Assaf Gavron photo by Fana Feng

The man on the hilltop


Assaf Gavron photo by Fana Feng

Assaf Gavron photo by Fana Feng

With a string of international literary awards and bestselling novels to his credit, Assaf Gavron has earned his place alongside his accomplished friends Etgar Keret  and Nir Baram as a foremost Israeli author under 50.

The Hilltop, his seventh book — recently published in English translation by Scribner — took five years to research and write. It paints a rare portrait of fictional personalities populating an unauthorized settlement in the Judean Hills, and has won Gavron a Bernstein Prize, critical acclaim and worldwide speaking engagements.

The 46-year-old writer tells ISRAEL21c that he did not consider himself “a proper writer” until his books started getting translated from Hebrew.

“I was 28 when my first book was published, but didn’t have the confidence to call myself a writer until much later,” he says in a conversation from Omaha, Nebraska, where he is teaching Israeli and Jewish literature and creative writing at the state university this year.

“When my work was first translated into German and I was invited to speak in Germany, I was treated as a writer — and that’s when I decided that’s what I want to be. That was only in 2008,” he says. “I was never an overnight hit. It was always a slow-burning kind of process of getting more recognition and readers.”

Meanwhile, he built a reputation as a translator, rendering into Hebrew 20 works of major authors including J.D. Salinger, Philip Roth, Jonathan Safran Foer, J.K. Rowling and Audrey Niffenegger.

Gavron also dabbled in high-tech.

“I was in a startup called Valis for four years, two in Tel Aviv and two in London,” he relates. “We started in the year 2000, creating a mobile social-media platform for teens, but the phones were not advanced enough at that time. I was brought in to create the language and later headed the creative department. It was a lot of fun and I liked the daily routine, but the company eventually closed.”

The Hilltop won Israel’s Bernstein Prize.

The Hilltop won Israel’s Bernstein Prize.

He has worked as a journalist and as a teacher of creative writing in Israel at Bar-Ilan University, the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School and Sapir Academic College.

In addition, Gavron is in a three-man Israeli pop band, The Mouth and Foot. His absence this year doesn’t matter because the trio agreed from the start, in the late 1980s, to release an album only once every six years.

“We released our latest album at the end of 2013, so that means we’re off for a while,” he explains. “The two others in the band are the musicians. I am the singer and I write most of the lyrics and play a little keyboard.”

Not lost in translation

Gavron was born in the southern city of Arad in 1968, but lived in the Jerusalem suburb of Motza Illit from the time he was three. “It was not a suburb like Omaha. For me, especially as a child, it was like a moshav,” a cooperative village. “Jerusalem was the big city and we went there on buses to watch movies or do our chugim [afterschool clubs].”

His parents were British immigrants, and he earned college degrees in London and Canada. So although he writes in Hebrew, he does not feel his works lose anything in translation.

“I’ve been reading English books all my life, and in a way my writing lends itself to English. I sometimes see the translation as an opportunity for improvement,” he says. “In my writing, the poetry of the Hebrew isn’t as important as it is for other writers. I’m more interested in story and character.”

The Hilltop has been translated into English, German, French, Italian, Dutch and Swedish; some of his previous books also appear in Bulgarian, Greek and Russian.

Gavron’s two young daughters are picking up English quickly during the family’s year in Nebraska. “Some of the ways of living here I’m not really used to, like being in a car practically all the time,” he confides. “In Tel Aviv, I like to bike and walk around. But it’s an interesting place to experience.”

When he returns after this year of teaching and traveling to several countries giving author talks, he will work on the next book already taking shape in his mind. Gavron stresses that his books are meant to be entertaining, fun and thought-provoking rather than political.

“I don’t set out to present Israel in a certain way,” he says. “But to be honest, there is a side of me that wants to take advantage of this opportunity to show something about Israel that I believe in. Mostly it will be different than the official hasbara [public diplomacy] of Israel but for me it’s no less supportive of Israel to show contradicting viewpoints.”

For more information, click here.


The lounge inside WeWork’s Boston office.

WeWork takes co-working model global

 The lounge inside WeWork’s Boston office.

The lounge inside WeWork’s Boston office.

WeWork has landed in Israel, bringing its revolutionary approach to co-working spaces that is transforming business culture across the world.

