Where is the Sephardism in
A. B. Yehoshua's Hesed Sefaradi/ Retrospective?
By Yael Halevi-Wise1

"After all, [Moses] is not here to represent only his work,
but also the spirit of his nation's rebirth" (The Retrospective 45).

Unlike his historical novels Mr. Mani and Journey to the End of the Millennium—where an obvious use of historical materials reveals that decisions made in the remote past still affect the present—A. B. Yehoshua's tenth novel seems, at first glance, to be concerned only with the last forty years of its protagonist's life. Hesed Sefaradi (2011) tells the story of an aging Israeli film director, Yair Moses, invited to Spain to participate in a retrospective of his earliest films. This retrospective awakens a process of introspection which leads Moses to reconsider and revive his relationship with a group of entrepreneurial Israelis from Morocco, who enabled the Ashkenazi Moses to initially become a film director. Forty years earlier, Moses' cinematic career had been launched thanks to a collaboration with Toledano, a talented cinematographer; Ruth, an appealing actress; and especially, Trigano, a fiery scriptwriter with whom Moses had subsequently quarreled.2 The title chosen by the novel's foreign publishers—Rétrospective in French, The Retrospective in English—emphasizes this process of surveying an entire epoch in the lives and artistic output of its characters in relation to Israel's recent history.3

By contrast, Hesed Sefaradi's original title draws attention to questions of Sephardic identity and history in ways that make us immediately wonder how the concept of hesed (charity) can possibly be relevant to any discussion of the relationship between Sephardim and Ashkenazim in an Israeli context or, for that matter, between Christians, Jews and Muslims in a Spanish context.4 In a prefatory note to his English translation of the novel, Stuart Schoffman tried to convey the ambiguous connotations of its original title,

In Hebrew, the title of this book is Hesed Sefaradi. Hesed (with a guttural h) eludes precise translation and connotes compassion, kindness, love, and charity; a fair equivalent is the Latin caritas. Sefaradi means "Spanish" but also "Sephardic," referring specifically to Jews whose ancestors were expelled from Spain in 1492 and more broadly to "Oriental" Jews from Arabic-speaking countries in North Africa and the Middle East. The double meaning helps the reader get the picture.5

Getting the "picture," however, is not just a matter of bringing into focus the double meaning of the Hebrew title, where Sefaradi means both Sephardic and Spanish. Schoffman alludes here to an actual painting discussed at length by the characters in the novel and reproduced on the front cover of its French and Hebrew editions. This is a Renaissance painting by Dutch artist Matthias Meyvogel—one of many renditions of the Caritas Romana myth about a daughter's charity toward her old father, whom she breastfeeds in prison to save him from starvation.  The Caritas Romana theme, as we shall see, plays a central role in the quarrel and reconciliation between Moses and Trigano in ways that draw out political and historical references to Sephardic history.

Beyond the private plot of Moses' relationship with Trigano, the Caritas Romana theme generates a broader meditation on cultural identities and the (often ironic) concept of compassion—be it Roman, Spanish, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Ashkenazi, Sephardi. On this contextual level, Yehoshua creates an encrypted historical retrospective that runs behind the movie-making plot to engage with the Christian identity of Spain from its mythical roots in Judaism to the cataclysmic experiences of Jews, Muslims and conversos in the Iberian Peninsula before and after 1492. As he does through the Moses/Trigano reconciliation plot, Yehoshua's engagement with history likewise suggests that it matters less who nourished whom or who did what to whom; what matters more is the ability to avoid repeating mistakes from the past by examining the cultural assumptions that enabled them to occur.

Santiago de Compostela

The novel opens as Moses and the actress Ruth arrive at a hotel across the square from Santiago de Compostela's famous cathedral. What is buried in this cathedral, and makes it the third most visited Christian pilgrimage site after Jerusalem and Rome, are the alleged remains of an ancient Jew who became one of Jesus' twelve apostles: Saint Iago (Ya'akov son of Zebdee, known in English as St. James), whose bones travelled miraculously in a boat from Ginosar in the Galilee to the northwestern tip of the Iberian Peninsula. Santiago's cathedral thus marks the roots of an early mythical connection between Israel and the Christian identity of Spain.

The hotel across from this cathedral, where the Israelis Moses and Ruth are lodged, is a refurbished hospice for pilgrims founded by Ferdinand and Isabella right after they signed the edict of expulsion. Today a gorgeous hotel, this parador functioned historically as both hospital and inn, but is portrayed in the novel only as a hospital.

Moses buys for himself and Ruth a touristy pilgrim staff with a shell on top that symbolizes the maritime journey of the remains of Saint Iago (St.Ya'akov/James) from Israel to Spain, but neither he nor Ruth pay much attention to the historical resonances behind these symbols.6 Instead, Moses embraces the living reality of Santiago, carrying his new staff like any wandering tourist in a strange city, but at the same time he is also a tired old man who needs support in the long journey of life—a  comic version of the prophet Moses with his miraculous staff. During his last visit to the cathedral, the atheist Moses enters a Catholic confession booth to disclose his ‘sin' against Trigano, the man who had launched Moses into the cinematic career that had made him famous; yet while Moses' continued to flourish in that medium, Trigano's career stalled after the quarrel that violently broke up their partnership.

