From 1997 | Finding My Father in Sephardic Time

By | Jul 18, 2022
From the Archive

This piece, by the celebrated and recently deceased author A.B. Yehoshua, originally appeared in Moment in October 1997.

When I published my first book, Father said, “Listen, if Abraham can publish a book, so can I.” And indeed, for the next 17 years my father greatly surpassed me in the number of books that he wrote. His first book, A Child of Old Jerusalem, came out when he was 60 years old, three years after I published my first collection of stories, Death of the Old Man. He then went on, diligently and tirelessly, to write many more books. By the time he died, on December 25, 1982, he had published 12 books about the society and customs of the Sephardic communities at the end of the 19th century and during the early years of the 20th century. He also published two books on the history of the Palestinian press during that period. These were written in Arabic and were based on his unfinished doctoral dissertation. I feel that, in a certain sense, he started writing because I became a writer, and this gave him permission and strength to search for his own lost time.

It is not uncommon for children to try to realize the unacknowledged or unaccomplished aspirations of their parents. I am sure that from my earliest childhood I absorbed my father’s desire to become a writer. But it is not so common for parents to realize their suppressed ambitions by means of their children, and this may indicate the depth of the connection between my father and myself. It is also not surprising that my father published his first book during the four years that I spent in Paris. Since I was so far from home, he could feel free from my watchful eyes and could draw strength from me without worrying about my critical remarks. This is how my father broke into the world of literature at the stage of life when most people retire from work. And this vital surge of creativity sweetened his old age.

When my father began publishing the first fragments of his childhood memoirs in the Sephardic magazine Bama’arakha, I didn’t have a sense that this was the beginning of something deep and long lasting that would take the form of a continuous, comprehensive, and highly nuanced journey into the depths of the Sephardic experience in Jerusalem. I saw it more as a passing fancy for reminiscing, especially after the death of his parents, to whom he was very attached. I had always thought that my father’s true calling was in the area of research that he engaged in after he received his master’s degree in Near Eastern studies from the Hebrew University. He began working on his doctoral dissertation under the supervision of Professor Ben-Et, and this undertaking was a source of endless misery and frustration for him. I never actually got to see Professor Ben-Et, but I would sometimes hang around his house in the Rehavia neighborhood of Jerusalem while waiting for my father, who would go there on Friday afternoons to discuss what he had written. According to my father, Ben-Et was a very strict and exacting teacher. He came from Germany and demanded absolute scientific rigor. The excitable young man from the East was apparently unable to adapt to the Prussian sense of scientific discipline that was required of him.

My father’s failure to attain his doctoral degree may well have deterred me from pursuing such a degree myself. After I received my B.A., I actually set off for Paris, together with my wife, in order to work toward a Ph.D. But to my mother’s chagrin and my father’s amusement, I quickly gave up on that idea and concentrated on completing my second volume of stories, Facing the Forests. I left the task of getting a Ph.D. to my wife, Ika. I sometimes think that because of my father’s doctoral failure, my family, and especially my mother, developed great admiration for the German immigrants, who were perceived as paragons of discipline and order. The German-born Near Eastern studies professors on Mt. Scopus—Professor Meyer, for example, or Professor Hed—were always helped as models of the perfect scholar. And maybe they were.

In the ’60s I wrote a radio play about a mysterious and cunning German-born professor. He was some sort of half-ghost who was killed, or not killed, in the convoy that tried to reach Mt. Scopus during the 1948 War of Independence. Since then he had been hiding out in the university corridors and conducting his affairs from there. The name of the play was “The Professor’s Secret,” and it is likely that the character that I created was informed by the harsh spirit of the invisible Professor Ben-Et, who so tormented my father. In any case, the university world of Mt. Scopus was a fascinating and much-desired world for me. I would sometimes accompany my father to the National Library over there. He would go through his newspapers, and I would copy passages from the Hebrew newspapers for him or just wander around that graceful and noble building. (This was before it was totally disfigured by the “Bar-Lev Line” fortification style of the new campus that was built after the Six-Day War.) The university on Mt. Scopus was the ideal world to which I wished my father would belong. I remember myself sitting for hours in our bathroom, near the big laundry basket with the overturned basin covering it, pretending to drive the number nine bus that used to stop near our house on King George Street, back and forth from the city to the hill.

