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Obituary'He was very rooted to this place; practically a Canaanite'

A.B. Yehoshua, Israeli literary giant and ardent humanist, dies aged 85

Influential author, recipient of the Israel Prize and dozens of other awards, was also known as a sharp-tongued polemicist and staunch Zionist

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

  • Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua. (Courtesy/ Rafaela Fahn Schoffman)
    Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua. (Courtesy/ Rafaela Fahn Schoffman)
  • Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua in the documentary, 'The Last Chapter of A.B. Yehoshua.' (Courtesy/ New York Jewish Film Festival)
    Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua in the documentary, 'The Last Chapter of A.B. Yehoshua.' (Courtesy/ New York Jewish Film Festival)
  • Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua in 2013. (Martine Halban)
    Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua in 2013. (Martine Halban)
  • Israeli writer A.B. Yehoshua (photo credit: Chen Leopold/Flash 90)
    Israeli writer A.B. Yehoshua (photo credit: Chen Leopold/Flash 90)

A.B. Yehoshua, a fiery humanist, towering author, and staunch advocate of Zionism as the sole answer for the Jewish condition, died Tuesday. He was 85 years old.

His wife, Ika, a psychoanalyst, died in 2016. He is survived by his three children, Sivan, Gideon, and Nahum, and seven grandchildren.

A writer, essayist, and playwright, Yehoshua was the recipient of Israel’s top cultural award, the Israel Prize, in 1995, along with dozens of other awards, including the Bialik Prize and the Jewish National Book Award, and his work was translated into 28 languages.

Eulogizing Yehoshua, President Isaac Herzog called him “one of Israel’s greatest authors in all generations, who gifted us his unforgettable works, which will continue to accompany us for generations.

“His works, which drew inspiration from our nation’s treasures, reflected us in an accurate, sharp, loving and sometimes painful mirror image. He aroused in us a mosaic of deep emotions,” Herzog added.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett mourned Yehoshua as “one of the pillars of Israeli literature, a man whose words were read by many. He has left a crowd of readers full of admiration for the person who took a part in shaping the culture of the State of Israel. May his memory be blessed.”

Culture and Sports Minister Chili Tropper said: “Beyond his rare talent, Yehoshua was characterized by great care and sensitivity to the challenges facing Israeli society and was a social and political activist in an effort to improve society in his way. The words he wrote and the stories he told are an integral part of Hebrew literature and are in the hearts of masses of loving readers.”

Yehoshua’s work was structurally innovative and narratively traditional. There were no chapter-long sentences in his novels and no preposterous quests sapped of all plot. Instead, one was likely to meet a raw exploration of a flawed but likable protagonist, a patient, humor-laden style, and a dark storyline that deftly held the reader to the page. The sentences were long and complex, nested with meaning, and the heart of the stories could often be found in dialogue. He spoke frequently and adoringly of William Faulkner as an example of an author he admired.

Prof. Nitza Ben-Dov, herself an Israel Prize-winning scholar of literature, says that while his literary work shifted notably over the years, from surrealist stories to realist novels, he remained, above all, attuned to the society in which he lived. “He was very rooted to this place,” she said. “Practically a Canaanite.”

Several of his greatest works arguably came to define the era in which they were published. “Facing the Forests,” released in 1968, at the apex of the post-Six Day War euphoria, is to this day widely seen as the most arresting exploration of the Palestinian Nakba in Hebrew literature, signaling an awakening among his generation; and his first novel, “The Lover,” published in 1977, managed to herald the seismic shift in Israeli society with the rise of the Likud party to power and the decline of the Laborite and largely Ashkenazi left. (Yehoshua’s fiction was translated by Philip Simpson, Hillel Halkin, Nicholas de Lange, Stuart Schoffman, and others.)

Politically, on the enduring question of Palestinian statehood, his views, unlike those of many of his peers, were subject to change. After years of unbridled advocacy for a two-state solution, he broke with the tribe in 2016 and declared that the future lay in some sort of “joint endeavor.” He was not firm on the parameters of the sought-after arrangement but made clear that it would include equal rights for Palestinians.

On the matter of Judaism and the centrality of Israel, he shifted not at all. Despite howls of protest from Jewish communities abroad, he repeatedly stated that all Jews living outside the state of Israel were “partial Jews” and that even those who spent all their waking hours poring over texts and observing commandments were less Jewish than their brethren in Israel, where taxes and defense and incarceration, and all elements of daily life, are determined by Jews.

