A.B. Yehoshua, one of the titans of Israeli literature, died on June 14. In January of 2022, I was lucky enough to interview him via Zoom.
Yehoshua was one of my literary idols. When I lived in New York City, I had seen him in action a few times: a book reading, a lecture. The A.B. Yehoshua who appeared on my computer screen—a startling thing for those of us not entirely acclimated to Zoom–was visibly ill and had aged dramatically. Shortly before my interview, I had viewed The Last Chapter of A.B. Yehoshua, Yair Qedar’s superlative documentary. Much of the film’s contents were stark: Yehoshua was in failing health. His wife had died, ending a decades-long marriage. (Strangely enough, the plot of Molkho—his novel published in the United States in 1989 under the title Five Seasons—hinges on the protagonist’s newfound status as widower.) And with the loss of his close friend and colleague, Amos Oz, he was more than aware that his literary cohort was passing from the scene.
Yehoshua couldn’t have been more gracious during our meeting. Voluble and expressive in English, a language very much not his own, he immediately set the agenda for our talk, as befitted someone used to expounding and having his words treated with a great deal of gravitas. But, of course, I had come to listen.
Throughout the interview, I glanced—as unobtrusively as possible—at his surroundings, suddenly aware that Zoom was granting me momentary access into his personal space. All I was able to ascertain, basically, was his desk.
A.B. Yehoshua’s body of work was emphatically political and heavily influenced by William Faulkner. To me, though, the paramount fascination with his writing was the vivid, masterful depiction of the Israeli quotidian–which in no way elides his oeuvre’s political component. In Yehoshua’s writing, one could gain sensory admission to a polyglot, swirling—and violent—Mediterranean entity: Bus rides to the beach, felafel stands, academic politics, auto mechanics, lowlifes, army service.
His various political viewpoints generated ample controversy, among them his firmly held opinions on Israel and the Jewish diaspora. Yehoshua’s outspoken insistence that the only true, authentic expression of Jewishness could be attained by living in Israel—with anywhere else a pale imitation—predictably raised the hackles of the American Jewish community.
The surprising aspect of those views were that they were a surprise at all. The primacy of Israel vis-à-vis diasporic Jewry has been a longstanding Zionist trope.
On the surface, Yehoshua’s gloss on the immersive aspects of living a Jewish life in Israel—as impractical as that may be for the rest of us–does have some surface merit. Would could, ultimately, be a more Jewish experience than living in the Jewish state?
What always astounded me, though, was that this rubric could emanate from a writer. And from a writer like A.B. Yehoshua, whose body of work absorbed Israeli society like blotter paper. Yehoshua was born and raised in Israel. His process of acculturation stemmed not from some ideological imperative, but from osmosis. He spoke Hebrew as a matter of course; he absorbed all the nooks, crannies, and subtleties of Israeli society because—quite simply–that’s where he was from. His ideological scaffolding gussied up the fact that, like William Faulkner and Mississippi, A.B. Yehoshua was consumed with Israel because he was Israeli.
This was something I’d wanted to ask him about for the longest time, but when presented with the chance, I opted not to. It seemed, at that moment, like an unthinkable breach of protocol: I was going to challenge his own personal narrative.
The interview concluded with a “What can we do?” from a very discouraged Yehoshua. His wordage, tone of voice, and facial expression uncannily matched my (late) Yiddish-speaking grandmother, who bore no resemblance whatsoever to an Israeli man of letters with a Sephardi lineage. Make of this what you will.
Assuming, for sake of argument, that the Nobel Prize is the ultimate criterion for literary greatness—an extremely dubious assumption, of course—A.B. Yehoshua should have achieved laureate status. He has contributed a multi-layered, distinctive–and endlessly fascinating–canon.