Talking with

A. B. Yehoshua

Generally considered Israel's greatest living writer, A.B. Yehoshua is a portly, imposing figure, still handsome in a curly-haired, silvery way at 68. We met in November 2003, on the Montreal leg of a North American tour promoting his latest novel, The Liberated Bride, a few weeks after we had discussed the book at length by phone, with the author speaking from his home in Haifa. Yehoshua has a ready smile and wit and is immensely articulate, despite a pronounced but endearing lisp. Peppering his conversation with references to Thomas Mann, Dostoyevsky, S. Y. Agnon, Virginia Woolf and the great medieval Sufi poet al-Hallaj, he seems as at home with the backwaters of history as with the day's headlines. He comes by that ease honesty, having devoted a major portion of his distinguished career to exploring the nexus between history, politics, and literature.

Born in Jerusalem in 1936, Yehoshua is a member of the so-called "generation of the state," which also includes such prominent authors as Amos Oz, Aharon Appelfeld, Yoram Kaniuk, and Yehoshua Kenaz. Coming of age after the establishment of Israel in 1948, these writers echoed in their works the existential problems of their country: various wars and crises between Israel and the Arab world, the moral dilemma of holding fast to the Zionist dream at the expense of the aspirations of Palestinians, and social issues such as the emigration from Israel of a younger generation and its loss of faith in the Zionist ideal that had given birth to the state.

From his first surrealist stories that bore the imprint of his admiration for Kafka and Agnon, through historical tours de force such as Mr. Mani and Journey to the End of the Millennium, to his most recent work, The Liberated Bride, a rich comedy of manners set just before the current Intifada, the plight of Israel is an ever present current in Yehoshua's fiction, even as his delicacy as an artist raises his work to universal significance.

A central paradox animates his writing. In an almost uncanny way he manages simultaneously to illuminate life while casting a veil of mystery over it. In person, however, he is transparent and unpretentious, readily admitting that Yochanan Rivlin, the protagonist of The Liberated Bride, is autobiographically inspired, that Hagit, the book's female lead, is modelled on his wife, and that "the wonderful kind of partnership and friendship between the two ... even when they quarrel" is based on their 43-year marriage. Disarmingly modest, he protests that he speaks a mere three languages, neglecting to mention that his command of them is such that he is able to deliver inspired keynote addresses in Montreal on separate topics in English, French, and Hebrew - all without notes.

Yehoshua's genius as a writer of profound psychological perceptiveness (he alludes frequently to his psychoanalyst wife's approach to character) is matched by his role as a social and political commentator. These concerns are expressed not only through stories, plays, and seven stellar novels, but in frequent essays and interviews in Israeli newspapers and magazines. Central to his thought is a preoccupation with identity, a question that cuts to the heart of Jewish history and experience.

In an interview with Eleanor Wachtel on CBC's Writers and Company in November 2003, Yehoshua observed,

When I started to write in '57, '58, this was a time when Israel was not in turmoil, or at least the conflict with the Arabs ... was locked in a draw. I remember my wife and I spent four years in the '60s in Paris, and there would be day after day when I would not open the newspaper, did not turn on the television to see what was happening in Israel, because Israel was not in the news at all. This was the time when the hard core of the Israeli identity was mapped out in literature by the generation of the state. And especially because we had clear borders. We knew exactly what was Israel, what was under our responsibility, the borders of our state - first of all the physical borders, the territorial borders, and of course this was also helping the borders of the identity. And then in confrontation or in difference with the generation of the War of Independence, we could deal with the private person, with the individual. My first stories were a kind of stating the right of the individual to be outside the collective, different from the collective.

An ardent Zionist and untiring activist in the Israeli peace movement, Yehoshua relishes retelling the tale of how, in 1982, he first became conscious of the past as a source of necessary inspiration. Until then, his story collections and acclaimed early novels - Three Days and a Child (1970), Early in the Summer of 1970 (1970), Until Winter (1974), The Lover (1977), A Late Divorce (1982) - had dealt with political and social realities of the day, brilliantly portraying contemporary Israeli life.

