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Last Metro to Taksim, part 3: Enter night

The Istanbul team heads into the clouds of gas. It starts off pretty well. Photography by May Castelnuovo

Click here for the full series. 

ISTANBUL — On Sunday night, newly reunited after the lost kidney scare, May and I went to dine with two compatriots. One was Or Heller, Channel 10′s man, whom we tried to reach earlier, and Anshel Pfeffer, who reports here for Haaretz. I bit into the delicious Adana köfte and thought of Ruthie, who loves Istanbul so much, and would have come here if not for her work. What should I bring her when I return? Adana doesn’t travel well, and anyway she’s a vegetarian except for when she travels.

Thank Goodness for Anshel, who came up with an idea that may provide a nice solid memento: a tear gas canister. “I don’t know about you,” he said, “but I’m headed for Beşiktaş. Here everything is so sweet, there – the police are present. There are clashes.”

I did know about me. I wasn’t coming. Ebu Zer and Soner are hosting us and I promised them we would arrive before 10:30, but May’s eyes were agleam. She wanted those shots. How to argue with a creative spirit? I conceded, but warned that we would only stay for half an hour.

The street outside the restaurant was full of relaxed tourists and the buzz of restaurant hosts trying to lure them in. Nothing at all betrayed that two blocks away was a graveyard of overturned police vehicles. We emerged out of the hotel district, skirted the overturned cars and continued downhill, towards the Bosphorus shores and the Dolmabahçe Palace, a grand piece of Ottoman waterfront property, in which Erdoğan has an office.

On the hillside rising above the palace is the famous football stadium of Beşiktaş. As we approached, eyes already teary, we saw that stadium being taken apart before our eyes. Demonstrators were tearing off fences and other elements of its exterior.

A cloud of teargas loomed past them at the foot of the hill. We descended as far as we could amongst the hordes of young, masked rebels but were chased back again and again by the torturous sensation.


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Last Metro to Taksim, part 2: Day

Two Israelis out to explore Istanbul’s awakening are joined by two locals, or rather by 200,000 locals, and for a dance, no less. Yet they find themselves lost in memories of home, then simply lost. Photography by May Castelnuovo.

Click here for the full series. 

ISTANBUL — We are at “The Kebap” restaurant, near Taksim square, right where we left off and with a great view of the Bosphorus. Now noises rise from the street outside. Young people are climbing from the ferry port of Kabatas: suburban kids from the Asian side. While at noon the ravaged square played home to a thin gathering of oddballs and hardcore types, the afternoon promises to be different.

When we return to the square, it is already buzzing with festive spirit. Two good friends come to meet us here. Soner and Ebu Zer hosted my girlfriend Ruthie and me on Couchsurfing two years ago. Ebu Zer is a student of mineral processing and Soner just concluded his studies in the field of shipbuilding. They take us down a staircase inscribed with graffiti accusing the ruling party of Zionism, into the garden of Eden – Gezi Park in the afternoon. It is full of handsome young men like themselves and beautiful girls, all of them relaxed, happy, inspired by hope.

One of these girls takes Ebu Zer’s left pinky finger. Another takes my right pinky. Ebu Zer explains that this is how villagers hold hands to dance in the Black Sea region. A circle forms around a man who plays some very strange version of the bag pipe, the Turkish tulum, and another, who films everything on a cellphone. A third man, standing in the circle, sings out cautions and backhanded compliments aimed at Erdoğan. The dancers repeat them cheerfully.

Here, Erdoğan isn’t called Erdoğan. He’s called by his middle name, Tayyip, a choice that reflects lack of respect. I can’t help but thinking of our prime minister, known by his nickname, Bibi. Tayyip and Bibi, foes though they may be, do share a lot, and so do their opposers. When we first stepped back into the square, the sense of déjà vu for Tel Aviv of 2011 was so strong that...

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Last Metro to Taksim, part 1: Among the debris

When two Israelis pop over to experience a neighboring country’s revolution, they get their first glimpse of graffiti, in the full sense of the word. Photographs by May Castelnuovo (click to magnify in a new tab).

Click here for the full series. 

