Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another

A.B. Yehoshua’s Many Ghosts

The writer’s new novel, The Retrospective, is a surreal study of the contested sources of Israeli identity

Print Email
Santiago de Compostela, 2005. (Miguel Riopa/AFP/Getty Images)
Related Content

A.B. Yehoshua Should Pipe Down

The Israeli novelist and liberal icon regularly disparages Diaspora Jews. So, why do Americans still give him an ear, and a platform?


Raja Shehadeh’s new memoir joins a growing list of literary works on Palestinian life before Israel. But do they tell the whole story?

Pen Pals

David Grossman, Amos Oz, and A.B. Yehoshua have won international acclaim for being the intellectual leaders of Israel’s peace camp. It’s undeserved.

Last month, the Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua returned to one of his favorite themes, and reignited a familiar controversy, by telling an audience of American Jews that they were only “partial Jews.” Total Jewishness, Yehoshua proclaimed, can only be achieved in Israel, where every aspect of life is informed by it—from “the angle at which soldiers hold their weapons” to political decisions about territory and security. Unlike the “nice warm Judaism of the weekend” practiced in America, Judaism in Israel is “real and not imaginary.” Naturally, this usurpation of Jewishness by Israeliness raised the hackles of American Jews, as it has done ever since Yehoshua began voicing it in 2006. More interesting than whether Yehoshua is right, however, is the question of how the kind of ideological certainty he displays in his speeches can co-exist with a novelist’s questioning and intellectual playfulness. How, after all, can a professional imaginer denigrate the imaginary? What does an inventor of fictional characters have to do with total identities?

Yehoshua’s new novel The Retrospective, which appeared in Israel in 2011 and has just been published in an English translation by Stuart Schoffman, is in no obvious sense a political book, yet it turns out to have these very questions at its heart. His previous book, Friendly Fire, plunged right into the center of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, dealing with an Israeli father who grows alienated from his country after his son is accidentally killed by his fellow IDF soldiers. The Retrospective, by contrast, starts out at a great distance from questions of Jewishness and Israeliness, both thematically and physically. It opens in the city of Santiago de Compostela, in Spain, where a small film festival—the retrospective of the title—is being held to honor the work of Yair Moses, a 70-year-old Israeli film director.

It is not hard to draw the connection between Moses and his now 76-year-old creator. Yehoshua’s own experience as an aging but still vigorous man informs Moses’ struggles with the indignities of physical decline and the persistence of desire. In Moses’ case, that desire is focused on Ruth, the now middle-aged actress who has been the star of most of his films and who accompanies him to Spain for the retrospective. Moses, we learn, years before destroyed his happy marriage over an affair with Ruth, yet now the two share a bed without passion. It is as if a ghost hovers over them, keeping them apart.

In fact, there are two ghosts. The first is the shared past embodied in their films, which they go every day to watch at the festival. The whole first half of the novel takes place largely in the dark of the theater, as Moses watches movies that he made some 40 years earlier. To his surprise, the organizer of the retrospective—a film expert who is also a Catholic priest—has chosen only his earliest films to show. Moses bristles at what seems like an insult to his more recent work, yet he also finds himself fascinated to revisit these old films, whose details he barely remembers. The strangeness is increased by the fact that the films are dubbed into Spanish, so that Moses can’t follow the dialogue, relying instead on his uncertain memories to interpret what is happening on screen.

The premise sounds like a dream, or a fable—a man forced to watch his own past in a foreign language. The fact that this is taking place in Santiago de Compostela, the city that was the favorite destination for medieval Christian pilgrims, only increases the mythic burden. And the first half of The Retrospective unfolds at a slow, even static pace, as Yehoshua narrates for us the films he has invented for Yair Moses. (The stilted tone is owed in part to the translation, which is awkward at times, perhaps deliberately. When Moses goes to his ex-wife’s house and drinks a cup of coffee with milk, for instance, we see him “whiten his cup with the milk of his former wife.”)

Each one of these movies, we soon realize, is itself a parable, making use of surreal symbolism. In one film, the residents of a poor Israeli village conspire to derail the express train that speeds past them every day, a symbol of distant wealth and privilege. In another, soldiers ordered to guard a top-secret military installation end up falling into a deep sleep; much of the movie is taken up with shots of their sleeping bodies. These early films are, we learn, very different from Moses’ later work, as the priest points out when he questions him: “In the past two decades, you have turned your back on the surrealistic and symbolic style of your early films and have become addicted to extreme realism that is almost naturalistic. Why? Do you no longer believe in a world of transcendence, in what is hidden, invisible, and fantastical, so much so that you are mired in the mundane and the obvious?” Stated this way, it becomes clear that the dialogue between the young Moses and the old Moses is really a debate between two styles of art, two ways of being—reason and myth, the contemporary and the primal.

