Darkness Lit From Within: On A.B. Yehoshua
One morning I walked into my neighborhood bank in Tel Aviv to exchange American dollars for Israeli pounds (as the currency was then called). In the neutral voice with which I usually greet the world, I said to the teller, “May I please have…” The teller barked at me, “Oll-right, oll-right, iss not prob-lem,” as though I’d been harassing her for two hours. Suddenly, I realized that I had been spoken to in that tone of voice—in the post office, at the supermarket, on the bus—about a dozen times in the last two days, and each time the harshness had left me feeling stung.
When I described the bank incident to an acquaintance of mine, an Australian immigrant of three years’ standing, she said to me, “You have to make friends with the teller. Get your relationship on a personal basis. Otherwise, she’ll make your life miserable every time you go into the bank. Because, you see, she feels persecuted by your requests. You open your mouth, and she thinks about her lousy life—her son is being called up, her husband hasn’t made love to her in months, the cost of everything is rising, and why don’t people just let her alone? Why are they always pulling pieces from her? But if you get friendly with her, ask her how she feels, how her daughter Dalia is doing, she’ll lie down and die for you.”
The next morning, I walked into the bank and said to the teller, “Boker tov [good morning], Mrs. Schwartz. How are you feeling today?” She smiled and told me how she was feeling. Then I asked how the family was doing. Twenty minutes later, my business was concluded, and Mrs. Schwartz never barked at me again.
There were, however, elements of daily life in Tel Aviv that would have defeated Solomon, no matter how hard he played the ingratiating relative. The need to take a bus, for instance. The bus system in Israel was superb—there was no place in the country, not the remotest village or settlement, that a bus didn’t serve—but riding the bus was a trial of monumental proportions, and in Tel Aviv it could feel life-threatening.
The buses themselves were long tin cans that hurtled madly along, driven by middle-aged delinquents wearing shorts and sandals, smoking and blasting the radio as they drove, all the while being excoriated by passengers who objected to the speed and brutishness of the ride they were paying for. Then, no sooner did the bus come to a halt than it was attacked by the people at the bus stop, who began climbing over one another—twenty people pushing simultaneously to occupy a space fit for one—while those on the bus began yelling, “We are full up!” Whereupon the change-maker, who controlled the doors, began closing them as fast as he could on arms, legs, heads.
Three conditions did pre-empt the incredible free-for-all—age, infirmity, pregnancy—and the shortest bus ride was punctuated by the collective cry of “Rega! Rega! [Wait! Wait!]” when, say, an old man struggled to get off before the closing doors crushed his legs or a woman with a baby-filled belly lost her balance. This extraordinary combination of churlishness and protectiveness came to be permanently associated for me with the cry “Rega! Rega!”—which after a time began to float through my dreams.
Of course, the all-embracing sense of family feeds the remarkable solidarity that Israelis demonstrate in the face of external threat. During my time in the country I witnessed, more than once, the transformation within twenty-four hours of a random population into what felt like a civilian army. It was an impressive sight, one not easily forgotten: the unambiguous reward for being raised to take your place in the tribe. On the other hand, God help you if you did not take your place. In Israel, at that time, if a man or a woman was gay, or unmarried by choice, or a pacifist who refused to serve in the army, a crippling sense of social exclusion—far greater than any that could be leveled in Europe or the United States—dogged one’s life. Such was the price to be paid for living in a society that did not know how to accommodate the one who is different.
Should I voice any of these sentiments to the Israelis I knew, I would, more often than not, receive that familiar blank gaze, followed quickly by an outburst of “You do not understand our problems! The pressure under which we live!” And they were right: I didn’t understand, if by “understand” they meant empathizing with alienating behavior because there was a historical explanation for it. That, I never was going to understand; in fact, as the months went on, my heart grew progressively more ignorant. At the time, it didn’t occur to me that the ignorance was sealing over all the small openings in that vital organ through which the feeling intelligence takes in important information.
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When I stumbled on the writing of A.B. Yehoshua, it was as though a fault line had opened in a hardened surface to expose me to an emotional insight that life on the Israeli street had denied me. Interestingly enough, I met the author before I read the work, and only later realized that it demonstrated beautifully the old chestnut about the best part of a writer residing in the work, not in the person. Yehoshua’s prose penetrated to a level of psychological understanding that moved me deeply, whereas he himself could have doubled for the bullying Israeli with whom I dealt daily.
I met him in Haifa, where he lives and teaches. A friend in New York had sent him a letter of introduction on my behalf, and one day when I was in the city, I called and was invited to come right over. He was sitting at his desk when I arrived: a man in his mid-40s with a bulky body, a powerful face and a mass of curly black hair. He looked up and said in a voice rising on a note of insinuation, “So why are you still living in the Diaspora? Why aren’t you living here where you belong?” I laughed. “You’re kidding,” I said. He told me that he most certainly was not kidding and went on to sketch a picture of my life in the States as one at risk in a Christian nation that, at any time, might turn on me; right now, at this very minute, I was standing on a narrow strip of beach with the sea at my back and the goyim, for all I knew, beginning to advance on me. The visit lasted an hour, during which I said little while Yehoshua harangued me.
When I got back to Tel Aviv, I bought a collection of his early stories and sat down in my rented apartment with its stone floors, shuttered balcony and long door handles to read the writing of this fiercest of old-fashioned Zionists. I began to read in mid-afternoon and continued straight through to the last page of the last story, whereupon I remained sitting with the book in my lap, staring into a room now shrouded in a darkness that, mysteriously, felt lit from within.
While Yehoshua’s conversation mimicked the national idiom, his writing was soaked in existential loneliness. The stories, all of them set in modern Israel, were uniformly tales of disconnect in marriage and friendship. At once timeless but of their Israeli moment, they were the work of a writer who, wanting to dive down into those psychic regions of loss and defeat common to all humanity, knew how to make metaphorical use of a sick, sweating man awakening in an empty flat in Tel Aviv on a hot summer morning sometime in the 1970s. This, these stories tell us, is how, at this time in this place, the creatures we call women and men, just out of Plato’s cave, are moving blindly toward some vague understanding of what it is to be human. Any reader whose emotional reflexes were intact was welcome to take in the experience.
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