ISTANBUL – Nothing seems strange at first, Istanbul does seem atypically sleepy and empty on arrival, but then, it is a Sunday morning. The sense of normality persists on the way up the hill that cradles the historical district of Beyoglu. Even at the top, a few blocks away from Taksim square, it is only disturbed by a chemical stench, not unlike that of acetone.

I don’t think much of that smell at first, nor of the ruckus of service vehicles, traveling up elegant Istiklal avenue. I simply think of them as a nuisance. Go on, morning cleaners, come and part and leave the street to pedestrians and cute historical trams.

But hold on. This really is acetone, or turpentine, or some other paint diluter. Tankers full of it are driving up Istiklal to clean off graffiti.

There is plenty of graffiti here, some of it proposing police posts be used as public restrooms, others comparing Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to one of various fascist leaders or to a mangy dog. I have never seen anything remotely similar on Tel Aviv’s streets, not even on the hottest days of that summer in 2011. Should we have vandalized? Would we have gone further? Will the Turks?

The rage grows more and more colorful, more and more bold, as we advance up the street. Last night the police finally withdrew from Taksim Square, leaving it to the protesters. And the protesters took it. The further we walk, the more diverse are the signs of anarchy. Trash is strewn everywhere, mixed with the sorry remains of shop windows. At one corner is a black bank. It was burned down to the ground. At another, a Pizza Hut restaurant was destroyed. Corn and cabbage cover the floor, mixed into a fresh salad along with hundreds of advertising leaflets and the tiny splinters of what once was a table. At the...

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Sailing on a wave of racism: A nautical tale

When a pleasant tour of the Sea of Galilee turns into a display of potentially deadly racism, life becomes even more complicated for an Israeli representative.

Peter Brueghel The Elder’s “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee” (Wikimedia Commons)

It was a gorgeous day to be on the water, and the water itself was gorgeous. The Sea of Galilee, stroked by springtime winds, overlooked by mountains with names as beautiful as the slopes themselves: Arbel, Golan, Jabel Ash-Sheikh, Mt. Canaan.

Our group was made up mostly of American tourists. There were two Israelis, myself being one, and one Palestinian. This tour of the Holy Land is given by Mejdi, which offers dual narrative tours of the entire country. I accompany the group in the role of the Israeli, which means I must let go of much of my critical bias and reflect diverse viewpoints, including that of both the Israeli mainstream and of the Right. It’s an acquired skill, but it’s doable (especially in this kind weather), in a landscape I identify with peaceful kibbutzim and delicate Hebrew poetry. With so many things that are beautiful about the Israeli identity.

So we stepped off the dock of Kibbutz Ginosar and on board the King David, a boat that carries tourists and pilgrims on pleasure trips over the fabled Sea of Galilee. We have had a fine morning, wandering through the ancient remains at Tel-Dan and Banias, exploring Capernaum and enjoying St. Peter’s fish at a waterfront restaurant. We spoke of Syria and Lebanon, of the wars of recent decades, of the bomb shelters in Qiryat Shmona, of Tel-Chai and the tale of early Zionism in the region. Now was time to catch the breeze and enjoy a place of great beauty and spirit.

The wind’s caress turned rougher. The lake was choppier than I have ever seen it. The King David, designed to resemble the boats of first century fishermen, was big and steady, but other vessels suffered. Soon we saw two heads bobbing over the water, about half a cable to starboard. Closer to us, the lake’s ripples cradled a vacant jet ski. Clearly the two, who appeared to be wearing life vests, fell off their jet ski, were swept away, and needed our help, but we...

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Shalom, tower. A visit to Tel Aviv's historic skyscraper

In the innocent year of 1909, a new Jewish neighborhood was established on the outskirts of Jaffa. A modest crossing of two streets, it was designed according to distinctly secular Jewish values. At its focal point, just north of the intersection stood not a synagogue but a high school. It was an elaborate, romantic structure. Its facade featured two columns representing Boaz and Yachin, the pillars of Solomon’s Temple.

