With the death of Avraham Yehoshua, this June 14 at the age of 85, it is one of the last great figures of Israeli literature born before the creation of the State of Israel who disappears. The writer embodied with Amos Oz,, a kind of totem combining literary work and political commitment even if, later on, he showed himself to be much more circumspect on the merits of a Palestinian state, rather campaigning for the creation of a binational state. As soon as his death was announced, Amos Oz’s daughter paid him a vibrant tribute: “He was one of the most prolific, fine and courageous writers I know, and his friendship with my father was unique: they used to meticulously and lovingly comment on their respective manuscripts.”
Avraham Yehoshua was as round and emotional as Amos Oz was dry and serious, they were born in the same neighborhood of Jerusalem, Keren Avraham, which had created a bond. Later on, they had rightly become angry over the question of the two states, Amos Oz remaining convinced of the need to create a Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel, Avraham Yehoshua considering that it was too late given of the advance of colonization. “The most important thing is to abolish apartheid little by little and to give Israeli citizenship to the Palestinians,” he confided to Release in 2019. But, in the end, we didn’t talk about it anymore with Amos because I didn’t want to upset him. We were the last generation of intellectuals to position ourselves politically, we have a kind of moral authority. I am also very attached to David Grossman, even if he is much younger, especially since the death of Amos, it has brought us closer.
A little disillusioned and sad
Born in 1936 in Jerusalem into a Sephardic Jewish family, the writer grew up and studied in the thrice-holy city. This mixture and this difficult cohabitation of religions will also permeate a work marked by memory and what it bequeaths of hopes and burdens. After Jerusalem, he spent a few years in Paris – which enabled him to speak perfect French – before settling in Haifa, another mixed city since Israeli Jews and Arabs live there rather on good terms. He has long found his friends Amos Oz and David Grossman with whom he campaigned for peace at the checkpoints, but in recent years he has been a little disillusioned and sad.
In Paris in 2019, he already seemed tired, short of breath. Dressed in black, he said he was affected by recent bereavements, starting with that of his wife, a psychoanalyst. A tragedy for him who said he had always put his wife’s career before his own, and always considered family more important than literature. “There are so many dead around me,” he told us. We were three inseparable writers, from the same generation: Amos Oz, Yehoshua Kenaz [également un grand traducteur, il a notamment traduit Balzac en hébreu, ndlr] and me. Amos Oz has just died and Yehoshua Kenaz has gradually ended up sinking into dementia. He knew he was next on the list.
At the end of his life, Avraham Yehoshua was no longer certain that memory, so studied and sacred to the Jewish people, was so precious. On the occasion of the publication of his novel, the tunnel (Grasset, 2019), one of whose heroes is gradually losing his mind (like his friend Yehoshua Kenaz), we asked him if it was one of his anxieties. “No, this story is more of a challenge to the tyranny of memory,” he replied. We are too paralyzed by our memory, the memory of the Holocaust in particular. It becomes an obstacle to moving forward. When I was young, there was no Holocaust memorial day, today it’s all the time. And the Palestinians too are weighed down by their memory. You have to lose your memory. Today, everything is a question of identity: we are classified as Ashkenazim, Sephardim, women, homosexuals, seculars, religious… this question of memory, of identity, prevents us from being flexible, from moving forward. ‘before.” Incredibly timely questioning.
Writing today about his death has something unreal when we have just closed his last book, the only daughter (Grasset), a very pretty tale imbued with melancholy featuring a pre-adolescent girl living in a wealthy Ashkenazi Jewish family in northern Italy, in full questioning of Jewishness, the sacred, religious diversity. A book haunted by the love of the family and by the approach of death: the father of the young heroine has a brain tumor, a tumor that her heroine calls “a supplement”, the ultimate snub to the sickness.
The disappearance of Yehoshua gives this book a whole new dimension, it is as if he had wanted, shortly before his death, to pass on to the younger generation the torch of permanent questioning: what does it mean to be Jewish? , and why can’t the different religions intertwine? His heroine, Rachele, at 12, embodies much more wisdom than her parents who are a little lost. It will be up to her, basically, to continue the battles and the reflections that Yehoshua will no longer be able to undertake. Message of hope, therefore: what his generation and especially the next missed, the news will fix it, perhaps.