Here the second ghost enters the story. The reason Moses’ early films are so different from his later ones, it turns out, is that they were all written by a brilliant, unstable young screenwriter, Shaul Trigano. Trigano and Moses are so complementary that they seem less like separate people than like two faces of the artist’s spirit: the daring, uncompromising, experimental youth and the successful, accommodating adult. Moses has turned his back on his youth, and on Trigano; now they are returning to take their revenge.

The split between director and screenwriter, we learn, happened during the filming of their last movie together. Trigano, who was deeply in love with the actress Ruth, wrote a script in which she played a new mother who has put her baby up for adoption. In the last scene, she comes across a hungry old beggar and breastfeeds him—or she was supposed to, until Ruth objected to what seemed like an ugly and perverse scenario and refused to play along. Fatefully, Moses sided with his star, precipitating a break with his screenwriter that never healed. This, Yehoshua gives us to understand, is the moment when Moses took the side of convention against artistic daring, and in doing so condemned himself as a director and a man.

It comes as a shock to Moses, then, when he discovers in his Spanish hotel room a reproduction of a Renaissance picture that features a young woman breastfeeding a starving old man. This is actually, he learns from a local art historian, a traditional subject in European painting. It is known as “Roman Charity” and comes from an ancient Roman story about a woman who nursed her own father when he was condemned to die by starvation. Its power lies in its combination of maternal purity and the suggestion of incest: “People stop and stare in amazement at this picture,” the art historian tells Moses. “They cannot take their eyes off it, they see it come alive. Even you, sir, a citizen of the twenty-first century, were so agitated by the painting that you sent for me.”

Israeliness, no less than Americanness, turns out to be a product of the imagination

One of the things that alienates Moses from his own movies, at the retrospective, is the way the titles have been changed to suit the Spanish audience: “Slumbering Soldiers,” for instance, has become “The Installation.” So, it is an appropriate irony that the title The Retrospective, too, is an artifact of translation. In Hebrew, the translator’s note points out, the name of Yehoshua’s book is Hesed Sefaradi—that is, more or less, “Spanish” or “Sephardic Charity.” And it is only with that ghost-title in mind that the novel’s thematic structure starts to cohere. The retrospective, of course, is taking place in Spain, the homeland that the Sephardic Jews had to leave in 1492. Shaul Trigano is a Sephardic Jew from North Africa, as is Ruth; Ruth, in fact, is a stage name, which she adopted to sound more like a “normal,” that is, Ashkenazic, Israeli.

In cutting himself off from Trigano, then, Moses was not just betraying youth and creativity. He was turning his back on the Sephardic imagination, which, as embodied in Trigano, is more organic and daring than his own Ashkenazic imagination. North African immigrants, who arrived in Israel after the founding of the state, were usually shunted into poorer border regions and often discriminated against—so there is also a class element to the antagonism of the two artists.

When the inevitable reunion and confrontation with Trigano comes, late in the book, he makes this explicit: “You were incapable of deviating from your social background, transcending your safe and steady environment to connect with the outlook of someone like me, who came from the margins of society,” Trigano lectures Moses. Not coincidentally, this confrontation takes place in a border village near Sderot, at a time when the area was continually under rocket fire from Gaza. Even now, Yehoshua suggests, the burdens of Israeli society are unequally distributed between Tel Aviv and the “margins,” Ashkenazim and Sephardim.

In this way, The Retrospective, which started out seeming like a personal and even indulgent look at the psyche of an aging artist, turns out to be a study of the contested sources of Israeli identity. The novel’s system of symbols does not quite unfold organically. Like Moses’ early films, there is something deliberately over-explicit about the way certain images return to drive home a point, and this sits uneasily with the elevated realism of Yehoshua’s prose. In its last pages, in fact, The Retrospective tips over completely into surrealism, as it finds its consummation in a literary dream of Spain that is also a healing of the breach between the country and its banished Jews. In the process, Yehoshua drives home a message that is the opposite of the one in his speeches: Israeliness, no less than Americanness, turns out to be a product of the imagination.