To my great surprise I became obliged to go to history on the very first day of the war with Lebanon. I belonged to the lecturers' unit of the Israeli army - this was my reserve duty - I was part of a special unit whose job was to go from one army camp to another, lecturing the soldiers about whatever we wanted.

The first day of the war my unit was mobilized. We were forty people summoned to headquarters, and were given the program of the war. "We are going to occupy Beirut. We will join the Christian militia and impose peace on Lebanon." For the first time in my life I felt I didn't understand my fellow Israelis. I felt as if I had lost contact with the Israeli code. This was a crazy idea: to occupy Beirut, join the Christians, impose peace.

I was right. We had to retreat, pull out - after leaving there 1,300 dead soldiers, twice the number of the Six Day War, for nothing. This was the time when, in order to understand my fellow Israelis, I had to go back to history for some answers.

A couple of autobiographical elements coincided with Yehoshua's political angst as the inspiration for his masterpiece, Mr. Mani (1990). His father, an orientalist and historian, died. \u8220 My father was a kind of writer himself. He wrote folkloric books in the last twenty years of his life about the Sephardic community of Israel at the end of the nine- teenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. By questioning old people in Jerusalem about the life of the Sephardic community he was evoking all this rich life in twelve books."

Yehoshua with his wife Rivka.

Yehoshua came to these books only upon his father's death. "My father left me his books. In a sense he left them for me. I didn't read them while he was alive. When he was dying, I realized these books would help me to go back to history." He emphasizes that his interest in the past wasn't inspired by nostalgia but by a need to understand the present.

The subtle and enigmatic story of a Sephardic family in Jerusalem, Mr. Mani is the tale of six successive generations of male Manis, set out in a series of historical tableaux, peeled back in reverse chronology by means of five conversations occurring between 1848 and 1982. It is the first of Yehoshua's works - coming relatively late in a writing career that began when he was in his early twenties - that deals overtly with his own Sephardic heritage.

"It was deliberate. I didn't want to be labelled a Sephardic writer. When you are a minority writer - and the Sephardis are considered a minority - people expect you to write in a kind of folkloric way. I wanted to be a writer with all the liberties."

HIS SEPHARDIC BACKGROUND is what Yehoshua has called "the sunken dimension" of his life. Though he has lived in Haifa for more than thirty years, on his father's side he is a fifth- generation Jerusalemite. His paternal ancestors immigrated to Palestine in the early nineteenth century from Salonika, then part of the Ottoman Empire, long before Zionism was a gleam in Theodor Herzl's eye. His mother, the daughter of a wealthy Moroccan businessman, arrived in Jerusalem in the early 1930s as a young woman, inspired by Zionist ideals and leaving behind a life of privilege.

"I will never write my c.v. without mentioning, 'born in Jerusalem in 1936, fifth generation in Jerusalem.' It's very important for me," Yehoshua told Wachtel.

The landscape illustrations in this article show the historic buildings around Kibbutz Merhavia, the first agricultural cooperative in Israel.
Photos by W. Turnowsky

It's like putting an anti-element to what I would call the diasporic Jew, to the diasporic mentality. My family was coming from Salonika in the beginning or the middle of the nineteenth century, not because of anti-Semitism, not because of persecutions, not because they wanted to build a state. This was before Herzl, before the big explosion of secular anti-Semitism that started in the 1880s. So I was coming from a family that was returning home naturally, because of the idea "this is home." They came from a city that was majority Jewish, and if 100,000 Jews had come for the first time to Palestine in the middle of the nineteenth century, all Jewish history would be totally different today. Because this was a possibility to create a state before the Holocaust. And it could have been done also at the beginning of the twentieth century, after the Balfour Declaration. So this terrible failure of the Jewish people to save themselves, to solve this problem, to avoid the Holocaust by creating a state before the Holocaust, this is for me the most terrible tragedy of the Jewish people.

Yehoshua views the past as a series of crossroads. At certain moments in Mr. Mani, he plays with history, exploring the path not taken at crucial moments in time. For instance, two of the Messrs Mani have overt political obsessions with modern resonances. In 1918, Yosef Mani, an interpreter with a linguistic ability that has him "acquiring languages as though they were a batch of keys to a house with many doors," seeks to sabotage the British Mandate forces, by inciting Arabs to partition Palestine half and half with Jews. Two generations earlier his namesake suffers from the singular delusion that Arabs are actually Jews who have misplaced their identities.

