Inbali Iserles: Inspired by Israel's jackals

Children's author Inbali Iserles was inspired by the jackals that howled in the forest outside her grandparents' kibbutz


I remember the howl of the jackals. As a child, I would hear them treading the edges of the forest. My grandparents’ kibbutz grew still as evening fell, or as close to it as a tight-knit community ever got — the murmur of a television, a restless baby, the bark of a lonely dog. As night deepened, the jackals crept closer, drawn to human settlements by a disappearing habitat and the promise of food. As I slipped into sleep, they stalked my dreams. Yet it would be years before their canid-cousin, the red fox, found her way onto the pages of my books.

Like foxes, the timid jackal is a communal animal that is often misunderstood: dangerous vermin, wily and untrustworthy— this is how both creatures are depicted in folklore and popular culture. The jackal at least claims a seat in the Ancient Egyptian pantheon. The fox comes off worse. It was my wish to redress misconceptions that inspired my Foxcraft series for eight to 12 year olds.

Foxcraft debuted in the US and UK with Scholastic in autumn 2015. The series follows fox cub Isla on a quest to find her missing family, one that starts in the looming metropolis (The Taken), leads her through woodland and fjord (The Elders) and ultimately takes her to the frozen lair of the snow wolves (The Mage). To survive, Isla must harness the mysterious skills of her kind – and discover the secrets of foxcraft.

The Hebrew rights were bought by Books in the Attic, and the first instalment, came out in Israel this year. Translated by Debby Eilon, it is my first book in Hebrew. Its publication has emotional resonance for me.

I was born in Jerusalem but my family hadn’t lived there long — my dad grew up in Bat Yam, a suburb of Tel Aviv, and my mum was from a northerly kibbutz, Ramat Ha’Shofet. We left Israel when I was almost three, moving to the UK so that my dad could accept a research fellowship at Kings College, Cambridge. Summers, however, were spent with Saba and Safta at the kibbutz — and they were magical times. My sister and I would visit the playgrounds, hang out with neighbourhood dogs, explore the borders of the forest and — much to the disapproval of our safta — feed stray cats.

My grandparents’ old house backed onto the forest. Over the years, this wooded wilderness shrank, giving way to more houses, a corrugated plastics factory, and a wider road. The jackals endured. Like the red fox, they are resilient opportunists that exist on an increasingly varied diet of rodents and our leftovers.

Later my grandparents moved to another part of the kibbutz. We were further from the forest, but on a quiet summer’s night I could still hear the howls.

My saba, David Argaman, was not a sentimental man. An émigré from Poland in the 1930s, and veteran of Montgomery’s campaign in the Mediterranean, he viewed my sympathy for animals with suspicion. The world was a complex, turbulent place, not least the Middle East. Who had time for the concerns of beasts when humans faced such turmoil? Ours was not always an easy relationship. We sparred frequently, fervently. I tried to persuade him that compassion was not zero sum: that care for all creatures mattered, that it was imperative. Even snakes? he would ask with a mischievous grin. Of course. Even snakes.

David had nothing against the jackals, but he would have prioritised the cause of human advancement.

Like jackals, red foxes have entered our social spaces. You see them frequently in London, living on what we leave behind, or the rats and mice enticed by our scraps, survivors in challenging times. They have fared better than many of their cousins: the island fox, on the brink of extinction; the African wild dog; the majestic wolf.

I last heard the jackals’ haunting lament on the night of my saba’s funeral. David died following a suspected stroke in June 2016, some months before my book came out in Israel. He was my last direct relative in Israel, and his death severed a link with the kibbutz, and the country — one that has been rekindled by Foxcraft. Now I look to Isla, the young cub seeking her family. I hope that the series will endure as something of my own family in my homeland.


Foxcraft: The Mage is published by Scholastic this week

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive