Parsing the Fire
By KEN GORDON
By A.B. Yehoshua
Translated by Stuart Schoffman
386 pages. Harcourt. $26.
Would it be fair to say that the Festival of Lights is
treated, at least here in America, as an essentially childish holiday? Childish? I think so. We present
Hanukkah, more often than not, as a form of superficial entertainment for the
youngest people in our tribe.
Not that there isn't a place for not-quite-mature holiday stories. (Indeed, we
have a roundup of kids' Hanukkah books right here and
Jon Stewart's Hanukkah song, while a little adolescent, is
damned close to comic genius.) But at a certain point, serious Jewish readers
crave something more. Myself, I didn't realize I hungered for a substantial
Hanukkah story until I read Friendly
Fire: A Duet, the new book from Israeli novelist, A.B. Yehoshua, just translated
into English by Stuart Schoffman. Friendly
Fire is a mature, intelligent, deeply felt Hanukah story.
This is a book of fire, literal and metaphoric, friendly and otherwise. It's a
volume stewing in a variety of Jewish passions, among which are a sharp ambivalence
toward Jewish history and a fraught relationship to Jewish militarism.
Friendly Fire details the weeklong
separation of a married couple, Amotz Ya'ari, an engineer whose specialty is
elevators, and his wife Daniela, who leaves their home in Tel Aviv to visit her
brother-in-law, Yirmiahu, in his adopted—violently adopted—home of East Africa.
Yirmi is in retreat from the world, from Israel and Judaism, after the death of
his solider-son Eyal by "friendly fire," six years before, and then
that of his wife, Shuli, from exiled grief. Daniela makes the solo trip because
she's been insulated by her controlling husband's love against her despair, and
needs to find a way to viscerally memorialize Shuli.
The book is written in the alternating stories of Ya'ari's domestic adventures
as a grandfather and business owner at home in Tel Aviv (grandchildren,
elevator mysteries, the complicated love life of his Alzheimer's-stricken
father) and Daniela's voyage into the heart of darkness: her brother-in-law's
newfound nihilism and the country of Tanzania. The Ya'ari's rare separation is
broken up by Yehoshua in to six sections entitled "Candles" ("Second
Candle" through "Eighth Candle"), squarely setting the story in
a Jewish timeframe. And while Daniela, an English teacher, might know that
Faulkner used Easter week as a structural device in The Sound and the Fury, I'm not sure if Yehohsuha was nodding in
this direction or not—though there is a kind of As I Lay Dying feel to the alternating perspectives in Yehohsua's
Early on, Daniela surprises Yirmi with some Israeli newspapers and magazines she'd
taken from her flight. Yirmi, who wants to burn off his former identity, throws
the lot into a little holocaust in his incinerator. Daniela is (rightly) taken
aback and informs him that not only has he burned up the Hebrew-language
reading material, but a box of candles.
"Candles? Why candles?"
"It's Hanukkah now, did you forget?
I was thinking, maybe we could light them this week, together… It's one
of my favorite holidays…"
"It's Hanukkah? I really didn’t know. For some time now I've been cut off
from the Jewish calendar."
Hard to imagine any Jew, anywhere, simply not noticing Hanukkah. Tu B'Av,
maybe; Hanukkah, no. But then, in Yirmi, we're dealing with a profoundly bereaved father and husband,
someone who no longer wishes to be part of what Yehoshua called, in another
context, the "full Jewish life" of living in Israel. Yirimi suggests
that the full Jewish life can be terrible, can be too much. Indeed, Yirmiahu is
not some Diaspora slacker but an idealized anti-Israeli. Imagine a sort of
Middle Eastern Coleman Silk (the character who went temporarily nuts with grief
after his wife dies in Philip Roth's The
Back at home, Ya'ari, an engineer isn't impressed with the way the locals, or
his employees, deal with the holiday. He seems unfairly annoyed at the
popularity of the song "Maoz Tsur" and that everyone in Tel Aviv
takes Hanukkah as an excuse to ditch school or work.
"What's going on?" Ya'ari asks the secretary at the Defense Ministry,
where he goes to talk about a project. "Is the Defense Ministry upgrading
the holiness of Hanukkah to give time off to its workers?"
"'Why not?' she answers, surprised that Ya'ari is unaware of the Hanukkah
performance organized at the Hall of Culture for the children of ministry
employees." She's especially surprised because Ya'ari's son and co-worker,
Moran, "managed to cadge free tickets from her for the children of
Moran is an interesting case. In the first part of the novel, he simply doesn't
report for his reserve duty, and while his father raises some concern, no one
in the family seems exceptionally troubled by it.
"When's it supposed to start, your reserve duty?"
"It started already. Yesterday."
"And you have a release? You're covered?"
"Nobody can give me an official release. I'm just ignoring it."
