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The Old Man and the City

In A.B. Yehoshua’s latest novel, a disappointed middle manager falls in love with a dead woman

David B. Green
August 09, 2006

Read dispatches from Israel by Yoram Kaniuk and Noga Tarnopolsky.

For decades the Jerusalem-born A.B. Yehoshua, 70, has lived in the northern Israeli city of Haifa—and most of his works, like The Lover and The Liberated Bride, are set in one or the other city. But lately, with three grown children and four grandchildren in Tel Aviv, Yehoshua and his wife increasingly find themselves using their spacious flat in nearby Ramat Gan, more so this summer, as missiles launched from across the border in Lebanon by the Hezbollah militia have brought life in Haifa to a standstill. A few days before this interview, one of Yehoshua’s sons received an emergency call-up from his army unit, so the novelist has been on grandparent duty, tending to his son’s three children, including a newborn girl, who howled throughout much of our conversation.

The U.S. publication of Yehoshua’s most recent novel, A Woman in Jerusalem, comes several months after the author made headlines by remarking, at an American Jewish Committee conference, that only in Israel can Jews fully realize their identities. As a public intellectual and peace activist—in 2003, he flew to Geneva for the signing of the Geneva Accord—Yehoshua has long been openly critical of what he sees as Jews’ ongoing insistence on living in exile.

Written during the height of the Intifada, A Woman in Jerusalem centers on a middle-aged personnel manager at a large Jerusalem bakery who is charged with identifying a victim of a suicide bombing—papers found on the body suggest she worked at the bakery—and making arrangements for her burial. Initially irritated by his assignment, the manager becomes obsessed with the dead woman—a non-Jew, Russian, who fell in love with Jerusalem—and as he gets to know her, if only in death, he comes to see his native city with fresh eyes.

Does the period Israel is going through now remind you of the period of the Intifada chronicled in A Woman in Jerusalem?

What’s happening today in Lebanon has a quality of suicide terror to it. Hezbollah are willing to destroy not only themselves, but Lebanon itself. Until now, Sheikh Nasrallah has destroyed some houses and killed maybe 40 people in Israel. He doesn’t care that Lebanon is being destroyed, that there are more than 800,000 refugees, that infrastructure is being destroyed. That’s a kind of suicide terror.

But the book is not about suicide terror. It’s about something else, about the way our defense mechanisms repress reality, about apathy, about the anonymity of death. The terror attack is not the focus of the story; in fact, it’s mentioned in only a single sentence.

What do you mean by the “anonymity of death?”

Since the War of Independence, when we had a far more intimate society in Israel, and the death of civilians was familiar and close, most of those who have died in our wars have been soldiers. We have a way to mourn soldiers, to find meaning in their deaths, and to give them the honor and respect they deserve.

The death of civilians changed all the rules. Suddenly people were being killed as they sat in cafés, or were traveling on the bus, not special people, not heroes, but people like you and me. Their deaths were completely anonymous and—especially—completely random. And I saw that Israeli society didn’t have the tools to mourn such deaths. Instead it coped by trying to go back immediately to routine.

Only one character in the novel has a name: Yulia Ragayev, who is dead. Is this meant as a commentary on this inability to mourn ordinary citizens killed in war?

I wanted to stir people up, by taking the case of the most anonymous death possible, the most marginal: the death of a foreign worker who isn’t even Jewish. I wanted to revive people’s feelings. In this case, they’re the feelings of the manager of the personnel department of a bakery. Because of the bakery’s owner, who is suddenly concerned about his reputation, and from a coincidence of events, a journey begins that turns out to be a passion, something almost religious in nature. For the manager, it’s a taking of responsibility, of moral responsibility, of caring up to the point of feeling love, for this anonymous woman who has been killed in the attack.

I didn’t give names to anyone but her, because the people in the story enter into it not because of their individual biographies, or their cultural or family backgrounds, but rather because of their function in society. From the beginning I wanted essentially to say: These people, they could be any of us. And out of this comes some sort of journey, an almost metaphysical one, with this woman, who was apparently beautiful, apparently special, who had a certain value.

Was it essential that the book take place in Jerusalem?

Yes, I wanted to say something about Jerusalem, too. I wanted to say that this woman didn’t come just to work. She came to be in Jerusalem. I have always had this feeling that, even if someday we are able to solve all the disputes between us and the Palestinians, there will still be the problem of Jerusalem, in particular the Holy Jerusalem, the Old City, and the question of sovereignty over the holy sites.

I don’t believe that there will be a solution to this. Even if the Palestinians compromise on the right of return, they will never give up their claim to the Old City. To the Al-Aqsa mosque. And so the only way to solve it is to take the holy sites and remove them from the sovereignty equation altogether. And if we want multi-religious sovereignty, then it’s essential that the Christians are also partners. If Christian Europe is not involved in what’s going on here, and it remains between Israel and the Americans, it will not be good.

I remember that when I was still a kid, and I read Crime and Punishment, it was when the city was still divided. And I remember getting toward the end, when Raskolnikov is going to confess his sins. He’s on his way to police, and suddenly he falls to his knees. This is in St. Petersburg, and he kneels in the street. And people ask: What happened to him? And one person says he’s drunk. And another says, no, he’s not drunk, he’s going to Jerusalem. And I remember thinking: What does it mean that Raskolnikov is “going to Jerusalem?” Eventually I came to understand that Jerusalem has great significance for many peoples.