Jewish culture had always centered around education, and the Zionist founders of Tel Aviv believed that so would the new Jewish society they were helping to establish. Fast forward 50 years, and the high school was torn down. The State of Israel, a decade old at the time, was priding itself on progress, and progress manifested as a skyscraper: 120 meters and 34 stories tall, the tallest tower in the Middle East, with the street was directly beneath it, forming a futuristic automotive underpass. The broader lower floors featured a wax museum, a public library and a department store. The roof over them bore an entire amusement park, while the tower’s top floor offered a popular observatory.

The Shalom Meir Tower was named after the father of its two developers, brothers Morderchai and Moshe Meir. Soon it is became commonly known simply as the Shalom Tower. I pass by it almost every day without thinking much about it. The sixties are over. Loftier towers rise over central Tel Aviv. The wax museum closed down years ago. No longer may visitors to the first Hebrew city witness its strangest exhibit: a wax reenactment of Charles Manson and the Family murdering Sharon Tate and her dinner company. “Meirland” was disassembled, ferris wheels and all.

Penn, Rovina and Shlonsky on display

Last night, for some reason, I mentioned that ferris wheel. I was passing underneath the tower with my girlfriend, Ruthie, and found myself looking up to where it once stood, all colorful and hopeful. “You got to see the Shalom Tower at its days of glory,” she said, “I was too young. Even the department store was gone when I first came to Tel Aviv from the South.”

She’s right, I thought, I was witness to history. We speak of the demolished high school as history. Its silhouette is today the...

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Stepping over the line by accident: Still possible, ever more disturbing

A stroll west of West Jerusalem can lead to a surprising discovery, confronting the casual walker with various layers of the Palestinian tragedy.

A view of Jerusalem from a village trapped between an invisible border and a real separation barrier. (photo: Yuval Ben-Ami)

I just finished an ordeal at the Knesset. The next thing on the agenda was a long phone call, one that would last for at least an hour. Instead of walking about West Jerusalem for an hour, I decided to begin heading west on foot.

The brisk winter day was gorgeous. Beneath me, past the last row of city blocks, lay the gulley separating West Jerusalem from a ridge of lofty hills to the west. The slopes were made green by the season’s blessed rains. If I climbed down, then up again, I would arrive at the suburb of Mevaseret Zion, where busses stop on their way to Tel Aviv.

I found a street that turns into a trail and headed down, soon arriving at the abandoned Palestinian village of Lifta. Unlike many other villages that were emptied in 1948 and later destroyed, this one remains nearly intact. Lately, it narrowly escaped being replaced with a posh residential complex for Jewish Israelis. Walking among the crumbling stone buildings is a sad experience, but I could at least comfort myself in that Lifta remains as a monument.

While speaking leisurely on the phone, I crossed to the other ridge and began climbing a slope that I thought would lead me to Mevaseret Zion and to the bus. It did not.

The houses atop the hill were not lined along neatly planned streets, as they would be in Mevaseret. Instead, homes were freely scattered along badly paved roads, some of them were new, others – as old as those of Lifta. This was a Palestinian village, and various signs told me that it was not Palestinian-Israeli, such as nearby Abu Ghosh. The roads really were in a very poor shape, and the roofs bore black water tanks, rather than the white ones typical in Israel.

How could this be? I have been walking west from West Jerusalem. I am supposed to be in Israel proper, in the “Jerusalem corridor” – sandwiched between the north and south...

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My people, who say yes to death

Guernica Mural in Pais Vasco, Spain. (photo: Zarateman / Wikimedia Commons)

A survey conducted in Gaza this September showed that a majority of its residents would prefer Fatah to Hamas if elections were held. Early this month President Mahmoud Abbas spoke again of a two state solution and even hinted at compromising on the right of return.

What could Israel do in light of this but start a war? Israel can’t deal with peace. It has become a war machine, and I’m not referring only to its over-militant decision makers and those who take their orders. Decades of media bias and dogmatic education managed to turn its citizens into a blinded mob that always support violence: today’s Haaretz poll shows 84 percent back the current offensive. A foreign television crew with which I work interviewed passersby today on the situation in Gaza. “We know they die by the score there,” one Tel Aviv resident told the camera, “It’s not that we don’t know. We just don’t care.”

