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Breaking Up in Haifa

A Late Divorce

by A.B. Yehoshua, Translated from the Hebrew by Hillel Halkin
Doubleday, 354 pp., $16.95

Ben-Gurion is supposed to have said that the day an Israeli cop arrested an Israeli crook Israel would have become a country like any other. In this novel deceptively like any other such an arrest takes place. Not that A Late Divorce is a thriller, but it belongs to an equally familiar genre: a family novel about the kind of ordinarily neurotic people who might congregate for a stressful Christmas in Connecticut. In this case they assemble in Haifa for the Passover. There is even a chapter in the form of an analysis with the patient on the couch.

Yehuda and Naomi Kaminka are an estranged couple of intellectuals on the point of divorce. They have three grownup children. Ya’el is the eldest, a doormat married to a brash lawyer whom the rest dislike and call by his surname, which is Kedmi. Tsvi, the elder son, is a homosexual layabout in analysis and kept by a succession of lovers. His younger brother Asa lectures on nineteenth-century history at the university. Cold, repressed, and hysterical, he is married to a frigid beauty called Dina who is still a virgin and interested only in becoming a writer.

There are two small children: obese, seven-year-old Gaddi, with a weak heart and gigantic appetite, and a baby with an exceptionally piercing yell and perpetually wet diapers. The children belong to the Kedmis. The dog, Horatio, neurotic like all the rest, belongs to Naomi and lives with her in an idyllic-sounding mental home from which she is about to be released. She was put there a few years back for trying to kill Yehuda. He emigrated to New England, where he has recently impregnated a middle-aged widow. It is to obtain a divorce from Naomi that he is spending the week before Passover in Israel.

There is a lot of fast driving and busing between the Kedmis in Haifa, Asa and Dina in Jerusalem, the asylum outside Acre, and Tel Aviv, where Tsvi lives besieged by his current lover, a middle-aged banker called Refa’el Calderon. All this produces a sense of how small Israel is, how crowded its apartments, how busy its roads, and how beautiful its landscape. Each member of the family takes up a position about the divorce and the future of the apartment, which is jointly owned by Yehuda and Naomi. Emotions and tensions run high. Pressure is put on Naomi although in fact she alone has no objection to divorcing. Yehuda generously waives his claim to the flat. On the eve of the Passover four rabbis are drummed up to give the divorce. The Passover celebrations begin, briefly interrupted by the arrest of one of Kedmi’s clients. The next night Yehuda is due to fly back to the States. At the eleventh hour he regrets his decision about the flat because he fears Tsvi will get his hands on it. So he returns to the asylum to retrieve the waiver and is accidentally killed by an inmate with a pitchfork.

Three years later, in a switch forward two-thirds of the way through the book, Yehuda’s American mistress turns up with their little boy and dumps him on the Kedmis. Her behavior and the whole episode are unaccountable to the other characters as well as to the reader. Abandoned three-year-old boys seem to haunt Yehoshua. The beautiful title story of his collection. Three Days and a Child is about one. In A Late Divorce everyone seems uncontrollably fond of children, however strange, unresponsive, damp, or sticky. Are all Israelis like that? Or just Yehoshua? Anyway, he writes most tenderly and unsentimentally about children.

Every novel set in Israel must be about Israel. Sometimes Yehoshua slots in local problems in such an expository manner that one cannot help feeling he has his eye on foreign readers, especially when the problem turns out to be a variation on a Western theme—race relations, for example. Everyone takes for granted that “white” Ashkenazim are superior to “black” Sephardim. Fair skin is an asset. Kedmi treats Oriental Jews with the same genial contempt he has for Arabs. Calderon, on the other hand, comes from an old Palestinian Jewish family and is eager to establish that this is not at all the same as being a savage from Morocco. Acting as a social anthropologist chorus he delivers a lecturette on religious and social differences: the Sephardim, he says, are more observant than all but the most Orthodox Ashkenazim (neatly represented by Dina’s Hungarian Hassidic parents). But the Orientals wear their religion more lightly: it is a matter of tradition and ritual, not of intellectual agonizing and probing into texts and meanings. Their way of life is founded upon upholding family honor, not on striving for power.

