Abraham B. Yehoshua: A Woman in Jerusalem
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Avraham ("Bulli") Yehoshua was born to a fifth-generation Jerusalem family of Sephardi origin. His father, Yaakov Yehoshua, was a scholar and author specializing in the history of Jerusalem. His mother, Malka Rosilio, immigrated from Morocco in 1932. Yehoshua served as a paratrooper in the Israeli army from 1954 to 1957. He attended Gymnasia Rehavia. After studying literature and philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, he began teaching. He lived in Jerusalem's Neve Sha'anan neighborhood.
From 1963 to 1967 Yehoshua lived and taught in Paris and served as the General Secretary of the World Union of Jewish Students. Since 1972, he has taught Comparative and Hebrew Literature at the University of Haifa, where he holds the rank of Full Professor. In 1975 he was a writer-in-residence at St. Cross College, Oxford. He has also been a visiting professor at Harvard (1977) the University of Chicago (1988, 1997, 2000) and Princeton (1992).
From the end of his military service, Yehoshua began to publish fiction. His first book of stories, "Mot Hazaken" (The Death of the Old Man) was published in 1962. He became a notable figure in the "new wave" generation of Israeli writers who differed from earlier writers in their focus on the individual and interpersonal rather than the group. Yehoshua names Franz Kafka, Shmuel Yosef Agnon, and William Faulkner as formative influences. Harold Bloom compared Yehoshua to Faulkner in an article in the New York Times and also mentions him in his book The Western Canon.
Yehoshua is the author of nine novels (for a complete list see below), three books of short stories, four plays, and four collections of essays, most recently "Ahizat Moledet" (Homeland Lesson), a book of reflections on identity and literature. His most acclaimed novel, Mr Mani, is a multigenerational look at Jewish identity and Israel through five conversations over the span of a century. It was adopted for television as a five-part series by director Ram Loevy. His most recent novel, Friendly Fire,explores the nature of Israeli familial relationships. In a drama that moves back and forth between Israel and Tanzania, Yehoshua explores personal grief and bitterness. His works have been published in translation in 28 countries, and many have been adapted for film, television, theatre, and opera.
A Woman in Jerusalem, deals with what he calls Israel's repression of its civilian deaths. Unlike the death of a soldier, he says, his countrymen don't know how to mourn the deaths of those killed while simply drinking coffee or riding a bus. Yehoshua focuses on this problem by telling the story of a woman who lies unclaimed in a morgue and the personnel manager who takes responsibility for and ultimately falls in love with her.
But Yehoshua says his message doesn't only apply to Israeli deaths.
"This is in a certain way the universal sentiment of this anonymous death in our streets — and how we can relate ourselves to this and take our identification and responsibility," Yehoshua says.
Excerpt: 'A Woman in Jerusalem'
by ABRAHAM B. YEHOSHUA
Even though the manager of the human resources division had not sought such a mission, now, in the softly radiant morning, he grasped its unexpected significance. The minute the extraordinary request of the old woman who stood in her monk's robe by the dying fire was translated and explained to him, he felt a sudden lifting of his spirits, and Jerusalem, the shabby, suffering city he had left just a week ago, was once more bathed in a glow of importance, as it had been in his childhood.
And yet the origins of his unusual mission lay in a simple clerical error brought to the company's attention by the editor of a local Jerusalem weekly, an error that could have been dealt with by any reasonable excuse and brief apology. However, fearing that such an apology — which might indeed have laid the matter to rest — would be deemed inadequate, the stubborn eighty-seven-year-old owner of the company had demanded a more tangible expression of regret from himself and his staff, a clearly defined gesture such as the one that had resulted in this journey to a distant land.
What had upset the old man so? Where had the almost religious impulse that drove him come from? Could it have been inspired by the grim times that the country, and above all Jerusalem, were going through, which he had weathered unharmed; so that his financial success, as other businesses foundered, called for vigilance in warding off the public criticism that now, ironically, was about to be aired in newsprint of which he himself was the supplier? Not that the reporter whose scathing feature article would break the story — a political radical and eternal doctoral candidate with the restraint of a bull in this intimate china shop of a city — was aware of all this when he wrote the piece, or he would have toned it down. Yet it was the paper's editor and publisher, loath to ruin a colleague's weekend with an unpleasant surprise that might spoil their business relations, who had decided, after taking a look at the story and its accompanying photograph of the torn, bloodstained pay stub found in the murdered woman's shopping bag, to let the old man respond in the same issue.
Nor was it really such a shocking expose. Nevertheless, at a time when pedestrians were routinely exploding in the streets, troubled consciences turned up in the oddest places. And so at the end of that particular workday, when the human resources manager, having promised his ex-wife that he would leave the office on time to be with their only daughter, had tried to evade the owner's summons, the old man's veteran office manager had refused to let him. Sensing her boss's agitation, she’d hastened to advise the resource manager to put his family duties aside.
On the whole, relations between the two men were good. They had been so ever since the resource manager, then in the sales division, had unearthed several Third World markets for the company's new line of paper and stationery products. And so, when his manager's marriage was on the rocks, in part because of his frequent travels, the old man had reluctantly agreed to appoint him temporary head of the human resources division, a job that would allow him to sleep at home every night and try to repair the damage. Yet the hostility engendered by his absence was only distilled into a more concentrated poison by his presence, and the chasm between them — at first psychological, then intellectual, and finally sexual — continued to grow of its own accord. Now that he was divorced, all that kept him from returning to his old job, which he had liked, was his determination to stay close to his daughter.
As soon as he'd appeared in the doorway of the owner's spacious office, where the elegantly muted light never changed with the time of day or year, the article due to appear in the local weekly was dramatically hurled at him.
"An employee of ours?" The resource manager found that hard to credit. "Impossible. I would have known about it. There must be some mistake."
The owner did not answer. He simply held out the galleys, which the resource manager read quickly while still standing. The odious article was entitled "The Shocking Inhumanity Behind Our Daily Bread." Its subject was a forty-year-old woman found critically wounded after a bombing in the Jerusalem market the week before. Her only identifying mark had been a pay stub issued by the company. For two days she had fought for her life in the hospital without any of her employers or fellow workers taking the slightest interest in her. Even after her death, she had lain in the hospital morgue abandoned and unidentified, her fate unmourned and her burial unprovided for. (There followed a brief description of the company and its large, well-known bakery, founded at the beginning of the last century by the owner's grandfather and recently augmented by the new line of paper products.) Two photographs accompanied the text. One, taken years ago, was an old studio portrait of the owner; the other was of the human resources manager. It was dark and blurry, evidently snapped recently, without his knowledge. The caption noted that he owed his position to his divorce.
Copyright 2004 Abraham B. Yehoshua. English translation, Copyright 2006 by Hillel Halkin.