Jonathan Ames, ‘Herring Wonder’ and HBO series creator, does Israel

By Beth Kissileff/JNS.org

Writer Jonathan Ames, creator of the HBO television series “Bored to Death,” is known for his fearless and exhibitionistic persona. One can find YouTube videos of him eating herring and boxing at the same time, having knives thrown at him by a person called “Throwdini,” and ranting drunkenly at an awards ceremony. And when it comes to writing, Ames’s essays tend to cover racy topics.

Click photo to download. Caption: Jonathan Ames, creator of the HBO television series "Bored to Death," takes a mud bath at the Dead Sea in Israel. Credit: Courtesy Jonathan Ames.

Given these exploits, it’s a bit surprising to learn that Ames’s recent trip to Israel made his Jewish mother happy.

“My mom, for the entire length of my writing career which began in 1989, was saying, ‘I wish your book would come out in Israel,’” Ames said in an interview with JNS.org.

Ames’s mother always hoped his writing would appear in Hebrew, but he said he “never was able to fulfill that wish of hers.” Finally, when his longtime agent Rosalie Siegel was retiring, the last thing she did for Ames was sell his 2005 novel Wake Up, Sir! to an Israeli publisher, Tel Aviv-based Penn Publishing. Siegel’s gesture was “like a great last gift from a fantastic relationship,” Ames said.

As happy as this made his mother, Ames himself was no happier on his trip in Israel than he is in the Diaspora. 

“I was just as nuts there as I would be in New York,” he said, adding, “Any neuroses or emotional issues I may have were not arrested by being in the Jewish homeland.”

Neuroses and all, Ames said he did very much enjoy being in Israel, for both the place and its people. He found Israel to be a “fascinating, dusty, exuberant place.” He enjoyed the Dead Sea more than any other location, saying it was “beyond beautiful, the closest I will ever come to experiencing a gravity-free moment.”

“It was magnificent to be held by the water and be at the lowest spot on the planet,” Ames added rapturously.

This was Ames’s first trip to Israel as an adult; he previously visited with his family at age 7. He said visiting Israel now was “one of the best trips of my life, my recent life.” There was “something beautiful and mythical” in Israel, even though it is “also a place fraught with trouble,” he said.

“Being there, I had a great wish that a peaceful and just solution could be found [to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict],” he said. 

Ames said he wants to go back to Israel and to stay longer the next time, because of his desire to “understand better the troubles and as a journalist [to] go into [the Palestinian] territories,” to learn about all the perspectives in the conflict. He said he was touched by the ways the situation in Israel affects its civilians.

“Almost every conversation inevitably led to the perplexing and devastating situation with the Palestinians,” Ames said. “All those I met are desperate for a solution and fairness, and everyone is deeply troubled by and it and still trying to go about their lives.” 

How did it feel for Ames to be in the majority, not the minority, as a Jew in Israel? 

“I think any American Jew is struck by the surreal sense of how every person, the grocery clerk, the taxi driver, old man shuffling down the street, everyone you see is Jewish,” he said. “It is almost like an episode of the ‘Twilight Zone,’ the Jewish zone.” 

Since his reputation as “The Herring Wonder” in the boxing ring preceded him to the Holy Land, Ames’s trip included a sparring match organized via Twitter. Amit Kling, who reviewed Ames’s Wake Up, Sir! for the City Mouse newspaper, challenged Ames to a bout via Twitter. Despite Ames’s demurrals due to his broken hands and nose, and his six years off from boxing, the match took place in the alley behind Rothchild 12, a Tel Aviv bar where Ames held a book reading session.

Ames was glad that he could inspire Kling, a young Israeli writer, to “get in ring and be tougher.” As an American Jew, Ames said he had a “sense of Israeli Jews as strong from their army service,” so it felt good for him to turn the tables and be the one to inspire Kling to throw some punches, rather than vice versa.

But don’t expect much more sparring action from “The Herring Wonder,” not on Israeli nor American soil. Ames’s undergraduate writing teacher at Princeton University, Joyce Carol Oates, told Ames the last time she saw him “not to do any more boxing, not take blows to the brain.”

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Posted on May 20, 2013 and filed under Arts, Features, U.S..