I don’t intend to tell the story of my father’s life. He does this very well himself in his books, where his biography is so elegantly woven into the rich textures of his family history. But I would like to begin to address the questions that have been hounding me for a long time and may well be the reason that these words are being read right now: “Where is your Sephardic heritage?” Or, “What about your Sephardic heritage? Why is it that your works do not contain any of those Old Sephardic characters that your father could describe so well? Why do you yourself look and sound like such an Ashkenazi, with no throaty gutturals or rolling Rs? Why isn’t there anything about you that suggests a longing for your true roots?” In short, I am regarded as being totally assimilated, and I think that this is often seen as some sort of moral flaw.

Let me begin by saying that I, of course, have no intention of apologizing for any of this. I don’t accept the view that a child of parents who came from Poland, Romania, or Hungary, for example, is permitted to drop his or her parents’ accent and discard the ethnic aspects of their religious and communal identity in order to become an Israeli, but a child of parents from any of the Arab countries is not allowed to do this because of the essential weakness of the Middle Eastern, Arabic communities in relation to the European, Ashkenazi communities. The view that it is morally acceptable to “leave” those who are strong but it is forbidden to “abandon” those who are weak is, of course, completely wrong and fundamentally immoral. But while I have no desire to apologize, I do feel compelled to account, at least to myself, for the factors that caused me not to identify, openly and from the very beginning, with the Sephardic aspects of my family. The main cause, I think, is connected to my mother and to the deep messages that she communicated to my sister and me. My mother was not of Sephardic descent. She was a Moroccan from an affluent family in the city of Mogadon After her mother’s death, her rich father left eight of his older children in Mogador, took his two young daughters and his youngest son with him, and traveled to the Land of Israel in order to settle there. That’s how my mother got here in 1932.

Mother had no particular affinity for my father’s Old Sephardic community. For her, this community was just as unfamiliar as the Ashkenazi Zionist community that was the majority here at that time. Her language was French, and she did not even know Ladino [Judeo-Spanish, the spoken and written language of Jews of Spanish origin and those living in the Mediterranean]. When her father died a few years after she married, she understood that her life was now fully connected to this land. She thought it only right to link her emotions to the world of the Zionist Ashkenazi community, which was the heart of the emerging country, and not to a community that she regarded as marginal. This was why she directed us, her children, both practically and emotionally, towards the Ashkenazi world as a worthy source of identification and emulation. She insisted that we attend the Hebrew Gymnasium, which was a predominantly Ashkenazi high school, and not the Sephardic Tahkemoni school, or even the Ma’ala religious school, although she herself was very traditional and observant.

But there was more to it. My father also did not direct us towards his Sephardic world as an exclusive source of identity and belonging. The role models he presented for us as children and adolescents were not necessarily the Sephardic rabbis or the community dignitaries. Rather, they were the Jewish high officials in the British mandatory government where he worked, the scholars of the Hebrew University, and in the background, the Russian students who had come to the Hebrew Gymnasium, from which he graduated in the ’20s. These»were his true darlings, and he always spoke of them with great enthusiasm. Perhaps there had even been a great and secret love for one of those Russian girls. It is little wonder that I too, was infected with the Russian love, which extended not only to Russian literature and Russian music but also guided me like an internal homing device towards the Russian background of my future wife.

The people of the Old Sephardic community, members of my family and others, were only part of my experience and not necessarily the part that called for identification. The years preceding the establishment of the State brought forth another breed of heroes. I used to watch them for hours through the window of our house on King George Street. I would see them near the Tel-Or Theater and the Histradut Building, at first only in their khaki clothes and wool watch caps, then after November 1947, with their Sten guns and their jeeps. They were a small and modest group, and I never made them into romantic mythical figures that had to be destroyed later in order to demystify their deeds. But they were very far removed from my grandfather, who still walked about Jerusalem with his black cloak and Turkish turban. I was always a little embarrassed when I met him in the street with my friend’s from the Hebrew Gymnasium. Their grandfathers may have resembled him, but they no longer existed. They were all lost in the Diaspora, in the Holocaust. But my grandfather was alive and well and walking in the streets of a completely different Jerusalem, a city that belonged to him much more than it belonged to all the immigrants from eastern Europe but was quickly slipping away from him. I don’t consider my case to be unique.The young people who left the ultra-Orthodox community of Me’a h She’ari m in order to live a secular life felt the same way.