The most beguiling and the most overtly historical of Yehoshua's books is the sensuously written A Journey to the End of the Millennium. Published in Hebrew in 1997 and translated into English in 1999, the novel is a moral and spiritual quest set one thousand years earlier, on the eve of the first millennium. The main character, Ben Attar, a wealthy merchant from Tangier, pursues a lucrative partnership with his nephew, Abulafia, bringing the bounty of North Africa to the dour and narrow world of Western Europe. When Abulafia marries a pious Ashkenazi woman from the Rhineland, she is scandalized to learn that Ben Attar has two wives and takes him to rabbinical court with a view to having him excommunicated. As an allegory, Journey conjures up the divisive infighting between Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews in con- temporary Israel. But it is also the most diasporic of Yehoshua's works, in which he examines the devices that enabled Jews outside Israel to maintain their unity as a people, despite their manifold and often bit- ter differences.

"I wanted to see what was the mechanism of coordinating codes - the social, the religious, the cultural codes - between the different communities of Jews," he told Wachtel.

Meaning that the Jews were living in the Diaspora without an authority over them. There was no Jewish king, no Jewish government, no Jewish pope. And they were dispersed all over the globe, and of course each community was living in a different country, in a different interaction with the Gentile community, in a different code. So the Jewish people could have split into many different kinds of Jewishness and lost their unity. This mechanism of free negotiation and free discussion - and why a certain code is winning and why a certain code is losing -this is what I've done through the very important question of bigamy among the Jews and the monogamy that was declared at the end of the first millennium by the Ashkenazi Jews, who said that the Jewish man who marries more than one woman will be excommunicated. And at that time the Jews in the south were the majority, and they were the wealthy Jews. Ninety percent of Jews then were living in the Islamic world, and in that sphere bigamy was permitted. And there is no restriction on bigamy coming from the Halacha itself. So I was intrigued by how the Ashkenazis managed to persuade them that this is the new code that they have to obey.

A long gap in chronological time separates the setting of Journey from that of Yehoshua's latest book, The Liberated Bride. In fact the differences between these two works illustrate his range as a writer and his unbounded curiosity about both the world around him and the world of the past. For, make no mistake, even though The Liberated Bride is a determinedly contemporary novel, it continues to worry away at the realities and maybes of the bone of history. He began writing the book in 1998, a period he calls "an intermediate time between the Oslo agreement and the Intifada of today."

All of us were thinking that the Oslo agreement- with all the achieve- ments from both sides and despite all the difficulties - finally would be fulfilled. And my concern was: What will happen after that peace? What will happen to the Palestinian identity when we will be out of there? What will be the relationship between us and the Israeli Arabs? What will he the borders?

The question of boundaries - personal and political- haunts The Liberated Bride to such an extent that Yehoshua says he could just as easily have called it Borders. The diffuse plot centres on one year in the life of Yochanan Rivlin, a middle-aged historian and orientalist (like the author's late father) in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Haifa University. (Yehoshua recently retired from his position as a distinguished and longstanding professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at Haifa University.) Rivlin is driven by twin obsessions: on the private level, a desire to track down what went wrong with his son Ofer's marriage five years earlier, and on the professional, a hunt through Arab literature for sources that might account for the violent civil war that has shaken Algeria since 1990.

Why the fixation on Algeria?

Algeria of the late '50s and early '60s is a parallel for Israelis, for what was happening with the Palestinians. Algeria was a territory that the French wanted to annex, and they put settlements of French among the Algerians, and Algeria fought for its independence. There were many, many Palestinians who were taking Algeria as a model for their fight. And there were a lot of books about Algeria in Israel recently, discussing the impossibility of maintaining the territories - and arguing that France, with its population of fifty million, could not hold on to Algeria, even with one million French colons living there. Finally they had to quit, because they could not destroy the Algerian rebels. And during the conflict there was widespread terrorism and many of the same things Israel has experienced. There are differences, of course - the Algerians, after all, didn't want to take Paris for themselves, while the Palestinians are saying that Israel also belongs to them.

