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A.B. Yehoshua, Israeli Writer Who Explored Moral and Political Dilemmas, Dies at 85

A.B. Yehoshua, the Israeli novelist who, along with a few other acclaimed storytellers, planted his nation on the map of world literature with indelible human portraits that captured the discordant condition of living in a land fraught with moral and political conundrums, died on Tuesday at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center. He was 85.

The cause was cancer, said Avi Shushan, a spokesman for the hospital. In recent years, Mr. Yehoshua, who lived outside Tel Aviv, had said that he was battling esophageal cancer that had metastasized.

Born to a Sephardi family that had lived in Jerusalem for five generations, Mr. Yehoshua came of age as the Jews of Palestine carved an independent state out of territory that had been a British mandate for 25 years, and for four centuries before that an Ottoman-ruled region.

The young nation was filling with Ashkenazi survivors of the Holocaust, as well as exiled Sephardi refugees from Middle Eastern and North African countries, all the while grappling with hostile neighboring countries and a Palestinian population both inside and outside its boundaries that believed Zionists had stolen their land.

This turbulent mix of peoples provided a wealth of material for Mr. Yehoshua and a luminous circle of authors that included Amos Oz and David Grossman. (Other prominent Israeli authors, including S.Y. Agnon and Aharon Appelfeld, tended to focus more on Jewish life in Europe and the Holocaust.)

Mr. Yehoshua was among the first writers of fiction “to give literary expression to the suffering and moral dilemmas” set off by the war that followed Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948, said Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, professor emeritus of comparative literature at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In his more explicit essays and public talks, Mr. Yehoshua affirmed the Zionist ideal of a Jewish homeland, but indicated that Israelis had to accommodate the needs of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians exiled from that land.

In an oeuvre of 11 novels, three short-story collections and four plays, Mr. Yehoshua tackled a variety of narrative forms — from surrealist to historical — and delved into knotty or uncommon subjects.

“Nearly every one of Buli’s fictions changed the conversation and constituted an innovation in modern Hebrew fiction, either in form or content,” said Professor DeKoven Ezrahi, using the writer’s nickname.

Mr. Yehoshua was known to friends as an animated talker who radiated an infectious joie de vivre, even though his novels and stories were often touched by heartbreak. Critics praised him for his nuanced understanding of the contradictory impulses that bedevil people and his capacity to find tender humor amid sorrow and despair.

“Laughter and tears are the best vitamins for good writing,” Mr. Yehoshua observed in a video profile of him as a 2017 winner of Israel’s prestigious Dan David Prize.

In his first novel, “The Lover” (1977), Adam, a middle-aged Israeli, searches for his wife’s lover amid the chaotic aftermath of the Arab-Israeli war of 1973. A leading character is an Arab teenager, Nahim, who turns out to be the lover of Adam’s daughter, a narrative that was a daring literary choice for the time. Nahim, wrote Alan Mintz, a professor of Jewish literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary, has “an inner life that is not largely a projection of a Jewish fantasy or dilemma.”

In “A Late Divorce” (1984), Mr. Yehoshua wrote of an exile who returns to Israel to obtain his estranged wife’s consent to a divorce so he can marry his pregnant American lover.

The story line is told by different narrators, a technique particularly reminiscent of “The Sound and the Fury” by William Faulkner. The opening chapter, with an epigraph from the Faulkner book, is told by a 10-year-old child, an echo of perhaps Faulkner’s most striking narrator, the mentally challenged Benjy. Indeed, the literary critic Harold Bloom wrote in a New York Times review that “Mr. Yehoshua writes in the shadow of Faulkner, with an admixture of Joyce.”

“It is authentic storytelling, acutely representative of current social realities in Israel and marked by extraordinary psychological insights throughout,” Mr. Bloom wrote.

“Mr. Mani” won the National Jewish Book Award for fiction.Credit…Harper
In “A Late Divorce,” Mr. Yehoshua’s used different narrators in a technique that was reminiscent of William Faulkner’s “Sound and the Fury.”Credit…Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

“Five Seasons,” which was published in an English translation in 1989, sold 50,000 copies in the original Hebrew, the equivalent of a multimillion-copy best seller in the United States.

In it, the protagonist Molkho has faithfully nursed his dying wife through seven years of illness, at times bathing “her scarred and tortured body,” which has already turned “into some fossil of a species that had become extinct long ago.” Yet, he longs to be free of the burden of caring for her and looks forward to no longer having to endure her sharp tongue.

As the novelist Lore Segal noted in a review for The Times, Molkho, while his wife is still drawing breath, has his eye on his widowed legal adviser as a “post-mortem possibility” and spends the rest of the novel in encounters with other post-mortem possibilities.

Mr. Yehoshua won the National Jewish Book Award for fiction with “Mr. Mani” (1992), which traces the wanderings of six generations of the Sephardic Mani family through crucial periods of Jewish history. Each of the five chapters consists of the dialogue of a single speaker who is telling a story to another character, with that listener’s missing responses implied in the first character’s remarks. To complicate matters, the novel proceeds backward in time.

