If you believe Israel can do no wrong, you should not read “Shut Up, I’m Talking: And Other Diplomacy Lessons I Learned in the Israeli Government.”
In his recently published memoir, Gregory Levey recounts three frustrating years working as a speechwriter for the Israeli United Nations mission and the Prime Minister’s Office — employed by quite possibly the most boorish and bumbling group of diplomats in the history of the body politic.
And he does so without ever getting too political.
The effect might seem shallow. Here’s a man who was on the inside crafting speeches to rebut anti-Semitism at the U.N., packaging information for the ravenous press, putting words into the mouths of prime ministers.
But as an insider’s view of the Israeli political apparatus, the book is a nonstarter. This is not an exposé.
Fortunately, “Shut Up, I’m Talking” is something else entirely, falling into a category that New York Times critic William Grimes has dubbed “bad-job memoir.” As such, the book offers all the goods: mismanagement, disorganization, coworkers from hell — all the lunacy that comes with any lousy job. But it’s the the kind one expects to find in an accounting firm, not a national government.
It should have been taken as a bad sign when Levey, a Toronto native studying law at Fordham University, applied for an internship at Israel’s United Nations mission and instead got a full-time job as a speechwriter. He was underqualified — and he knew this — but when a door is opened, there’s no faulting the curious for walking through it.
What he found was nothing short of bureaucratic absurdity — a world where his office door had no knob and no one was entirely sure who did what and why they were involved in whatever it was they were or weren’t doing. In this way, his experience was not unlike that of many office workers in the Western world.
Still, most office drones do not get sent to the U.N. building to vote on a resolution they know nothing about. Nor are they asked to use their basic-level French to translate a complicated political document. But the essence of Levey’s predicaments is universal to all bad-job experiences: There’s work to be done, and there’s just no way to do it well.
In real life, these sorts of things drive us into the arms of therapists and bartenders. In memoirs, they can be played for laughs.
Of course, the humor is not automatic. Levey has a soft touch and a straight delivery, and deserves a lot of credit for being a restrained writer.
Just when Levey thinks he’s going to get out of the game, he is sucked further into it — taking a job writing English speeches for the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem. His new job makes his old one seem easy and pleasant.
For one, Levey and his girlfriend (a minor character in the book, even though the memoirist tries to make her more) no longer have the comforts of New York City to take their minds off diplomacy. This is Israel 24/7, not 9 to 5.
Levey takes to the Zionist state like a baby to spinach. This is fair. Israel is not for everyone. No one likes being assaulted by a taxi driver (as Levey was); no one likes getting into an accident and waiting hours for a tow.
Life at work wasn’t any less challenging. His boss listened to the Swedish pop group ABBA while giving interviews to the press and clipped his nails while meeting with common folk. His coworkers ranged from manic to miserable.
Levey felt it was impossible to be a professional while riding in the clown car. To cope with the bedlam, Levey spent a good deal of effort trying to sneak “Seinfeld” references into his work (they never made the cut).
On Jewcy.com, journalist Shmuel Rosner has called out Levey for trivializing the Israeli way of life, relying on stereotypes and misunderstanding the culture. This is a valid point. What some call boorishness, others see as expressiveness. What can be perceived as social anarchy might actually be a functional system of informality and improvisation.
Despite what many may think, “Shut Up, I’m Talking” is not a critique of the Israeli government and culture. Seeing it as such is missing the point.
Levey is not suggesting how the show should be run, he’s just detailing how it was for him.
This is an extraordinarily interesting exit interview for public consumption. So eat it up.
“Shut Up, I’m Talking: And Other Diplomacy Lessons I Learned in the Israeli Government” by Gregory Levey (267 pages, Free Press, $24)