Of course Palestinians can be extremely militant and violent. You would be too, after decades of enslavement, and if you believe you could overcome such wrath, well then, you’d be like the majority of Palestinians. As for Hamas, I am not fond of them one bit — notice this piece begins with my faith in a survey that showed it weakening. The thing is, it is (or was, until recent events) weakening.

Meanwhile, the Israeli Right is only becoming more powerful. True, it lies, diverts attention, misinforms and uses fear-mongering to gain power and support. The media effectively dehumanizes Palestinians and fosters our sense of victimhood, and the media is run by powerful people with links to Jerusalem high brass, but the simple people have heads on their shoulders and hearts in their chests. They too share responsibility. We have all been failed by the Israelis in recent days, again, all of us – the world, the Israeli Left, and especially the Palestinians.

The Israeli Left does still exist, and bravely struggles in the face of mounting de-legitimization, but it may finally be declared too small to count. Now that Labor leader Shelly Yachimovitch expressed full support for Netanyahu and Barak’s actions, only the tiny Meretz party...

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LISTEN: 'Kiss My (Arse), Lieberman' - Israel's first full protest album

I’d be very surprised if any of you recall a post I published here last December. I was showing off my version of an Irish protest song from the 1980. The original refrain, penned by Irish songsmith John Maguire runs as such: “Hey Ronnie Reagan / I’m black and I’m pagan / I’m gay and I’m left and I’m free.” My girlfriend Ruthie and I applied the tune to a local politician, our staunchly anti-democratic, openly racist Foreign Minister Avigdor “Ivet” Lieberman, and were stunned to see it go viral on YouTube.

Since then, another protest tune recorded in our living room made waves. I put a particularly crass Facebook remark, addressed to “all leftists,” to music. Sung to a happy tune, its wishes of seeing us all raped by Palestinians, Sudanese refugees and elephants turned into a commentary on the common discourse in this country. The song has been viewed on YouTube 26,525 times so far.

Then the new elections were called, and Netanyahu and Lieberman merged their parties to form a right-wing bloc. Finally it seemed inevitable: an album had to be produced, and it had to be titled after its original hit tune: “Shak li, Ivet” – “Kiss My (Arse), Lieberman.”

The album was a bit of an experimental feat, since no such work has ever been produced here. Much greater talents then I have recorded Israeli protest songs, from Hava Alberstein to the Biluyim. The latter came closest to dedicating an entire album solely to the murky realities of Israeli politics and the occupation, but “Kiss My (Arse), Lieberman” demands to go a step further. Speaking on IDF Radio on Tuesday, critic Guy Tene was generous enough to credit it as being such an achievement. “It will undoubtedly prove a stepping stone in the history of Israeli music, “he said, adding that the album “is an unprecedented phenomenon in the Israeli discourse.” I was naturally thrilled.

Click here to listen or download “Shak li, Ivet”

The budget for the project was zero shekels. All musicians participated pro bono, as did Hadas Reshef who painted the iconic cover, and producer Yaron Fishman. Although the album features many translations, nearly all of the album’s tunes are sung in Hebrew. Only one, a cover of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Songs,” is performed in English alongside...

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WATCH: Police fire tear gas on Bedouin children; Israeli media is absent

With all eyes on Gaza, Israeli police forces shoot tear gas into an elementary school. Twenty-nine children were hospitalized and 19 people were arrested after police attempted to place eviction notices on several buildings in the Bir Hadaj village in the Negev. 

Smoke rises from an elementary school in the Bedouin village of Bir Hadaj after police forces shot tear gas at students (photo: Adalah)

Sometimes all a schoolteacher can do is hold up his cellphone and film children fleeing the playground, or being carried off by other teachers. Sleman Abu Laqia, of the village Bir Hadaj in southern Israel, found himself in this situation Monday morning. The schoolyard was supposed to serve as a safe zone for the children, while police stormed the village, giving out house demolition notices. It proved inadequate.

As things quieted down, Sleman collected the empty canisters, assembled them on a table beneath the sign reading “Bir Hadaj Elementary School” in Hebrew and Arabic, and took one more shot. It is this picture that appeared in my Facebook feed this morning, with a caption explaining that over twenty children were rushed to the hospital. I looked the story up in the Hebrew news sites. Haaretz – nothing. Ynet – nothing, NRG –zilch.

