Yakov Keller was born in 1929 in Berlin, Germany, to a family of Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe. His dimly-remembered early years were spent in a big house near the Alexanderplatz, crowded with many other families from similar backgrounds. “There were Zeppelins, airships, passing above our home nearly every day. They made a big impression on me as a child. Seeing that long graceful shape floating slowly and silently overhead is not at all the same as a noisy and speedy jet plane”. In 1933, soon after Hitler came to power, a group of Nazis attacked the building. “I was four years old. I don't remember the Nazis themselves, at least not consciously. I remember a lot of screaming and shouting and people running up the stairs. I remember standing in the courtyard, and an urgent voice calling from an upper floor: 'Come up! Come up - now!’ ” That early Nazi raid ended with only property damage. Nevertheless, it was quite enough for Yakov's parents, Yehoshua and Sarah, to proceed with their plans for leaving Germany and moving to Mandatory Palestine.
The rest of Yakov's childhood was spent in Jerusalem. “I was a rather wild boy, often quarreling with one or more of my three sisters, rebelling against my parents' religion, running off with the neighborhood boys to wild games. We fought with the Arab boys who lived nearby, throwing stones at each other. Even so, under the British there was more daily social contact between Jews and Arabs then you have in Israel today.”
He was in the last year of high school when the UN Partition Resolution precipitated all-out war, and Yakov was drawn into intensive involvement in the Hagana militia from which the Israeli Army would soon develop. “Jerusalem came under siege, I accompanied convoys bringing vital supplies from Tel Aviv. It was a very real war, we often had to shoot our way through, fighting for our lives. Then on the following morning I still had to go to school and the teacher asked if I had done my homework! It was surreal. I soon dropped out of school altogether. Getting my matriculation seemed the least important thing in the world. Later in my life, when I sometimes did the work of an engineer and was paid like an unskilled worker, I came to regret it. But I still don't see how I could have done otherwise in Jerusalem of early 1948.”
Immediately after the war Yakov, a member of the Left-Zionist Hashomer Hatza'ir youth movement, took part in founding a new Kibbutz - Sa'ar, in northern Israel near the Lebanese border. “We were a group of idealistic young people bound on a wonderful great enterprise - or so it seemed in 1949.” In the Kibbutz Yakov met and soon married Hava Cohen - herself a combat veteran of the recently ended war. “At the time, getting married consisted mainly of applying to the Kibbutz Housing Committee for a family room. Getting it formalized by a rabbi was the least important part and only came years later.”
Sa'ar was located on the Mediterranean shore and launched a fishing boat. The life of a fisherman appealed to Yakov; traveling a long way from shore, for weeks at a time, enduring sometimes fierce storms, having friendly encounters with Italian fishermen in mid-sea, and also occasional clandestine landings in Lebanon. “It was not like nowadays, after the Israeli invasion of 1982 and twenty years of guerrilla warfare have hardened the attitudes of the Lebanese. In the 1950's it was officially an enemy country, certainly, but an Israeli boat coming to a deserted shore could often get a cordial welcome. We also had some dealings with Palestinians living there as refugees. We had just fought a very harsh and bloody war, but it did not leave me with a feeling of hatred - nor the Arabs with whom I came in contact.” The budding State of Israel also made use of the fishermen's unofficial visits to Lebanon, in order to bring Lebanese and Syrian Jews over to Israel.
The adventurous fisherman life had, however, a huge drawback - being at sea for weeks, coming to shore bone-weary and sleeping it off for days. Yakov and his shipmates were left out of the mainstream of kibbutz life, and were not present at general assemblies where crucial decisions were made. Eventually, the kibbutz took the decision to terminate the fishing enterprise and Yakov ended up doing more humdrum land-bound jobs. Hava, too, became discontented. “The word 'feminism' was not yet known in Israel at that time, but she was annoyed about kibbutz women being relegated to traditional women's roles - specifically, at having to spend much of her working days washing dirty diapers by hand (we had a lot of new babies) and hardly ever getting a stint in the vegetable garden, the work which she really liked.” In addition, Yakov recalls, “there was an increasing feeling of social and political conformity, in the country as a whole, under Ben Gurion, and in the kibbutz in particular. In theory we were all equals in a model egalitarian society; in practice, a clique developed at record speed, which took up the influential positions. I quickly saw that behind the pioneering and Zionist and Marxist rhetoric was a cynical power play. And there was also a witch hunt against our communist friends; anybody found to have communist sympathies was immediately expelled from the kibbutz.”
