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We Ate a Shit-Ton of Hummus with Israeli Short-Story Writer Etgar Keret

Israel's greatest vegetarian short-story writer was in New York City—and he was hungry.

To me, Etgar Keret has always seemed to exist in some place beyond personhood. Maybe this is because Keret's many short stories all seem as inevitable and sincere as fables or maybe because he had never, until very recently, published anything about his personal life. There were Etgar Keret stories. There were Etgar Keret books. And presumably, somewhere, there was an Etgar Keret, but this person was probably unreachable and possibly magic, a sort of Oz somewhere behind a curtain that could never be pulled back. Perhaps you'd have to fall down a pipe or into mysterious hole to reach him.

Now, I can attest both from meeting Etgar and reading his new memoir, Seven Good Years, that Etgar Keret is not just an author but also a person, and a very nice one, in fact, who has just published an incredibly beautiful and compassionate book of short personal essays about the years between his son's birth and his father's death. The tone is as personable and inviting as Heidi Julavits's The Folded Clock; it reads as urgently as The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson; and like both of these recent literary hits, it has a voice that is unmistakably that of the author. (In fact, using the word memoir for any of these books feels a bit like putting on a stranger's used socks. We simply need a better word or a better connotation.)

Seven Good Years is also hilarious and offers a genius solution for one of the more vexing problems of being an author: What in the hell do you write in a book dedication when put on the spot? For a while Keret opted against generic dedications in favor of completely fictitious ones that reference lives saved, money owed, vendettas, and broken hearts.

"To Mickey. Your mother called. I hung up on her. Don't you dare show your face around here again."

"To Tziki. I admit that I acted like a shit. But if your sister can forgive me, so can you."

"To Avram. I don't care what the lab tests show. For me, you'll always be my dad."

This goofy sense of humor and love for the absurd can even touch parts of life where others may find it more difficult, like in the essay, "Pastrami," when he's protecting his wife and son during an air raid as they are driving north of Tel Aviv. "How'd you like to play a game of Pastrami Sandwich?" Etgar asks his son as they pull over to dog pile on each other, husband and wife sandwiching seven-year-old Lev. He likes the game so much he doesn't want it to end, so they stay like that for a while before dusting themselves off and going on with their lives.

After getting to know Etgar through such personal and often moving very stories like this one, I was a little apologetic about my stunt-like assignment—taking him around New York City to test a few American bastardizations of a favorite Israeli dish. But when I meet Etgar at the first restaurant, he explains that since he's a vegetarian who can't or won't cook, he survives largely on hummus, and because he is a self-described hummus addict, unable to refuse even the lowest-quality hummus—the airport hummus, the packaged hummus, the hummus trying to be health food—he has developed a breadth of knowledge on the many possibilities and varieties of hummus, the many ways it can reach brilliance or disgrace.

"This is what would happen if French food and hummus got together and had an illegitimate baby. It's good, but it's not even really hummus." —Etgar Keret

"You know how when they're trying to get a heroin addict off heroin, they give them something fake to shoot up?" he asked, dead-panning in his thick Israeli accent. "It's like that. I'll eat anything, but I won't necessarily get that high."

Given this new information, I realize that a large portion of Etgar Keret is made from the reconfigured molecules of chickpeas, that his brain is hewn from tahini, that this humble dip has been the literal fuel of literature I have long enjoyed. Suddenly I felt galvanized to find Etgar the best hummus the West Village could offer.

Alas, by some strange stroke of luck, the first Israeli restaurant where we landed, Bar Bolonat, an elegant and empty space in the West Village, had no hummus. This would not do. We fled. Down the street at a small, bustling restaurant called Mémé, we hardly consult the menu, dodge the waitress's rosé agenda, and order the hummus.

"This is what would happen if French food and hummus got together and had an illegitimate baby," Etgar declared, satisfied but non-plussed. "It's good, but it's not even really hummus." Hummus with an identity crisis and a fake accent. Hummus that was never the same after that year abroad. In my ignorance, I thought it was just regular hummus, and I began to wonder if I'd ever had hummus at all.

Our conversation about religion and politics moved toward the grim realities of growing up and now raising his son in a part of the world where air raids and terrorism are just a part of life. His reverent optimism about it was heartening, just as it is in his work.

"Lev asked me the other day if we could move to New Zealand," he explained as we finished up the French-y hummus, "because he heard that people don't kill each other there."

My heart sank. I asked him what how he copes with that sort of thing while still living in Tel Aviv, a city he loves to call his home, despite everything.

"I think of what my mother says, that even after surviving the Holocaust she managed to still have three kids. People find ways to be happy, even in the worst circumstances."

This hummus is a straight, white boyfriend who watches football and wears button-up shirts. It's OK... But there's something missing. Your friends think you could do better. —Etgar Keret

At the third hummus place, Taïm—the smallest and most crowded—we ordered, again, the hummus and I thought the density of customers might mean we'd found a winner.

"This hummus is a straight, white boyfriend who watches football and wears button-up shirts," he concluded, shrugging. "It's OK... But there's something missing. Your friends think you could do better."

Full on sub-par hummus, Etgar wrote me one of his fictionalized book inscriptions, thanking me on behalf of the Mossad for losing my virginity for the safety of the people of Israel.

On Munchies: Hummus Is a Metaphor for Israeli-Palestinian Tensions

Reflecting on our meager tour of no-hummus, French-hummus, and dull-hummus, I decided it was only right to bring in Brooklyn's secret weapon, the spicy hummus from Sahadi's on Atlantic Avenue before he left town. Full of all the spice that the boring boyfriend hummus was lacking and a little more texture than the too-silky Francophile hummus, I wondered why I hadn't thought of bringing it along in the first place.

"This," he said between reverent mouthfuls a few days later, "is a very good hummus. If a place in Israel made a hummus like this, I would go there often."

I suspected he was just hungry or that he wanted to be polite to me since I'd schlepped all the way up to NYU just to continue an assignment I'd initially thought was kind of absurd, but I must have given him some look that betrayed my skepticism.

"You're sort of reminding me of Kevin Spacey in House of Cards," he said, "so determined about the whole hummus thing."

Etgar Keret's memoir Seven Good Years is now out from Riverhead Books.

Catherine Lacey is the author of Nobody Is Ever Missing (FSG Originals, 2014) and a forthcoming novel. She is on Twitter.