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.


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