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'I Believed in Israeliness So Much,' A.B. Yehoshua Said Repeatedly

Iris Leal
Iris Leal
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A.B. Yehoshua.Credit: Ariel Ellinson
Iris Leal
Iris Leal

A.B. Yehoshua sat on the bed. In his final days, he was assailed by a great weakness that surprised him, as if it were the most surprising part of his unavoidable encounter with death. Tel Aviv, which could be seen from the wide window of his bedroom on the 20th floor, posed an enjoyable contrast to Jerusalem, the city of his birth.

He talked a lot about the latter recently, and he pictured its streets and alleys in his imagination – the imagination that kept bubbling and bubbling, arousing the jealousy of many authors. The mysterious source of this spring seemed not to weaken with age. Even in his last weeks, when he was unable to leave his home, he devised a play in his imagination. It was nearly completed in his mind, without a single word having been written.

Thus even as his body was failing in a way that could no longer be denied, A.B. Yehoshua continued to speak with passion about writing and literature, and also about politics – his two loves, the two topics to which his conversation always returned. But recently a new issue preoccupied him as well: the departure from his close friends and from his beloved wife Ika, who died in 2016, and his own impending departure.

And even though his life had gradually emptied of those dear to him, and even though he said more than once that he too was ready to go, he was still alive and talking with his famous energy and the ardent conviction that also characterized his books. They were written with a vitality that was unparalleled in Hebrew literature, pages upon pages of high-voltage argument.

A.B. Yehoshua also always looked at himself from the outside, with remote interest or tolerant amusement, as if he were a research subject or an outline of a fictional character. Recently, he gazed in astonishment at the changes his body had undergone, at how he had weakened, at how, when he got up to lecture, he relied on a cane or on help from one of his sons. In literature, this is called “defamiliarization,” and Bulli, as he has been known since childhood, was a writer for every moment of his life.

At one event, held a few months ago at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute to mark the 30th anniversary of the publication of his novel “Mr. Mani,” after ascending the dais with the help of his walking stick, he told the audience that this place was very dear to him in part because of what had been done there to strengthen ties between Israelis and Palestinians.

But more than that, he said, before this building was built, there was a hill here that had an olive tree on top. He lived just a few steps away, on Benjamin Disraeli Street, where he wrote his first stories, with painful slowness. And every time he got stuck, he went outside, climbed the hill and stood near that olive tree – which was later memorialized in the story “Galia’s Wedding.”

They say that people who are about to die are egotistical, that they want to keep their final moments for themselves. Not Bulli. He met with young authors, he poured out advice and ideas, he helped friends who had lost their way in the midst of writing.

And he always kept up with current events, seeking with all his might to stretch out his arm and extricate the country from the abyss into which he believed it had fallen. His mood was darkened by the scenes from the Flag March through his city of Jerusalem, by the sights and sounds of young yeshiva students marching through the streets singing “Zakhrenei Na” (which includes the words “Let me be this once avenged on Palestine for my two eyes”), and the even more extreme groups that passed through Damascus Gate and sang “May your village burn down.”

“I believed in Israeliness so much,” he said repeatedly over the last few days, pain and disappointment choking his voice. He longed to do something, to repair what was wrong, to make this place better, even when he knew his time had run out and when even breathing was an effort. If only this place would repay his love and concern by repairing itself.

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