Yehoshua constructs an analysis of Moses and Trigano's quarrel as a psychoanalyst would approach the trauma of a patient: he gradually and circumspectly lets the ‘patient'—in this case, Moses, and of course also the reader—draw necessary conclusions about the background of the relationship and its potential normalization. In a similar manner, Yehoshua approaches the remote history of Spanish-Jewish relations: he gradually and circumspectly introduces subtle references to Spanish-Jewish history into the novel—almost behind the back of the main character, who is focused on his present and immediate future—until the Spanish-Jewish background takes center stage in the novel's final pages. This strident acknowledgement of Spanish-Jewish history at the end of the novel parallels Moses' realization that only by acknowledging past connections can he draw strength for a meaningful and sustained creativity in the future. However, even this powerful acknowledgment of Spanish-Jewish history in the novel's closing gambit is not geared toward an antiquarian's interest in the importance of history for its own sake. For Yehoshua, acknowledging the past is just a means to move beyond its impasses with increased empathy and self-awareness in order to strengthen and normalize Israel in the present. Hesed Sefaradi's relationship to history is hence paradoxical: traumas from the past cannot be brushed aside—cannot be permanently circumvented—but validating them is merely a way to move beyond them.

Hesed for History

Moses initially tries to avoid paying attention to the long, rich, and traumatic history of minorities in Iberia, except when it advances his immediate desires. For instance, when he wants to convince the Hebrew-speaking monk Manuel de Viola to confess him in Santiago's cathedral, Moses expediently recalls its Jewish background, "Why not you, Manuel…let's do a confession in Hebrew, as in the early days of Christianity" (158).

When we interpret such references to Spanish-Jewish history in this novel, however, we must be careful to distinguish between the agendas of the author and his character: despite obvious autobiographical similarities in age and occupation, there is a wide cognitive distance— including crucial differences in values and lifestyles—separating Yehoshua from Moses.7 Yehoshua makes extensive use of dramatic irony here to manipulate his protagonist into a gradual acknowledgment of the creative power of a self-awareness capable of taking history into account.

This cognitive distance between author and character is evident in their different attitudes toward history. Moses had actually been a history teacher before Trigano invited him to become a movie director; in fact, he was Trigano's history teacher in high school. However, history had gradually become a mere footnote or afterthought in Moses' mind—until the Spanish experience plunges him into a deep national and personal retrospective that circularly leads him back to seek renewed partnership with Trigano. For Yehoshua, on the other hand, history (remote and recent) is always an essential guide for making decisions in the present with an eye to the future. Any suspicion that A. B. Yehoshua disregards Spanish-Jewish history in this novel, as his protagonist tends to do, is dispelled in the novel's final chapters where Moses, along with the reader, is reawakened to the full spectrum of historical references ranging from convivencia and conversion to expulsion, Inquisition and Cervantean inventiveness. Up until the end of the novel, these elements operate under the surface like crypto-Judaism under the surface of an allegedly homogeneous Catholic society, yet anyone with a basic knowledge of Spanish history can spot Yehoshua's play with some of its salient aspects. But why does Yehoshua relegate this history to the background of the plot only to draw it out so prominently to the foreground at the end of the novel?

Yehoshua deliberately creates a gap between Moses' obliviousness to the Spanish-Jewish experience and his own personal insistence on the importance of keeping history in mind. For example, in his "Five Recommendations to Historians from a History Lover," Yehoshua declares,

I am among those who believe it is possible to learn from history about decisions that must be taken in the present as well as about options that will open up to us in future crossroads. I am aware that historians are divided on this issue; based on a detailed knowledge of their research materials, important historians have warned us against drawing automatic comparisons between past and present. Yet nevertheless I hold true to my opinion that certain types of national, cultural and geographical interactions recur over time, and that a consciousness of history, along with a desire for change, are necessary if we wish to avoid repeating the tragic mistakes of the past… Therefore the main task confronting scholars of Jewish history from the beginning of the nineteenth century to this day is to wrestle with myths that have controlled our consciousness. We must try to act them out in a detailed and systematic manner by providing a slow and meticulous analysis of cumulative events, layer upon layer, in order to identify that which is truly special and extraordinary—to research causes and contexts… in an accurate and critical manner. 8

Attuned to the reader's expectations about a novel that opens in Santiago de Compostela, continues in Israel, and ends in Madrid, Yehoshua plays with these expectations. Notably he withholds any direct confrontation with the expulsion and Inquisition until this darker side of the Sephardic experience is recalled among a broader spectrum of references to Spanish history at the end of the novel, but only in a manner that ultimately makes a stronger case for privileging the needs and possibilities of the characters in the present. This acknowledgement of the darker side of Spanish-Jewish history at the end of the novel parallels the final scene of Yehoshua's Five Seasons, where only at the end of the novel, Molkho confronts the impact of the Holocaust on his wife's life and death, and by extension on his own life and happiness, by visiting what he imagines to be his father-in-law's former apartment in Berlin.