Calderon also makes the book’s sole reference to the Holocaust, and it is of a kind that hardly anyone outside Israel would dare to. We Sephardim still have our old, he says:

Yours, you understand, were all killed or left behind in Europe. They don’t keep bugging you. You’ve made your peace with them. You were stronger than they were anyway, and you did what you wanted. Now you have your nostalgic memories, but that’s just for the record…on Saturday nights you dress up like them on TV in black caftans and beards, and it isn’t a bad feeling…but if you were suddenly to find them in your living room along with that whole ghetto of theirs, you’d be in a state of shock.

Calderon’s picture of secularized Jews of European descent exactly fits the Kaminkas and Kedmis: they don’t believe, they don’t wear skull caps, they drive to the beach on Saturdays, but they observe the major holidays. Asa alone is positively antireligious; but his rows with Dina over her already much-eroded Orthodoxy could be simply part of the general discomfort of their unconsummated marriage. The rest of the family regard her as a relic from an older, practically folklorique world; they marvel at her comparative modernity as though she were a reservation Indian in gray flannel.

By making his principal character return to Israel after an absence, Yehoshua allows himself to observe the changes taking place. “We who saw this country being born,” Yehuda muses, “thought we could always bend it to our will always correct it if it went off course yet here it was out of control full of strange mutations different people odd permutations new sources of unexpected energy.” One of the sources of energy—the one Yehoshua concentrates on—is religious revival. It has more in common with Islamic revivalism than with Western varieties of being “born again”: not only in its puritanism, but because both Moslems and Jews are not so many generations away from the true observers who can still be found in relatively large numbers instead of merely in tiny pockets like the Amish. Yehuda, sentimental but also sensitive, is bound to be struck by the contrast between piety, whether new or old, and his own spiritual dislocation as an exile, absentee father, and half-reluctant adulterer.

The entire family’s life is messy and unlovely (though most of its members have intimations of beauty and spirituality). Asa is a nihilist, Kedmi a crude materialist, Tsvi a degenerate, Yehuda feebly liberal, and Naomi mad—all of them could be examples of what the Israeli scholar Janet Aviad in her book Return to Judaism, a study of religious revival among young people in Jerusalem, calls “the folly, evil, and insanity” of the Western way of life.* Miss Aviad writes that it is from disgust with these aspects of the modern world that born-again Jews “withdraw from it and join the minority which has remained true to Torah culture and to the true calling of the Jewish people.” She examines the post-Sixties fundamentalist movement which leads Jews with no religious background to immure themselves in religious colleges in Jerusalem, throw away their jeans, and don the black suits of rigidly observant Puritans whose sole object in life is to study the Holy Scriptures.

Yehoshua introduces a gentler form of revivalism in a set-piece which has the atmosphere of a pastoral idyll. Gaddi takes his grandfather Yehuda to visit his former kindergarten in a wooded valley. They find it being converted into a synagogue by a merry group of university students “trying on…religion for size.” Led by “a young dynamic rabbi with an English accent,” they are “very unreligious looking young people with their skull caps that kept slipping off their heads.” The boys joke with the girls even as they stretch a rope across the hall to segregate the sexes. Yehuda is touched by the scene, and another drop falls into his brimming cup of nostalgia for the country he is about to abandon.

The author remains aloof, but in one of his ambiguous comic passages (for he often leaves one in doubt whether to laugh or be sad) he seems to be ridiculing fanaticism in the person of a recently immigrated young rabbi with golden curls, a schoolgirl complexion, an unwashed smell, and Russian syntax. He is one of the four rabbis required to legitimize the divorce, but loses his cool and screams at the rest as he tries to bully them into refusing it: “Never mind bastard…are many, will be one more…everywhere is same big mess…but marriage is holy….”

