This is the third outstanding work I’ve read by an Israeli in as many weeks, and I find myself falling under a spell of admiration again for a culture that fights back against the worst aspects of itself, interrogates itself relentlessly, and creates humor around the morose recognition of man’s fallibility. Into a novel describing three generations living together in a small Jerusalem house, Amos Oz weaves history, religion, and politics into a meditation on the why and how of Jewishness and the concept of a Jewish state.
Not for a moment do we believe the characters have a life beyond that of describing a conflict. The generous nature of Oz’s characters make us willing to suspend judgment and place our trust in his hands awhile, to hear what he has to say. In our modern world one is rarely willing or able to hear an opposite view, but this seems a safe place to examine ideas. In a review in the New York Times, Oz speaks of this novel as a piece of chamber music. A grouping of voices influence one another, each different than the other, three generations of Jews in Israel.
The time is late 1950s or early 1960s. A student Shmuel has found his thesis, “Jewish Views of Jesus,” not as unique as he’d imagined and less interesting than something he'd bumped up against in research: “Christian Views of Judas.” Shmuel discovers that without the traitor Judas Iscariot, there would be no Christianity. Jesus and his apostles were all Jews. Without the crucifixion, there may not have been a rift in beliefs.
Needing to ponder this theory further, Shmuel has left his thesis unfinished and has taken a job as evening companion to learned old Gershom Wald in exchange for room and board. The old man spends his days arguing vociferously on the telephone with friends and enemies, and is a strong supporter of David ben-Gurion’s Zionism. Wald’s daughter-in-law Aitalia holds an opposite and more radical view that reflects her own father, Shealtiel Abravanel’s opinion that the concept of nation states and ownership of land and resources is a faulty one.
"Aitalia’s father was one of those people who believe that every conflict is merely a misunderstanding: a spot of family counseling, and handful of group therapy, a drop or two of goodwill, and at once we shall all be brothers in heart and soul and the conflict will disappear. He was one of those people convinced that all that is required to resolve a conflict is for both parties to get to know each other, and immediately they will start to like each other…"The novel is a multi-layered examination of the idea of ‘traitor,’ and whether or not it is, in fact, an enlightened state “which really ought to be seen as a badge of honor:”
"Anyone willing to change," Shmuel said, "will always be considered a traitor by those who cannot change and are scared to death of change and don't understand it and loathe change…"But old man Wald reminds us that it is the name Judas which has become a synonym for betrayal, and perhaps also a synonym for Jew.
……Shmuel added in a hushed voice, as though afraid that strangers might hear: "After all, the kiss of Judas, the most famous kiss in history was surely not a traitor’s kiss…"
"Millions of simple Christians think that every single Jew is infected with the virus of treachery…So long as each Christian baby learns with its mother’s milk that God-killers still tread the earth, or the offspring of God-killers, we [Jews] shall know no rest."In a review for Riad Sattouf’s graphic memoir Arab of the Future, I’d expressed some concern that Arab schoolchildren in the Middle East were learning religious hatreds early, never considering that North American Christians were of course learning religious hatreds at the same age.
Oz makes no secret of his own opinions in interviews, but in this work he makes us puzzle it all out. He gives us the old conundrums in new ways, making us want to take them up again for examination. We question everything from the ground up. This work reminds me why I love literature: Oz is able to layer complex motivations onto history and take a stab at trying to explain what man is and what we should expect of him.
The translation of this work into English by Nicholas de Lange from the Hebrew is especially easy to enjoy. The Blackstone audio production is excellent, the work narrated on ten discs (11 hours) by Jonathan Davis. The hardcover published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is useful to return to some ideas. Though the novel is not difficult to read, the ideas challenge readers and may require a second or third look to tie the threads together. This is great stuff. Oz is seventy-seven years old. He should be proud of himself, and we should be grateful.
You can buy this book here: Tweet