Anxiety, Bereavement, and Sacrifice: The Akedah in “Early in the Summer of 1970”

 

The relationship between father and son is a common trope in Hebrew literature, serving as a vehicle of analysis, commentary, and critique of Israeli society. Through this lens, an author may examine the condition of ideological continuity, communal loss, and national morality. The father-son relationship also becomes a symbol of Jewish-Zionist loyalty through its connection to the Bible. The akedah story transforms into a myth of national sacrifice; the young Israeli soldiers are posited as an offering for the older generation’s ideological vision. Examining the mythical connection between the Zionist ideal and the Hebrew Bible, A.B. Yehoshua employs the father-son relationship trope to expose the anxieties, hypocrisies, and dangers that reside in such national mythology. In his novella “Early in the Summer of 1970,” A.B. Yehoshua reclaims the akedah narrative in order to dismantle its elevated role in the Zionist imagination. Through internal narration, ironic satire, biblical allusion, and cyclical structure, A.B. Yehoshua’s piece embodies the generational anxieties of preservation, the societal obsession with bereavement, and the destructive obligation of sacrifice that plague the Israeli condition of his time.

With the narrative voice so intimately tied to the father character, offering no external perspective, readers are subject to the character’s tense, weighty, and often-compulsive inner dialogue and imaginations. This internal scope captures the father’s deep anxieties about his relationship with his son, his students, and the younger generation as a whole. Throughout the novella, the protagonist continually reveals his insecurities concerning his distance and irrelevance from youth. He seeks to bond with his son, to understand “what had he been working on, what planned, and how can [he] link up” with it (31). He speaks to his son “softly, desperately, in a burning voice,” trying to communicate his deepest ideological convictions and fears, but his “son’s attention wanders, the absent look in his eyes familiar, unhearing, already elsewhere, alien, adrift…” (24). This same sense of disconnect persists in the character’s relationship to his students, who serve as representatives of the entire younger generation. He laments, “I am not important to them any more, have lost my power over them, they have done with me, I already belong to the past” (69). The protagonist’s thoughts are riddled with insecurities about the youth’s impression of him. Yehoshua writes of his students, “One of them is at the blackboard rubbing out wild words—a distorted image of myself… For the present my gray hairs still subdue them” (10). The generational divide prevents the father from successfully communicating his ideals, which become distorted. This break threatens the authority of the teacher and his ideology.

The author illustrates the ideological divide between generations by associating the protagonist so directly with the Hebrew Bible. As a teacher of Bible, the protagonist represents the older generation’s Zionist ideologies of national sacrifice, especially as tied to the akedah, which will be further discussed below. His devotion to and preoccupation with the Bible is articulated through the frequent biblical language and geographical descriptions of Israel as the ancient Promised Land. In contrast, his students are constantly “dropping Bibles,” uninterested and unengaged in “the laws, the proverbs, the prophecies” that the teacher wishes to pass on (10, 70). The novella returns to the same scene of students taking a Bible exam multiple times. This cyclical repetition communicates a certain anxious fixation on this moment, a moment that determines the very continuation or extinction of the older generation’s Zionist ideology. Referring to his son as “an ancient prophet,” the protagonist longs for the younger generation to herald a renewal of the biblical myth of Zionism, the myth of national sacrifice, with “a new gospel” (23). But the continuation of the biblical myth, the akedah myth, is threatened by the generational divide. With such anxiety about the preservation of this ideology (and therefore of the older Zionist authority), violence becomes the necessary instrument for the maintenance of the younger generation. Readers find rhetoric of militaristic violence in the author’s depiction of one of the many test-taking scenes:

“I by the door, and they tense and upright by their chairs, the white sheets of paper spread on their desks like flags of surrender, Bibles shelved deep inside. The tyranny I enforce by means of the Bible—Each examination takes on a fearful importance… I know: it is a hard test. Never before have I composed such a cruel test” (46).

Through the militaristic allusions in this scene, A.B. Yehoshua illustrates the implicit coercion and violence that results from the older generation’s anxieties of ideological preservation. In the compulsive desire to assert the national myth of sacrifice symbolized by the biblical akedah story, the teacher coerces his students into “surrender” through force and cruelty.

Along with the anxiety of ideological continuity amid generational break, an obsession with bereavement also characterizes this novella. The protagonist revisits the moment he learns of his son’s death multiple times. This is the incident when he gains his venerable status of the mourning father, through which he acquires the attention, respect, fame, care, and admiration of others throughout the narrative. He becomes “a sacred figure,” and the entire society is attracted to him, enthralled in the excitement and pleasure of mourning rituals and dramatics (56). “The story of his death and resurrection thrills them,” Yehoshua writes of the soldiers, “They press jokes upon the two of us, want to hear all the particulars” (63). It is only through his status of bereavement that the teacher can correct his “distorted image” in the eyes of his students, can gain acceptance in the army base despite his foreignness, can imagine himself addressing an audience of graduates as the honored speaker. So when this status is challenged, when the protagonist is about to reunite with his living son once again, his myth of national sacrifice shatters; “I suddenly give up, convinced it is all for nothing, tremble in every limb” (63). Readers expect joy, relief, and gratefulness at this time, but instead, the protagonist insists upon returning time and again to grief and the communal rituals of loss. The repetitive, endless processes of bereavement, on both individual and communal levels, satirize Israeli society’s infatuation with mourning and its fetishization of sacrifice.