There are at least three reasons for Yehoshua's withholding an open engagement with Spanish-Jewish history until the end of this novel. First, as Dan Miron and Nissim Calderon have shown, Yehoshua deals here with an unusually broad spectrum of issues.9 He compares Israel in recent years with Israel in its first decades, bravely reexamining myths about the earlier period.10 In addition, as Nitza Ben-Dov emphasizes, he conducts a self-reflexive portrait of his own artistic development. An early and open engagement with Spanish-Jewish history would have generated a structural conflict between the requirements of an historical novel and those of a sociopolitical reevaluation of Israel's history. Such an interplay is compounded here by a metafictional/autobiographical evaluation of Yehoshua's own artistic enterprise.11 

Secondly, Yehoshua likes to subvert the reader's expectations in order to demonstrate the need for a more stable and responsible idea of ‘normalcy'. In Open Heart, for example, the protagonist falls in love with the pampered middle-aged mother of the young-lady-in-distress; in The Lover Adam searches for his wife's lover not to kill him, but rather to draw him back into the bosom of Adam's broken family. In other words, Yehoshua acclimates us to the abnormal in order to demonstrate just how abnormal it is. In Hesed Sefaradi, then, he gradually reverses the ostensible irrelevance of a long historical perspective just in order to bring it back with a vengeance: genealogical references to inquisitors and expelled Jews; continuing tensions among Christians, Jews, and Muslims in Iberia; questions of purity of blood; the not-so-dead law of Moses—in short, the entire gamut of Spanish-Jewish experience bursts out from beneath the surface of the novel where it had been simmering all along.

Thirdly, although Yehoshua believes that an awareness of history must guide decision-making processes in the present, he also believes that we must make an effort to get over historical traumas and grind down the myths generated by them in order to ensure a creative and responsible future. As far as Spanish-Jewish history is concerned, he links the reader's perspective to a protagonist who at first tends to disregard history, but is gradually pushed to confront his present circumstances in light of both a remote and recent past in Spain and Israel. At the same time, the new friendships that Moses forges with living Spaniards put the traumatic aspects of Spanish-Jewish history into a fresh perspective.

Beyond Narrow Identities

Hesed Sefaradi's politicized manipulation of Spanish-Jewish history aligns it with other strategic representations of Spanish-Jewish history and heritage by novelists, playwrights and poets from a variety of backgrounds. Indeed, since the beginning of the nineteenth century both Jewish and Gentile authors from Europe, the Americas, North Africa and even India, have used the history of Sefarad to portray problems of national identity and the role of minorities in their own modern nations. In the hands of these artists and intellectuals, the cataclysmic history of Spain operates as a metaphor through which to compare choices available to individuals and nations in modern times against the homogeneous model of identity chosen by Spain at the end of the fifteenth century.12 Like hispanism, orientalism, and medievalism—all of which sephardism incorporates—sephardism, too, is a politicized literary technique that makes use of Spanish-Jewish history to work out modern ideas about nationalism and progress.13

When we define sephardism in this manner, then, it becomes clear that Hesed Sefaradi's sephardism is not a simple expression of its author's Sephardic ancestry, although I do not deny that Yehoshua's Sephardic background plays an important role in his work and ethos. As Bernard Horn explains in "Sephardic Identity and Its Discontents," even when Yehoshua does not include Sephardic characters or themes, his extensive emphasis on crosscultural contacts reflects a deep-seated internalization of his ethnic background, but in ways that paradoxically lead away from privileging any narrow ethnic allegiances,

Yehoshua's sephardism—his supposed position from the sidelines of Israeli culture, his supposed Otherness—functions primarily as a vehicle for transcending and bypassing any narrow ethnic allegiances (including Sephardic identity itself) in favor of a universal notion of morality that offers—and at the same time demands—total empathy for and from the Other…Against static notions of identity, Yehoshua pits a heterogeneous and expansive conversation…that transcends conventional boundaries of ethnicity, religion, gender, and nationality.14

Perhaps this creative and permeable yet compartmentalized multiculturalism that sometimes existed in Iberia/Al Andalus reverberates in Yehoshua's personal background—on his father's side, he is a fifth-generation descendant of Sephardic Jerusalemites, while his mother's maiden name, Rosilio, indicates a Spanish background trailing behind her immigration to Jerusalem from Morocco in the early 1930s. Still, Yehoshua's systematic exploration of points of contact among members of overlapping cultural groups parallels his own personal tendency to "ashkenazify himself" –not, however, in order to assume an alternate identity but rather to generate a broader Israeli identity capable of including Sephardim and Ashkenazim, Jews and Arabs, locals and foreigners, and so on.15 According to Dan Miron, Hesed Sefaradi comes second only to Yehoshua's masterpiece Mr. Mani in its concentrated and sophisticated dose of interethnic and crosscultural probes.16 This heightened interethnic and crosscultural worldview—which permeates Yehoshua's fiction and essays with a greater intensity than typically found among the novel's characteristic heteroglossia and polyphony (according to Bakhtin's well-known formulation)—is precisely what Bernard Horn defines as Yehoshua's distinctive brand of sephardism.

Irrelevant Genealogies

Hints about the Spanish background of Moses' movie crew already appear in the novel's opening section, but they are not fully activated until the final chapter, where all the novel's themes are pulled together in a breakthrough gesture that acknowledges history in order to move beyond its impasses. When Moses asks one of his Spanish hosts, Rodrigo Bejarano, whether Trigano visited Santiago de Compostela (Trigano indeed had been there), Bejarano replies, "Trigano is a name clearly accessible to the Spanish ear, and yet, he doesn't remember any Trigano" (87). Although Trigano's family had immigrated to Israel from North Africa, his Spanish name—from wheat, trigo—reflects a semantic connection to Spain. Conversely, Bejarano's name is ‘accessible' to the Israeli ear, too, for it is not an uncommon surname among Jews of Sephardic descent.

