|Too often we find ourselves forced to reconcile our humanity with our actions. One might even regard this predicament – the need to atone for our inhumanities – as one of Israel’s steepest hurdles in its path towards peace. In A Woman in Jerusalem, humanity is subjective, and its appearance – as a bakery in the middle of a public relations debacle – takes many divergent turns. Thus, over the course of the novel, a variety of conflicting human ideals are revealed. As he describes the progression of the bakery’s efforts to restore its integrity, A.B. Yehoshua illustrates the intrinsic, complex craving to be human; and he does it in the most stripped-down, down-to-earth sense of the word – whatever that may be, and for whomever that definition serves.For the bakery’s human resource manager who is our nameless protagonist, restoring humanity begins as a trivial job. After a pay stub from the bakery is used to identify the victim of a suicide bomb, a journalist attacks the business in his newspaper for failing to spot the woman’s disappearance a week after she’s been killed. The worried owner of the bakery is in a frenzy, and he entrusts the manager with the frustrating task of figuring out how the dead woman’s absence could have gone unnoticed for so long.The manager, drawn in by the deceased woman’s beauty, begins to unearth key details from her life to help him in his task. A 48-year-old gentile immigrant from a former soviet satellite, Yulia Ragayev came to Israel as an engineer but worked in the bakery as a cleaner. As the only character in the novel to benefit from a name, Yulia – the powerless alien – possesses the most power. Even in her death, Yulia’s beauty enchants many of those who are working to understand her; in dying, Yulia alone triggers the intricate events that form the novel.
Soon enough, the manager’s simple task becomes a mission. From his sojourn in a Jerusalem morgue to an expedition in a bitterly cold, distant country, the manager learns more and more about Yulia and finds himself falling in a strange sort of love with her. Throughout his journey to deliver Yulia’s remains to her home country, the conflicted human resources manager is confronted by the variegated definitions of humanity that surround him: those of the journalist, of his boss, and of his mother, among others. In his attempts to examine what humanity truly means to him, he comes to discover that his version of it is not the most important.
Even though A Woman in Jerusalem is a deeply personal novel, it is difficult to separate the plot from its underlying political context. In recent years, Israel, not unlike the bakery establishment, has struggled to attain the public image of a humanitarian. (The recent flotilla raid in Gaza exemplifies all to well Israel’s constant P.R. troubles.) The parallel between the bakery and the country in which it is set allows us to read the novel through a political lens. Even the namelessness of the characters serves as a critique of Israeli bureaucracy; lost in a sea of unnamed officials and workers, Yulia, ironically, is the actual unidentified character.
The novel – a dense, philosophical thriller of sorts – turns optimistic in the end. As the story progresses, the human resources manager begins to seek humanity out of his own intrinsic need rather than as a required chore. Perhaps this cheerful turn of events is what makes A Woman in Jerusalem so intriguing; readers can only hope for a future where humanity is an inherently driven value and not only a negotiated necessity to which we must succumb.