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Why A. B. Yehoshua matters

He was my first Israeli literary crush. Here is why.

if you have ever learned modern Hebrew, then you will know what I am talking about.

You surely remember the Gesher Hebrew series — those adorable little booklets that allowed the novice Hebrew reader to access the classics of modern Hebrew literature in simple Hebrew.

That was how I first “met” the Israeli novelist A. B. Yehoshua, who has died at the age of 85.

It was exactly 45 years ago, during my year in Israel at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Our class read the Gesher edition of Yehoshua’s short story “Shloshah Yamim v’Yeled(Three Days and A Child), and I was charmed. Years later, when my Hebrew had sufficiently improved, I tackled his debut novel Ha-Maahev (The Lover), a complicated romantic tale, set in the shadow of the Yom Kippur War.

But, what forced me into a total biblio-crush, was his short story “Mul Ha-ye’arot” (Facing the Forests).

It was the tale of a young Israeli who takes a job as the forest ranger in a Jewish National Fund forest (think: planting trees in Israel, and those once ubiquitous blue and white canisters that adorned every Jewish grandparent’s window sill). In a shocking scene, the forest ranger blithely looks away as an Arab sets fire to the forest, which reveals an abandoned Arab village in its ashes.

Leftist? You bet. Anti-Zionist? Hardly. Yehoshua was simply saying that the State was at least partially built upon the remnants of what had come before, and that Israeli Jews needed to confront that reality.

Yehoshua’s Zionist street cred was never more apparent than the flap over his proclamation of the centrality of Israel.

In his famous words to a group of young American Jews visiting and studying in Israel:

Israelis are the total Jews…Our values are Jewish values, because we live here. It’s not what the rabbis say that defines Jewishness, but what we Israelis do every day—our actions and our values…This is the reason I say to American Jews: you are partial and we are total. . . . If you really want to be Jewish, come here. It’s not easy, [it’s] full of questions, [and] your nice warm Jewish identity in your community will be over. But this is real and not imaginary.” [Tal Kra-Oz, “A. B. Yehoshua Calls American Jews Partial Jews,” Tablet, February 19, 2013, no longer available]

For many of us, that statement flirted too dangerously with the idea of shlilat ha-golah, the negation of the Diaspora — the idea that Jews living outside of Israel, and the Judaism that exists outside of Israel, is problematic or even useless.

Shlilat ha-golah is Zionism’s dark side of the Force. On the very face of it, it is arrogant. It forces Diaspora Jews into a defensive posture.

And so it came to pass that a bunch of us — a group of Reform Zionist thinkers and activists — called him on this idea.

Really. As in: called him on the phone for a conference call.

“Call me Bulli!” he insisted. (This is Israel; every public figure has a childhood nickname that seems to have stuck).

He defended and clarified his idea. It wasn’t, he said, that he was devaluing the Judaism of the Diaspora. Hardly. He affirmed that the Diaspora has always been a part of Jewish life, and always would be.

But, what he was saying is that there is a dimension to Israeli Jewishness, and Judaism, that is unrivaled anywhere.

For me, Jewish values are not located in a fancy spice box that is only opened to release its pleasing fragrance on Shabbat and holidays, but in the daily reality of dozens of problems through which Jewish values are shaped and defined, for better or worse. A religious Israeli Jew also deals with a depth and breadth of life issues that is incomparably larger and more substantial than those with which his religious counterpart in New York or Antwerp must contend… (quoted in Gil Troy, The Zionist Ideas)

In that sense,  Yehoshua was right. Israel provides a total Jewish society, in which Jewish symbols, observances, and meanings permeate every day life in a way that is unthinkable anywhere else in the world. I shall never forget arriving in Israel on Purim, and seeing the customs agents and the baggage handlers in costume. Or, wandering through a major department store, and seeing boys suits advertised as “l’bar mitzvah” — appropriate for bar mitzvah. 

But, more than that: Zionism expanded and extended the boundaries of Judaism beyond the merely “religious” and “ritualistic.” Israel would became the veritable laboratory for Jewish ideas and Jewish texts, and would force those ideas and texts to confront not only the kashrut of food, but of warfare and of public policy.

But, if I could single out the moment in his writing that moved me the most, it would have to be a particular scene in his novel Shiva Me-Hodu.

The book appeared in English translation as Open Heart, which sadly causes the reader to lose the clever word play of the original title.

In Hebrew, shiva can sound like a word that means “seven,” as in the traditional mourning period of “sitting shiva;” or, “return;” or, one of the most important gods of the Indian pantheon.

Yehoshua knew what he was doing — giving a novel a name that could mean “A Mourning Period from India,” or “Return from India,” or “The God/Goddess Shiva From India.”

The book is about a young Israeli doctor who accompanies the medical director of his hospital and his wife to India. Their mission is to retrieve the medical director’s daughter, who has become ill with hepatitis. On the way to India, the young doctor falls in love with the medical director’s wife, which is the romantic, erotic tension in the book.

 

When the young doctor is in India, he makes a visit to the River Ganges. He feels  himself caught up in the presence of pilgrims, Brahmins, and beggars. These are his words:

 

We saw women in saris descending the steps slowly and gracefully, cupping their hair in their hands and dipping it in the water, and half-naked men diving deep into the river and disappearing for a long time before they reemerged, purified. In the distance, all along the riverbank, we saw many more ghats teeming with pilgrims, all performing their religious duties in a tumultuous silence. 

The young doctor watched a body burn on a funeral pyre, and he watched while the family stood up and slowly circled the ashes, and one of them cracked the skull to liberate the soul into the river. He feels himself suddenly, inexplicably, drawn to the cycle of time, the sheer eternality of it all. He becomes totally enraptured by what he experiences in India. Its spirituality stuns him and moves him to the very core of his being. 

Which makes you realize what young Israelis are seeking, in their famous post-army treks to India — a sense of the transcendent.

Right about now, I would like to imagine “Bulli” in the World to Come, hanging out with Amos Oz, Herzl, and Golda.

And, I can imagine God laughing at the uproar of it all.

May God welcome my first Israeli literary crush — with open arms, and yes, with an open heart.