Conversations with A.B. Yehoshua


The renowned Israeli novelist, A.B. Yehoshua, was born to a Moroccan Sephardic mother and a Sephardic father from Jerusalem. In this conversation with Bernard Horn, excerpted from Facing the Fires: Conversations with A.B. Yehoshua (Syracuse University Press, 1997), Yehoshua discusses Jewish identity, the life of texts in Jewish culture, the death of his father, and the intersection of life and death in one of Jerusalem’s oldest Sephardic cemeteries.

“The most important issue now is to transform religion into culture and for secular Israelis to find ways to relate to this.”

It was May 1996, and Yehoshua was in the United States, on a book tour for his novel Open Heart.

“How do you propose to do this?” I asked.

“As I said, we must create a new dialogue between the secular Jews, who are both the majority and the winners, and the religious Zionists, who were our bitterest enemies. It is a question of identity. The question of Jewish identity will become far more important in peacetime; war, immigration, and settlement will no longer be on the table. We must, as secular Jews, connect ourselves with Jewish identity.”

“It wasn’t very long ago that you focused on place, language, and social structure as the ingredients of identity,” I said. “This is a real change for you to emphasize so strongly the Jewish element in Israeli identity.”

“Yes. And that identity is only in texts.”

He continued, “Listen, if a French boy goes to see Michael Jackson in Paris, or Madonna, or whomever you send over to him, he shouts, he sings at the concert, speaking in English. Still, after the show is over, he walks out and sees the Louvre, the Notre Dame, or the Chateaux de la Loire—and he can relate himself to his history easily, just by walking in the street and looking around. All you have to do is observe a Frenchman talking about a chair in a shop, a Louis Quatorze or Louis Seize chair, and you see him polishing his identity.”

“And an Israeli kid?”

“An Israeli kid goes to see Michael Jackson in the same way. And when the show is over, where can he go? To Rachel’s Tomb? To the Cave of Machpelah (the traditional burial place of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah in Hebron)? He will visit some graves from three thousand years ago and through them understand his past? It is very depressing.” He shook his head, and a rueful smile crossed his lips. “You cannot get much from the grave of a Jew—which was probably the grave of a sheik that was transformed into the grave of a Jew. Our Chateaux de la Loire, our Louvre, our Florence, our Michelangelo are texts. Our Louis Seize chair is a text. […] the Jews lived a thousand years in Poland, and what are the signs that they were there? Graveyards and texts. And so it is in texts that even the nonreligious must go to find their essence and their history.”

“After the death of his parents, he [A.B. Yehoshua’s father, Ya’akov Yehoshua] felt such nostalgia for his parents that he started to go and meet with other Sephardic people in Jerusalem and try to reconstruct the life of the Sephardic community in Jerusalem at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century.”

“This attempt to recapture the past goes on all the time, in literature and in life. What made your father’s activity special?”

“Yes, this process of people going back to their childhood or going back to their communities in order to reconstruct and to preserve what was lost is very usual. It is done in many, many places. But here in Israel, it was a little bit unique because the remnant of this Sephardic life was nearby, in Jerusalem. […] But the Sephardic life of Jerusalem especially was a reality that was deteriorating and degenerating all the time, and he [my father] wanted, in order to keep its dignity, to speak of what actually happened and to record and preserve the fame or at least some values of this past. And he did this in many, many books.”

But A.B. Yehoshua read these books “with half a heart… I don’t like nostalgia. I don’t believe in nostalgia.”

“[But] everything changed for you at the funeral?”

“On the day of the funeral... in the graveyard of the old Sephardic community... At that moment I think something was happening in my heart, to see that the nostalgia, the research into the past was not just a kind of intellectual thing, but something that ended physically.”

The conversation skimmed over various, intertwined topics: books, nostalgia, politics, his father’s gravestone—and settled somewhere nearby. That old and abandoned Sephardic cemetery on the Mount of Olives is only one instance of the way [Yehoshua’s novel] Mr. Mani is saturated with Jerusalem, the real historical and living Jerusalem, not the Jerusalem of nationalist fantasy, nor the Jerusalem of fundamentalist frenzy, but rather a dense, lived-in, fascinating city—like Joyce’s Dublin or Kafka’s Prague. This immersion in his capital city is not surprising, considering that Yehoshua is a fifth-generation Jerusalemite with a father so preoccupied with the city. What is surprising, especially to a non-Israeli, is that Yehoshua left Jerusalem and has not lived there in nearly 30 years.

This piece was excerpted from Bernard Horn's Facing the Fires: Conversations with A.B. Yehoshua. It is reprinted with permission from the author of the book.