This only left one option: to travel down south and see for myself. Having boarded the train, I contacted Nadia Ben-Youssef of Adalah, The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, and was literally relieved to discover that she knew what I was talking about. A story this intense, which goes completely ignored by the media, can make one fear delusion.

Shells of tear gas and stun grenades that were gathered after being used against Bedouin school children in the Negev (photo: Sleman Abu Laqia)

Nadia gave me some background. Unlike most Bedouin communities around Be’er Sheva, Bir Hadaj is recognized by the state. It is nearly impossible, however, for residents to...

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The beautiful south: An afternoon in the Gazan firing range

No. I don’t like the concept of conflict tourism, but you see, people put me down for not engaging in it. Whenever exchanges of fire erupt between the IDF and the militants in the Gaza Strip, I find myself being discarded as “the detached Tel Avivian who’d rather sip his cappuccino then spend two hours in Sderot under fire.”

Try and make a political comment after being thus accused. Try saying that the IDF was first to strike this time around (as it often is) and that Netanyahu may well be maintaining tension in order to keep the Israeli public scared and out of focus pre-elections. No one here would listen. They’d say it’s the cappuccino talking.

So today, with four dead in Gaza in two days and several scores of rockets shot into southern Israel, I left the coffee behind and headed down to the fence. It’s not very far, to be sure. The train from Tel Aviv takes less than an hour to reach the city of Ashkelon, which was hit several times this morning. From there I thought of going on to Kibbutz Nir Am, sandwiched between the boundary of the Strip and the town of Sderot. It is the point in Israeli territory which is closest to Hamas territory that remains approachable, despite a heavy military presence.

Asher, a school bus driver, gave me a lift from near the railway station. When I told him that I plan to look over Gaza, he instantly asked: “Are you a leftist?”

“Why jump so soon to definitions?” I asked him, “Are right-wing people not curious?” I knew full well that saying “yes” would derail the conversation. It inevitably does in today’s Israel.

Asher pointed to a hill to the right of the road. “There,” he said, “this is where the army position is, from there you can see the F16s going in to bomb the Strip. Crazy assholes are really going at us today.”

“Well,” I said, “so are we. We are going at them, and with even greater might.”

“That’s nonsense,” said Asher,

“Didn’t you just mention the airplanes bombing them?”

“See?” he said, “I knew you are a leftist.”

Einat, a kibbutznik from Nir Am, picked me up at the junction and drove me all the way to the lookout, located a mile or so past...

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A song was born: The tale of a controversial tune

Six or seven years ago, I was sitting in Tel Aviv’s Cafe Ginzburg with a man I admire deeply. Mikhael Manekin was then, along with Yehuda Shaul, one of heads of Breaking the Silence.

BTS was still a budding organization at the time, made up entirely of Israeli soldiers who participated in the occupation and sought to document and inform of its atrocities. The organization was expanding its activities. Manekin came to Tel Aviv to brainstorm on organizing tours for Israelis and foreigners in Hebron. “I would like to bring authors there,” he told me. “I feel that authors have a more lasting effect on a society than journalists do.”

“Interesting you would say that,” I said, “Do you see this woman who sits at the table behind me? That’s Alona Kimhi. Let’s say hi to her.”

We were too shy to actually speak to a literary legend such as Kimhi, so instead we conducted our conversation a little more loudly, looked in her direction here and there and hoped for her to chime in. She did and eventually joined our table. “I would love to go to Hebron,” she said, “but I’d like to go with the two of you and that’s it. I don’t want to be on a bus with a lot of leftists messing with my brain. If I go with you and what I see is interesting, I’ll fill up a bus of other writers for you.”

We went with Kimhi to Hebron and saw her going through the typical shock every Israeli experiences when shown the realities of this cursed city. She spoke to the soldiers positioned on the street and learned of their experiences. Filling up an entire Hebron-bound bus of Tel Avivian writers turned out to be a task beyond human capacity, but Kimhi did send several of her friends on the next Breaking the Silence tour, and made references to the experience in interviews over the years.