In 2006, in an essay submitted to the American Jewish Committee, he denied engaging in a “negation of the Diaspora.” Jewish communities in exile, he noted waspishly, have been around since Babylonian times, some 2,500 years ago, and will almost certainly endure for thousands of years into the future. Instead, it is Israel, home to only half of the world’s Jews, that is always perched near the precipice of extinction. Exasperated with this enduring situation, he wrote: “I have no doubt that in the future when outposts are established in outer space, there will be Jews among them who will pray ‘Next Year in Jerusalem’ while electronically orienting their space synagogue toward Jerusalem on the globe of the earth.”

Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua in the documentary, ‘The Last Chapter of A.B. Yehoshua.’ (Courtesy/ New York Jewish Film Festival)

Abraham Gabriel Yehoshua, known to many Israelis as “Buli,” was born in British-controlled Jerusalem in 1936, the younger of two children. His father, Yaakov Yehoshua, a fourth-generation Jerusalemite, worked as a translator for the Mandatory government of Britain. He spoke and wrote Arabic fluently, authoring 12 books in that language. His mother, Malka, one of 11 children, was born in Essouira, Morocco. She was brought to pre-state Israel by her widowed father in 1932, and was quickly, and rather unhappily, married to Yaakov Yehoshua.

In Yair Qedar’s recent documentary, “The Last Chapter of A.B. Yehoshua,” the author says that his parents’ somewhat acrimonious marriage was what cemented in him the notion that “My wife, I will love. And I will not compromise on that matter.”

He was educated at the Gymnasia Rehavia, a secular school in Jerusalem, and went on to serve in the airborne battalion of the Nahal Brigade, with which he saw action in the 1956 Suez War. But only in his final year of university, in 1959, did he first have a girlfriend. Speaking at her funeral, he said that he vividly remembered the first time he saw her, his future wife: Rivka Karni, then 19, was in uniform, standing outside a Hebrew University lecture hall, talking to a friend of Yehoshua’s, “her smile clearly seen even from the third floor.” He asked his friend, Yigal Lussin, about the soldier. “‘She’s a wonderful girl but a bit too smart for me, so I told her about you and even mentioned that you’re a promising writer,’” he recalled hearing.

Yehoshua was infatuated. He waited outside her base to meet her for a few minutes during lunch break and lingered in her dormitory in the evening. “I slowly came to realize that on account of that smile I would never finish my BA,” he said in his eulogy (Hebrew link) for her, “so I quickly proposed to her.” Within several months, the two were married. Her death, like their love, he said, developed fast.

Yehoshua was not always destined for greatness as a writer. In 11th grade, his only failing mark on his report card, the Qedar documentary revealed, was in composition. But 10 years later, he released his first collection of short stories and was promptly hailed as a writer of great insight and skill. Amos Oz, at the time still an unpublished author, wrote (Hebrew link) in a biweekly literary journal, Min Ha’Yesod, that “Yehoshua’s unique trait is expressed in his ability to create scandalous situations… and situations akin to those in a crime novel… without ever slipping into the sensationalism that lies in wait in such situations.”

Oz, later to become a friend and colleague, summed up Yehoshua’s skill as an author by saying, “While the hammer is in hand, and its weight and strength are surprising, the anvil is still too narrow.” He urged him to widen the scope of his stories.

That is precisely what followed. The title story of his 1968 collection, “Facing the Forests,” was a defining moment for many writers and readers alike. The author and poet Dorit Rabinyan described her first encounter with the text as “bewitching” and said, in a 2021 symposium at the Van Leer Institute, “that the fire in ‘Facing the Forests’ was like touching one of the elements of reality.”

Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua. (Courtesy/ Rafaela Fahn Schoffman)

The next four novels — “The Lover,” “A Late Divorce,” “Five Seasons” and “Mr. Mani” — were written either as a Rashomon or in sections, like a pack of tightly bound novellas, and were undoubtedly some of his best works. The English-language cover of “Mr. Mani,” a five-part novel that moves backward in time, carries a succinct quote from Ted Solotaroff’s magisterial review in The Nation: “The Nobel Prize has been given for less.”

“Mr. Mani,” which is stunningly composed of five one-sided conversations, forces the reader to fill in the blanks in the dialogue. It also marked the beginning of Yehoshua’s exploration in earnest of Sephardic identity in his fiction.

At first, this was a theme he avoided. At home, he told Qedar, his mother always underscored that Sephardi culture was in decline. “It was very clear to her that my sister and I were only to marry Ashkenazim,” he said. “She had a sense that the strong ones around here were the Ashkenazim, that they ran the show.”

When his father took his first collection of stories to S.Y. Agnon for an appraisal (Yaakov Yehoshua taught Agnon’s wife Arabic), the as yet uncrowned Nobel laureate suggested that the young Yehoshua would do well to hew more closely to stories of his own kind.

