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In 1962, when David Grossman was an 8-year-old schoolboy in Jerusalem, his father handed him a Hebrew translation of Sholem Aleichem’s Adventures of Mottel, the Cantor’s Son, a collection of stories evoking the lost world of the Grossmans’ Yiddish-speaking ancestors. “Do you like it?” his father asked. Grossman was too young to understand it, but he managed to make his way through the book and was soon engrossed in a six-volume set of Aleichem’s stories, soaking up details about tailors, milkmen and matchmakers. He had come to grasp that his father’s gesture was an invitation. “I realized that for the first time, he was inviting me over there, giving me the keys to the tunnel that would lead from my childhood to his,” Grossman recalled in a recent essay.
Grossman’s immersion in Aleichem’s fictional universe was so deep that a year later he entered a trivia contest about it hosted by a popular radio quiz show. Soon after, he was hired as a child actor at Kol Israel, the state broadcasting station. “It’s a whole reality expressed only through language,” Grossman has said. “As soon as I started working at the station, I learned how much you can do with the human voice.” While completing his army service years later, Grossman began jotting down poems, songs and confessions in military report logs. He was discovering another use for his voice. Some time later, after an argument with his girlfriend, Michal (who is now his wife), he sat down and wrote his first story, “Donkeys,” about an American soldier who escapes to Austria during the Vietnam War. The experience was transformative. “Writing allows me to explore situations that are impossible for me to explore in my life,” Grossman has said. “Emotionally, I am an extreme person, and writing makes it possible for me to go on.”
Navigating extreme emotions has been a particularly vexing challenge for Grossman of late. Early one morning in August 2006, unexpected visitors roused him from his sleep: they were officers from the Israeli army, come to relay the news that his younger son, Uri, had been killed when a missile struck his tank in southern Lebanon. The incident occurred in the final days of the war against Hezbollah, which began that summer with barely a murmur of dissent in Israel and ended, thirty-three days later, with equally faint popular backing. Grossman, a novelist and longtime peace advocate, had initially supported the war on the grounds that Israel had the right to defend itself against an armed militant group that had attacked it without provocation. But several weeks into the conflict, he appeared at a press conference with the novelists A.B. Yehoshua and Amos Oz (both of whom had also supported the war) to call for a cease-fire and to protest the Israeli government’s plan to launch a ground invasion. No cease-fire was brokered; the ground invasion commenced. Two days later came the knock on Grossman’s door.