Years passed and we assumed that was all. Then, recently, a song was released on the radio. Kimhi’s lyrics were composed and performed by her husband, iconic Israeli rocker Yizhar Ashdot. I may never have heard of this song had it not been banned, temporarily at least, from being played on the radio. When Ashdot came with his band to the studios of Galatz, or Army Radio – the highly popular...

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Three flags in Madrid: Impressions of a demo

No sooner than arriving at the grand “storm the Congress” demonstration in Madrid did we begin making comparisons to demos back home. The cause, after all, is similar if not the same, and Israel’s J14 movement took much inspiration from Spain’s M15. These days, anger is reawakening on Spain’s streets, with a major difference: here, in Madrid, there’s a huge demonstration, the third in a single week. There, in Tel Aviv, there isn’t.

This was not, however, an altogether peaceful summer, not at all. This is the summer in which Israeli police turned extra violent against social justice protesters, arresting more than 90 of them in one night, and the summer in which an activist set himself on fire in the midst of a demonstration. We have fresh memories of both hope and turmoil on our streets, and the march of thousands up the Paseo Del Prado to Neptune’s fountain invoked the former, the sight of police waiting by black Marias – the latter.

Differences were just as evident. Here was a greater mixture of generations than what we see back home. The Spanish struggle is distinctly multi-generational.

It is also more directly focused on the government. Last summer’s struggle succeeded in removing Zapatero’s government and bringing new elections. The new prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, recently declared an austerity plan, which the protesters regard as theft of the public’s funds in favor of bankers and decision-makers who are truly to blame for Spain’s debt. “Rajoy, recuerda, tenemos una cuerda!” they cry, “Rajoy, remember, we have a rope.”

No equivalent chant was heard in Israel. Leaders of J14 said from the outset that they do not seek to replace the government, but rather to change the system more fundamentally. On paper, Spain seems to prove them right: a change of government brought no peace to the masses here. On the other hand, the streets here are full, and the protest movement has matured. Its new manifesto, published last week, addresses local and global issues confidently and poignantly.

A final notable difference between this demonstration and those back home was the complete absence of the national flag. In Israel, a national flag flown in demonstrations indicates that the movement represents the vox populi, and dismisses accusations of non-patriotism. Here, instead of the yellow and red of...

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How Youtube became Hebrew poetry's last resort

This is a story about poetry, but like many Israeli stories, it too begins with Netanyahu.

When Netanyahu was minister of the treasury, in the mid aughts, Israel’s anti-monopoly laws became less than tightly enforced. One sector to suffer the implications was the publishing business. Israel’s two major retail book chains merged at the time with two major publishing houses. The combined force of these leviathans wrecked the smaller book chains, the private bookstores and every other publishing house around.

Today we have here a duopoly of two book chains: Steimatzky and Tzomet Sfarim. They make the rules. They have the liberty of take up to 90 percent of the book’s cover price, and the habit of throwing books into crazy sales that leave virtually nothing for the publishing house and the author.

An Israeli author typically gets between 1-2 sheqels (25-50 cents) per book, regardless of the price at which the book is sold. If it is sold for a typical cover price of 90 sheqels, Steimatzky will pocket up to 80 times as much as the author. The publishing house, which must also produce the book as a physical object, will end up with about $2 to do so. Hebrew culture is a tender flower. Only 5 million readers or so can enjoy its treasures in the original language. Their purchasing power cannot possibly keep Israel’s writers alive – certainly not under such conditions.

When culture is harnessed to a ruthless market, it is harmed. Our identity as Israelis must go beyond the military, and Hebrew letters are what holds its core values. Israel’s neocon government couldn’t care less, and all of us, writers and readers, feel the results. The readers get more commercial literature, and the writers get less and less for their work.

Even if we give up on pay, and simply ask for our work to appear in print, we may prove unlucky. Take my book of poetry, “Twenty Love Poems and one Poem about Kubbeh Soup.” It is a collection of poems composed between 2007-2011, taking its name from Pablo Neruda’s “Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair.” My publishing house, Ahuzat Bayit, intended to release it, but then backed down. “Until there’s some sort of legislation to protect us,” explained my dear publisher Sarai Guttman, “we cannot publish anything that isn’t profitable, and poetry is never profitable.”

My only option was the...

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