Novelist A.B. Yehoshua raises the question: Can Jewishness be shed?
A.B. Yehoshua, long recognized as one of Israel’s best novelists, has in recent years also emerged as one of its most prominent scolds. On Tisha B’Av this year, he published an op-ed in the Guardian deploring the “moral deterioration” of Israel’s public life. Contrasting scandal-plagued politicians like Moshe Katsav and Ehud Olmert with the austere founders of the Jewish state, Yehoshua argued that the lawlessness and immorality of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank was now bleeding back into the state itself.
But if he is tough on Israelis, Yehoshua is no gentler on American Jews. On the contrary, in 2006, during a heated panel discussion at the American Jewish Committee’s 100th anniversary celebration, Yehoshua proclaimed the futility of American Judaism. Only in Israel was an authentic Jewish life possible, he insisted. Diaspora Jews change their nationalities as if they were changing jackets, whereas for Israelis, Jewishness is a skin that cannot be removed.
Yehoshua must have been brooding on that image, which provoked understandable anger among American Jews, as he wrote “Friendly Fire,” his quietly impassioned new novel. For at the moral center of the book is an Israeli who desires to do exactly what Yehoshua said was impossible — to abrade away his Jewishness like a layer of flesh.
Yirmiyahu, a retired Israeli diplomat, has chosen to spend his old age in Tanzania, working as the bookkeeper for a team of African anthropologists. To Africans, he reports to his visiting Israeli sister-in-law, white people are muzungu, “not actually white but peeled. Our black skin has been peeled from us.”
In just the same way, he defiantly says, he means to spend the last years of his life becoming muzungu to the Jews. And he means it. When his sister-in-law, Daniela, arrives at Yirmiyahu’s remote house, she gives him a parcel of Hebrew newspapers and Chanukah candles; he immediately tosses them into the stove, neatly erasing all traces of both Israel and Judaism.
The reader does not have long to wonder about the reasons for this disaffection. Yirmiyahu’s wife, Daniela’s sister, has recently died in Africa, and Daniela’s visit is ostensibly a pilgrimage in her memory.
But beneath this natural grief, the family is really suffering from an unnatural and incurable one: the death of Yirmiyahu’s son, Eyal, seven years before, in an army operation on the West Bank. What makes this loss so intolerable is that, as the novel’s title reveals, Eyal was not killed by a Palestinian bomb but by his fellow Israel Defense Forces soldiers in a case of “friendly fire.”
This dull euphemism becomes on Yirmiyahu’s lips a kind of curse word, which he can’t stop repeating to himself. The State of Israel took his son from him, the way God nearly took Isaac from Abraham, but this time, there was no last-minute reprieve.
This is a fictional premise fraught with dangers: The temptations to sentimentalize, moralize and sermonize are great. But Yehoshua deftly sidesteps them, choosing instead to lower the temperature of the novel to a slow, meditative burn. He accomplishes this, in part, by alternating the scenes of Daniela and Yirmiyahu in Africa with an entirely different kind of story — the domestic and professional troubles of Amotz, the husband Daniela left behind in Tel Aviv.
If the Tanzania sections of the novel deal with the deepest moral problems — by the end, the two Israelis are debating the ethics of the prophets under an African sky — the Tel Aviv sections are a comedy of manners, taking the reader adroitly through all the phases of contemporary Israeli life: family, army, work, sex, even traffic jams.
Yehoshua’s decision to cut back and forth between the two stories — each section is just a few pages long — keeps “Friendly Fire” from gathering much narrative momentum. But as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that Yehoshua’s mastery of fictional technique has not decayed. On the contrary, the slow pace helps the reader see how carefully Yehoshua has devised the symbolic scheme of the book.
In time, every event and every setting starts to seem like a metaphor. Quietly, without insisting, Yehoshua allows these metaphors to echo and interrogate one another.
Take the run-of-the-mill problem that faces Amotz, a building engineer, as “Friendly Fire” opens. He has designed the elevator for a new high-rise apartment building in Tel Aviv, but the residents are complaining about flaws in the shaft that cause “an insufferable roaring, whistling and rumbling” whenever the winds blow.
When Amotz rides the elevator to find out where the wind is leaking in, he observes: “Without question, within this shaft that was meant to be completely sealed off from the world swirl uninvited spirits.” Yehoshua says nothing more than this, but it is impossible for the reader not to make the parallel with Israel itself. Despite the Zionist dream of a self-sufficient Jewish homeland, Yehoshua suggests, the country can never be truly sealed off from the outside world, and it, too, is haunted by the “uninvited spirits” of its neighbors.
Yehoshua makes even as mundane a detail as time zones carry a hidden symbolic charge. Amotz is expecting a phone call from Daniela in Tanzania, but he gets the time wrong, since Dar es Salaam is actually an hour ahead of Tel Aviv, not an hour behind, as he assumed. “The African continent is west of Israel or east?” he asks, and, of course, the answer is both: Israel is geographically between east and west, just as it occupies an in-between space in the world’s political and cultural imagination.
As the novel goes on accumulating these layers of meaning and symbol, it becomes clear that Yehoshua is not just writing an Israeli novel: He is evoking an Israeli and Jewish way of being and thinking, in which nothing in the world is simply what it is but comes to us multiply encoded.
This endless meaningfulness, which forces Jews to be ever-vigilant interpreters, is exactly what Yirmiyahu has gone to Africa to escape: “A place where we do not exist in any memories. Not religious, not historical, not mythological…. Everything that has oppressed me begins to fall off, without argument or debate.”
Yet it cannot escape the reader that even in Africa, Yirmiyahu shares the name of one of the great Hebrew prophets (as, for that matter, do Amotz and his father, the Parkinson’s-afflicted Yoel). Yirmiyahu is fully conscious of this irony, and he lectures Daniela at length about the cruelty of the God whose threats fill the Book of Jeremiah: “A prophecy of destruction, with relish. Disaster and death and cannibalism…. You worshiped other gods, so you deserve that your sons and daughter be eaten.”
Yet what is Yirmiyahu himself if not a Jeremiah, whose rage at Israel is immense because his disappointment in it is immense?
The friendly fire that claimed his son did not break that connection. On the contrary, over the course of the novel, we learn that Yirmiyahu has done his own investigation into Eyal’s death, and what he learns — about Israelis, Palestinians and their violent embrace — only deepens its tragic ambiguity. So, too, Amotz decides that he is ultimately responsible for the flaws in the elevator shaft, even though he did not build it himself — that an obligation to the community is not less binding because it is unasked for and even unfair.
By the time Daniela and Amotz are reunited in the novel’s last pages, none of the novel’s breakages have been permanently repaired. But Yehoshua’s subtlety and compassion allow “Friendly Fire” to offer the only kind of affirmation we need or can accept from art — not a false consolation, but a true image of solidarity.
Adam Kirsch is the author of “Benjamin Disraeli,” a new biography in Nextbook’s Jewish Encounters series. Reprinted from Nextbook.org, a new read on Jewish culture.