Ultimately, in 1953 Yakov and Hava left the kibbutz. “We went away with nothing but the clothes on our backs. The fruits of our years of hard work were left with the people who stayed in the kibbutz. A form of exploitation which Marx never thought of.” And then the Israeli armed forces informed Yakov that as far as they were concerned, he had not yet done his mandatory term of service - his fighting in 1948 did not count since he had been a militiaman, never formally enrolling in the IDF. “Since I had been a fisherman I was sent to the navy, but I did not go out to sea - just two years of boring and aggravating work at shore installations in Haifa and Jaffa.” Meanwhile, Hava found work at the Israeli Philatelic Service, later becoming a history teacher. Yakov and Hava came to live in Tel Aviv, where they have remained ever since - although on hot summer days Yakov sometimes misses the cool mountain climate of Jerusalem. It was in Tel Aviv that their children were born and grew up - Adam (born 1955, journalist, and peace activist) and Yael (born 1961, kindergarten teacher at the Emin spiritual community of Ma'aleh Tzvia in the Galilee).
Yakov has held many jobs and positions: a commercial fisherman, a technician at the Israel Electric Corporation, a mechanic, working at times as an employee and at others, self-employed in his own small workshop; a vocational education instructor and a teacher. One employer, who set his own fishing boat on fire in order to receive the insurance, ended up inspiring some of the crooks and shady characters in Yakov's book. Yakov was among the founders of the Israeli Inventors' Association, his own invention being a machine for making falafel balls. (“It worked, making quite neat and tasty falafel balls. The problem was, that owners of falafel stalls did not want labor-saving machines when they could hire low-paid Palestinian boys.”)
Yakov also took up rescuing old machines and devices. “I like obsolete technologies, like mechanical calculating machines. Such fine workmanship went into them for generations, and now they rust on the scrap heap. I like to take half-broken machines with cogs and wheels and transmission belts and blinking lights and give them a new life. Somebody told me that my crazy machines could be classed as Kinetic Art. Fine with me.”
Towers to Nowhere developed over many years in Yakov's mind before being written down. At the Tel Aviv power station he had to be constantly prepared for an overload emergency, when pressure in the boilers had to be lowered without delay. But in between there were days of grey routine with nothing much to do, plenty of opportunities for thinking.
“For years I developed story lines and characters. During my time at sea I got the idea of writing about the ancient peoples who sailed before me, the Phoenicians and Greeks, the Venetians and Genoese. I wrote down some fragments of that epic, but only completed a short story, The Coquette Courtesan. There was this 1943 scene which I could not get out of my head, the old Edison Cinema in the center of Jerusalem, where we liked to go for the latest American film, with its old fashioned lobby lined with mirrors. And there is this man who looks in the mirror and sees in it what is happening in Auschwitz at that very moment, and he starts screaming and pointing and shouting, “ Don't you see? Don't you see?” but the others in the lobby only see an ordinary mirror and they think he is crazy.
“For a long time I thought that I could not write that book, that the theme was too raw and painful. I felt the need to take a step back, to write about the preceding decades when it was just a distant black cloud which far-seeing people could discern on the horizon; about the time when Jews were faced with a crisis whose depth they did not yet realize.”
The scene that gave birth to Towers to Nowhere appears in its second part, not yet translated into English.
Towers to Nowhere
Russia at the turn of the century, a country beset by revolutionary tensions and upheavals, where Jews are increasingly threatened. From a straightforward commercial venture, Feivel’s voyage on a riverboat will turn into a series of adventures, some of them absurdly funny, some hair-raising. Few foresee that much worse is still in store for Jews, in this new century – but what to do about it?
Yakov Keller’s tag cloud