Yet it is left to the priest and film archivist Juan de Viola, the man responsible for inviting Moses and the actress Ruth to Spain, to confirm that Moses' estranged partner Trigano had indeed brought their films to Santiago: "As a distant descendant of Jews exiled from Spain—that is how he put it... it was important to him to learn some Spanish and supervise his works in Spain" (115).  Still, De Viola does not seem overly impressed with Trigano's genealogical claims— "…that is how he put it…it was important to him…"—while Moses altogether deflects any discussion of the past (or future) by mocking Trigano's belief in the immortality of art (115).

When Moses returns to Spain a few months later in search of an anonymous place to enact a bizarre and semi-pornographic act of atonement—a Caritas Romana pose that Trigano demands as the price of reconciliation—Moses jokes with Doña Elvira, mother of the de Viola brothers, that he, Moses, hardly "deserve[s] such warm and devoted care from her and her two sons, for he is not even a descendant of the Spanish exiles and thus not properly entitled to compensation for injustices visited upon his ancestors" (306). As if Trigano were so entitled!

Yehoshua's point, again, is that what's done is done: Jews and Spaniards must move forward, but without merely brushing the past under a carpet—or hiding history under a forest, as occurs in Yehoshua's early story "Facing the Forest," where a Palestinian burns down a forest to reveal his old homestead beneath some of the trees.17 The full political significance of Hesed's genealogical hints are best understood in the context of a conversation that takes place in the middle of the novel between Moses and a Palestinian on the border between Israel and the West Bank, where Moses and Ruth visit the scene of one of their earliest movies. When the Palestinian hears that they had shot a movie near his village, he clamors for a share of the profits.

"Moses laughs. ‘Are you mad? You're talking about profits from a film made more than forty years ago.'"

"‘Why not?' says the young man. ‘What's forty years? Our account with you has been open for more than a hundred years, and will surely last a hundred more'" (246).

Moses assures him that the film did not fare well at the box office, and adds, "if we're opening accounts, we can also sue you for losses you dealt us a hundred years ago." Extrapolating from this, one might erroneously conclude that to recollect the past is meaningless, yet actually what matters to Yehoshua is the ability to face the past openly in order to clear new paths for future cooperation.

During Moses' second trip to Spain, accompanied this time by the son of his old cinematographer Toledano, the latter—literally behind Moses' back and despite his objections—runs off to photograph "the city that gave its name to [his] ancestors, then expelled them. I hope, he says to [Moses], that it was all right for me, without your express permission, to photograph streets and alleys and castles and rivers, and people, with a camera not associated with you, and to keep the pictures for myself" (322). Moses had absurdly stipulated that during their brief trip to Madrid, Toledano should refrain from photographing anything other than the breastfeeding act of atonement demanded by Trigano. However, once confronted with the fact of Toledano's independence, Moses is also inspired "to get out and breathe fresh air on his own" (322). This outing leads to Moses' encounter with the statues of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in Plaza de España. And, at the end, it is actually from Cervantes' characters that Moses imbibes the creative nourishment that not only reconciles him to Trigano's demands but also unfetters Moses' own imagination from the materialism that had engulfed his later films.

While both Toledano and Trigano's names point to a historical connection with Spain, the genealogy of the fourth film-making partner, the actress Ruth, points to Morocco. Trigano is himself from Morocco, but he used to enjoy taunting Ruth about her background. After he abandoned her, she changed her original Hebrew name, Nehama (consolation), to Ruth, a name that she associates with a "native" Israeli identity: "I intended just to add it, but… the new [name] swallowed up the old one" (138).  This act of choosing a name to assume new identities—and the choice of name itself—engages obliquely and perhaps inadvertently with the history of assimilation and conversion that has loomed so large in Jewish and Spanish history. 

Purity of Blood

Complaining about Trigano, Ruth recalls that "sometimes he would call me Debdou, the name of the Moroccan village I came from… He would also insist, in jest or seriously, that my family had traces of foreign blood" (100-101). Nehama from Debdou changes her name to Ruth in hopes of linking herself to a more modern Israeli genealogy free from accusations of inferiority—for Ruth is a name she associates with "a real Israeli. Salt of the earth. Well connected" (138). Moreover, the name's biblical referent enables Yehoshua to evoke and further endorse the idea of identities adopted by choice rather than inherited. This name choice recalls the story of King David's great grandmother— the quintessential convert, a Moabite whose decision to identify with the Jews is exalted in Jewish lore—in ways that demonstrate that even the lineage of the most beloved king of Israel was not ‘pure.' By choosing to identify with her mother-in-law's tribe, the foreigner Ruth set in motion a royal Jewish lineage. Thus Yehoshua ridicules all claims to genealogical purity, insisting instead on the merits of a freely chosen identity.

In Spain, an obsession with ‘pure' genealogies became the law of the land when the Statutes of Purity of Blood were decreed to limit the entrepreneurship of New Christians who had been largely coerced into conversion in the first place.18 However, Yehoshua is not interested in accusing the Spaniards of historical crimes. Instead, he turns the lessons of history round to his own home turf in Israel and toward self-examination.

For Moses, too, is obsessed in his own way with Ruth's blood. He keeps encouraging her to repeat a medical blood test that had produced ambiguous results and his first overture to Trigano is allegedly undertaken to convince him to influence Ruth to repeat the blood tests. Thus, when Ruth declares, "I have no intention of letting anybody take my blood ever again…I'm healthy" (83), she acts out a delayed reaction against the cumulative social taunts against her ‘blood'. The problem, though, is that by failing to distinguish between different epochs and spheres of action, she is irrationally delaying what in this case may be a potentially life-saving clinical examination. Her assertion of health and independence is in some sense admirable, but it is nevertheless deluded.