This adds a new level to the shared workplace trend spreading throughout Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and other Israeli cities. Municipalities, real-estate developers, social entrepreneurs and accelerators already offer infrastructure, businesses services, mentoring and networking events in common areas intended mainly for startups and the self-employed.

WeWork, cofounded in the United States by Israeli native Adam Neumann in 2010, provides companies of any size with a communal atmosphere meant to foster organic business communities in and between cities including New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, London and Amsterdam. Tel Aviv is the 12th city to join the WeWork revolution.

ISRAEL21c met with WeWork Israel Director Benjamin Singer shortly before the December 1 opening of Dubnov 7, the first of three initial sites. It houses 420 desks and 120 companies. Another will open on January 1, 2015, in Herzliya Pituah with 450 desks, and a 600-desk WeWork site will follow at Tel Aviv’s Sarona Market.

WeWork founders Miguel McKelvey and Adam Neumann.

WeWork founders Miguel McKelvey and Adam Neumann.

“Our uniqueness stems from the creation of a business community as well as the support and collaboration generated from it,” says Singer, an American citizen who moved to Israel in 1987 and went into the restaurant business. “The vibe here is not the vibe you’ll find in regular office buildings.”

In its leased workspaces, WeWork provides all the amenities you’d expect – furnishings, utilities, restrooms, printers, meeting rooms, event spaces, high-speed Internet and Wi-Fi, lounges, unlimited coffee and the Israeli boutique beer Jem’s on tap.

The buildings also host events, joint projects and mentorships that co-working hubs typically sponsor, but they’re not organized by WeWork. Rather, they happen naturally once a critical mass of business people are sitting together in one location.

“We just have to be the platform to enable that,” says Singer.

Not just startups

On a trip to the United States after the 2009 publication of the bestselling Start-Up Nation coauthored by his brother Saul, Singer met with Neumann and immediately saw how well the WeWork concept (then called GreenDesk) fit his own interests in the hospitality and high-tech industries.

For the next five years, he scouted out potential buildings, investors and partners, and eventually shook on a deal with Neumann and his cofounder, Miguel McKelvey.

Meanwhile, WeWork was expanding rapidly with the backing of big names such as JPMorgan and Benchmark. Investor Mort Zuckerman, the billionaire publishing and commercial real-estate magnate, told Forbes magazine: “Adam [Neumann] understood in a very serious way that we are in a new culture.”

Of particular significance is the interest of established companies in WeWork’s collaborative workspace model. Startups are expected to comprise about half of the members in WeWork’s Israeli sites. Among the firms moving units of their operations into Dubnov 7 are Uber, Bank Leumi’s LeumiTech, Ernst & Young and My Heritage.

WeWork aims to transform global business culture.

WeWork aims to transform global business culture.

“I’m in contact with several fast-growing companies that are always looking for space,” says Singer.

“All our buildings are fully occupied without any advertising. Thirty percent of our growth comes from within, from current members growing. If I need to hire a graphic designer or an architect or a lawyer, I’ll find one right in the building.”

This is facilitated through the WeWork app — built by Roee Adler, formerly chief product architect at Soluto – that members use to accomplish anything from ordering lunch or a conference room (in any WeWork location) to identifying fellow-member service providers and accessing deals on things like insurance or web-hosting. The app even informs them when a visitor or package has arrived in the lobby.

Community value

Showing ISRAEL21c around the multistory building at Dubnov 7, which once housed a synagogue and a religious Zionist youth group, he explains that WeWork rented the property for 25 years and completely renovated it to assure design continuity across the WeWork brand. Hardwood floors and glass-and-aluminum dividers, with plenty of natural light pouring in, are central to the look.

Singer says he is convinced that WeWork is reinventing how people use offices. “We’re really the main driver in pushing this change forward,” he says. “You won’t see many future offices that aren’t like this.

Rather than contending with a long-term lease and the need to move anytime the company’s space needs change, WeWork members get a flexible arrangement costing from NIS 800 to NIS 2,200 per month, per desk, with options for an open area or offices.

“Companies just have to give a month’s notice before leaving, but otherwise they can stay as long as they like if they adhere to the membership agreement. In the US, about nine months is the average stay.”

WeWork Israel Director Benjy Singer in the future workspace of My Heritage.

WeWork Israel Director Benjy Singer in the future workspace of My Heritage.