The children of the German immigrants had serious problems with their mothers, who always insisted on speaking German in public. And the Polish mothers have now become the subject of psychological studies. Everyone had his own questions of identity, his own solutions, and his own drives, as in every melting pot. None of us knew exactly what we were leaving behind at that time, but where we had to go was clear to all of us, especially to my mother. We head to become part of the newly emerging Israeli character, which would eradicate all the uncomfortable attributes of our other identities. To this day I think that the ideological fervor of my valid arguments for a unique Israeli identity was fueled to a large degree by the simple fact that such an identity would eliminate the sharp ethnic divisions that so concerned me at the time.

My father did not bother me with any of this while I was growing up. He certainly didn’t press for any active identification with the Sephardic world and, in my opinion, even took some part in the progress of my “assimilation” by being openly critical of the leaders of the Sephardic community and by going to the large Ashkenazi synagogue, Yeshurun, on Friday nights. I used to love that synagogue because of its beauty and its European atmosphere. On Saturday mornings we would go to the Sephardic Orphanage near Mahane Yehuda, so some balance was maintained.

I started to put the Sephardic part of me into a separate compartment. It wasn’t a particularly small compartment and certainly not a locked one. But it was still a very distinct compartment, which would be opened from time to time but was usually kept closed.Then, my life was marked by a sense of separate compartments and false bottoms, which I believe affected my writing later on. The fact that my work’s always contained multiple dimensions has attracted the attention of many critics. This symbolic, or multilayered, structure is, to a certain extent, the product of the kind of life that involves concealing some part of the identity. It would be interesting to study the theme of concealed identity in the works of a good number of important Israeli writers of my generation, such as Amos Oz, Yitzhak Orpaz, and David Shutz, to see how this concealment affects their writing. I carried the double compartment of my Sephardic identity without the kind of conflict and guilt that often torment assimilating Jews in other countries. After all, I wanted to become an Israeli, not an Ashkenazi. This was a valid, moral, and ideologically sound purpose. But it was also, if I am to be completely honest with myself, a pretty convenient purpose. It was a way of distinguishing myself from the masses of immigrants from the Arab countries who arrived in the ’50 s with all of their problems. Adopting a blurred Sephardic identity was a good solution. (My novel, Molkho, about the village of Zni’ah, may mark a kind of reconciliation with them.)

But this tension was limited and not very severe. I don’t want to dramatize it for aesthetic effect. It was clear to me that my father loved his Sephardic heritage and was deeply attached to it. Because of his feelings, I was fully prepared to affirm this identity in a number of ways. As a boy preparing for m y bar mitzvah, I used to go to my grandfather, Hananya Gavriel, who lived in the Makor Barukh neighborhood, to study Talmud. He wrote my bar mitzvah speech for me and taught me how to deliver it properly. Indeed, if our Orthodox rabbis today would hear me read this speech, which was replete with biblical and rabbinic allusions to love of Israel, they would be very proud of me.

All the years I lived in Jerusalem, until the age of 27, I made it a point to attend Mr. Molkho’s synagogue on Saturdays and holidays. I did this even during the period in which I was sent by my kibbutz to serve as a youth movement leader in Jerusalem. I would spend my Friday and Saturday evenings teaching the principles of secular democratic socialism, which I believed in then, and still believe in now, with all m y heart. But every Saturday morning I would get up, tuck my prayer shawl under my arm, stuff a skull cap in my pocket, and go out into the empty and pleasant streets of Talbieh and Rehavia. I would circle behind the stone fence of the Hebrew Gymnasium, a short distance away from our little green youth movement house, which still reverberated from the sounds of the joyous singing and loud debating that I had led on the previous night. Only when I reached the doorway of the synagogue would I pull out the skull cap, slap it on my head, wrap myself in the prayer shawl, and go in—not to pray, but to sit next to my father, among all the other Sephardic gentlemen in their respectable suits. I would sit quietly among these bankers, merchants, public officials, carpenters, greengrocers, and other tradesmen, not as a believer, but out of respect for my parents. My presence in the synagogue was particularly important to my mother because of the chance of getting some extra points from God, in whom I did not believe then and do not believe now. Although, I must confess, I’m still a little scared of him.

After the service I would go out with all the other worshippers, who would mingle with those coming out of other synagogues. They would all converse quietly and watch tolerantly as Jerusalem’s secular inhabitants began waking up. A little later I would be in my khakis again, attending to my youth movement affairs. I can’t say that this regular synagogue attendance was not something of a burden. After all, who doesn’t like to sleep late on Saturdays? But apparently there was something about this practice, and the dual identity that was involved in it, that attracted and pleased me. For I continued it when I was entirely on my own, even as a student at the university. Other than occasional family gatherings, this was my most intense contact with the Sephardic world, and it gave me a pretty good sense of the inner codes of this world and of the people who inhabit it. This is what my Sephardic side amounts to. It’s not very much, but it’s pretty solid.