Though firmly and evocatively set in Israel, Mr. Yehoshua’s novels are laced with themes that connect them to the contemporary Western canon. As the critic Jerome Greenfield wrote in 1979: “In the existential despair, the pessimism, the sense of dislocation and alienation that pervade his work, Yehoshua establishes a bridge between modern Israeli writing and a dominant stream of some of the best Western literature of our age.”

Saul Bellow called Mr. Yehoshua “one of Israel’s world-class writers.” His books were translated into 28 languages. He won the Israel Prize, awarded annually by the state for important cultural contributions, and in 2005 he was shortlisted for the first Man Booker International Prize, then given for an entire body of work.

“In one movement of his imaginative wings,” Mr. Grossman, the Israeli novelist, wrote of Mr. Yehoshua in an email, “he would show us just how banal and absurd, just how the reality — especially of ours, in Israel — is surrealistic.”

Some critics saw Mr. Yehoshua’s novels and short stories as allegories for his jaundiced view of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. Others dismissed such interpretations. In a review of “A Late Divorce,” Walter Goodman, a Times critic, wrote that the novel’s Israeli characters, “use money, sex, food, humor, affection, cruelty to hold onto each other, to punish each other,” and “it has nothing to do with the West Bank.”

Still, Mr. Yehoshua made clear what those views were, berating Jewish settlers in the West Bank and condemning Israel’s political leaders for allowing their expansion. Late in life, he argued for the establishment of a single state encompassing Israel, the West Bank and Gaza where Jews and Arabs would have equal rights and voting powers.

Mr. Yehoshua also stirred controversy with his insistence that authentic identity as a Jew required settlement in Israel. Mr. Yehoshua once said of the protagonist of “A Late Divorce”: “Like the father who gives up his responsibilities and goes to America, Jews who leave Israel for America are escaping their responsibility.”

In forceful essays and talks, he explained that diaspora Jews could inhabit or discard their Jewish identity like a jacket to suit the moment, but for Israelis their Jewishness was fixed by a geographically defined and often embattled state, and so was virtually immutable.

“Being Israeli is my skin; it’s not my jacket,” he told a symposium of the American Jewish Committee in 2006.

His remarks drew a fierce reaction from many prominent American Jews. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, then the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said that Mr. Yehoshua’s assumption that “a Jew who lives in the state of Israel will always be Jewish” while an American Jew would not was “absurd, and dangerous.”

Avraham Gavriel Yehoshua — the initials A.B. were part of his pen name, and friends suggested he might have chosen B for his nickname Buli — was born on Dec. 9. 1936, in Jerusalem in Mandatory Palestine.

His father, Ya’akov Yehoshua, a descendant of the once-robust Sephardi community of Thessaloniki, Greece, that was decimated by the Nazis, wrote books of folklore that portrayed the lives of Jerusalemites in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His mother, Malka Rosilio Yehoshua, had emigrated from Morocco four years before Avraham was born.

Mr. Yehoshua once said that what spurred him to write fiction was his father’s reading to him bittersweet stories like “The Little Florentine Scribe,” the tale of a 12-year-old boy who sacrifices his studies so he can secretly help his unwitting father earn a living addressing parcels.

“That and the ability to present humorous situations,” he told an interviewer for the Dan David Prize documentary.

He grew up in Kerem Avraham, an enclave of European-style buildings outside the Old City where relatively prosperous families rented rooms to writers and artists. (Mr. Oz and the fellow novelist Haim Be’er also grew up there.) He attended Rehavia Gymnasium, established in 1909 as Jerusalem’s first high school where subjects were taught in modern Hebrew.

From 1954 to 1957, he fulfilled his military obligation, serving as an army paratrooper during the Suez crisis, when Israel, backed by Britain and France, tried to retake the Suez Canal after it was nationalized by Egypt.

Once discharged, Mr. Yehoshua studied literature and philosophy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and worked as a high school teacher. In 1963, he moved to Paris, continuing to teach while taking courses at the Sorbonne toward a master’s degree in French literature. He was called up as a reservist during the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, again serving as a paratrooper.

He began writing stories after his first army stint, later naming Kafka, Faulkner and Mr. Agnon, the Nobel Prize-winning Israeli author, as formative influences. In 1962, he published his first collection, “The Death of the Old Man.”

By then, Mr. Yehoshua was married to Dr. Rivka Kirsninski, a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst. She died in 2016. He is survived by a sister, Pzila Petroshka, 88; a daughter, Sivan Yehoshua; two sons, Gideon Yehoshua and Nahum Yehoshua; and seven grandchildren.

From 1972, Mr. Yehoshua taught comparative literature and Hebrew literature at the University of Haifa, eventually reaching the rank of full professor. His last novel, “The Tunnel,” was published in English in 2020.

In the interview for the Dan David Prize, he recalled that while he was writing “Mr. Mani,” notable for its one-sided conversations, friends and colleagues warned him that readers would not have the patience to figure out what was spoken in the missing half of the dialogue. But the book’s success quashed their concern.

“It turns out,” he said, “that when you challenge the reader, you enlist him as an important partner.”

Patrick Kingsley contributed reporting.

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