“He had now devoted three whole days to this woman, laboring faithfully on her behalf after giving his impulsive word to make her anonymous death his business.” This short sentence (p. 143) could stand on its own as a capsule of a human story, very much like Hemingway's famous: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.” It is packed with meanings and contradictions, both personal and universal. It not only summarizes the plot of A Woman in Jerusalem, but, more importantly, captures the private conflict of our protagonist as well as the larger one of the world he lives in, a world where devotion and faith clash with the world of “business,” and where faiths do battle in the streets. In a world where the bottom line is paramount and taking a stand entails dangers of its own, can a man (Father, Husband, Son, Brother) afford to “devote” three whole days to “this woman” (Mother, Wife, Daughter, Sister) and to “labor” on her behalf?
The woman, we learn in the first pages of the novel, is Yulia Ragayev, a Russian woman who had emigrated to Israel with her Jewish boyfriend, and the only character deemed important enough to be named, if only after her death as a victim of a suicide bomber. The man who faithfully labors on her behalf to ensure that her burial will not be anonymous as her death (and life) had been is the human resources manager of a Jerusalem bakery where Yulia had worked for a few short months as a cleaning woman. When we first meet him, he is a disgruntled man of forty, living with his mother while engaged in a battle with his wife over the custody of their daughter. He has no patience for the living, nor for the dead, and when the elderly owner of the bakery entrusts the task of burying the dead to him, the manager is reluctant, and only accepts the mission under threat that he would lose his position and livelihood.
A Woman in Jerusalem (dedicated to the memory of Dafna, a friend of the Yehoshuas who was killed by a suicide bomber on Mount Scopus in 2002), is divided into three parts: The Manager; The Mission, and The Journey. And if in the first two parts the manager is identified in variations of “the human resources manager,” by the third part he has earned the honor of “Emissary,” for he is now a man transformed by his love for the dead woman. Traveling with her coffin to a distant, cold land, he is perhaps an Emissary of God, an angel, an angel who may sometimes be the Angel of Death. This emissary, like most Israeli men, served in the army. He followed orders, and he gave orders, and, in this sense, he is part of a system that is responsible for the death of a woman like Yulia (or Dafna). Yulia is the preternatural Female, who may be dead to the living, but is, in fact, “a sleeping angel” (in the words of the morgue's lab technician). The giver of life, she is helpless against tanks and bullets, but is also indestructible.
The novel, beginning with the enigmatic title, is a parable, a mirror wherein Yehoshua's people, with all their petty foibles and concerns, go about their all-too-human lives (the terms “human” “humane” “humanity” appear nearly on every page of the book), trying to retain their humanity with humor and empathy. They may be callous at times, even brutal, but here and there brave acts of goodness are possible as well.
The novel is superbly translated by Hillel Halkin: it reads as if it were written in English, or, if such a thing existed, in a universal language, where bumps and hurdles are cleared, and a journey into a person's heart is accessible to all.
Tsipi Keller is a novelist and translator. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Award and of CAPS and NYFA awards in fiction, and the author, most recently, of the novels Jackpot (2004) and Retelling (2006), both published by Spuyten Duyvil.