Etgar Keret Performs John Cage at Symphony Space

Each time I hear Etgar Keret speak I become more enamored with him as a person. He’s irresistible, humble, funny, generous, kind, intelligent, and importantly, engaging. Keret molds to any artistic setting or medium. For this engagement at Symphony Space, Keret put on a rare artistic performance created by the experimental composer John Cage. At a symposium for experimental artist and composers, about 25 years ago, Cage threw the crowd a curveball and cancelled his slotted performance to perform How To Get Started, a structured experiment in creativity, improvisational art, and voice recording. Essentially Cage wrote down ten topics on index cards then spoke about them in three minute intervals in a sort of rhythmic stream of consciousness. Cage added an experimental twist to this by playing each previous recording over the current performance so that by the end, at the tenth topic, the performer hears the ten previous performances, albeit in a lower volume. Keret was invited to perform his own version of Cage’s experiment.

Working off the outline set down by Cage: ten cards, ten different ideas from Keret, three minutes for each, and a constant loop of performances, Keret gave the audience a rare storytelling experience that I felt thankful to be a part of. In hindsight, Keret’s literary style fits Cage’s experiment perfectly. His stories, short spurts of crafted imagination that already evince an improvised feel, fit into these three minutes slots as if created for them. Keret, true to his style, titled each story usually with one word or so and something mundane like In the Hole, Pride, Bedtime Stories, Apartment Buying, and Protected. All of his stories felt like they belonged in one of his collections, though these were explicitly autobiographical and lacked his unique sense of magical realism. In all, Keret chose each topic as portal to pay a moving, insightful and heart-wrenching tribute to his recently deceased father.

As per his style, Keret told the audience story after story full of humor and pathos painting a exquisite portrait of a hardy, courageous, kind, witty, and loving father. The looping of recordings created a gorgeous effect in which each story built off the previous creating a dazzling portrait of a beloved father. Each anecdote deserves its own space, but for brevity I will retell two evocative stories. (I apologize in advance to Keret for I might conflate some of the stories, due to some memory lapse.)

In the first story, “In the Hole,” Keret relayed how his father survived the Holocaust in a hole in the ground for 600 days. Keret explained that towards the end of his father’s life, his father dying from throat cancer, they would still enjoy stopping at a cafe despite the fact that his father couldn’t drink coffee. They would sit and discuss life. His father, when asked how he kept his sanity in that hole, told his son that his talent lay in his uncanny ability to sleep for hours upon hours. In these cafes, though his father couldn’t drink the coffee he would still order one, shoot it down his throat and appear to suffocate for thirty seconds as the liquid filled his lungs attracting the concern of the entire restaurant. After thirty seconds, Keret’s dad would spit out the coffee, light a cigarette and say, “That’s some damn good coffee.”

In the story “Protected,” Keret told over how his son would like to cause mischief during bath time. One of these times, after Keret’s father passed away, his son butted his head against Keret’s chest only to fall back into the bath almost onto a rusty sharp part that jutted out. Keret stuck his hand underneath his son and cut his own hand, needing a tetanus shot as a result. Later on, his son, seeing his father’s bandaged hand exclaimed that he should have been hurt and gotten the shot, not his father. In fact, he question why his father would do something like that for him. Keret replied that fathers do this, instinctually, they care and protect their children. The world is a tough place, he told his child, and everyone deserves at least one person to care and protect him in their lives. Fathers do that for their sons. His son, in that heartbreakingly innocent manner of children asked Keret, “Now that your father is not alive, who will protect you?” to which Keret had no reply but tears. Keret silenced the audience as we all looked around knowing we all experienced something beautiful and rare.

You know what — these stories are too precious not to tell at least one or two more. In “Bedtime Stories,” Keret explained that both of his parents would feel it their duty to make up bedtimes stories instead of reading any from books. This habit arose from their time in the holocaust in which stories couldn’t be told from books, but only from memory and imagination. Now, despite the fact that his parents could buy books they still chose to make up stories because as his father so eloquently put it, “Stories from books is like serving you kid fast food every night.” Keret, as a child began to notice a pattern in his parents individual styles. His mother always told more fairy tale like stories with goblins and fairies, while he dad always told stories of whores or whorehouses. Keret, not knowing the definition of a whore simply thought of them as wholly empathic people who lived to help other people, so much that so that he aspired to become a male prostitute as an adult. Later in life, Keret found out that when his father fought against the British in Israel’s War of Independence, he frequently needed to smuggle arms out of Italy and used brothels as safe houses. In fact, as Keret’s father related, that year was one of the happiest years of his life.

On a more plangent note, in “Why I Tell Stories,” Keret explained that he often found reality to be too arbitrary and overwhelming so he told himself alternative stories to soften the blow. At his father’s funeral procedure dictated that he identify the body before burial. He did so, and so his father dead. But in his mind the scenario played out that it turned out this was not his father. He told this to the caretaker who then yelled at one of his workers. Not wanting to cause trouble, Keret left only to find his sister and explain to her that they have the wrong body and his father must be somewhere else. Somewhere else, he repeated, my father must be somewhere else, at which point he teared up again because even the magic of storytelling has its limits.

To end on a more humorous story, in “Apartment Buying,” Keret told over the story of the family’s first big apartment where each child received their own room. His father longed to provide this comfort for his family and finally did so, but when they got there, everyone realized that the apartment lacked an actual floor and instead was covered in sand. His mother asked his father how she was supposed to clean the floor if she could not wet it. His father replied, Don’t worry we will think of something. Weeks later, when they officially moved in, the floor was tiled, each room in a different color and style. Days later, as Keret went to go shower, he heard the sounds of strangers walking throughout his house. Naked, dressed only in a towel, Keret inquired as to their business in his apartment. He quickly realized that his father made a deal with the tile company to use their apartment as a model house, and this sufficed.

After the performance, when asked how he felt, Keret answered that though he didn’t enjoy this performance, given the topic, he did feel like he was confronting the echoes of his father’s memory to which he felt nothing but gratitude.

I couldn’t agree more.

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