Local audiences hear pearls from an Israeli treasure

With his dry wit, weatherworn visage and deep ancestral connections, A.B. Yehoshua is the epitome of the Israeli intellectual.

In fact, during a conversation at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco on April 28, the author said that one lousy review in a small Israeli paper is worth much more than a glowing review in the New York Times.

“All of my literature will be kept in the [Israeli] national memory,” Yehoshua told interviewer Robert Alter and the capacity crowd at the Kanbar Hall. Yehoshua reiterated this theme several times throughout the course of the evening, which was sponsored by the Taube Center for Jewish Life and the Taube Center for Jewish Studies at Stanford University, where he also spoke.

Much like William Faulkner, who is inextricably linked to the American South, the 72-year-old Yehoshua is a quintessentially Israeli novelist, critic and essayist, and he doesn’t shy away from that identity.

The author noted that he was a fifth-generation Israeli, a pointed reference to both his stake in the land of Israel and to the many Jews who failed to join his family.

“I say this as a provocation to all the Jews who did not come when they had the opportunity,” remarked Yehoshua. “The failure of the Jewish people to create a state before the Holocaust was a missed opportunity that we paid a terrible price for. It’s a mistake that has continued to haunt us and will do so for many more years to come.”

The recipient of many literary prizes, including the Alterman Prize (England’s award for the best novel of the year) as well as the National Jewish Book Award and the Israel Prize for Literature, Yehoshua is of Sephardic background on both parents’ sides. Curiously, however, given that his recent books delve more deeply into this Sephardic ancestry, the author downplayed that particular aspect of his writing in his recent talk.

“When people ask me about my Sephardic ancestry in my writing, I think about being questioned by the identity police. People didn’t ask Kafka why he didn’t write more about synagogues and less about abstract things like ‘Metamorphosis.'”

The author, who attended the signing of the Geneva Accord, also offered a pragmatic answer to an audience question about the disparity between Jewish and Arab birthrates in Israel.

“Well, if all of our best minds settle in Silicon Valley and the remaining Jews stick to the ‘one child and one dog’ policy, then we will be in trouble,” Yehoshua said, provoking laughter from the crowd.

Yehoshua also lived up to his reputation as a hardy critic of diaspora Jews, whom he has accused in the past of “playing with Jewishness.”

At one point during the evening, he commented on the difference between an audience member and himself, calling the audience member a “voluntary Jew” while the author, by virtue of living in Israel, is an “obligatory Jew.”

Yehoshua elaborated on that point when he commented on the diaspora’s fondness for biblical texts.

“American Jews study the Hebrew Bible and learn about Jewish values and Jewish morality, and that’s great,” Yehoshua said. “But it’s text. And I simply cannot accept that text alone will replace the experience of being an Israeli, and living in the state of Israel.”