A.B. Yehoshua, widely regarded as one of the leading Hebrew authors of his generation, died yesterday at the age of eighty-five. A fifth-generation Jerusalemite, and the grandson and great-grandson of Sephardi rabbis, Yehoshua wrote eleven novels as well as numerous essays, plays, and short stories. His novella “Early in the Summer of 1970” appeared in English translation in Commentary magazine in 1973. Told in Yehoshua’s characteristic dreamlike style, it has as its narrator and protagonist an aging Bible teacher, whose son returns to Israel—along with his American wife and child—during the War of Attrition, after several years of living outside of the country.
My son fell asleep at once, enfolding his sleeping son, but my daughter-in-law was surprisingly wakeful. She did not look at the road or at this land she had never seen before, or at the stars or the new sky. Instead, her whole body turned toward me, sitting in the back; her hair tumbling over my face, she fired questions at me, asking about the war: what do people here say, and what do they really want, as though accusing me of something, as though in some furtive way I enjoyed this war, as though there existed some other possibility.
That, or at least something like it, for I had great difficulty understanding her, I who never learned English, but picked up what I knew from the air—literally from the air, from English lessons wafting in from adjacent classrooms while the hush of an examination lay on my own, or while pacing empty corridors waiting my turn to enter the classroom.
And I strained to understand her, exhausted as I was from the long night’s vigil. My son sleeping on the front seat, a heavy mass, his head nodding, and I alone with her, observing the delicate features, the thin eyeglasses she had suddenly donned, such an intellectual, maybe this New Left thing, and for all that a trace of perfume, a faint scent of wilted flowers coming off her.
In the end I opened my mouth to answer. In an impossible English, an astounding mixture which I myself concocted, laced with Hebrew, obeying no rules, and she momentarily taken aback, trying to understand, falling silent at last. Then, softly, she began to sing.
More about: Hebrew literature, Israeli literature, War of Attrition