Trials of the Diaspora

Why A.B. Yehoshua's concern for the Jewish people and the future of Israel were the key ingredients of his fiction.

A.B. Yehoshua died on June 14 of esophageal cancer at the age of 85. A leading voice in a generation of writers that included Amos Oz, Amalia Kahana-Carmon, and Yaakov Shabtai, his impact on Israeli literature was nothing short of transformative. “Nearly every one of Buli’s fictions changed the conversation and constituted an innovation in modern Hebrew fiction, either in form or content,” Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, professor emerita of comparative literature at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University told The New York Times for Yehoshua’s obituary.

His early short stories and novellas like “Facing the Forests” reflected his generation’s alienation and pessimism and would become part of the national canon. In his novels, Yehoshua brought Sephardic stories and voices from the fringes to the center of Israeli prose writing. Traversing continents and generations, expansive and carefully constructed novels like A Journey to the End of the Millennium (1997) and The Liberated Bride (2001) broadened Israeli literature’s horizons. The multigenerational Sephardic family saga Mr. Mani (1990) was perhaps Yehoshua’s most celebrated work; “It is a perfect gem of storytelling, plotting and debating,” Fania Oz-Salzberger wrote after his death, “very funny and touchingly sad.”

For scholars and admirers like Yael Halevi-Wise, associate professor and chair of Jewish studies at McGill University, Yehoshua’s novels from 1977’s The Lover all the way through to The Retrospective (2011) and The Extra (2014) were luxurious cakes with many layers, complex gifts that made him Israel’s literary heir to Shai Agnon with touches of William Faulkner and James Joyce. In her engaging thematic study of Yehoshua’s work published last year, The Retrospective Imagination of A. B. Yehoshua, she compares Yehoshua’s novels to “a multistoried house with a main floor, a basement, upper stories, and wings”:

“The challenges facing the characters in their immediate environment are staged on the main door, while Yehoshua’s preoccupations with the people of Israel are discussed partly over their heads, above the main action, in upper stories accessible through references to traditional Jewish concepts and symbols that go back to ancient times… A deeper psychoanalysis of the characters is worked out in the bowels of the narrative, which…we can imagine as the basement area. And in the wings we are invited to compare Israel’s sociopolitical circumstances in the present with alternative places and eras that spin the present into a wider perspective.”

Yet for all their intricacy and diversity, his novels do share an essential commonality, she observes. “His literary and political output,” Halevi-Wise wrote in a tribute to Yehoshua published in Fathom, “was tethered in one way or another to his lifelong preoccupation with reconfiguring or updating Jewish identity in light of the recent return to national sovereignty.” The thread running through Yehoshua’s artistic and political life—for the two were inherently inseparable—is a deep concern for the future of the Jewish people, and in particular, that future as it pertained to Israel as the fullest and most natural expression of Jewish life.

Yehoshua never stopped thinking about the future of Israel and the Jewish people. He was of course concerned by the occupation, and towards the end of his life evolved towards support for some sort of binational solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But paramount in his novels, Halevi-Wise observes, was, first, his “fear that the Jewish people might find themselves again in the same vulnerable condition that Zionism aimed to correct,” and second, “his desire to push his readers to consider alternative cultural scenarios, which put their own contemporary Israeli life into a defamiliarizing perspective.” It is the interaction between these two concerns that account in part for the aforementioned expansive geography of his novels, a feature that arises not so much out of an interest in geography in and of itself but rather what Halevi-Wise calls his “historical imagination.”

As she maps out in her very useful second chapter on the geography of his work, Yehoshua would dispatch his characters to North America and sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, North Africa, and the Indian subcontinent. Yet Israel remained at the center of his work, and these overseas voyages made by his Israeli characters were often undertaken such that they might “interact with representatives of different nationalities, religions, races, and ethnicities in circumstances that are always steeped in an awareness of their distinctive cultural histories.” In meeting the other, Yehoshua’s characters are defining, refining, and testing their Israeli and in turn Jewish identities against an alternative national or cultural force.

