Jerusalem in the winter of 1959-1960, and Shmuel Ash drops out of his postgraduate university studies with his life in a mess: his parents can no longer financially support him, and his girlfriend has given up on him and married her previous boyfriend. He sees an advertisement for a paid companion and is employed to sit and talk with the elderly and crippled Gershom Wald for five hours each evening. Ash, an atheist and pacifist/socialist, has an attic room at the top of the house and the rest of the time is his own. Wald lives with his former daughter-in-law, the widow Atalia Abravanel, in whom Ash develops a keen romantic interest, even though she is much older than he is. It is a house of bereavement and loneliness.
Wald delivers erudite homilies on a wide variety of topics, in particular on Ash’s specialist academic subject—the Jewish knowledge and assessment of Jesus as a historical figure. They engage in some keen debates, the symbolism of which touches upon the very existence of the new country of Israel, the threat to its borders from surrounding Arab countries and the ethics surrounding the establishment of this new state within hitherto Arab lands. Ash’s theory is that Judas, contrary to the conventional Christian assessment, was the most fanatical of Jesus’s supporters, and if it were not for Judas, then the crucifixion and the subsequent establishment of Christianity would not have occurred in the West and much of the rest of the world.
This is not a long novel, but it has depth and profundity. There is much repetition in the descriptions of daily behaviour, reflecting how much of routine life constantly recurs. By no means a potboiler, but it is intelligent and thoughtful fiction.