 Singer is negotiating on additional locations. “Once you create the demand you have to supply the inventory,” he reasons. “And the bigger the community is, the more value we can bring to our members. In years to come, I think the community value will outweigh the space value.”

Establishing a presence in Israel is not only about Neumann coming back to build in the land of his birth, Singer adds. “This proves to investors that the WeWork model introduced in the United States works in a different market where there is an established entrepreneurship ecosystem,” he says.

And it also serves the interest of US-based WeWork members – four, so far — that have Israeli branches.

For more information, click here.

Sylven Landesberg at the Nokia Arena. Photo by Deborah Danan/Headline Media

NY all-star shoots hoops for Israeli team

Sylven Landesberg at the Nokia Arena. Photo by Deborah Danan/Headline Media

Sylven Landesberg at the Nokia Arena. Photo by Deborah Danan/Headline Media

It’s a Tuesday afternoon, and the Maccabi Electra basketball team is wrapping up a home-court practice at Tel Aviv’s Nokia Arena. The night before, Electra guard Sylven Landesberg tipped the scales against Ironi Nahariya with 16 points and six rebounds. Tomorrow night he and his teammates will be victorious over Alba Berlin, in Germany.

But right now, he’s taking a few minutes before hitting the showers to talk to ISRAEL21c about what it’s like for a high school and college all-star from New York City to play for the Israeli Super League.

When he arrived at age 20 to join Maccabi Haifa in 2010 – after playing for the Sacramento Kings in the NBA Summer League — Landesberg had never visited Israel and didn’t know the language.

“When I finished college and was considering my options, I sat down with my parents and we agreed that Israel was a good choice,” says the 6-foot-6, 205-pound player, whose mother is Trinidadian. Because his father is Jewish, he chose to exercise his right to immediate Israeli citizenship.

Landesberg was not short on options. He was a star player at Holy Cross High School in the New York borough of Queens. He was named 2008 New York State Mr. Basketball and 2008–09 Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) Freshman of the Year for the University of Virginia Cavaliers. He set a freshman record with 12 20-point games and was named ACC Rookie of the Year.

Since signing a three-year contract with Electra in July 2012, Landesberg has been a standout scorer. He was pivotal to the Tel Aviv team winning the Euroleague basketball championship last season.

Soldier athlete

US and Israeli basketball aren’t identical. “For a lot of Americans, when they first come here it’s tough to adjust to the slower-paced games, and some of the rules are a little different,” Landesberg explains.

In America, for example, when a player gets his hands on the ball he can take a “first step” without violating the rule against “traveling” (moving the ball without dribbling).

“Here, if you do that it’s a travel, so in my first game in Haifa I had six, seven travels and I didn’t understand what I was doing wrong. They made me watch films so I could understand what I was doing. It took me five or six months to get used to it. But I still play like an American.”

Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv 2014-15 (Landesberg is No. 15). Photo credit: Maccabi Tel Aviv BC

Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv 2014-15 (Landesberg is No. 15). Photo credit: Maccabi Tel Aviv BC

Rules aside, he adds, “Israel is the easiest place to adjust to. All my teammates say the same thing. Professionally, the way the organization handles us is amazing — not every country and team is like that. Personally, I like that the food selection is amazing and the weather is great all the time.”

Maccabi Electra currently includes eight US citizens. Like Landesberg, two others — forwards Jake Cohen and Alex Tyus – have dual citizenship.

Landesberg is the only one among them who is also an Israel Defense Forces soldier. He completed military training last year and now serves his adopted country as manager of an IDF gym — not a basketball gym, he clarifies, but a “pumping iron” gym.

Hebrew lessons

With no known relatives in Israel, Landesberg’s basketball teammates and army buddies are his surrogate family.

“When I first came at 20, I didn’t really understand what it meant to be Israeli,” says Landesberg. “Doing the army made me feel closer to the country. I made a lot of friends in [army training] and still keep in touch with them. Some of them served in Gaza last summer and told me about their experiences.”

Most of his everyday conversation is in English; there is no need for Hebrew on the Maccabi Electra court. “That’s a blessing and a curse,” Landesberg says with a smile. “Next week, I’m starting private Hebrew lessons.

Though his big-picture dream is playing for the NBA someday, he likes where he is now. “The competition is great, the league is strong and I enjoy competing in Europe.”