On this point, Halevi-Wise draws an important distinction between his portrayal of the Jewish Diaspora and treatment of the foreign nations in which they live. The Diaspora is, for Yehoshua, “a space that condemns Jewish life to a precarious and even negative development.” In contrast, other nations and cultures become for Yehoshua and his Israeli characters “a source for emulation and exciting collaboration.” Contradictorily, the rest of the world is thus at once a “dangerous magnet that pulls Jews away from their national and familial responsibilities” and “a source of invigorating comparative perspectives that elucidate the goals and requirements of a modern Israeli identity.”

By sending his characters abroad, then—and in particular Halevi-Wise points to Open Heart’s lover of Hindi culture Michaela and Yehuda Kaminka in Friendly Fire, who leaves Israel in the wake of a family catastrophe—Yehoshua was subjecting his characters to a kind of stress test, keen to investigate the brittleness of modern secular Israeli identity. Yehoshua did the same thing in domestic settings too, with Halevi-Wise noting that in A Late Divorce and Friendly Fire, Yehoshua fashioned novels in which his characters “celebrate Jewish holidays under particularly stressful circumstances.” These scenarios enabled Yehoshua “to critique traditional practices and current attitudes” so as to “demonstrate a need,” as he saw it, “for national reformation that includes the revision of seasonal markers of identity and times such as holidays.”

In The Retrospective Imagination of A. B. Yehoshua, Halevi-Wise confines herself to Yehoshua’s fiction, only alluding to his other life as a public intellectual. But it was through his very direct, pointed, and often rude interventions in the dialogue between Israel and the Diaspora that his views on modern Jewish identity were spoken most plainly. Yehoshua’s war with the Diaspora—and American Jewry specifically—began at a conference organized by the American Jewish Committee in 2006. Sitting on a panel alongside the writer Cynthia Ozick and editor Leon Wieseltier, Yehoshua accused American Jews of “changing their allegiance like a jacket,” telling the flabbergasted audience: “I am what I am. I have a language, I have a people. … In Israel, the Jew takes responsibility for all the components of his life. In Israel there will never be a question of a Jew becoming assimilated just as there is no question of Frenchman being assimilated in France.”

Yehoshua repeated these ideas in both domestic and international forums. In a 2012 lecture, he said of American Jews: “They are partial Jews while I am a complete Jew. In no way are we the same thing: We are total and they are partial; we are Israeli and also Jewish.” Addressing American Jews in 2013, Yehoshua continued: “[Jewishness is] not what the rabbis are speaking in synagogue on Saturday about Jewish values. The Jewish values are tested here for the good and for the bad. [Unlike] your nice warm Judaism of the weekend, this is real and not imaginary.”

To Yehoshua, Israeli Jews were complete or ‘total’ Jews and Diaspora Jews ‘partial’ because the former had fused their religious and civic identities together while the latter had divorced the one from the other. The latter condition posed two dangers: assimilation and unseriousness. “Being Israeli is my skin, it’s not my jacket. Diaspora Jews change jackets, from country to country; I have my skin, the territory, the smell of the territory, the smell of the language—all this is my identity, independent of religion,” Yehoshua explained to the author Gil Troy in 2017 while the latter was researching his book The Zionist Ideas:

“We in Israel live in a binding and inescapable relationship with one another, just as all members of a sovereign nation live together, for better or worse, in a binding relationship. We are governed by Jews. We pay taxes to Jews. We are judged in Jewish courts, are called up to serve in the Jewish army, and are compelled by Jews to defend settlements we didn’t want or, alternatively, are forcibly expelled from settlements by Jews. Our economy is determined by Jews. Our social conditions are determined by Jews. … Diaspora Jews are not making any Jewish decisions. They are simply playing with Jewishness—plug and play.”

