today's world. It is how people communicate and conduct business today and it's not going anywhere. If you are going to choose as a culture to see it as 'the enemy' you are in for a battle you cannot win. I cannot imagine how it can be compared to the Inquisition, but you are certainly entitled to your opinion.
EC: Well, in any case, I think you got into the subject in a very powerful way, through the situation of a woman for whom her fiancť's return to the Divine covenant is the betrayal of a human covenant between the two of them. I could totally identify and I think it must speak to a lot of "secular" feelings, if I may continue to use these terms. Let me ask you: do you think Eve does, in the end, find meaning in the "frum" way of life?
GG: I prefer to leave these conclusions to the reader. I do not believe a novel has to answer every question for a reader, but is also there to provoke , unhinge, create discussion and allow a reader to think about the situation beyond the last page. I will say that Eve has to reconcile her spiritual encounter with the reality she sees on the ground; a tall order for anyone.
EC: It seems as if it is more Manny than she who is inwardly transformed -- he finally recognizes her inner strength and accepts her form of spiritual experience, whereas she has just accepted the outward forms for his and their son's sake.
GG: See my last answer. Manny did not have a spiritual encounter in the same manner as Eve. There is much less for him to reconcile.
EC: I couldn't help noticing that the religious-secular opposition is overlaid by a gender division -- Eve/Chava representing the secular and Manny/Adam representing the religious side of the debate. But there's the opposite dynamic too -- the fact that the Orthodox community is having problems holding onto its young men, who get sucked into secular culture while the young women stay in the community and pray to find their basherter. Could you see yourself at some time portraying this situation?
GG: The gender division is not deliberate. I can't say I have it in mind to portray any particular situation next, not as specifically as you mention.
EC: I wondered why you gave Eve the last name "Vee" -- is it meant to suggest the French vie (life)?
GG: That's a nice idea, but Vee was meant to be a one syllable word that lacked meaning and backbone; too bad I can't claim your idea:) She also has no father to speak of. This is a woman who lost her father, fiance and then son. That is one of the sub themes about Eve.
EC: I found it interesting that the deadliest violence in the book -- aside from the terrorist attack which occurs offscreen -- is perpetrated not from religious motives but under the influence of Western materialist culture -- the worship of the body (athletics) and of money.
I was intrigued by the character of Mrs. Geisler. Is there a personality type you are satirizing here?
GG: Mrs. Geisler is a social climber among other things. Yes, I am deliberately satirizing a very real personality type. The type who will symbolically murder someone else's child because they think this will save their own, whether it is to destroy them in school, socially or some other way. In Judaism as you know humiliating someone is thought of as a type of murder, this is a similar idea. In the novel I simply concretized what I see around me to an actual physical act.
EC: I am curious about the "king of the class" motif, which the title seems to identify as a central one. I assume that the information about the "king of the class" phenomenon in Israel is factual; it fits with a number of things I've heard about the rough-and-tumble nature of Israeli society!
GG: The King of the Class motif is entirely factual.
EC Iím not sure I see though where it fits in the picture of religious conflict.
GG: It exists in religious school as much as anywhere else. At the end of the day, there is something called Israeli culture as an umbrella over the whole country and King of the Class motif is part of Israeli culture. The country is not hermetically sealed between religious and non religious Jews. There's overlap. It is not part of the religious conflict in the book, you are correct. It is its own theme, something Eve as a foreigner has to deal with coming from the outside.
EC: I'm also somewhat puzzled, on account of this, by the character of Netzach. Given his remarkable birth I'd expected him to turn out especially spiritual, but apart from his "special" bond with his mother he seems a regular kid, a star athlete davka. Also, he appears both as the "king of the class" and as a victim of bullying. I feel as though I'm missing something that holds all this together.
GG: Well, you haven't read the sequel have you:) Netsach is innocent of his remarkable birth, but he won't stay that way. I'm working on it. In addition many of us in real life have dual roles, don't we? We might be admired at work and something else quite different may go on at home or vice versa.
EC: In any case, I admire the way you have built up a fictional world and seasoned it with humor. The sci-fi-gimmickry works together with the fantasy of an actually divided Israel to create a slightly surrealistic atmosphere. Works like this should be read by people from all sectors of our fragmented society -- it should help us to lighten up and see one another's points.
GG: Thank you. I feel humor reaches more people. The novel is intended to be accessible to people from all sectors of society--absolutely. I spent two years full time with this goal in mind. I am pleased you feel I accomplished this goal.