And this significance becomes apparent, gradually, to the personnel manager?

This woman has come, essentially, as a pilgrim to Jerusalem. And when they bring her back to her mother, to her birthplace, the older woman asks: Why did you bring her back? Why didn’t you bury her in Jerusalem? And this manager fellow, who has made a journey over the course of a week, from bureaucratic indifference to entering into the soul of the woman, he understands by the end, not just the personal aspect, but also the spiritual-religious aspect of her connection to Jerusalem.

This woman, this anonymous foreign woman, she remained in Jerusalem, even though her boyfriend left, and her son left, and she returns to the Israelis the symbolic importance of the city, this city we’ve despaired of. I wanted to return to Israelis the consciousness of the importance of Jerusalem, which in the recent past has lost its importance among a class of intellectuals, a sort of left-wingers, who dismiss the city as being just “Arabs and Orthodox.”

In your infamous remarks to the American Jewish Committee, you were talking about the way Diaspora Jews relate to Israel in its entirety. Did you intentionally set out to upset the Jewish world?

(Laughs) I’ve said the same things a thousand times before. I said it in Between Right and Right, which I wrote maybe 25 years ago: That the Israeli identity is the total Jewish identity. By definition.

You’ve said that the “authentic” Jewish identity is being created everyday by the actions of Jews in the State of Israel. But prior to the creation of the state wasn’t Jewish identity defined by religion, by Jewish texts, laws, and ethics?

We survived because we have the ability to preserve our Jewishness, even in exile. That’s our chosenness, and that’s our curse. It’s a curse. First of all, it’s the curse that brought about the Shoah. It’s the identity that preserved us, but it’s also the identity that caused us to assimilate, and the identity that led to the most horrible blow that any people has ever suffered in history.

The creation of a national identity is an ongoing process. It’s not just decided by written sources. Texts are part of the process. But you too are a source.

But what about religious tradition? Or intellectual tradition?

What tradition? What tradition deals with the question of whether or not to bomb a Christian area in Lebanon, or to create more refugees, or fewer? When have Jews ever had to make such decisions? Where will you find that in the sources? The Israeli has to make these decisions today! To decide!

But isn’t that what a Jew is doing when he or she refers to the Talmud for guidance—

What Talmud!? You think people read the Talmud? People know what the Talmud says? Where in the Talmud does it talk about bombing with airplanes or not? And what if the Talmud does say it’s okay to kill the Christians. And I decide I don’t want to kill them. I am building my identity, in a moral way. Why should I be answerable to the Talmud? And anyway, have any American Jews read the Talmud?

There’s no people that builds all of its identity on texts. But the Jew in New York, he has nothing else to rely on but texts, so he gets together on Thursday and Friday with other Jews and they read texts. And that’s how they create their Jewish identity. I create my identity, my Jewish identity, every moment of my life, with everything that I do.

A year after Rabin was assassinated I spoke with you about the phenomenon of Israelis returning to the “Jewish bookshelf.” I seem to remember that you too were part of a secular study group.

I’m not opposed to reading texts. But my concern is, what are the texts that you’re reading, and to what extent are they connected to reality? Reality is Intifada, occupation, missiles, corruption, sex offenses of the President, politics. When you put the reality over here, and over there are the texts, you’re separating them. And that separation also allows you to be a feinschmekker, putting the unpleasant reality in the garbage.

I will say one more thing. Why did all this come up now? In the 20th century, two things happened that were colossal in terms of world history: the Shoah and the creation of Israel. In my eyes, the Holocaust was the failure of life in the Diaspora. Three years later, the Jewish state was created. And that also was something that had never happened before, that after two thousand years a people returned to their historic homeland.

The Jews were opposed to Zionism, and that was one of the reasons that, when the American Jewish Committee began to speak about 100 years of history, I said, “let’s start with the Holocaust.” But they didn’t want to talk about the Holocaust. “That’s what’s important?” they said. Yes, it’s important. There’s nothing more important than the Shoah. We didn’t understand that it was going to happen. Today we can say, how could Israel not have understood the buildup of missiles by Hezbollah? But then, we didn’t understand what sort of horrible interaction existed between us and the world in which we were living that it arrived at a level of hatred and murder.

Does this mean you think this is a war Israel had to fight?

I support this war. It’s not because of the prisoners, especially. It’s that Nasrallah and the Hezbollah are worse than the Hamas. They negate the very existence of the State of Israel. It’s not a terrorist organization. It’s an enemy, a total enemy, like Hitler. Nasrallah calls the Galilee “Northern Palestine.” He’s an enemy who says what he intends to do. I always say, we have to pay attention to our enemy, and believe every word he says. I believe the Arabs. They say they want to destroy us, they mean it. Together with Iran. That just leaves the question of what the limits of the war should be, what its goals should be.

So you’re saying that you see Hamas as being on the road to compromise.

I do think so. Moreover, I think that Israel’s strong reaction to Hezbollah should have an impact on Hamas. There’s a limit to what we should have to tolerate. If we end the occupation, if we’re ready to evacuate settlements, we have the right to defend ourselves in the most powerful way possible, and this will have positive consequences vis-à-vis the Palestinians.

David B. Green is an editor at Haaretz English Edition, and writes its “This Day in Jewish History” column.