From Inquisition to Convivencia

At first Moses does not care to probe beneath the surface of his own life experience. In Santiago he is interested in the municipal garbage collectors on strike; in some postmodern statues made out of plastic; at one point he imagines sick pilgrims sharing his hotel bathtub, but does not care to realize that while they were bathing, the Inquisition's tribunal for the province of Galicia—based in Santiago de Compostela—would have been conducting its operations nearby. He even remains uninterested in the local history of Jews and conversos when Juan de Viola pointedly ventures that "there are crypto-Jews everywhere" (117).

These fleeting references to Jews in Spain in the first part of the novel reach a crescendo in the novel's final pages when Moses (along with the reader) learns that Juan's brother Manuel de Viola is obsessed with the Inquisition. "The obsession to atone for the deeds of the Inquisition is indeed noble," agrees his old mother Doña Elvira, "but is that a reason for me not to have grandchildren?" (320). Convinced that his blood is tainted by genealogical ties to Inquisitors, Manuel becomes a monk to atone for the cruelties of his supposed ancestors and dedicates himself to reaching out to foreigners in his country. In his own blundering way, Manuel does assist the foreigner Moses both in Santiago and Madrid; and even though his haphazard methods of helping foreigners are rather quixotic, at the end the quixotic proves to be therapeutic in this novel.

Manuel is always flipping through dusty old volumes of "priests and bishops and cardinals" (159). When Moses was searching for him in the library of Santiago's cathedral, Manuel had been leafing through such a book, but Moses asks no questions about it, and it is only during their second meeting in Madrid that we retrospectively understand that even in Santiago's ecclesiastical library, Manuel had been searching for his own family's features in the cathedral's records. During Moses' second trip to Spain, when he stays at the home of Manuel's mother, Doña Elvira,

Moses is puzzled as to how and why the conversation comes around to the Marranos and the Inquisition, with Manuel trying to convince them that he is related to one of its top officials. He brings from the hallway two large paintings of family members, portraits of middle-aged men, severe-looking priests in white collars, then opens a Spanish encyclopedia of the history of the Inquisition and compares their pictures to that of a churchman from the sixteenth century, a cruel Inquisitor…

‘Obsession…' scoffs his mother…' An obsession to convince yourself you are a cousin of such a man,' she says.

Manuel smiles sheepishly but carries on. If his ancestors persecuted New Christians and tortured those unable to prove the purity of their blood, then it is his responsibility to cleanse their sins by giving shelter to undocumented people of dubious origin—namely, illegal foreign workers.

‘Obsession…' his mother says a third time, but now her tone suggests she has not merely come to terms with her younger son's obsession but rather enjoys it. (308-09)

I quote this passage at length to show how in the final crucial pages of this novel—where Yehoshua tends to locate his novels' moral turning point—the protagonist is ‘suddenly' forced to confront Spanish-Jewish history.19 The presence of the past surprises Moses even though it had been there all along, symbolically and in the minds of his companions. But as soon as this historical subtext is aired out, it immediately recedes into the background again, for Moses has now established a new connection with his Spanish hosts, who help him repair his relationship with his own countryman Trigano. Not willing to dispense with allusions to history, Yehoshua puts them into perspective through the living needs of Moses and his Spanish hosts: "The dead are dead," comments Doña Elvira's other son, "And the living want to keep on living" (35).

The eruption of pent-up allusions to Spanish-Jewish history at the end of the novel acts as a liberating force. Moses now gives free reign to a fantasy that not only repairs his partnership with Trigano, but also reconnects him to a vital belief in the power of wish-fulfillment. For Yehoshua, this translates into a reexamination of the power of Zionism to normalize the condition of the people of Israel by harmonizing relationships among different types of Jews and between them and their neighbors.20 And thus, much more vigorously than his protagonist Moses, Yehoshua remains concerned with "the spirit of his nation's rebirth" (45).

By assessing the current state of his identity through a brave confrontation with elements from his past, the protagonist of Yehoshua's novel revives the creativity that had nourished the early stages of his career. For Yehoshua, however, the engagement with modern Spain, and obliquely with Spanish-Jewish history, is merely another means of revisiting his usual preoccupation with the character and content of a modern Jewish nation. Ultimately, as mentioned, sephardism in the modern literary imagination functions as a politicized literary metaphor; in this case, it reflects Yehoshua's ongoing preoccupation with the possibilities and responsibilities of modern Zionism.

The Law of Moses

But if "the dead are dead," as Juan de Viola declares in Santiago, "and the living want to keep on living," then why bother with history? Yehoshua believes that to make moral and practical decisions in the present, it is imperative to know the past,

As a member of a nation that was gravely struck throughout its history, especially in the last century, I cannot allow myself to dismiss Jewish history even if it were possible to ignore it. Such a complex and problematic history compels us to examine it especially if we wish to repair and change some of its broken codes.21 

The codes that Yehoshua seeks to repair in this novel, as he does through all his works of fiction and speeches, are attitudes that, according to him, prevent modern Israeli identity from developing a stabilizing and creative relationship with "historical experience and multiple heterodox identities coexisting side by side" in ways that are capable of "promoting and enlarging sensitivities —but within clearly defined sovereign borders."22 Yehoshua's main targets are his primary readers, secular middle class Israelis—not very different from Yair Moses, who learns, for example, that he had wounded Trigano deeply, whether or not he intended to do so; learns that although he fancied himself rescuing Ruth/Nehama, he used her as callously as Trigano had; learns that he lied to himself (and his wife) about the real nature of his attraction to this actress; and in later years, did not make an effort to raise himself above the pettiness of lazy materialism.

