Critical Mass

PEN World Voices: Leon Wieseltier & A.B. Yehoshua


NBCC member Leora Skolkin-Smith reports on the conversations between New Republic Literary Editor Leon Wieseltier and Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua during the PEN World Voices Festival:

What happens when one’s deeper cultural identity has been irrevocably scattered, reshaped,and claimed? When a diaspora of the self has occurred in a way,but the pieces exiled have been the victim’s own? To be an Israeli who grew up in a time before the state of Israel, before 1948, in a Palestine divided into border-free neighborhoods of Jews, Muslims and Christians can feel like one has lived only in a
fairytale.In this netherland of memory and being, lost cities and forgotten alliances, few writers have the tools with which to create a lasting fiction. The real experience is unreal enough, perhaps, a story few believe anyway, not grounded in contemporary Israel and Palestine and therefore unimaginable to the majority of
people who know this region only through the images of the here and now. A.B. Yehoshua is one of the few writers who has taken this existential challenge on and it is hard to not speak of his work effusively, with words of awe and admiration.

The evening I spent in the auditorium of the Center of Jewish history on Friday (May 1st 2008), watching and listening to the informal, lively discussion between New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier, and his old friend, A.B. Yehoshua was yet another experience of awe at this writer’s capacity for depth and mastery. As is always the case, hung photographs on the walls of the holocaust and the rebuilding of shattered lives in the Center played their central part in defining Jewish collective memory. The Jewish Palestinians of the time before 1948, are marginal to say the least. They have not and continue to not carry any weight in the current spectrum of politics. They are light baggage, easily blown to the winds.

Yehoshua was born in 1936 in Jerusalem. He lived at a time before the major Zionist movements in Europe formed the state of Israel.He lived another Israel/Palestine perhaps.

A friendly, warm-hearted and chubby man with wild curly gray hair, he seemed like an unlikely choice for such a dark load. Like the character in his novel, “A Woman in Jerusalem,” he “had not sought such a mission now, in the softly radiant morning, (but) he grasped its unexpected significance…” In the beginning of the interview, after asked a few general questions, Yehoshua gave the audience his own version of the history of Israel as a nation. He knew Jerusalem intimately. He stressed that immediately after 1948, when statehood was won, he and many Jewish intellectuals wanted his writing to be about a return to the individual as his own center, to surreal and existential realms. To hear his clear description of an earlier Jerusalem was fortifying and confirming.

Ghosts were resurrected but spoke as truths seldom heard. Before 1998, Israel was still a frontier with opened borders, he explained, Arab Israelis and Palestinians sat and smoked in cafes and nightclubs in Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv. Israelis went
night-clubbing in Rammallah and in the Gaza strip. The ubiquitous use of the word “zionism” these days is like putting “catsup” on everything. What does it mean? He asked. It was only intended to mean there should be a state of Israel, and it only applied to the formation of the State by 1948. After the State was achieved, it stopped meaning anything. It is just some sauce people throw on everything, he said, just the easiest and most convenient condiment.

What has happened in Israel and Palestine now for Yehoshua is a deadening of human empathy. Israel is now a swelling chaos, like the Jerusalem weather in “A Woman in Jerusalem,” which he describes like this: “From the overhang of the handsome tiled roof cascaded not one storm but many, each more torrential than the last. It was
as if the earth, having lost all hope of emptying the sky in a single downpour was draining it in stages.”

“Once when a Palestinian boy was killed, all Israelis mourned and felt pain,” he explained, “now they say—well, why don’t they care about the ones we have lost to suicide bombers?” It’s a different place, he continued, a time of disconnection, historical distortions; the wall between the Israeli and Palestinians is just as metaphorical as it is concrete. And memories of a time when Palestinians and Israelis felt good about each other are rarely conjured up by the new Israelis, a silence around the recent past has been built as strong as that wall. The 1920’s
through the 1940’s in Jerusalem are not alluded except as precursors of the on-going border struggles experienced in Israel today.

Yehoshua calls this deadening of human empathy the ”black plastic that wraps the dead bodies”.Faceless, nameless except to their own side, victims arrive at the cemetery stripped not only of their lives but of any possibility of re-engaging with the living as individuals, real fellow people.

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Critical, too, of how some Americans and Europeans claim the Israeli experience without having lived it, he expressed frustration about the fantasy so many have about Israel here in the States. Paraphasing his own words, he told the audience: “Tell them to come and let them see for themselves what strange and very
wrong ideas they have about Israel…”

When asked by an audience member if Philip Roth’s portrait of the alienated Jew who feels he doesn’t belongs in Israel represents the majority of Americans, Leon Wieseltier, laughing, remarked: “No, no not enough of a majority! Look at all the settlers!” And Yehoshua added, laughing too, “Yes, I am hoping many more Americans will start to feel like strangers here, maybe they’ll stopped building settlements!“ No one feels the bitter unfairness of the generalized reproach and impressions that Israel’s innate ”zionist ggressiveness” is of the horrendous state of things more than Yehoshua. But no one feels more strongly that Jerusalem belongs to all three religions, too. For him, Jerusalem belongs to the entire world, not to one group, not even just to the Jews. He has been active in the Peace Talks and critical of the new Israel, he says what only a older citizen of Israel/Palestine who has once been filled with sweeter memories could say: “We need peace because you see, we are neighbors. These Arabs and Palestinians, they are our neighbors. We are not separated by the ocean as you Americans are from from the people of Iraq you are fighting. After 1948, many families were separated and friends turned against each other…”

In “A Woman in Jerusalem,” the resource manager of the bakery is ordered to investigate the murder of a firstly anonymous cleaning lady. The woman, it turns out is from Russia, and she wasn’t even Jewish. She was killed by a suicide bomber and the company has no kept records of her employment with them. What unravels is a story
about the loss of some ability to love. She is a beautiful woman and the divorced manager falls in love with the idea of her, from pictures he finds in her lost files, and stories about her. His love is a love he can’t have with the living.

Mr. Yehoshua is married to a psychoanalyst and he spoke profoundly about the necessity of the writer to look internally, to write from a personal “inclination”. To be driven to write what he must, rather to write from a “moral obligation” to society, even as embattled a society as Israel’s. If the “inclination” isn’t
stronger than the “obligation”, he explained, “and all that history feels too heavy.” The depth of that inner look and psychological starting point is vital to the broader sweep from which the novel will grow. The eye of the storm is always personal and begins in the personal, only through that gateway can the writer eventually encompass his surroundings and the society he exists in with all its pressing moral urgencies. Otherwise, we are left only with one-dimensional ideologies in the novel, dogma, the waste products of too many tired minds weighed down by all that history. For Yehoshua, the novel’s purity of vision depends on a
confrontation with and truthfulness about one’s internal, individual life.

No other writer I have read, expresses that purity of the individual self and the cultural collectivity that self must inhabit more poignantly and lucidly than A.B. Yehoshua.—Leora Skolkin-Smith