Obituary: A.B. Yehoshua

Leading Israeli novelist who embraced Arab culture and promoted the Palestinian cause


With his wild curls and penetrating stare, AB Yehoshua pointed his finger at his audience. He was addressing the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem about the occupation of the Palestinian territories. “What will we become?” he demanded. “How can we Jews occupy other peoples?”

Unlike some of his contemporary Israeli writers, Yehoshua, who has died aged 85, was not born in Europe but in Jerusalem and did not view Israel through the same post-Holocaust lens. His mother Malka Rosilio came to Palestine four years before his birth. His historian father Yaacov had a long Jerusalem lineage.

Growing up, AB (the initials formed his childhood nickname) saw Arabs welcomed into his parents’ home as family.

His epic 1989 novel, Mr Mani, is inspired by this heritage. It is a view which has filtered through many of his novels — this sense of one-ness with the Arabs which somehow misses a beat, which is incomplete and fraught with identity challenges.

AB first won acclaim for his three volumes of short stories in the 1960s and for books published between 1977 and 1982, including The Lover, A Late Divorce and A Journey to the End of the Millenium.

He was educated at the secular Gymnasia Rehavia and served in the airborne division of the Nahal Brigade, seeing action in the 1956 Suez War.

He studied Hebrew literature and philosophy at the Hebrew University, and lived in Paris from 1963 till 1967, eventually becoming a professor of literature at Haifa University. There it was noted that rather than offer didactic views, he was interested in his students’ questions.

Those who knew him describe a tireless, insatiable curiosity about everything, from historic buildings to other peoples’ customs and family histories.

In 1963 Yehoshua became secretary general in Paris of the World Union of Jewish Students, and from 1967 he and his close friend Amos Oz led the activist group Peace Now. He placed the blame for the failure of the Oslo Accords squarely on the shoulders of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. He believed deeply in the possibility of peace with the Arabs.

Yet, while promoting Palestinian rights he saw no contradiction in rejecting the views of diaspora Jews who refused to regard Israel as their homeland.

Several times nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature, he won the Israel Prize in 1995 and was nominated for the inaugural Man Booker International Prize in 2005. His work has been translated into almost 30 languages.

His later novels include The Liberated Bride, 2003, A Woman in Jerusalem, 2004, Friendly Fire, 2007, The Retrospective, 2011, The Extra, 2014, and The Tunnel, 2020.

A secularist, Yehoshua’s research did not preclude immersive Talmudic study. He would spend New Year at the Orthodox Sephardic synagogue absorbed in the Hebrew memories of his childhood, but attend Haifa’s Reform Synagogue with his psychologist wife Rivka Kirsninski, whom he married in 1960.

He had a deep passion for Italy, the source of some of his writings, including his recent short novel, The Only Daughter, 2022, which describes identity issues and dilemmas at the heart of Jewish Italy.

It is seen as an act of love for a country for which he expressed so much feeling. Italy was “undoubtedly the country where my books are best received.

The conclusion lies in the fact that, for Italians as for Israelis , the family is the key through which to interpret the world.”

Simonetta Della Seta, former Director of the National Museum of Italian Judaism and the Shoah, recalled meeting the writer and discussing his work and philosophy with him.

She noticed the clarity and conviction of his speech — “A round, powerful pronunciation” — and described his home on Mount Carmel as “full of colour and light — always Israel, with its contradictions and problems”.

Della Seta invited Yehoshua and Rivka to a Shabbat dinner in Tel Aviv. “My husband recited the blessings. We sang some hymns on the Sabbath. At home there was an atmosphere of great serenity. Bulli (her nickname for Yehoshua) began to shower us with questions. What had led us to respect so fully that day?”

In later years AB returned to Italy without his wife, who was seriously ill. “I’m not the same. I wanted to leave with her, but it wasn’t possible,” he told Della Seta. “His curiosity had faded a little,” she recalled. “Something about him had gone with her.”

Driving with Della Seta to the newly-built National Museum of Italian Judaism and the Shoah, he said he was impressed by the resilience of Italian Jews, by their ability to maintain a Jewish identity, through so many centuries. They held a public conversation on “The Jewish Book”.

“The topic thrilled him”, Della Seta observed. “His dark eyes lit up again as he spoke about how he used the Hebrew language, his language. An ancient and new language, he explained to us.

A synthetic language that loves repetition, he reminded us. A language that he loved and that he modelled masterfully, like a great artist, like the sculptor who manages to bend even marble, like those few who leave an imprint on the soul of the world.”

In his novels Yehoshua uses metaphor to discuss the major issues that concern him — contradictions between Israel and the Arabs, and within family life — yet he blends them all with a sense of the everyday. His prose is straightforward without literary pretension but much natural warmth.

In The Liberated Bride Rivlin, a cynical historian married to a judge, reluctantly attends his Palestinian student’s wedding, while tormented by the inexplicable break-up of his son’s brief marriage. Here he recalls the night of his son’s wedding:

On that lawn close to midnight, the bride, her veil and bridal train discarded, had enticed him to dance with her. Thrilled, he had moved cautiously but freely to the music – though shy and hesitant she was graceful. He had felt a deep surge of happiness.

With his bold, asymmetrical features and probing expression, Yehoshua’s face suggested strength, irony and humour. These are present in The Tunnel, in which Luria, an ageing engineer facing dementia, joins a younger colleague in building a tunnel in the Negev. The tunnel seems a metaphor for the deeper Palestinian problem and the vagaries of ageing. Yet like The Liberated Bride it is filtered with humour and emotion.

In a documentary film, The Last Chapter, directed by Yair Qedar, AB describes the last years of his life, marked by the pain of Rivka’s death and the progress of his own illness. Qedar says: “It was, on his part, an act of trust that honours me.

"We watched it together in his studio. Every now and then he cried, every now and then he laughed. In the end he gave me a kiss on the cheek.”

AB Yehoshua is survived by his children, Sivan, Gideon and Nahum. Rivka predeceased him in 2016.

AB Yehoshua: Born December 19, 1936. Died June 14, 2022.

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