Moses is not a bad man—he is productive, gentle, and humane; but before the Spanish retrospective shakes him up, he had begun to run on auto-pilot, without fully examining his motives, or the full impact of his words and deeds, or the possibilities of reaching out beyond the comfort of his habits.

In other words, Moses' self-awareness is not optimal. But the process of introspection that is set in motion by the Spanish dubbing of his films—enlarged by a kaleidoscope of Spanish history which includes a Don Quixote as much as the torture chambers of the Inquisition—enables him to rise above his weaknesses. He now seeks reconciliation with his former partner even though Trigano's complaints and request for atonement are not fully justified. And as Trigano foresaw, by submitting to the ostensibly humiliating act of handcuffing himself and breastfeeding like a helpless baby, Moses indeed frees his imagination and begins to enjoy life again, as if he had been reborn.

On the other hand, when interpreted as an allegory of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity (particularly in Spain), the notion of Moses reconnecting to the sources of his own early creativity through the Caritas Romana myth acquires a perversely ironic dimension. The Caritas Romana motif depicts a devoted daughter who saves her father from starvation by secretly breastfeeding him in prison. Yet if we recall that Christianity is a daughter religion and Judaism its progenitor, then the Inquisition's mandate to persecute conversos for stubbornly clinging to the ‘old' Law of Moses (instead of embracing Christianity), exposes a more subtle historicized play behind the Church's admiration for the Caritas Romana myth. More specifically, New Christians suspected of backsliding into Judaism were persecuted for refusing to nourish themselves from the daughter religion and continuing to nurse instead from the so-called ‘old' or ‘dead' Law of Moses,23 which Christianity claimed to have superseded with a universal ideology of charity and love.

Considering the lengths to which New Christians had to resort in order to hide any genealogical connections to this old Law of Moses, it is amusing how quickly Doña Elvira forgets that her Israeli guest is a Jew. When he tells her that he is "not a Christian or even a believer, just a person," she is shocked! "Not a Christian? For a moment she seems confused, but her memory quickly recovers and locates the proper identity of the Israeli director" (169). Indeed, Yair Moses belongs to a sovereign nation with its own laws and responsibilities, its own troubles, and its own labor of rebirth and reconciliation, and this is the "proper identity of the Israeli director" that really concerns Yehoshua.

But while Moses and his country's laws are patently still alive, they are also in need of revitalization and consolidation, for according to Yehoshua the remarkable Jewish capacity for survival is also a liability: "I want to change the conception of… survival, and put it on another level, on the content of survival, on the totality of the elements [for which] you are responsible," Yehoshua told an audience of American Jews in what later became known as the "Yehoshua Controversy."24 According to Yehoshua, a responsible "return to history" entails strengthening

a consciousness  that is tied to the flow of true chronological time; a consciousness that is tied to a defined place and to a unique linguistic expression; a historical consciousness that also recognizes the histories of other peoples, compares itself to them, and examines itself practically and morally with this yardstick; a consciousness that subjects itself to criticism and examination in the interest of extrication from a sense of fatefulness, and of a return to real historical activity that leads to change and progress.25

The notion that the descendants of Inquisitors might facilitate such a consciousness and thus contribute to a conciliation between Jews (Moses and Trigano in the novel) or between Israelis and Palestinians (in the world outside the novel), may seem preposterous when we recall what the concept of reconciliation actually meant in Inquisitorial practice: a converso who relapsed into the dead Law of Moses could be ‘reconciled' to the Church when deemed truly repentant, but his punishment might entail wearing a sanbenito and pointy hat for life; and sometimes reconciliation was a last step during the kindling of the auto da fé's pyres, when a judaizer willing to kiss the cross would be charitably garroted to a quicker death. An optimistic endorsement of convivencia mediated by Spaniards therefore entails a selective consciousness, a willingness to bracket off history's bitter moments in order to pursue what Yehoshua regards as a moral and expedient means of survival in present times.

Sephardic History and National Rebirth

In what sense, then, can we discuss Spanish or even Sephardic compassion or charity and still remain attuned to the bitter lessons of history? First of all, as Alan Mintz summarizes in his review of Yehoshua's novel, "Spain is not only the land of the Inquisition… but also the land of the Judeo-Arabic Golden Age," and Santiago de Compostela is not only a modern Spanish town, but also a hallowed historical destination for believers whose mystique helps Moses reexamine his own beliefs and background in relation to it.26 Secondly, sephardism—defined as a politicized representation of Spanish-Jewish history—more often than not serves as a means of illustrating what not to do and how not to construct one's national identity and future. Thus, in opposition to a "national identity based on racial and religious homogeneity," and despite concerns about "assimilation, conversion, and fear of extermination that play themselves out in profound and textured ways in [his] novels…Yehoshua insists on a Jewish nation based on historical experience and multiple heterodox identities coexisting side by side."27 Hesed Sefaradi's invitation to consider the historical relevance (or absence) of charity, mercy and compassion in light of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Spanish, Israeli, Sephardic, and Ashkenazic history in their multifaceted intersections with each other therefore enables a perspectivized evaluation of the goals and possibilities of Zionism as an ongoing process of national rebirth and responsibility.

