This text emerged from the interview recorded in February 2018, when Ignas met Boolie in Tel-Aviv. They talked over dinner at the restaurant by the sea.
What’s your full name? We were chatting with a young Jewish man, and I told him that we’re going to publish a book by Abraham Yehoshua. That man corrected me that you’re called A. B. Yehoshua. Why is it so? [Laughs]
[Laughs] Because I have the nickname Boolie. That’s how “B” appeared. Abraham and Yehoshua, both of them, are separate names. Nobody could know what my first name and surname are. Later, the name Abraham condensed to A. B., and I became A.B.Yehoshua. But friends call me Boolie.
No meaning at all.
No meaning at all. It was given to me when I was about 12 years old, and there were two beautiful girls in my class. They called me Boolie, maybe because I was a little bit round.
No, no, no. We have a lot of names like this. Our prime minister Netanyahu is nicknamed Bibi. The minister of defense — Bogie.
Great. Let’s talk about Jerusalem. Your first book published in Lithuanian was “A Woman in Jerusalem.” Jerusalem is always a central concept in another book, “Mr. Mani.” It looks like Jerusalem is not geographic. It’s an ideological concept. What is your relation with Jerusalem?
My father dedicated himself to Jerusalem’s research, writing twelve books—non-fiction, folklore studies, especially about the Sephardic community of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I don’t know if you noticed that I dedicated my last book to him.
He died before the appearance of “Mr. Mani.” I was very sorry that this happened. Having read my novel, he would have felt pleased that a few excerpts from his collected memories were inserted.
I have to admit that after the Six-Day War in 1967, my wife and I moved to Haifa. Until then, we had lived in Paris for several years, my wife wrote a doctorate there, and we decided not to return to Jerusalem. We chose to live in Haifa, on a hill by the sea. It was a wise decision not to join the old circle of friends and acquaintances. We wanted to keep the distance and anonymity we have experienced in Paris.
It benefited me. After the annexation of East Jerusalem, the city became horrible: overly religious, heavily Arab. Jerusalem was thrown back in the past, as in my childhood, when it was divided.
In this book, which I wrote in the 1980s, I followed a corridor of compromises. The real character of the novel is Jerusalem. The story jumps back, that’s my idea: I go back from the present to the past. It’s a pretty psychoanalytic piece. You know who you are. You know your parents, people pay a lot of attention to relationships with their parents. You guess a little bit about what your grandparents were like. And your ancestors are no longer familiar to you. But they affect you - they are in you, even if they are unfamiliar. I give the reader a chance to rise above the main character and go back five or six times. Those ancestors are essential to you, even if you don’t realize it. By returning to the past in this way, you overcome the psychoanalytic controversy.
Yes. Yes, I think he was right. Mainly because I managed to get back to the Sephardic roots in both “Mr. Mani” and “Five Seasons.” I could only master the Sephardic theme after my father’s death.
I didn’t want to touch this topic before, and I wrote as I liked it: Kafka-style, abstract, but Israeli. And the father wrote much about Jerusalem, the ancient inhabitants, their memories. When he died, I felt free to write about the same things, just in my way. We agreed well. He was an orientalist by profession. He appreciated my work with restraint, responded favorably, but I know he was not impressed with my early stories. But he would like this book.
But here, if he read these books, he would say, he was connecting himself to me.
Of course. The reader has to make an effort. Everyone perceives the speaker in their way and must guess what the other interlocutor is saying. Later “Mr. Mani” was both moved to the stage and screened for television...
No, no, it stayed the way it is in the book. Although the actor approached me to write the text of the second speaker as well, I agreed. I just wrote to make it easier for the actor to rehearse. He did not study the second part. And when I handed him the dialogue after inserting the words of the other interlocutor, I noticed that the text had deteriorated.
Yes, but it’s only for acting rehearsals. And only the third conversation in the book. That version is much worse than the original.
Yes, I wrote it probably in 1984. I thought I wouldn’t be able to create the whole book like this, so I paused.
It seems that you have invented a fantastic method: a reader listens to a speaker who is being listened to by another interlocutor in the novel. And that listener in the book is blind. This is how a unique feeling of active listening is born, and the reader has a deeper understanding of the speaker’s story.
Yes. And you have to think about what the interlocutor would answer to the speaker. After all, I’m scared, what will a slightly anti-Semitic colonel answer?
You know, my wife and I spent forty-three years in Haifa. I was teaching there at university, and she worked in her clinic. We loved that city very much. I’ve written a lot about it. We moved to Tel Aviv just for the kids because all three of them moved here. If at least one had stayed in Haifa, we would not have left either. Tel Aviv is the end of my life.
And Jerusalem has changed a lot, and it is enough for me now to spend half a day there.
I was exploring 19th century Jerusalem with extraordinary passion. This is the same as writing to the British about medieval London. Then Jerusalem covered an area of one square kilometer. Imagine how it changed! Besides, while writing “Mr. Mani,” I had to study about the Germans in Crete, Auschwitz in Poland...
In my novel, I described the five most essential crossroads in Jewish history in recent centuries: the Lebanon War, the Holocaust, the British occupation, the Zionist Congress, and the period of self-determination of nations. A Sephardic Jew appears at each crossroads, saying, “Don’t go there! Turn elsewhere.”
This is especially important when thinking about the Holocaust. The great calamity of the Jews was unimaginable that a catastrophe was imminent, though throughout their history, flashing red warning signs: crusades, inquisition, Khmelnytskyi, pogroms. Different nations addressed the Jews, “Beware; we don’t like you. Wake up. Normalize.”
In the 1930s, the Zionists invited Jews to move here. Jabotinsky made it clear, “If you do not liquidate the diaspora, it will destroy you.” Why didn’t you move to this land? If at least a quarter of the world’s Jews had appeared here in the 1920s, we could have saved millions.
I have always repeated that it is not worth trying to change the non-Jewish attitude. There is no need to demand higher tolerance from them. Let’s change ourselves.
It’s really not easy. Self-criticism needs to be developed. Zionism began with self-criticism: “The Jew is everywhere and nowhere.”
Yes, there is a center here. Half of the world’s Jews already live in Israel. At the beginning of the 20th century, only half a percent was here, and now half of all Jews on Earth. Not bad, but there could be more. Many of them died pointlessly during the Holocaust: not because of ideology, not because of religion, not because of territory, not because of wealth. We were destroyed like germs, for nothing.
By defending the territory, a person can lose and die. The Germans, the Russians, the British fought for their lands, and the Jews were killed as if by infection. I see this as a lesson that a nation needs a territory, a homeland.
The most important thing? I have understood the need for Zionism. But the proudest thing in life is my marriage. Living fifty-six years with my wife has been a huge success for me. We were friends, and I felt a real partnership with her everywhere: raising children and enjoying grandchildren and creativity.