My last cup of coffee with A.B. Yehoshua

For me, our meetings were almost a mirror image of the issues that came to define his life as a brilliant literary figure and outspoken public intellectual.

A.B. Yehoshua (left), Edna Assis and Daniel Bouskila having coffee in Givatayim, January 2020. Credit: Courtesy.
A.B. Yehoshua (left), Edna Assis and Daniel Bouskila having coffee in Givatayim, January 2020. Credit: Courtesy.
Rabbi Daniel Bouskila
Daniel Bouskila

It was January 2020, in a small cafe in Givatayim, that I last met with the celebrated Israeli author A. B. Yehoshua, who passed away on June 14 at the age of 85.

That was January 2020 B.C.—Before COVID—so there were no discussions of pandemics, viruses or vaccines (those were the days). The only health issue we talked about was the difficult battle with cancer that Yehoshua was facing. This wasn’t the first time we had met, but due to his health issues, this meeting felt different.

When we sat down for that cup of coffee (or two, or three), he asked me to recount our previous meetings. For me, those meetings were almost a mirror image of the various issues that came to define his life as a brilliant literary figure and outspoken public intellectual.

In the late 1980s, I was an undergraduate student at UCLA. Our Hillel hosted Yehoshua, and I was among the privileged students who spent an evening conversing with him on a host of Israeli political issues. These were the pre-Oslo years when the first intifada was raging through the West Bank and Gaza. All of us were active on behalf of Israel, and here we were, face to face, with one of Israel’s leading writers, who was not afraid to explore in his own novels the very issues that were dividing Israeli society.

It was from A.B. Yehoshua that I had first heard the idea of a two-state solution. What struck me was how beautiful it all sounded. During our last cup of coffee (which was some 32 years after that first encounter), I told Yehoshua that only a talented author had the ability to take something as politically complicated as a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians and make it sound so ideal and pastoral. “I wish you were in charge,” I told him.

Many years later, not far from UCLA at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel (where I was the rabbi), I had the privilege of moderating a debate between Yehoshua and UCLA professor David Myers. This time, the issue was not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the “Israel-Diaspora” divide. Yehoshua had recently made comments implying that only Zionists who live in Israel can experience the fullness of Jewish life today. While many in the audience challenged Yehoshua for what they deemed an insult to diaspora Jewry, I recall making a sincere effort to understand his point of view. When I mentioned that to Yehoshua at our last encounter, it brought a warm smile to his face.

I recounted it to him the afternoon before that debate when I drove him and his beloved wife Rivka around Los Angeles. I gave them a two-hour driving tour of Los Angeles, Malibu and the Hollywood Hills, and while we drove through the supposed glitz and glamour of L.A., our conversation was centered on the Holocaust, Zionism and contemporary Jewish identity.

I also reminded Yehoshua that I was surprised and perplexed by how he spent an entire evening in my synagogue—a Sephardic-Ladino synagogue—but never once mentioned his own Sephardic-Ladino background. This was strange to me, for A.B. Yehoshua was the author whose Sephardic-themed novels, such as Mr. Mani and The Journey to the End of the Millennium, gave voice in modern Israeli literature to the classic Sephardic-Ladino heritage.

It was this subject—that of Yehoshua’s family heritage—that defined what became our last meeting. In my current work with the Sephardic Educational Center in the Old City of Jerusalem, we are building a museum and cultural center that will tell the history and stories of the once vibrant Ladino-speaking Sephardic community of the Old City. In doing my research, together with Jerusalem-based Edna Assis (our director of research on this project), we discovered that the history and stories of that old Jerusalem Ladino community were masterfully chronicled in 11 volumes by Yaakov Yehoshua—A.B.’s father.

A.B.’s Sephardic heritage came from both parents. His father’s family—a third-generation “Yerushalmi” family—originally hailed from Greece. A.B.’s mother, Malka Rosilio, was born and raised in Mogador, Morocco, and immigrated to Jerusalem with her parents in 1932.

“While Sephardic Judaism was the very fabric of my parents’ being,” Yehoshua told me, “I do not recall being raised with an exclusivist Sephardic identity. We were raised as Zionist Jews in the emerging new Jewish national project. It’s not that my parents tried to forget their roots, but it did not form a core feature of my upbringing.”

The two Yehoshua writers—father and son—had strikingly different styles. Both were storytellers, but while the elder reveled in humorous anecdotes and folktales, the younger explored the complexity of the human condition.

“As we sit here today,” Yehoshua told me, “I face the prospect of walking in the shadow of death. But during my earliest years as a writer, I walked in another shadow—that of the great writer and master of complexity, S.Y. Agnon.”

Indeed, Mr. Mani is not the nostalgic journey through the Sephardic yesteryear of Yaakov Yehoshua’s stories. Mr. Mani takes a more nuanced and complex look at Sephardic family identity, perhaps a reflection of the author’s own complicated relationship with his Sephardic roots.

“In my older years, I’ve come to appreciate the value of my father’s work, and how in some roundabout way it influenced my own—especially the Sephardic pieces of my writing,” Yehoshua told me.

It was then that I told Yehoshua that we were planning a “father and son” exhibit—“From The Old City to Mr. Mani”—that would explore the literary legacies of two great writers. His reaction was, once again, a big, beautiful smile, and he offered to share with us any family photos, documents and memorabilia that would help bring this exhibit to life.

We dreamed of the possibility of A.B. attending the opening of that exhibit, but the combination of COVID slowing down our museum plans and A.B.’s failing health prevented that dream from becoming a reality. In loving memory, I am now more driven than ever to see that exhibit come to life.

I cherish the many autographed copies in my library of novels by Israeli authors, but the one that is most heartwarming is from A.B. Yehoshua. It’s not any of his famous works of literature, but a Hebrew children’s book titled “Tamar and Gaya’s Mouse.” Tamar and Gaya are Yehoshua’s grandchildren, and when I spent that day with him in L.A. and told him I had two little children of my own, he gave me his children’s book and inscribed it (in Hebrew) “Dear Shira and Ilan—this is from Tamar and Gaya’s saba—A.B. Yehoshua.”

A brilliant novelist, an outspoken public intellectual and a new voice for Sephardic identity, A.B. Yehoshua was also a beloved family man.

That last cup of coffee was special indeed—strong and bold—a reflection of Yehoshua’s own life and writings.

May he rest in peace.

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila is the director of the Sephardic Educational Center and the rabbi of the Westwood Village Synagogue. 

This article was first published by the Jewish Journal.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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