The same rabbi turns up later at the Seder celebrations in the mental home, but now he seems different: mysterious and powerful. He sings a religious melody and preaches to the sane and the insane: “But also you are chosen, do you know? Also you have spark of holiness. Also you belong to God’s covenant…all of you…even who do not want, who do not believe.” At this moment Naomi’s illness threatens to return: she feels herself split and become two women, one of them the murderous fiend who tried to kill Yehuda. Only this time the dangerous doppelgänger is the rabbi. In her delusion she believes him to be her other self disguised as a man and tempting her to assume the role of an all-powerful female deity. But she manages to cling to her sanity and fights him off: “Go back to the desert. Die!”

The symbolism seems fairly clear. Judaism, like Islam, came out of the desert. Religion shows its dangerous, destructive face, while in the kindergarten it displayed its comforting charm as a ritual binding people together in benevolent solidarity. Its third aspect is to establish moral standards which agnostics may sometimes wish they had. After a squalid and humiliating encounter with a prostitute, Asa mentally begs Dina to forgive him: “Yours the decent folk, and mine the lunacy,” he says. To be born a Jew is to be born with a vocation to lead a holy life. You have to accept it or reject it. If you reject it your life may turn ugly and meaningless. If you accept it you should be aware that you are courting danger, for it can lead to fanaticism.

If the symbols and the message sometimes seem too easy to read, that may be partly because readers who are not Israelis are too anxious to read and to discover something about Israel. Yet that is not Yehoshua’s intention. He evidently does not want his book to be a roman à thèse, still less a sermon. It is meant to be about people, not ideas. “Reality,” Yehuda reflects as dawn breaks over Haifa on his last day, “is stronger than all thought.” It sounds like a remote echo of I.B. Singer’s observation: “In the long run I convinced myself that images never get stale and zugerts, sayings, no matter how clever and how brilliant, are almost obsolete from the very beginning, because no matter what a human being has to say about life, it has already been said before.”

Yehoshua himself provides another pointer to his intentions by calling up Chekhov. Calderon goes to see a performance of Uncle Vanya and its unemphatic truthfulness bowls him over. “At first I thought that something special was about to happen. It took me a while to realize that it was happening already. I mean the whole point was that it mattered to those people in the play.”

Perhaps too many special things happen in A Late Divorce and their meaning is too much underlined. Nevertheless, there is something Chekhovian about Yehoshua’s affectionate impartiality toward his characters, who, like Chekhov’s, combine hopeless, maddening egotism with noble impulses and redeeming outbursts of affection. They are blind as bats, but capable, on occasion, of extraordinary insight. Even the child Gaddi has this capacity. But where is the Chekhovian charm? Yehuda, Tsvi, Dina, and Naomi are all supposed to be appealing; the other characters say so; but it isn’t true.

The people in Yehoshua’s haunting earlier novel, The Lover, were loaded with charm—and with mystery too. They were three-dimensional, one dimension remaining intriguingly, poetically in shadow. Here, in spite of a great deal of sweating, urinating, and vomiting, the characters have only two dimensions. Puzzlement takes the place of mystery. The light is harsher, the tone noisier and more insistent. Partly this is the result of the cliff-hanging urgency of the action: Yehuda has only seven days to get his divorce. Almost everyone is on the brink of hysteria. The story is told in interior monologues by each character in turn with the conversations taped in, as it were.

The same technique worked wonderfully in The Lover—which, incidentally, insofar as it is about Israel, deals with Jewish-Arab relations, whereas here different types of Judaism are examined. It is a technique that leaves room for lyrical and contemplative passages to relieve the tension. But whereas in the earlier novel these passages came across as lyrical and contemplative, here they seem overwritten and sometimes incoherent, and sometimes even incomprehensible. This is probably the fault of the translator, who does not inspire fervent faith. He uses antiquated slang like “with it” and overdoes the vernacular (“‘squelched’ by his father” for “crushed by his father”) so that sometimes one seems to be in an Indian army mess. More often, though, one could be on the old Lower East Side, with questions couched in the affirmative and expletive “alreadys” dotted around like sesame seeds on a bagel. This must be a travesty of the highly literate Kaminkas’ speech. Besides, their language is Hebrew, the only one that cannot possibly sound Jewish.

Letters

Another Country November 8, 1984

  1. *

    University of Chicago Press, 1983.

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