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Novel explores universal themes against haredi backdrop

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The Extra (A Novel) by A. B. Yehoshua, translated from the Hebrew by Stuart Schoffmann (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

A.B. Yehoshua is one of Israel’s most respected and prolific authors. He is primarily a novelist, but he has also written plays and short stories, and has taught at Israeli universities. Like many Israeli authors, he is a public intellectual who sometimes takes stands on politics, religion and other controversial questions. A few years ago, he made headlines when he claimed that only Israeli Jews like him are complete Jews; the Jews of America, he claimed, are only partial Jews. Living outside Israel is, he said, “a deep failure of the Jewish People.”

The burning issues of Israeli society often provide the framework for his stories. In 1999, just before the turn of the current millennium, Yehoshua published a historical novel, Journey to the End of the Millennium, set in Jewish communities in the Mediterranean world around the year 1000 CE. Running through that novel is the tension between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews, a tension that sadly still exists today. In his book, the medieval Sephardim are cultured and educated, while the Ashkenazim are backward and superstitious, ironically reversing the standard, damaging stereotypes of our times. (Yehoshua himself is of Sephardi descent.)

Underlying Yehoshua’s newest novel, The Extra, is the tension between secular and haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews in Jerusalem. In real life, this tension is so pronounced that some secular Israelis have given up on Jerusalem, saying they have no desire to live in or even visit the city, primarily because of its high percentage of haredi Jews. Years ago, haredim were found in only a few Jerusalem neighbourhoods, but that is no longer the case.

In The Extra, the main character, Noga, is a 41-year-old divorced Israeli woman, a professional harpist, who has moved to Holland to secure a position with an orchestra. Noga’s father has just died. Her mother lives in a neighbourhood that has become almost exclusively haredi. Noga considers her mother’s apartment “the sole remaining bastion of secularism” on Rashi Street in Jerusalem. Throughout the novel the constant question is whether Noga’s mother will move to assisted living in Tel Aviv or stay in the apartment in Jerusalem where she raised her children. As the novel unfolds, we see some tensions between haredim and secular Jews, but we also see some positive interactions.

Yehoshua also touches on differences between life in Israel and in the rest of the western world. Noga is a proud Israeli who hopes to return as soon as she can secure a position in her profession there. Yet she thinks of Israel as “a country that never ceases to be a threat to itself.” She is surprised and amused that so many of her Dutch co-workers seem sincerely interested in whether Noga’s mother stays in Jerusalem or moves to Tel Aviv. As she puts it: “These Dutch people have no other worries… Their wars ended 70 years ago and they glow with self-satisfaction. They knew when to give up their colonies in Southeast Asia and they have been spared the new wave of terrorism. Their euro is stable, their economy is strong, and unemployment is low – so all they have left to worry about is my mother.”

Both in The Extra and in Journey to the End of the Millenium, the social issues (Ashkenazim vs. Sephardim/ secular vs. haredi/ Israel vs. Diaspora) form the backdrop, but the books are not works of social or political advocacy or polemics. Yehoshua is a great novelist, once described as the “Israeli Faulkner.” His characters are complex, neither fully good nor fully bad. There is no reason to assume that Yehoshua agrees or disagrees with the positions espoused by any individual character in his novels.

The crucial themes in The Extra are universal, not particularly Jewish or Israeli: what is the importance of parenthood and how do we retain independence while aging? (Yehoshua himself will turn 80 very soon.)

In The Extra, Noga, to the consternation of many people in her life, has decided not to have children, a decision that has serious repercussions and is revisited frequently in the novel. Noga is upset that people close to her do not respect or understand the reasons for her decision; yet readers may wonder if she herself is ambivalent, since she does such a poor job of explaining her rationale.

At the opposite end of the parent-child relationship, Yehoshua explores how children – in this case, Noga and her brother – try to manipulate or at least influence decisions made by an aging parent.

Yehoshua’s works have been translated and published in 28 countries. This latest novel was translated into English by Stuart Schoffman, one of the best of the many Hebrew-to-English translators in Israel today. His translation is accurate, elegant, and even has the occasional spark of creativity. When Yehoshua describes a scene in a Jerusalem bar where the waiter comes to the table with a dish and places into it a lit “ner neshamah,” Schoffman refers to it as a “faux-yahrzeit candle.”

Read Yehoshua because he is a gifted writer who understands our foibles and raises important humanistic questions. As a bonus, you gain an intelligent, loving and critical peek into Israeli society and its problems from the perspective of a loyal, Zionist Israeli.