"But why don't you explain to them that this is a critical week at work,
with many important decisions…"
"They don't need explanations. They've got them from everybody and his
brother. Better just to keep quiet. Even if they discover I'm missing, the
adjuntant is a friend of mine; we were in officers' training together."
The casualness seems astonishing. When the military takes Moran away, it's
still a rather laid-back affair. (The son plays backgammon, and then chess,
with his adjutant.) Hard to say if the Ya'ari family aversion to military duty
has to do with the death of Moran's cousin Eyal, or if it's a function of being
exhausted by Israel's hyper-militarized life, but the fact is, Friendly Fire shows us a group of
Israelis who have a very complicated relationship to war, which seems very
appropriate in a Hanukkah narrative for adults.
Even more unusual, however, is Yehoshua's overt use of the Bible. When Yirmi
gets really going, he spits out a sermon railing against the biblical prophets.
Why? "Because people like us," he tells Daniela, "lazy secular
people, who wave the flag of the ethical teachings of the prophets, don't
actually read them. They remember one lovely verse, some lines that have been
set to music, swords beaten into plowshares. They attack the Orthodox in the
name of prophetic morality, they speak about universal justice, about courage
and nonconformity—without examining too closely what this courage was for and
where the nonconformity leads. Because if you look at them, you find that all
of these teachings keep hammering the same nail. Is it universal justice, or
only justice of the God of Israel, in a package deal of loyalty? Yes, it turns out
that this justice is tied to loyalty to God, and the rage is not about the
welfare of widows and orphans but about unfaithfulness to God, who is basically
a kind of crazed husband, jealous of his one and only wife he latched onto in
the desert and has tormented ever since with his commandments."
Yirmi tells Daniela that the problem is that all these prophecies have been
"drunk in with our mother's milk" and fed "like baby food,"
adding, "So it's no wonder that we're all set for the next destruction that
will come, yes, speedily in our own time, maybe even yearning for it, look,
it's already right here, we've been hearing about it, we've read it word for
word in wonderful language."
Hard to imagine a Jewish-American novelist, a secular one, making such obvious
use of the Bible. (Much is made, in Friendly
Fire, of translating the text from and to Hebrew.) But then it reminds us
all of Yehoshua's remark about the totality of Jewish life in Israel: to be an
Israeli means that even secular citizens are versed in, and confronted by, the
Bible and its language.
Interestingly, Yirmi seems to be angry at Amotz for the way he delivered the
news about Eyal, and this anger has a seductive edge to it. When Yirmi rails to
Daniela about "friendly fire," the electricity runs high. "Who
the hell knows how we all got infected by that revolting expression. You know
who first blurted that out?" Yirmi asks Daniela, and the answer is Amotz:
"when Eyali filled out the forms, back in basic training, he listed you
and Amotz to be notified in case of bad news."
As a uniformed solider tried to explain to Yirmi that his son was accidently
killed by Israeli troops,
it somehow seemed to your Amotz, my Amotz, our Amotz, who had come from Tel
Aviv with this bearer of bad news, that I didn't comprehend the explanations—or
the opposite, maybe he was actually trying to console me, to loosen the rope
that was wound around my neck, since being killed by our own forces is a
hundred times crueler than 'enemy fire'—and then he grabs my hand and hugs me
tight, and says to me, Yirmi, what they mean is friendly fire…. and not only
once but several times, he repeated that wretched expression, and at first I
wanted to rip him apart, but then suddenly, amid all the shock and anger, I
also understood that inside this stupid oxymoron, this friendly fire, there was something more, some small spark of light
that would help me navigate through the great darkness that awaited me and
better identify the true sickness that afflicts us all. And from then on I fell
in love with this expression and I started to use it a lot, relevantly and also
irrelevantly, and to pass it on to others…
We see the titular phrase used to describe the light from a menorah and the
light in an African village campfire and elsewhere in this book, and surely
Yehoshua was fascinated by the notion that the term had both positive and
negative connotations, and that parsing it would be for Yirmi, and the others
in the volume, a means of parsing Hanukkah. Though I must say, when I first saw
the title, I recalled the 1979 TV movie of the same title, not an auspicious
Friendly Fire forces us to think
about the suffering, historical, personal, Israeli, and Jewish, and these
thoughts are quite bracing. Of course, it's not the broken Yirmi who ultimately
guides the way, but the voices of Ya'ari and Daniela—both of whom have embraced
life in Tel Aviv in a way that is unavailable to Yirmi. They are the survivors,
and it seems that their relationship is contingent on not giving into the
desperation that might be so easy to imagine there in the Middle East. Part of
it is that they've got their children and grandchildren with them… but one can
imagine how their humanity might be put to the test, might fail, if Moran were
to be deployed to the West Bank and he were to meet a fate similar to Eyal's.
Friendly Fire suggests that Hanukkah
can be a matter of life and death, and should thus be handled—as Yehoshua