Academic journal article Shofar

Passover and Hanukkah in A. B. Yehoshua's Opus and Ethos

Academic journal article Shofar

Passover and Hanukkah in A. B. Yehoshua's Opus and Ethos

Article excerpt

Not to attack religion as such, the ritual and prayers, all that small stuff, which do not harm so long as they give people comfort or provide structure for anxious souls. But those souls must not be dragged into fear of something hidden and invisible, of a God who is abstract, jealous, and aggressive . . . if I was incapable of destroying that supremacy, I could at least play tricks on it, make it hazy, move it, put it to sleep, expose its wickedness, its instability, inject into it elements that contradict its holiness-pagan, absurd elements . . . Because . . . hedonistic secular culture is basically a thin brittle crust that at a time of crisis or conflict crumbles before the terrifying power of transcendence.

-Trigano to Moses in The Retrospective2

Declaring himself both a "total Jew" and a secular Israeli," Yehoshua as a politically engaged intellectual advocates for a recalibration of the power balance between religious and civic components of Israeli identity. Already in the early eighties, notably in "Golah: The Neurotic Solution," he laid out his basic assessment of an entanglement between dat and le 'om in Israeli identity.3 Arguing that both religious and national/ethnic elements have always jointly informed the definition and behavior of the Jewish people in exile and as a sovereign entity, he insists on a modern recalibration of the balance between these intertwined elements of Jewish identity, so that creative, pragmatic, and pluralistic forces of civic Jewish life in Israel will not be overrun by religious influences.4 In his fiction, Yehoshua likes to explore whether secular Israeli culture can be more than "a thin brittle crust that at a time of crisis or conflict crumbles before the terrifying power of transcendence," by staging plots in which his characters celebrate Jewish holidays under particularly stressful circumstances. These holiday scenarios enable him to critique traditional practices and attitudes, not however in order to dismantle religious tradition as such, but rather to strengthen a vibrant (Jewish) identity within a broader modern program of national reformation.

Two of Yehoshua's novels, A Late Divorce (1982) and Friendly Fire (2007), revolve around a holiday setting: A Late Divorce races toward a Passover seder and engages with this holiday's theme of freedom. Friendly Fire takes place during Hanukkah, its subtitles tallying each candle that Amotz Ya'ari lights with his family members in Israel, while his wife lights none with their brother-in-law in Africa. Yehoshua's two historical novels, Mr Mani (1990) and A Journey to the End of the Millennium (1997), incorporate a high holiday season into their plots, paying special attention to Yom Kippur to generate a conversation about the relationship between Jewish beliefs and behaviors in the past and the present.

In a broader context, Michael Bell and Pericles Lewis, among others, have argued that religious motifs in works by antireligious and nonreligious modernists such as Kafka, Joyce, and Proust helped these modernists tame and frame an anarchy that they feared was threatening to uproot civilization from any source of coherence.5 Of course it can be argued that religion emerged in the first place from primeval desires to tame the chaotic and unexplainable. Self-proclaimed nonreligious modernists from different backgrounds do acknowledge this prime - val impetus and therefore adopt ironic attitudes toward homegrown and foreign myths, often relying on defamiliarization and Freudian symbolism to contrast their own societies in the present with other cultures. In Hebrew fiction, this subtly ironic mode of confrontation between traditional ideologies and modern national life is most pronounced in the works of S. Y. Agnon.6 Yehoshua's treatment of holiday scenarios, and of religiosity in general,7 is strongly indebted to Agnon, as well as to other modernists such as Joyce, Woolf, and Kafka. A Late Divorce, however, draws most directly on the style and structure of William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury,8 where a holiday setting works to accentuate the moral status of each character. …

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