Wrestling With Faith in the Land of Oz

Amos Oz and Daughter Grapple With Judaism

Fania Oz-Salzberger and her father Amos Oz
Ben Weinstein Photography
Fania Oz-Salzberger and her father Amos Oz

By Shoshana Olidort

Published December 12, 2012, issue of December 14, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share

By Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger
Yale University Press, 248 pages, $25

In the epilogue to “Jews and Words,” the authors raise the age-old question “Who is a Jew?” to which they respond, “Whoever is wrestling with the question ‘Who is a Jew?’” It is not an original answer, but it’s compelling nevertheless, not least because it is the first clear articulation of what this slender volume is really all about. Indeed, while the book is titled “Jews and Words,” its subject is less the relationship of Jews with words, with texts, with oral traditions, than it is an attempt — on the part of avowed secularists — to define what it is to be a Jew.

Written by Amos Oz, who is one of Israel’s most celebrated novelists, author of the award-winning memoir “A Tale of Love and Darkness” and a longtime contender for the Nobel Prize, along with his historian daughter, Fania Oz-Salzberger, a professor at Haifa University’s School of Law and Center for European and German Studies, the book is ostensibly an intergenerational dialogue in four parts (the themes are continuity, women, time and the individual vis-à-vis the collective). But while the authors refer now and again to “the novelist among us” or to “the historian among us,” the book, which is written in the first-person plural, does not convey anything of their exchange. There is no sense of a conversation happening on the pages of this volume, let alone any real and pressing disputes or disagreements. Instead, father and daughter seem to be entirely in alignment in their views and in their struggles, which may explain why no dialogue ever emerges in the book: How can there be one between two people who see eye to eye on everything?

The irony, of course, is that this book is rife with arguments, its tone deeply, sometimes disturbingly polemical, and at times even self-contradictory. The authors assert their atheism repeatedly, lambasting and often mocking the faithful, and insisting that the Bible’s authenticity and historicity are irrelevant. Of course, their lack of religious belief does not mitigate their abiding interest in, indeed fascination with, Jewish history and literature — both the sacred and the secular. As they point out: “Good stories carry their own form of truth,” which is to say, the Bible has much that is of value, or of interest, whether you approach it as an atheist or as a believer. And yet, the authors want to know about various events recorded, “whether they happened or not.” In some instances, they hope the stories they have read are true, that the characters they admire, like the biblical daughters of Zelophehad, actually existed.

All this is very human, of course, and in that way the back and forth between reason and a kind of emotional pull to know the “truth” is even endearing. What’s more disconcerting is the way in which the authors insert their atheism and critiques — often justified — of contemporary Orthodoxy (specifically ultra-Orthodoxy in Israel) in contexts where these assertions seem either irrelevant or at the very least redundant. Thus, regarding the talmudic interpretation of the obligation to desecrate the Sabbath in order to save a life, according to which the life in question must be Jewish, the authors deem the ethnic specificity of the injunction to be “obnoxious” (really now?). Referring to other fundamentalist strains of Judaism, they relegate these to “the basement, to gather dust along with other unwanted heirlooms.” And throughout, even as they insist on their deep affinity for Jewish texts, they cite the Greeks and Romans, and their admiration for other literatures, which, they write, often far surpasses Jewish texts. The statements

are in themselves hardly problematic, but they often seem unwarranted, and at times strangely apologetic. Together, what these assertions suggest is a kind of uncertainty, less perhaps about the authors’ stance on God and religion than about their self-identification as Jews. This, too, however, is understandable, especially if one sees this book for what it is: The personal reckonings of two authors — one well advanced in age — with their respective Jewish identities; their attempt to define what being Jewish means to them.

In the process of coming to terms with their own Jewishness, the authors unearth a treasure trove of literary delights, carefully selected from the annals of Jewish history: provocative biblical anecdotes, brilliant bits of Mishnaic, talmudic and Midrashic exegeses; tender Hasidic tales, and, finally, a gorgeous sampling of recent and contemporary secular European, Israeli and American Jewish literature. From the Book of Job to the fiction of I.L. Peretz, and from The Song of Miriam to the poetry of Dan Pagis, these words — particularly in Hebrew and Yiddish — seamlessly strung together form the heart of this book and, for these authors, of Jewish identity itself. The words are as diverse as their sources, and some, as in this excerpt from Yehuda Amichai’s poem “The Jews,” which the authors translated themselves, offer alternative interpretations of what being Jewish means:

The Jews are like photographs displayed in a shop window /All of them together in different heights, living and dead, / Grooms and brides and Bar Mitzvah boys with babies. / And there are pictures restored from old yellowing photographs. / And sometimes people come and break the window / And burn the pictures. And then they begin / To photo anew and develop anew / And display them again aching and smiling.

Amichai’s poem could easily serve as a description of the diversity of texts evoked in this book. From the sacred to the profane, Jewish literature, as it is understood by Oz and Oz-Salzberger, encompasses works that are still very much alive, as well as those that are, in a vital sense, dead, that must be broken, rejected and rendered “anew.” To engage with these texts is to wrestle with them, and wrestle is what these authors do — with texts both ancient and modern, and with questions of identity and meaning. In the process, they uncover beautiful gems, like the one cited above, plucked from a rich and still evolving literary heritage.

Shoshana Olidort is a frequent contributor to the Forward. Her work has also appeared in The New Republic.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.