Perhaps the comment was just an older iteration of the old injunction to write what you know. Yehoshua told Daphna Levy in a podcast about the novel, that he was only able to delve into his Sephardic roots in his fiction after the funeral of his father. Standing there on the Mount of Olives, interring in the earth the man who had devoted so much of his life to preserving the stories of the old Sephardi families, he began to feel the story stir within him. “My cousin came up to me at the funeral and said he was ‘sleeping with his fathers,’” he relayed. The strange, nearly erotic biblical phrase, he said, is what “gave me the drive.”

Several years later, in 1997, he released “A Journey to the End of the Millennium” — a novel set in Middle Ages Europe, on the cusp of the year 1000. A Sephardic Jewish merchant, Ben Attar, sets off from Tangiers along with his two wives and his Muslim business partner and many others to try and find out what has befallen his wayward nephew. The tale hinges on faith and sex, religious difference and intolerance, but also crackles with Ben Attar’s dismal appraisal of the lands of Ashkenaz. His ship, laden with the skins of lions and leopards, copper bowls and curved daggers, strings of carob and sacks of salt, sails up a steel-colored Seine to the narrow streets of Rouen, where the bells of the churches shake “the gray air with an insistent menace.”

A.B. Yehoshua at a reading with literature fans at Tmol Shilshom, February 2015. (Courtesy)

As an essayist, he authored four books and countless articles on antisemitism and Zionism, Jewish identity and politics. For 50 years or so, in books and on the pages of Israel’s daily newspapers, he argued strongly for a division between Israeli and Palestinians, a two-state solution to the conflict. In 2016, he stepped forward and said (Hebrew link) that the goal was no longer feasible.

As a first step toward some sort of Israel-Palestine federation, he suggested granting citizenship to the 90,000 Palestinians living in the Israel-controlled Area C of the West Bank. Two years later, he proclaimed: “We are deluding ourselves.” The two-state solution was dead. Instead, he called for “equality” and for new thought on how Israel might grant full citizenship and rights to Palestinians and “contain” them in our midst.

He was fearless and knowingly combative in his critiques of Israel’s behavior. In the midst of the Second Intifada, he lashed out at the barbarism of the Palestinian suicide bombers, likening the situation in their society to the “insanity” that took hold of Germany under Nazi rule, but asserted that “the Palestinians are not the first to be driven to madness by the Jewish People,” and said that we ought to ask ourselves what it is about us, and our interaction with other nations, that sparks such “irrational hatred.”

Again, he was pilloried.

The “partial Jew” thesis also drew near-annual criticism. When Yehoshua in 2012 reiterated his assertion, albeit less poetically, that the Judaism of Diaspora Jews was like “a fancy spice box that is only opened to release its pleasing fragrance on Shabbat and holidays,” Yehuda Kurtzer, the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, retorted, “A more frivolous analogy to Jewish practice, and a more demeaning take on a vibrant Diaspora Jewish community, cannot be found.”

Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua in 2013. (Martine Halban)

Tellingly, toward the end of his life, he chose to again address the theme of Diaspora Jewry in two works of fiction that have not yet been translated into English. In both “HaBat HaYehida” (The Only Daughter) and “HaMikdash HaShlishi” (The Third Temple), the story revolves around families, one in Italy and the other in France, that are part Christian and part Jewish. Here, though, as opposed to in his polemical writing, he was far less explicit and absolute.

“What stands out above all else in his works of fiction, is its dialogue-ian nature,” literature scholar Ben-Dov said. Not just the quality and quantity of his dialogues, she made clear, but in the settings and the way opinions and truths are always batted back and forth, constantly in flux.

“Look at his last work,” she suggested. In “The Third Temple,” written more like a play than a novel, a woman, the daughter of a convert, shows up in a rabbinic court to try and convince the local rabbi that he must testify against her old rabbi in France. The very short novel ends with her placing a photo of the Old City of Jerusalem on the rabbi’s wall and pinpointing the exact spot where she’d like to have an alternative temple established, a place where “anthems of hope and redemption are sung” rather than what exists now: “a desolate wall, sprouting vegetation, a useless and un-glorious relic that stymies and obfuscates our path.”

This bit of dialogue dovetails with one of his famous essays, “The Wall and the Mountain,” in which he argues in favor of the state, as represented by Mount Herzl, over the Western Wall and all that it stands for.

And yet, as Ben-Dov notes, the final line of the novel, a stage direction, shifts away from the centrality of the Temple and suggests that redemption perhaps lies elsewhere, in a chore assigned by his wife. “He shuts the light. Complete darkness. But then at the far end, in the distance, the grocery store glows.”

It was, from the elusive Yehoshua, a wink and a final farewell.

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