Landesberg resides in seaside Herzliya Pituah, home of ambassadors and diplomats. “I didn’t expect Israel to be so beautiful, and when I got here it was just jaw-dropping,” he relates.

His mother and sister have come to visit, and he saw the whole family in October when Maccabi Electra took on the Brooklyn Nets in an exhibition game during its pre-season Euroleague US Tour. The Israelis lost the match, and afterward a Brooklyn Jewish community leader was assaulted outside the arena. Landesberg says he and his teammates nevertheless feel their foreign appearances are important and appreciated.

“I’m proud to represent the team and Israel,” he says. “We get so much support from Israelis and from fans around the world. They all want us to do well.”


Christmas vendors abound in the Wadi Nisnas neighborhood of Haifa. Photo by Jorge Novominsky/FLASH90
Business,Israel in the Spotlight

The best of the Christmas markets in Israel

Christmas vendors abound in the Wadi Nisnas neighborhood of Haifa. Photo by Jorge Novominsky/FLASH90

Christmas vendors abound in the Wadi Nisnas neighborhood of Haifa. Photo by Jorge Novominsky/FLASH90

Christmas markets in Israel cannot match the legendary holiday stalls of Strasbourg, Berlin or Nuremberg, but that doesn’t mean you won’t find the holiday spirit here. You just need to know where to go.

The Christmas Market in Nazareth comes replete with holiday cheer on the backdrop of historic holy sites. The 2014 event will take place from today to December 21 at Mary’s Well Square, not far from the Basilica of the Annunciation. As per tradition, the festivities swing into action in the early evening.

This is the place to come for homemade crafts, delicious tastes, music and street theater. Santa is a regular visitor and is always happy to pose for a photo.

The Holiday of Holidays Festival in Haifa  draws crowds to its weekend market every Thursday through Saturday in December. The annual event offers an antique fair, concerts, art exhibits and a market selling commercially produced Christmas decorations to upwards of 200,000 visitors.

Stalls in the Wadi Nisnas neighborhood offer tasty treats for sale, but don’t expect traditional Stollen fruit loaf, hot punch and gingerbread. Instead, try the more Middle Eastern flavors of candied nuts, halva, knafeh and pita with labaneh.

Ben-Gurion Street in Haifa is also decked out for Christmas. There’s an enormous tree that lights up the evenings, and storefronts and restaurants in the German Colony are all decorated in Christmas colors.

In Jerusalem, the Christian Quarter in the Old City is the place to shop for Christmas. The year-round shop stalls add tinsel and a feeling of the holiday spirit during the month of December. There are numerous “Christmas tours” of the city  that include a guided walk through the marketplace and visits to nearby churches.

Though the Christmas Market in Rameh and the annual Christmas Bazaar in Jaffa already took place earlier this month, in Tel Aviv-Jaffa you can find a handful of stores that sell Santa hats, stockings, colorful tinsel and plastic Christmas trees with baubles already attached.

Stores lining Yefet Street in Jaffa sell Christmas ornaments. Outside No. 38 you will see an enormous, colorfully decorated Christmas tree.

On Matalon Street in the south part of Tel Aviv, shops rotate their wares according to the holidays – regardless of religion. Come here for everything plastic.

Indeed, even though just two percent of the Israeli population identifies as Christian, sharing the holiday spirit is prevalent around the country.

For more information, click here.


Brayola founder Orit Hashay has been named to many lists of female entrepreneurs to watch.

Forbes’ ‘female founders to watch’ (audio)

Brayola and 24me - two Israeli startups led by women.

Brayola and 24me – two Israeli startups led by women.

At the end of 2013, Forbes magazine highlighted “10 Female Founders to Watch out of Israel”.  One year later, ISRAEL21c checked in with them to see if the early hype helped or hindered their paths to success.

Joining Viva Sarah Press in the TLV1 studio were Orit Hashay, founder and CEO of Brayola  – who was also on the Girls in Tech Network’s “Top 100 European women in tech” list in 2012 – and Liat Mordehay Hertanu, co-founder of 24me, recently chosen by Apple as one of the best apps of 2014.

Listen to the program here.


Music: Tamir Grinberg - I was made to love her
To listen to other ISRAEL21c shows on TLV1 click here.


ISRAEL21c in collaboration with TLV1.

ISRAEL21c in collaboration with TLV1.