In many ways, “Early in the Summer of 1970” is an akedah story. Frequent biblical allusions and symbolic language strengthen this connection. The father often resembles Abraham, as is the case when he searches through his son’s office. Yehoshua writes, “And I straighten up, drop the knife, a burst of hot light hits me, begin to move, past her. Mumble the morning’s tidings in an ancient, biblical Hebrew” (33). Just as Abraham drops his knife before sacrificing Isaac, the protagonist drops a knife as well. Yehoshua emphasizes this moment’s biblical quality by stating the language of the akedah story—ancient, biblical Hebrew. As the father wanders throughout Jerusalem on his way to the university, the description of the landscape aligns with the biblical landscape of the akedah: “And here rocks, and a very steep slope, and bushes growing out of an invisible earth tangling underfoot” (33). Readers must remember that, due to the internal perspective of the narration, this impression of the geography is the father’s subjective perception. Through his perspective, we understand that he sees himself as completely immersed in the biblical narrative. Further echoing the akedah story, he walks around the university with a “gnarled branch in [his] hand,” eventually striking young Diaspora students with the branch (34). All of these allusions corroborate the national myth of sacrifice that the akedah symbolizes in the older generation’s Zionism. When faced with sympathy for the loss of his son, the father demonstrates his national loyalty and his son’s duty for sacrifice, saying, “How no breathing space, three months they gave him, everybody goes these days, and in the Six Day War he didn’t take part, not before it either, and he’s no better than everybody else, is he?” (20)

But A.B. Yehoshua complicates this national myth by foreshadowing the imminent demise that such ideology heralds. He communicates this critique by rewriting the Zionist akedah story. He positions the father as the sheep in the narrative, the sacrifice that actually occurs in the Bible in the place of Isaac. After the father sees the dead soldier in the hospital is not his son, that the sacrifice of Isaac is incomplete, Yehoshua places the father on the altar instead. For the sake of preserving his status as a bereaved father, the rabbi, God’s messenger, asserts the need to rent his clothing. The author describes this biblical-like scene, “And he takes a small penknife out of his pocket, removes my blanket, and as I lie there, everyone watching, he makes a long tear in my dress” (49). The parallels between the father and the akedah sheep continue. At the army base, the protagonist hides in a bush, just like the sheep — “We wait. Crouched low upon stones beside the track, in the thicket. And once again I find myself delivered into new hands.” (59) As he sits in the bush, the young soldiers, including his son, fire a shot in his direction; “They would have killed us,” he thinks (61). This scene culminates with the confrontation between father and son. The author inverses the akedah relationship, writing, “And we are suddenly alone, both of us in helmets but myself unarmed, with only the torn flap on my heart” (64). The torn flap symbolizes the father’s obsession with bereavement, the necessity for his status as a mourner in order to maintain his authority and enforce his ideology upon the younger generation. The son is no longer the sacrifice, but the father is.

By complicating the myth of the akedah story, A.B. Yehoshua demonstrates the impending danger that will arise from the ideal of national sacrifice. Driven by the societal fetishization of bereavement, the older generation’s anxiety to preserve their ideology necessitates violence upon youth in an effort to maintain their authoritative status. In this dangerous cycle, the older generation will eminently reach its peril. The father becomes the sheep, and his ideology of national sacrifice will work to destroy itself. The code of national sacrifice collapses onto itself, and the biblical akedah story no longer upholds the Zionist project. The father realizes his failure to preserve his ideology: “I noticed for the first time that I had lost the text. Entire chapters” (65). The son’s knife is inscribed with the word “PEACE,” and it is this youthful ideology that must prevail after the ideological death of his father (32). Tied to the Bible, yearning for bereavement, and obsessed with Zionist sacrifice, the father’s eventual replacement of his son as an offering exposes the hypocrisy underlying this national myth. But still, the protagonist remains ignorant of his futile compulsions, continuing to assert the fruitfulness of sacrifice: “My suffering is great, but who knows, perhaps out of it a new rising may come” (48). A.B. Yehoshua brings ironic critique to this imagination by illustrating the irreparable damage and impending downfall of the violent, hypocritical, and self-destructing Zionist mythology of national sacrifice.

By Lucille Marshall.

Written for New Wave in Israeli Literature with Professor Alan Mintz at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

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About lucystarer

college student. hiker. oatmeal eater.

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