Yehoshua's commitment to the peace process with the Palestinians is well known. In the context of Hesed Sefaradi, it is worth remembering the mediating role played by the Madrid conference of 1991 which generated hopes that came to naught but established a historical precedent. Thus, the Spain of Hesed Sefaradi—whose darker past is first disregarded and then recalled—affords Yehoshua another angle from which to pursue his life-long agenda of national repair, modeling in this case a long-term vision of cultural change and exchange. Yehoshua's insistence on optimism regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict likewise mediates his novel's portrayal of Spaniards who turn from Inquisitors into mediators of conciliation.

In a speech about "History and Historians in A. B. Yehoshua," delivered in front of Yehoshua and included in a collection of essays about his work, the historian Fania Oz-Saltzberger entreated the novelist to continue creating characters who are professional historians (such as Kaminka in A Late Divorce and Rivlin in The Liberated Bride) and to continue consulting with actual historians as he did when designing Mr. Mani and A Journey to the End of the Millennium. She hinted that Yehoshua has been lately trying to "escape a bit from history" by exempting recent characters from the "grand historical tour" she associates with his earlier works. Concerned that Yehoshua's protagonists might completely "take off their cultural-political clothing to become just flesh and blood," she concludes by enjoining him to again portray history and historians in his novels.28

As if responding to this challenge—which was presented in front of him prior to the conception of Hesed Sefaradi—Yehoshua creates in this novel a history teacher, who becomes a blockbuster film director increasingly oblivious to history, until forced to reconsider his national and private past from the perspective of Spain's variegated history. Conversations with Spaniards, Palestinians and Israelis of various types reveal time and again that fantasy—constructive or destructive—can control history. In the novel's final pages, Doña Elvira leads Moses to an old Spanish farmhouse, where a troupe of actors resurrects Don Quixote, but unlike Cervantes' original, this one managed to wed and bed Dulcinea (at least in Moses' imagination). By participating in the fantasy of a seventeenth-century Spanish character who wished to resurrect a mythical age of chivalry in his own modern times, Moses equips himself to engage more responsibly with the dreams and disappointments that he has now rediscovered in his own home reality thanks to the Spanish retrospective.29

As soon as Moses encounters the mythical Don Quixote and Dulcinea, he "takes off his overcoat, his jacket, and then his shirt and undershirt"—in other words, he takes off what Oz-Saltzberger calls his cultural-political clothing—but he does so only to don a flamboyant red robe he had borrowed from Ruth's acting studio to perform the Caritas Romana scene for Trigano. Declaring "that only the Knight of the Sorrowful Face" may bind his hands, he plunges into a double and triple layered fantasy—from Trigano to Meyvogel through Cervantes—but he now adapts it to his own needs and personality (335-36).

In Hesed Sefaradi Yehoshua engages with Sephardic and Spanish history both directly and in the encrypted ways that I have sketched out. The sephardism of this novel is therefore located both in its obvious representation of Sephardic identities in Israel and Spain, but also in an ironic play with salient aspects of Spanish-Jewish history such as purity of blood and the law of Moses versus the law of Christ via the ambiguous caritas motif. In response to Oz-Saltzberger's impression that Yehoshua tries to escape from history in his later novels—to shrink away from grand meta-historical narratives—we can say that even when history is not obviously present, it informs the identities of Yehoshua's characters as representatives of ethnic, religious, and national groups constantly interacting with each other. While always focused on recent history, Yehoshua toggles in this novel between a remote history shrouded in myth and a fragile hope for a harmonious future. The complex and far from monolithic histories of Spain and Israel that operate in the background of Hesed Sefaradi in different degrees, mediate between these two vague reference points, challenging myths of the past as well as the means for future redemption.


1. Associate Professor of English and Jewish Studies at McGill University, Dr. Yael Halevi-Wise's comparative literature training manifests itself in the interrogation of history as a literary motif. A native Israeli herself, Dr. Halevi-Wise has contended with the intellectual output of one of the country's most renowned authors, A.B. Yehoshua, and is currently writing a comprehensive book on his oeuvre. Her scholarship has appeared in a number of books and journals including: Sephardism: Spanish Jewish History & the Modern Literary Imagination (Stanford University Press, 2012), Interactive Fictions: Scenes of Storytelling in the Novel (Praeger, 2003), the Jewish Quarterly Review and Prooftexts.   

2. A.B. Yehoshua has grappled with the interplay of Sephardic distinctiveness vis-à-vis Israeli society in many of his novels and interviews. But although his personal Sephardic background affords him a perspectivized position from which to examine the interplay of ethnic identities in Israel, the thrust of his representation of Sephardic history and identity is concerned not with ethnic identity itself, but rather with refracting Israeli society through this compounded cultural prism.

3. Many early reviews on this novel in Israel and abroad highlight the retrospective approach that Yehoshua adopts here vis-à-vis his own early stories and creative processes; see especially: Nitza Ben-Dov, "A Portrait of the Artist as an Elderly Man," Hayim Ketuvim: Israeli Literary Autobiographies  (Jerusalem and Tel Aviv: Schocken, 2011), 183-200 and Dan Miron, A. B. Yehoshua's Ninth-and-a-Half: An "Ashkenazi" Perspective on Two "Sephardic" Novels (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuhad, 2011 ), 9-106.

4. Gilead Morahg, Hachamalah vehaza'am:‘al hasiporet shel A. B. Yehoshua [Compassion and Fury: A. B. Yehoshua's Fiction], forthcoming 2014. This work emphasizes the central role of compassion and variations such as charity and empathy across Yehoshua's oeuvre.