My father’s professional life and his personal interests did not connect him to the Sephardic world. He also did not have much respect for the Sephardic Community Council and chose not to participate in its public activities. He was, first and foremost, an Arabist. Most Sephardic boys of his generation picked up Arabic in the markets of the Old City. But my father was thoroughly tutored in the language by a teacher in the Arab village of Silwan. His father, perhaps out of a keen sense of place, wanted his son to acquire a solid grasp of the language of the region. His almost perfect command of Arabic may not have helped my father to become a scholar, but it was invaluable in his professional capacity as head of the Department for Muslim and Druze Religious. Affairs in the Ministry of Religions. After the establishment of the state, he worked continuously at creating and sustaining viable relationships between Israeli Arabs and the Israeli authorities.

Some of my father’s natural ease with Arabs must have rubbed off on me, although the fact that I do not know Arabic deprives me of a main means of communicating with them. To those who wonder about my not knowing the language, I must apologize and explain that my father always did my Arabic homework for me, so I didn’t learn a thing. Prior to the establishment of the state, Arab friends who worked with my father in the Secretariat of the mandatory government would visit us with their families. After Jerusalem was divided, they continued to send their regard via the Christian pilgrims who crossed through the Mandelbaum Gate. When I was 12 years old, I accompanied my father on a working trip to Haifa and the Galilee. Together we went from one Arab village to another. I think I still draw on the sights and the people from that trip (the description of Naim’s journeys from his village to Haifa, in The Lover, the description of Molkho’s travels in the Galilee). My natural attitude toward Arabs, which is free of both hypocrisy and superiority, creates a kind of intimacy with them. In recent years this sense of affinity has sometimes led me to criticize Arab failings in blunt language that they are not used to hearing from the dovish left.

Despite his closeness to the Arabs, my father did not share my dovish views. But he avoided arguing politics with me because I would always vanquish him with my ideological fervor. When people would complain to him about my pronouncements in favor of a Palestinian state and against the settlements, he would apologize for me and say: “Don’ t be angry at him. The poor thing is very naive. He simply doesn’t know the Arabs.” But he never intervened in my political activities and never told me what, or what not, to say. The complete freedom he gave me in this respect was very important to me both while I was growing up and later in my life. I’ m sure that my dovish views appealed to him even though he did not believe in them. In the dedication he wrote for me in his first book on the Palestinian press, he expressed his enthusiastic affinity with what he called my “passion for peace.”

He was uncomfortable with my writing and somewhat suspicious of it. Haim Be’er captured his attitude in an article he wrote about a walk through Jerusalem with my father. The title of this article, “So Do You Like to Read Abraham’s Stories?” was derived from a question that my father put to Haim Be’er to test Be’er’s reaction to my works and so try to understand what it is that people see in them. My father’s discomfort did not surprise me. He did not read much literature, especially not modern literature. So he was often shocked and disturbed by what I wrote. But sometimes he would really like something. I remember his call when my novella, Early in Summer 1970, appeared. He was very excited and said: “This story has something that relates to the two of us. ” And he was right in seeing something of our relationship in the tension and the connection between the old teacher and his son.

During my father’s period of great productivity in the ’70s, he would bombard me with his manuscripts. Every few weeks we would go to Jerusalem to spend the Sabbath with him. He would be waiting impatiently with a pile of manuscripts for me to read and respond to. I confess that at that time I had little patience for his writings. I was so troubled by the immediate political situation that I could not find the necessary peace of mind for this sweet nostalgia. It actually bothered me sometimes. At night I would ask Ika to read some pieces and say a few good words in order to soothe him. He sensed my impatience and was probably hurt by it. But since his love for me always overcame his disappointment in me, he would say: “You will come back to this material, Abraham, and it will be here for you. You will write your truly important works only after I die. ” For some reason I accepted this view, and I think that I even repeated it in some interviews. This material is there for me. One day I will use it in my writing. The main thing is that I still have the time to do this.

