Jewish Journal

Books: Yehoshua’s latest explores boundaries of responsibility

by Paula Margulies

Posted on Apr. 26, 2007 at 8:00 pm

A.B. Yehoshua. Photo by Leonardo Cendamo

A.B. Yehoshua. Photo by Leonardo Cendamo

The U.S publishers hated the title of A.B. Yehoshua's latest book "The Mission of the Human Resources Manager." It was, they argued, better suited to a personnel manual than the work of one of Israel's most venerated authors. Ignoring Yehoshua's pleas, they christened the novel's English translation "A Woman in Jerusalem," and the book became a nominee for this year's prestigious Los Angeles Times Book Prize, to be announced at the Times' Festival of Books this weekend (see story page 36).

Rummaging through the shelves of his apartment in Ramat Gan, Yehoshua located a copy of the book and studied its cover, with its stylized picture of a woman's glittery eyelid, another attempt by the publishers to inject sex appeal into his latest creation.

"I have to admit," he said cheerfully, "they did a good job."

Yehoshua's political views have ruffled more than a few feathers, though he seems to take criticism in stride.

In May 2006, Yehoshua caused an uproar at a prestigious gathering of American Jewry in Washington when he declared that Diaspora Jewry cannot live genuinely Jewish lives unless they move to Israel, and that "Judaism outside Israel has no future. If you do not live in Israel ... your Jewish identity has no meaning at all."

While he eventually softened his remarks, his views have not changed significantly.

"In Israel," he says, "you can be a full Jew with all the responsibilities and the obligations that come along with it."

Israel's ethical character, he believes, is a direct reflection of its people's collective Jewish responsibility. "A Woman in Jerusalem" is Yehoshua's attempt to explore the boundaries of that responsibility.

Following a suicide bombing at a crowded market, the corpse of Yulia Ragayev, a Russian-Orthodox temporary worker, lies unclaimed and unidentified in a Jerusalem morgue. A "weasel" of a journalist discovers a bloodied pay slip linking Ragayev to a well-established bakery and writes an expose condemning the bakery for its failure to claim her body. Shamed by the journalist's accusations of heartless indifference, the bakery's owner decides to atone for his company's neglect. He assigns his human resources manager -- a man whose family life has slowly disintegrated -- to take any measures necessary to restore the bakery's good name. While at first resentful, the human resources manager comes to share his boss's desire for atonement.

Together with the journalist, he escorts Ragayev's corpse home for burial only to discover that the dead woman's mother wants her daughter buried in Jerusalem.

The novel has a palpable darkness to it and is almost bluntly allegorical.

Aside from Yulia Ragayev, whose name becomes almost a mantra for the human resources manager, the characters in the book remain nameless, defined only by their job titles. This is just one of the ways that Yehoshua distances himself from "A Liberated Bride," his optimistic 2004 novel about a Haifa professor who breaks through personal, familial, ethnic and national boundaries.

The difference, Yehoshua said, was all in the timing. Whereas he began writing "Bride" before the outbreak of the second intifada, "A Woman in Jerusalem" was conceived during Israel's gloomiest days.

"In one terrorist attack in Tel Aviv," he says, "[many] people were killed -- among them a whole family."

Yehoshua began to be bothered by what he saw as Israel's inability to cope with civilian death: "For soldiers there is a whole system of mourning. We are used to it, and it's very important to Israeli society to commemorate the soldiers who were sent by us for us and were killed.

"But what about the lady who was drinking coffee in a cafe when she was killed or a foreign worker who was sitting on a bus? How do we make sense of that? They were not killed for defending their country or conquering territory -- if it could happen to them, it could happen to anyone. It was disturbing."

Also disturbing, Yehoshua said, was the way "that Israeli society tried to repress the deaths. In the beginning there was news, but after a certain time the bus was cleaned up and society returned to 'normal life.' It's very dangerous for a society to repress things."

As a non-Jew, an immigrant temporary worker, and a woman without a family, Ragayev represents death at its most marginal.

"I wanted to take my pen," Yehoshua said, "and put it inside the black plastic shroud. I wanted to take this anonymous victim and try to make love to her."

Like many of Yehoshua's protagonists, the human resources manager has an almost neurotic obsessiveness about him, along with a desire to push past interpersonal boundaries and peek into the secret corners of peoples' lives. Yehoshua says that while he no doubt brings this obsessiveness from "a personal quest, a turbulence, an unrest," his characters' missions are aimed at "accomplishing something, repairing reality and taking responsibility."

Whether In "The Lover," "Open Heart," "A Liberated Bride" or "A Woman in Jerusalem," those missions have involved crossing borders of some kind -- an issue that continues to preoccupy Yehoshua, with no signs of abatement. It is the same issue, he says, that propelled his hotly contested remarks in Washington.

"The question of the borders is the most important one for the Jews," he says. "If I had to define Zionism in one word, I would say 'borders.' For centuries the Jews crossed borders, moving from one country to another, exchanging national identities. Israel has been a tremendous change in the Jewish DNA. Today we must have borders and we must have sovereignty and responsibility on those borders."

Tellingly, in "A Woman in Jerusalem," the journalist tells the human resources manager that "true love requires separation." Politically, Yehoshua has been a forceful voice in the call for separation. In 2002, at the height of the bloody second intifada, he joined other left-wing intellectuals and political figures in calling for unilateral disengagement from the Palestinians. In addition to withdrawing from the territories, Yehoshua suggested a security fence with openings for passage between Israel and the Palestinian territories.

When the Israeli army evacuated Jews from Gaza, he said, he was "very proud of Israel -- proud of the way in which it was done, proud of how the settlers behaved. Not one drop of blood was spilled."We have to end the occupation and give the Palestinians the possibility of creating a state," Yehoshua said.

Unfortunately, last summer's war in the North made that harder. Every time a Palestinian fired a shot, it reinforced the right wing in Israel, he believes. "To me this is the saddest thing," he said.

Yehoshua has a vested interest in a ceasefire -- some of Hezbollah's rockets fell on Haifa, the city he and his wife have called home for more than 30 years. The couple, who "want to be very good grandparents," purchased their apartment in Ramat Gan in order to be closer to their children and grandchildren on weekends. Yehoshua's youngest grandchild, a tiny baby girl, slept peacefully on the living-room sofa while her grandfather was interviewed.

None of Yehoshua's four children is a writer, for which he professed to be "very happy."

"It's frustrating to be in art," he said. "You're exposed to tension and criticism day and night."

Yehoshua said that he once accompanied Saul Bellow to a restaurant in Cambridge after Bellow received the Nobel Prize.

"I was astonished that nobody in the restaurant noticed him. Here everyone in the gas station talks to me -- they ask 'why are you so naive? How could you say what you say; how could you be so stupid?' They quarrel with me, but with a lot of kindness and respect, he said with a laugh."

A fifth-generation Jerusalemite, that city is the location of his latest book. Yehoshua says that Jerusalem is in his blood and it intoxicates him: "I'm connected to Jerusalem almost too much. It has to appear in every one of my books."

Yehoshua believes that the Old City should be governed by a joint nongovernmental body representing the three monotheistic religions.

"We cannot possess Jerusalem with a national flag he says," he said. "We must elevate it to the monotheistic cradle of humanity."

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