Avraham Bulli Yehoshua was born in Jerusalem in 1936. Although now a Haifa resident, Yehoshua is a fifth generation Jerusalemite on his father’s side and first generation on his mother’s side. He also owns an apartment in Tel Aviv, which he and his psychoanalyst wife Rivka bought some six years ago. And it was a design fault in the lift shaft of his Tel Aviv residence which proved a catalyst to the construction of Yehoshua’s ninth novel Friendly Fire.
We meet on the morning of the first day ofSpring. Yehoshua has a busy schedule and by the time I track him down in the Langham Hotel’s Landau Restaurant, he has already breakfasted, visited All Soul’s Church, Langham Place and is perusing the Sunday papers. He will be giving an afternoon session for Hebrew speakers, to be followed by Jewish Book Week’s finale event which launches the English translation of Friendly Fire.
Friendly Fire is a vehicle for Yehoshua to once again explore the themes of bereavement
that surface regularly in his work, from Mr. Mani onwards. He explains that the number of bereaved parents who have lost their sons under fire is disproportionately high in Israel, and that loss through ‘friendly’ fire, a disquietingly high proportion of the total, is particularly painful. Yehoshua passionately explains to me that contemporary Israeli authors have no need to manufacture crises in their stories, inventing car crashes or the contraction of terminal illnesses, because, tragically, the fate of too many young Israelis has been to die a violent death in what seems a never-ending war.
For those of us who visit Israel as tourists or fond friends, the name of Abu Kabir may beunknown. Yet to Israelis the name of this Institute of Forensic Science carries dread, as the place where casualties of war may be taken for identification. And Yehoshua talks about the complexities of mourning for families who lose a loved one in a suicide bombing, where the perpetrator also perishes and there is no retribution, no reconciliation and no feeling that this death has served any purpose.
With this novel, Yehoshua believes he is providing bereaved parents and families with a
vehicle for beginning mourning processes, when the life of a beloved child, brother,
cousin or nephew is suddenly ended, possibly unnecessarily so.
The novel unfolds as a duet between a loving couple who are enjoying their long and good marriage, again a familiar theme in Yehoshua’s works (no doubt a testament to the strength of his own marriage). Daniela is the wife whose sister died a year ago in Tanzania. She decides to travel alone to share her grief with Yerimyahu, her brother-in-law, who will not return to Israel. Daniela leaves her husband Amotz behind in Tel Aviv working in his engineering company, which designs lifts, and carrying out the couple’s supportive duties for their children, grandchildren and Amotz’s father. Their ensuing dialogues which continue, despite their separation, enable each to imagine or predict the other’s responses.
The separation causes hardship for each of them. It is the week of Chanucah, and the traditional gathering of families to share candle lighting and watch their children perform in school plays underlines what is lost when a family splits, for whatever reasons. Meanwhile, in the lift shafts of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, unearthly shrieks are heard. They represent the trapped spirits of those who died unnecessarily, restless and not yet at peace. The Hebrew word ruach means both wind and spirit.
From confined and narrow lift shafts of Tel Aviv to huge horizons and vast, open spaces in Africa, similar themes emerge: of loss and bereavement, and the conscious and unconscious damage which survivors in families have to learn to endure.
Friendly fire is a phrase which recurs in many forms, one of them being the
Chanukah lights. Each of the chapters is numbered as a different night of the festival. The story unfolds over four generations, providing humour which made me laugh out loud on two occasions, as well as portraying the realities of daily life in Israel for middleclass, privileged Israelis and the new immigrants who help to support their comfortable lifestyles.
I ask Yehoshua who he writes for and whether the translation of his work into 28 languages makes a difference to what and how he writes. He responds that he writes for his Hebrew speaking Israeli audience. They are the ones who judge him, and he hopes they will be the ones who will remember him. He talks about the phenomenal flourishing of Israeli cultural expression: film and music as well as literature. For him this is not “a good life sign”. He recalls how South American literature flowered during states of civil war, and says he would prefer less subject matter and more calmness in Israel.
So, I wonder how it feels for Yehoshua to be an Israeli tourist in London after the recent outpouring of media and public hostility and attempts at academic boycotts.
Current British attitudes seem of little interest to him. He surprisingly refers to British guilt over initiating the Balfour Declaration; mishandling the British Mandate in Palestine and “creating the whole mess”.
His low opinion of the Diaspora, first stated controversially some years ago, has not hanged. Jewishness in the Diaspora is for him a partial identity (a jacket), as opposed to a total identity (a skin) in Israel. He believes it is in Israel that Jewish identity is determined because “we have to answer questions Jews have never before had to answer,” and he talks about the ethical issues faced by a nation which is struggling for survival. For him Zionism is a moral identity.
Referring to the mixed congregation he saw earlier in All Souls Church, Yehoshua suggests that perhaps the way forward is for Israeli identity to be widened to be more fully inclusive of Bedouin, Druze, Arab and Philippino communities.
Yehoshua’s credentials as a long-term supporter of peace processes with Palestinians are well documented. He condemns decisions to build settlements in the West Bank and in Gaza but makes it very clear that once Israel decided to withdraw from Gaza it was then totally unacceptable for one million Israelis to have to live their lives in the shadow of continual rocket attacks. Consequently, he justifies Israel’s recent Operation Cast Lead into Gaza, whilst regretting unavoidable civilian casualties.
With many more questions still to ask, I am aware that Yehoshua wants to enjoy London’s rare sunshine with Rivka. So I quickly ask about the prevailing dialogues in Israel and, as he gathers up newspapers, winds a scarf around his neck, stands and pushes his chair in, he talks about the problematic election decisions and the unlikelihood of Nethanyahu being able to stay in post long-term. He emphasises the necessity for a two-state solution, and says optimistically that “we are near the peace”. He adds that after absorbing so many refugees there now have to be some changes in the system of Israeli government. He suggests that more immigration from Diaspora Jews will help in the achievement of such changes.
I leave the interview weighed down with sorrow for bereaved families and with new insights into rarely discussed subjects which often stay under the surface in contemporary Israeli society.
© Jewish Renaisance 2009