Bulli, In Loving Memory

A.B. Yehoshua, known as Bulli.

Avraham B. Yehoshua’s secret middle name was Gavriel, and his famous nickname, from childhood, was Bulli. He never acknowledged the Gavriel, but took pride in the Bulli and added its initial to his nom de plume. Please do not pay attention to the English-language homonym: There was nothing bullying in Bulli’s personality; he was warm, enthusiastic, emotionally involved in the well-being of his friends and his country, humane to the bone.

I knew him well and loved him dearly. He was very close to my late father, Amos Oz, and as I grew older we developed our own relationship. Bulli had always been, for me, a cherished author and a sweetly avuncular, talkative presence in my life. He became a true friend and intimate interlocutor.

Some eight years ago many non-Israeli Jewish readers may have felt somewhat bullied by Bulli, who gave interviews saying that no Jew was a “full Jew” unless he or she lived in Israel. I don’t think he anticipated the ensuing storm, nor did he mean to cause anger or hurt. He spoke his mind, or at least his mind at the time.  An ardent, aching Zionist—like my father and David Grossman—he pulled away from their two-state solution and began to sound a different, unorthodox voice: Let Israel and Palestine join forces into one country and one nation. Let us evolve into a state of all the Jews and of all its citizens, with the Arab Palestinians naturally becoming full members of a secular and normal “Jewish nation” devoid of ultra-nationalism and ultra-religiosity.

Oz and Grossman did not subscribe to this viewpoint. The “three tenors,” as they were often called, of the Israeli Zionist left were in fact very different voices. But when it came to humanism, to a fair treatment of Palestinians’ and Jews’ dignity and hopes and dreams, and when it came to calling upon leaders to cease violence, their voices rang loud and clear and beautifully orchestrated.

That was true on the day that they called upon Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to put an immediate end to the Second Lebanon War of 2006. Hours later, Grossman’s son Uri was killed in that cursed war. I remember my father and Yehoshua driving like mad to the Grossmans’ home near Jerusalem, hugging David and his family, crying bitterly, feeling the full burden of the intellectual’s incapacity to prevent bloodshed. And they both told David to save his own life by returning to his desk and to an almost-finished novel, which, incredibly, predicted the death of this son.

I have let Bulli’s politics precede his literature in this reminiscence because he would have allowed it himself. Far more important than his quip about the “full Jew” was his faith in active political involvement; no person was exempt, and certainly no writer. It was a constant worry in his late years that younger Israeli writers, like their peers elsewhere, resented political activism and shunned any kind of ethical commitment in their books. For Yehoshua, a good story or novel must have a moral backbone—not heavy-handed preaching, of course, but a core dilemma or a complicated inner quest. After all, a protagonist’s conscience is as much part of her or his personality as feelings or actions or dreams.

If you want to read some of Yehoshua’s very best work, let me propose his early novella Three Days and a Child and his novel Mr. Mani. The former is one of Bulli’s 1960s novellas that stunned readers and transformed Hebrew literature; the latter is a fabulous novel of 1990, for many readers his crowning achievement. Mr. Mani is the multigenerational name of a Sephardi family whose history spans vital moments of Jewish and world history during the last two centuries, full of drama and wit, intellectual wrestling with human—and Zionist—dilemmas, and rife with Bulli’s unmatched and often astonishing imagination. It is a perfect gem of storytelling, plotting and debating, very funny and touchingly sad. Less than a year before his death, Yehoshua told a Jerusalem audience that a major inspiration for the book was William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Faulkner helped him step away from under the shadow of S.Y. Agnon, he said.

Bulli, unlike my father, loved and craved gossip. Let me treat you to two pieces of the genre. First, my own humble role in his opus: The novel A Journey to the End of the Millennium (1997), where, in the years before 1000 CE, Sephardic Jews venture from North Africa to meet and trade goods, and also ideas, with some of the very first Ashkenazis in Paris and in the Rhine Valley. At one point the book portrays an educated, opinionated Ashkenazi woman named Esther-Mina; over a cup of coffee one day on Mount Carmel, the author shocked me by confessing that Esther-Mina is based on me. I was, and still am, speechless.

Bulli, my father and the late and wonderful Israeli writer Yehoshua Kenaz met every three months for nearly four decades to discuss life, family and books, including their own. Each of them was profoundly different from the others in background, personality and style, yet their amity was exquisite. They would swap manuscripts, reading each other’s work and commenting on it with verve, honesty and generosity. A young man recently asked me if this unique friendship was a “commune” of sorts. No, I answered, but it had something of the kibbutz spirit. Something deeply Israeli. Please note: It was this sort of Israeliness that A.B. Yehoshua spent his life portraying, preserving and loving with all his passionate heart.

For more on A.B. Yehoshua including an anecdote about his work with Moment and links to his original work, see our Moment Minute newsletter “Remembering A.B. Yehoshua.”

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