I was a little bit shocked, like everyone else, over the past ten years at all this violence in Algeria. And I was asking, What are the sources of this violence? And none of the experts could give me an answer. So I tried to give it as an academic question to Rivlin. I always like very much - and I do it in all my books - to work the profession of the protagonist into the story. It's not only that I put a label on him - a doctor or an engineer - I make his professional life and his professional soul an integral part of the book.

And my concern was, what is happening to a people in which the Other dominates, as we have done with the Palestinians by putting settlements inside the territories? I wanted to put it as a question, an academic concern of Rivlin, in order to understand the past through the present, as he tries to understand the present through the past with Ofer.

The Liberated Bride is a sprawling, immensely moving, hugely entertaining and provocative novel of ideas, action, and tragically missed opportunities. Yehoshua started it with a view to exploring, on the one hand, the boundaries between husband and wife, father and son, father and daughter, teacher and student, and, on the other, those between Jewish and Arab Israelis. Large chunks of the action take place in a village in the Galilee, and several of the most sympathetic characters are Israeli Arabs.

"People forget that we have 1,100,000 Palestinians who are living as full citizens in Israel, and that they are part of our identity. People get confused between them and the Palestinians on the other side of the border." In the year that the novel takes place, between 1998-99, those borders were easily permeable, and Rivlin, in the company of a young Arab Israeli named Rashid, drives to concerts in Jenin and literary festivals in Ramallah, journeys similar to ones that Yehoshua and his wife undertook in real life during that period.

All of us were thinking that the Oslo agreement- with all the achieve- ments from both sides and despite all the difficulties - finally would be fulfilled. And my concern was: What will happen after that peace? What will happen to the Palestinian identity when we will be out of there? What will be the relationship between us and the Israeli Arabs? What will he the borders?

Yehoshua was still at work on the book when the Intifada broke out in 2000. "And immediately I was a little bit caught up - I said to myself, What am I doing? I'm describing a festival of songs of love in Ramallah, and here now is Ramallah with the lynchings and the violence and the attacks. What can I do? But I decided, I'm dealing with the year '98, and this was the reality then, and I will stick to my year and continue to write about the things that happened then, because there were good things - even with all the problems - there was co-existence."

The novel pivots around the question of the limits of intimacy. In the private realm, Rivlin and his wife Hagit are at loggerheads over his insistence that if only he can discover the truth about Ofer's marriage, his son will be freed of the burden of a troubled past. Hagit, a judge. warns him repeatedly not to breach Ofer's privacy. When she discovers that he has gone behind her back, she is wounded to the quick that their precious pact of marital openness has been violated.

In the more public realm, Rivlin befriends an Arab-Israeli student and her family, and gingerly investigates the possibilities of rap- prochement with the Other. "I wanted to create in the book this inti- macy that is indeed existing between them and us, between the minority and the majority .... They know our language. They know our codes, and they live with us."

A few weeks before my conversation with Yehoshua, the Intifada ravaged his own backyard. On 4 October 2003, the suicide bombing of a Haifa restaurant killed 21 people and wounded 60. "Maxim's was our neighbourhood restaurant, about a half kilometre from our house, and this was a restaurant where my family was going every week." Of joint Jewish and Arab-Israeli ownership, Maxim's was frequented by both Jews and Arabs, and the three Arab waiters killed were Yehoshua's friends. Talking about them, reflecting on the awful shambles of both the restaurant and the peace process, Yehoshua's voice thickened with emotion.

"As I say to you, this restaurant was a symbol of our coexistence, and it is still empty and destroyed."

He paused for several moments, and then added. "It's just a house, but there are big signs on it today saying, "We will not let them destroy the co-existence between Jews and Arabs.""


I wish to thank Eleanor Wachtel for allowing me to quote at length from her interview with A.B. Yehoshua on Writers and Company, 17 November 2003. Where not otherwise identified, quotations from A.B. Yehoshua come from conversations with me in November 1992 and in October and November 2004.

The Liberated Bride

by A.B. Yehoshua

Review published in

Spring 2005

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