if you have ever learned Modern Hebrew, then you will know what I am talking about.
Surely you remember the Hebrew Series Gesher — those adorable little booklets that allowed the novice Hebrew reader to access the classics of modern Hebrew literature in simple Hebrew.
This is how I “met” for the first time the Israeli novelist AB Yehoshuadied at the age of 85.
It was exactly 45 years ago, during my year in Israel at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Our class read the Gesher edition of Yehoshua’s short story “Shloshah Yamim v’Yeled” (Three days and a child), and I was charmed. Years later, when my Hebrew had improved enough, I tackled his first novel. Ha-Maahev (The Lover), a complicated romantic tale set in the shadow of the Yom Kippur War.
But what forced me to fall in love with the library was its new “Mul Ha-ye’arot” (Facing the forests).
It was the story of a young Israeli who takes a job as a ranger in a Jewish National Fund forest (think: planting trees in Israel, and those once-ubiquitous blue-and-white cans that adorned the windowsill of all Jewish grandparents). In a shocking scene, the ranger gleefully looks away as an Arab sets fire to the forest, revealing an abandoned Arab village in its ashes.
Leftist? You bet. Anti-Zionist? Barely. Yehoshua was simply saying that the state was at least partially built on the remnants of what had gone before, and that Israeli Jews had to face this reality.
The credibility of Yehoshua’s Zionist street has never been more apparent than the flap over its proclamation of the centrality of Israel.
In his famous words to a group of young American Jews visiting and studying in Israel:
Israelis are all Jews… Our values are Jewish values, because we live here. It is not what the rabbis say that defines Jewishness, but what we Israelis do every day – our actions and our values… This is why I say to American Jews: you are partial and we total sums. . . . If you really want to be Jewish, come here. It is not easy, [it’s] full of questions, [and] your beautiful warm Jewish identity in your community will be over. But it is real and not imaginary. [Tal Kra-Oz, “A. B. Yehoshua Calls American Jews Partial Jews,” Tablet, February 19, 2013, no longer available]
For many of us, this statement flirted too dangerously with the idea of shlilat ha golah, Diaspora denial – the idea that Jews living outside of Israel, and Judaism that exists outside of Israel, is problematic or even unnecessary.
Shlilat ha-golah is the dark side of the Force of Zionism. At first glance, this is arrogant. This forces Diaspora Jews to adopt a defensive stance.
And so it happened that a group of us – a group of Reform Zionist thinkers and activists – called him on that idea.
Really. As in: called him on the phone for a conference call.
“Call me Bulli!” he insisted. (It’s Israel; every public figure has a childhood nickname that seems to have stuck).
He defended and clarified his idea. It was not, he said, that he devalued Diaspora Judaism. Barely. He asserted that the Diaspora has always been a part of Jewish life and always will be.
But what he was saying is that there is a dimension to Israeli Jewry, and to Judaism, that is unmatched anywhere.
For me, Jewish values are not in a fancy spice box that is only opened to release its pleasant scent on Shabbat and holidays, but in the daily reality of dozens of issues through which Jewish values are shaped and defined, for better or for worse. A religious Israeli Jew also deals with a depth and breadth of life issues that are incomparably broader and more substantial than those with which his religious counterpart in New York or Antwerp has to deal… (quoted in Gil Troy, JZionist ideas)
In this sense, Yehoshua was right. Israel provides a total Jewish society, in which Jewish symbols, observances and meanings permeate daily life in ways unthinkable anywhere else in the world. I will never forget arriving in Israel on Purim, and seeing customs officers and baggage handlers in costume. Or, walk into a department store and see boys’ suits advertised as “bar mitzvah” – appropriate for bar mitzvah.
But, more than that: Zionism expanded and extended the boundaries of Judaism beyond just “religious” and “ritualistic”. Israel would become the veritable laboratory of Jewish ideas and Jewish texts, and would force these ideas and these texts to confront not only the kashrut of food, but of war and public policy.
But, if I could single out the moment in his writing that moved me the most, it would be a particular scene from his novel Shiva Me-Hodu.
The book has appeared in English translation under the title Open heart, which sadly causes the reader to lose the clever pun of the original title.
In Hebrew, shiva may sound like a word meaning “seven”, as in the traditional mourning period of “sit Shiva; » or, “return;” or, one of the most important gods of the Indian pantheon.
Yehoshua knew what he was doing – giving a novel a name that could mean “A Grieving Period of India”, or “Return from India”, or “The God/Goddess Shiva of India” .
The book is about a young Israeli doctor who accompanies the medical director of his hospital and his wife to India. Their mission is to recover the daughter of the medical director, suffering from hepatitis. On the way to India, the young doctor falls in love with the wife of the medical director, which is the romantic and erotic tension of the book.
When the young doctor is in India, he pays a visit to the Ganges. He feels caught up in the presence of pilgrims, Brahmins and beggars. Here are his words:
Women in saris have been seen descending the steps slowly and gracefully, taking their hair in their hands and dipping it in water, and half-naked men diving deep into the river and disappearing long before emerging cleansed. In the distance, all along the bank, we see many other ghats swarming with pilgrims, all carrying out their religious duties in tumultuous silence.
The young doctor watched a body burn on a funeral pyre, and he watched the family get up and slowly walk around the ashes, and one of them cracked his skull to release the soul into the river . He suddenly, inexplicably, feels drawn to the cycle of time, the sheer eternity of it all. He becomes totally enraptured by what he experiences in India. His spirituality stuns him and transports him to the very core of his being.
Which makes you realize what young Israelis are looking for, in their famous post-army treks in India: a sense of transcendence.
Right now, I’d like to imagine “Bulli” in the world to come, hanging out with Amos Oz, Herzl, and Golda.
And, I can imagine God laughing at the uproar of it all.
May God welcome my first Israeli literary crush – with open arms, and yes, with an open heart.