What to do when a loved one dies an “ordinary” death, unrelated to the news and the dread? How to mourn when you can’t even congregate with fellow mourners?
David Ehrlich – writer and friend of writers, lover of Hebrew literature and of Jerusalem, of Israeli stories and the Israeli story – died two nights ago, age 61. Not of the COVID-19. Just a heart attack in his sleep.
David was the founder and co-owner of the Tmol Shilshom bookstore café, which brought together good books and good food, authors and their readers. Orthodox couples and gay couples, tourists and regulars: everyone felt that Tmol was their special place.
Tmol’s intimate space was where I celebrated my book launches. A literary event at Tmol was like inviting friends to your home for a reading. David would interview me and we would forget we were speaking before an audience and find ourselves talking, as we so often did, about our struggles as writers.
David was my writing havruta, my literary partner with whom I shared ideas for projects, the friend to whom I could confide my lonely writer’s life. We celebrated each other’s small victories over laziness and distraction and laughed about our failures, encouraging each other in our solitary pursuit. In what turned out to be our last conversation, we reminded each other that it didn’t matter how many people read our work, so long as the writing was worthy, precise. I’m not sure either of us believed it, but we knew we should.
David rejoiced in his friends’ achievements – and his friends included David Grossman and Yehuda Amichai and Eshkol Nevo and, it seemed, almost anyone creating Hebrew literature. And while he wished his own fiction had a wider audience, he never expressed envy. David didn’t waste time on unworthy emotions.
David loved Israel, even as he worried for its soul. A combat officer, he’d signed up for two extra years of service, and felt personally responsible for the nation’s well-being, just as he felt implicated in its moral failures. He was keenly aware of his role as custodian of one of Jerusalem’s cultural landmarks. Among his proudest accomplishments was keeping Tmol Shilshom viable through Jerusalem’s worst times. During the years of suicide bombings in the early 2000s, when restaurants and cafes emptied, the bookstore café in the courtyard off Yoel Solomon Street remained stubbornly open, absorbing the losses in anticipation of better times.
The son of a Holocaust survivor, David never forgot that he came from “there.” And yet the residue the Holocaust left in him was neither anger nor bitterness but vulnerability and gentleness. He had a writer’s interest in people’s stories, but it was more than that: He was truly interested in people. He wrote about fragile soldiers and unmoored immigrants, lonely waitresses and café idlers, about his own self-consciousness as a gay man in Israeli public space, about ordinary Israelis caught at the meeting point between absurdity and meaning. Here you’ll find the English translation of one of his collections of short stories, “Who Will Die Last: Stories of Life in Israel.”
The man who loved to convene Jerusalem’s lovers of books has died a lonely death, at a time when we can’t come together to mourn him. How is it possible, David, to simply slip away like this? I know how he would answer: Be’emet muzar, really strange! And he’d laugh.