And, indeed, the first sparks from this storehouse of Sephardic characters began to fly in 1976. The first chapter of A Late Divorce drawn from the material with which my father had dealt—the period prior to the First World War and the conquest of Jerusalem by the British. This chapter, which was first published separately, stemmed directly from my father’s experiences. When friends would ask whether I had to do a lot of historical research for this conversation between the British colonel and his Jewish lieutenant in the newly conquered Jerusalem of 1918, I would answer at once: “I didn’t have to do anything. My father did the work for me.” As to what the future will bring, we shall have to wait and see.

The course of his illness was swift. I spent the summer of 1982 with my family at Oxford, and I remember the letters that he wrote. His handwriting had changed, becoming cramped and spidery, as if the disease had also eaten away at his pen. His writing, which was always so graceful and lively, was now plodding and weary, tinged with desperate complaint. (At that time he kept a journal in which he recorded the decline of his health. I found the journal among his papers after he died, and I wept as I read it.) When we returned to Israel, I saw the terrible change in his face. The cancer was already hard at work. He went in for tests, and we were given the bitter news that a malignant tumor had developed in his liver.

He was hospitalized shortly after the New Year and spent almost all his time in the hospital until he died, a little after Hanukah. His mood was very low. He, who was never particularly optimistic, felt totally defeated. He also lost his humor. This was particularly hard for me because even in the most difficult times I could always connect with him through humor.

I remember that during his last days I would wheel him up to the big window of the Sha’arai Tsedek Hospital, point to the Jerusalem view, and say: “Here is Jerusalem that you love so much and about which you have written so much. How many Jews at your age have spent their entire life in one city, and in the city that is the heart of the Jewish people? ” But I saw the words did not comfort him. He dismissed them with an angry gesture. He was angry at his approaching death. His parents were older than he was when they died, and he always believed that he would live longer. His death, as it always is in such cases, was a relief. On the day of his funeral I was calm and without tears. When we arrived at the cemetery I almost smiled to myself when I realized that my father had prepared one last surprise for us.

Father had secretly prepared a grave site for himself in the old Sephardic cemetery on the lower slope of the Mt. of Olives, with the most spectacular view of Jerusalem.It was directly opposite the Old City and very close to two marvelous churches, Gethsemane and the Russian Mary Magdalene. His parents’ grave sites were in this ancient cemetery, but they were not buried there. They died during the ’50s, when east Jerusalem was closed for Israelis. He had found the deeds to his parents’ plots and repurchased them from the Sephardic Community Council. And now the funeral procession was making its way through the steep and very narrow alley alongside the churches, and we all arrived at a place that we had never seen before. Even my mother, who knew something about the purchase, was surprised and confused as we followed the swaying stretcher among the old and broken gravestones. “What is this place?” she kept asking anxiously. But I was moved and full of wonder. I felt as if I was beginning a new dialogue with the man who wished to lie with his forefathers in the simplest and fullest sense of the term. My cousin Ezra Hadaya, who was standing next to me as they lowered my father to his last resting place, was also very moved. He turned to me and said: ‘Your father truly wrapped himself in the pages of his books and was buried inside them. “And, indeed, this was the most wonderful meeting of matter and spirit, which for me, is essential in life.

As was to be expected, the real mourning began later. I was preparing for my seminar at the university that year, and I remember reading the last part of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse over and over again, sobbing over the description of Lily Briscoe’s grief for Mrs. Ramsay, and thinking all the time about Father. On Shloshim we had a nice memorial service for him at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem. Friends from all his spheres of activities—Arabists, students from Sephardic communities, public officials from the Ministry of Religion—spoke warmly and in interesting detail about his accomplishments. To conclude the service, I asked the youngest three of his six grandchildren to read the final chapter of his last book. This chapter is called “I Am Seeking My Brothers.” My son, Gideon, read the first part. My sister’s youngest son, Ro’ee, followed him. The last part was read by the youngest of all, my son Nahum, who was eight years old at the time. Nahum surprised us all. He had learned his part by heart, and as he recited it his big eyes watched the audience and kept coming back to me. I stood there, very moved, following the movements of his lips with the silent movement of my own. He pronounced the names and terms that were written in Ladino with such sweetness that I found myself thinking that what I had not always been known to give to my father is now being given to him by my young son. For a moment I had the feeling that my father could hear him. This was a very sweet and loving way to end.

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One thought on “From 1997 | Finding My Father in Sephardic Time

  1. Rachel Kapen says:

    As long as it is, I read each and every word of this most interesting and enlightening article. Alef Beit Yehoshua was a big favorite of mine and I read most of his books.

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