In all the obituaries of and tributes to Yehoshua, it was Mitch Ginsburg who rightly noted that, at the very end of his writing life, it was this subject of Diaspora that was at the forefront of his mind. That much is clear in The Only Daughter, published in English a few months before his death in a translation by Stuart Schoffman who himself died last year at the age of 74. (The final work, The Third Temple, is yet to be translated.) At the center of this slender and very affecting novel is Rachele Luzzatto, a 12-year-old Jewish girl in a Catholic northern Italian town thrown into an uncertain future when she finds out her father has been diagnosed with a brain tumor.

Set around Christmas and the New Year, when Yehoshua introduces Rachele, one of the first pieces of information he imparts is that she and her teacher wanted her to play Mary in the school nativity play, but that her father forbade it. “The drama teacher should find herself a Catholic Mother of God,” her papa, a lawyer, declares. When Rachele points out that her Jewish classmate’s father had no issue with her singing in the choir, the father replies: “They’re not afraid, because when they become doctors they’ll move to Israel, and there all the brainwashing Sabrina gets from the nuns will be erased. But you are staying in Italy, and here there’s a church or convent on every street, and the bells never stop ringing.”

To live in the Diaspora is to live in a state of temptation. It is also, for Yehoshua, ridiculous—trivial and a little unreal. Having gone skiing over the Christmas holidays, Rachele’s mother warns her at the breakfast buffet in the hotel in the northern Italian Alps to “take the eggs, the cheese, croissants, and vegetables, but not the sausages,” Rachele having promised her rabbi that she would keep kosher “at least until your bat mitzvah.” “But you ate them,” Rachele says to her parents of the pork sausages. “We’re post-bar mitzvah,” her father reminds her. This exchange is Yehoshua’s critique of Diaspora life as ‘plug and play Judaism’ ad absurdum.

Identities in The Only Daughter are fluid and interchangeable. Diaspora Jews must suffer slights and feelings of alienation. There is the sense, as Rachele puts it, that “she doesn’t need to know the names of towns and villages in Italy, because it’s possible that she, like her friend Sabrina, will in the future live in a country that’s more suitable for Jews.” Jews in the Diaspora may sometimes need to sublimate themselves in order to survive, as when during the war Rachele’s grandfather, her father’s father, used forged documents to take on the identity of an Italian priest. Were there moments, Rachele asks her grandfather, “when you felt that Jesus really was a bit of a god?” “Yes, sometimes, a little, why not, I believe in their saints out of gratitude,” he replies. “They saved my life, after all.”

The novel’s final sequences take place in Venice over the course of the annual Carnevale. Rachele’s rabbi, Rabbi Azoulay, an Israeli dispatched to northern Italy to prepare her and three other girls for their bat mitzvah, decides to attend. He comes upon a row of market stalls and purchases a costume: that of a priest in his robes and collar. “If I just add a mask to hide my short sidelocks, the rabbi convinces himself, I could fit right into this Carnival masquerade,” Azoulay thinks, before asking the seller to “remove the crucifix embroidered on the back of the robe.”

Entering a basilica in his new priestly garb, he suddenly sees “two men dressed in black, belted with sashes” and wearing “tall furry shtreimels on their heads.” As the pair approach him, Azoulay flees through a crowd of clowns and acrobats, kings and princesses, unable to tell if they were real Hasidim or revelers in disguise. “I am a quiet Jerusalemite, and in Jerusalem we only have simple Jews and Arabs,” says Azoulay. “Here frightening creatures are wandering around.” Not jackets, perhaps, as Yehoshua’s well-worn metaphor would have it, but his Diaspora Jews in The Only Daughter are switching masks and costumes to the point where they are unable to recognize each other—or themselves.

*A.B. Yehoshua, The Only Daughter, Halban Publishers, pp. 144

*Yael Halevi-Wise, The Retrospective Imagination of A. B. Yehoshua, Penn State University Press, pp. 226

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