5.  Stuart Schoffman's "Translator's Note" to A. B. Yehoshua's The Retrospective (Boston & NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013). Subsequent references to the novel will be given parenthetically in the text.

6. Regarding the pilgrimage motif in Hesed Sefaradi, see:  Israel Yuval, "Lesham ubehazarah: GalutYerushalayim asher beSefarad" [There and Back: Jerusalem's Exile in Spain], Ha'aretz 2 Feb. 2011: http://www.haaretz.co.il/literature/1.1161639; and Miron 78-88.

7. Nitza Ben-Dov admits that among Israeli authors, A. B. Yehoshua has been the most autobiographically reticent. In Hayim Ketuvim, a study of Israeli fictionalized autobiographies, she therefore includes Hesed Sefaradi as an example of artistic self-reflection.

8. Yehoshua's "Five Recommendations to Historians from a History Lover," translated by Yael Halevi-Wise and Vas Gogas, is included in this issue of Sephardic Horizons. In "Le'ayen berosh sikkah" [To Examine the Head of a Pin] and elsewhere, he made similar remarks on the importance of developing historical consciousness, see Ahizat moledet [Homeland Grasp] (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 2008), 196-203.

9. Miron, op. cit.; Nissim Calderon,"Derech halevenim hatzehubah" [The Yellow Brick Road]. Ha'aretz: Literature and Culture 11 Feb. 2011: 1 and 4.

10. Miron, 51-59.

11. In Mr. Mani Yehoshua did intertwine remote and recent history, and to some extent also included a metafictional level of self-reflexivity, yet to achieve this he invented a narrative structure unprecedented in literary history.

12. My own investment in this terminology stems from the literary-historical data I gathered in Sephardism: Spanish-Jewish History & the Modern Literary Imagination, where I invited eleven specialists to discuss literary representation of Spanish-Jewish history in works by authors of different backgrounds from the nineteenth century to the present. Even before he published Hesed Sefaradi, Yehoshua's sephardism was deemed important enough to warrant a full chapter in this study.

13. Halevi-Wise, "Through the Prism of Sefarad: Modern Nationalism, Literary History and the Impact of the Sephardic Experience," Sephardism: Spanish-Jewish History & the Modern Literary Imagination (Palo Alto, California: Stanford University Press, 2012), 1-32.

14. See Bernard Horn's definition of Yehoshua's sephardism in "Sephardic Identity and Its Discontents: The Novels of A. B. Yehoshua," in Sephardism, especially 193 and 198.

15. Already in his youth, Yehoshua's Sephardic identity began (in his own words) "to enter a drawer, not too small and surely not locked, but a definite drawer that you open from time to time, but mostly is closed," "Behipus ahar hazman hasfardi ha'avud," Haqir vehahar (Tel Aviv: Zmora-Beitan, 1989), 228-41, translated by Gilead Morahg as "Finding my Father in Sephardic Time," Moment 22.5 (1997): 54-57, 85-92. For responses to this essay, see Horn 192; Avraham Balaban, Mar Molho (Tel Aviv: HaKibuutz HaMeuhad, 1992), especially 8-11; and Arnold Band, "Mar Mani: The Archaeology of Self-Deception," Prooftexts 12.3 (1992): 232ff. Nitza Ben-Dov notes that when she recently repeated thatYehoshua had "ashkenazified himself," he countered "we are all Israeli," 233, n.9

16. Miron, 10-11.

17. I am grateful to Rivka Maoz for a refreshing conversation on this topic during the NAPH 2013 in New York.

18. For a comprehensive discussion of these laws, see Joshua Goode, Impurity of Blood: Defining Race in Spain, 1870-1930 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana University Press, 2009).

19. In The Terrible Power of a Minor Guilt, Yehoshua systematically focuses on the endpoint of literary works to assess their moral dynamics (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2000).

20. On this latter point, see Miron's comment on this novel's political dimension, 95.

21. "L'ayen berosh sikka" [To Examine the Head of a Pin], 196.

22. Horn, 193.

23. On the related judensau motif in Germany and Spain, see Stacy Beckwith, "Facing Sepharad," in Sephardism: Spanish-Jewish History & the Modern Literary Imagination, 180-182.

24. A. B. Yehoshua Controversy: An Israel-Diaspora Dialogue on Jewishness, Israeliness, and Identity, 2006. http://www.ajc.org/site/apps/nlnet/content3.aspx?c=7oJILSPwFfJSG&b=8449821&ct=12485627, in PDF 64-65.

25. A. B. Yehoshua,"From Myth to History," AJS Review 28.1 (2004): 205.

26. Alan Mintz, "Spanish Charity," Jewish Review of Books (Summer 2013): http://jewishreviewofbooks.com/articles/403/spanish-charity/

27. Horn, 193.

28. Fania Oz-Saltzberger, "History and Historians in A. B. Yehoshua," Mabatim mitztalvim [Intersecting Perspectives: Essays on A. B. Yehoshua's Oeuvre], eds. Amir Banbaji, Nitza Ben-Dov and Ziva Shamir (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 2010), 570-76.

29. In 2005 Yehoshua was invited to Barcelona for the 500th anniversary of Cervantes' novel and he spoke there about Don Quixote's deathbed rejection of chivalric fantasies. Interpreting this as a responsible move from myth to history, Yehoshua added that he hoped Israel, too, would follow this process, "Don Quixote and the Burning of the Old Books," Ahizat moledet [Homeland Grasp], 181-188.

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