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

Print Email

Daily rate: $2
Monthly rate: $18
Yearly rate: $180

Tablet is committed to bringing you the best, smartest, most enlightening and entertaining reporting and writing on Jewish life, all free of charge. We take pride in our community of readers, and are thrilled that you choose to engage with us in a way that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. But the Internet, for all of its wonders, poses challenges to civilized and constructive discussion, allowing vocal—and, often, anonymous—minorities to drag it down with invective (and worse). Starting today, then, we are asking people who'd like to post comments on the site to pay a nominal fee—less a paywall than a gesture of your own commitment to the cause of great conversation. All proceeds go to helping us bring you the ambitious journalism that brought you here in the first place.

Readers can still interact with us free of charge via Facebook, Twitter, and our other social media channels, or write to us at Each week, we’ll select the best letters and publish them in a new letters to the editor feature on the Scroll.

We hope this new largely symbolic measure will help us create a more pleasant and cultivated environment for all of our readers, and, as always, we thank you deeply for your support.

Myron Bassman says:

This is one of those times I feel that Kirsch has missed the obvious or maybe he finds it mundane. In any event Moses is looking back at his work of 40 years ago. He is dying. We discover that his early work’s power derived from the writer Trigano (God). Moses is the Director. And you couldn’t tell them apart. In middle age Moses falls for Ruth (compassion). On Shavuoth we celebrate the receiving of the Torah. The Megillah reading is the book of Ruth. Ruth is read as a counter to the letter of the Law. Everyone behaves properly in the book of Ruth. However, there are those who only follow the letter of the Law and lack compassion. The heroes of Ruth are thos with compassion and infuse the Law with a kind spirit. In Yehshua’s book, Ruth and Moses still share a bed, but something separates them. They are no longer fused. Law and kindness are no longer one. Obviously I haven’t read the book, but from Kirsch’s outline there are a number of other interesting supports for my uninformed tertiary reading.

I quote: Judaism in Israel is “real and not imaginary.”

Let this American Jew raise a hackle or two.

First, ‘real’ is poorly defined (in general). But even given a poorly defined definition of ‘real’, ‘imaginary’ is most definitely real. Simply put, real and imaginary are not mutually exclusive.

A better definition of real/not real, is found via the terms: Useful/not useful, meaningful/not meaningful. A full exploration of these terms is well beyond the scope of this reply.

However, given the obvious limitations of real time/virtual space:

God chose the Jews: You don’t have to ‘practice’ to be Chosen. Not now, not ever. You don’t have to be anywhere or do anything: If you’re Jewish, you’re Chosen.

Of course, what you decide to do with your Chosen nature IS your responsibility. And this decision is meaningful/useful in the extreme. Therefore, the question is not WHERE you decide to take responsibility for your Chosen nature, but WHAT you choose to do with it.

Any questions?

Jacob Arnon says:

“ow, after all, can a professional imaginer
denigrate the imaginary? What does an inventor of fictional characters
have to do with total identities?”

I have a problem with the notion of a “universal imeaginer.”

It’s like saying that because we all dream hence we are all the same. Problem is that dreams happen in images and in language and anyone who has ever learned a foreign tongue in its natural setting say Hebrew in Israel or French in France knows that at some point in the language learning process you begin to dream in the language you are learning or have just learned.

Imagination for a writer just doesn’t occur in some pure realm of images it occurs in the language you use to write your novel or poem. Yehoshua
is never more Jewish than when he is imagining his fiction in Hebrew and you are never more Anglo Jewish than when reading his novel in translation.

Yehoshua’s premise of purer Jew in Israel than in the Galut may be questionable but not when the Hebrew writer is using his imagination. Now whenever a writer is using Hebrew to give his images a habitation and a name than be he in Jerusalem or in Boston he is a 100 percent Jew. I am being a more definite than I would otherwise be because I want to drive the point home.

linda colman says:

I was quite intrigued, and am still puzzling over the fact, that so much of Moses’s spiritual transformation takes place in the context of, and by analogy to, Catholicism. Sure, Caritas Romana is a secular motif, but the Retrospective is in effect underwritten by the Catholic church, Moses makes a confession – and then there’s the De Viola family – priest, monk, and 94 year-old former silent film actress with, shall we say, interesting connections in the literary world. All quite wonderful and baffling. This appears to be another layer of a novel that will be read and talked about for a long time. Gratitude is due to Adam Kirsch for an enlightening analysis of the author’s literary (as opposed to political) treatment of Israeli identity.


Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

A.B. Yehoshua’s Many Ghosts

The writer’s new novel, The Retrospective, is a surreal study of the contested sources of Israeli identity