Hebrew literature

Judas by Amos Oz (translated by Nicholas de Lange, Man Booker Prize 2017 long list)

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“The fact is that all the power in the world cannot transform someone who hates you into someone who likes you. It can turn a foe into a slave, but not into a friend. All the power in the world cannot transform a fanatic into an enlightened man. All the power in the world cannot transform someone thirsting for vengeance into a lover. And these are precisely the real existential challenges facing the State of Israel: how to turn a hater into a lover, a fanatic into a moderate, an avenger into a friend…Power has the power to prevent our annihilation for the time being. On condition that we always remember, at every moment, that in a situation like ours power can only prevent. It can’t settle anything and it can’t solve anything. It can only stave off disaster for awhile.” (p. 106)

I don’t suppose it matters if I agree with what Shmuel Ash writes in his notebook, with what he comes up with for his thesis, that Judas was “the first Christian. The last Christian. The only Christian.” My job is not to agree or disagree with Shmuel’s reasoning, or Oz’ writing, it is to absorb what he is saying and like Mary, to ponder it in my heart. For the concepts about Christianity (and Judaism) presented in Judas are fascinating to me, as I have been a Christian all my life and read the Bible all the way through for more years than I can remember.

It is not my understanding that the disciples “were hungry for power, and in the end, like all those who are hungry for power, they became shedders of blood.” (p. 137)

But, this novel is not a religious treatise, and we do need to look at some of the characters.

Shmuel Ash, who lived in Tel Azra, has come to live in Rabbi Elbaz Lane in Sha’arei Hesed in order to be a caretaker for Gershom Wald. Shmuel first steps into the meticulously kept home over a rickety stair which seems to symbolize much that is unsettling to him, and the home’s inhabitants, throughout the novel. For each has quite a story which is disclosed bit by bit as we read on.

Shmuel is attracted to Atalia, a woman in her forties who also lives there. She was married to Gershom Wald’s only son, Micha, who was killed during an assault on a mountainside on April 2, 1948 when he was only 37 years old. Now she lives with her father-in-law, hiring caretakers for him as they seem to fall in love with her then move on when they encounter her resistance.

The traitor in this novel is her deceased father, Shealtiel Abravanel, a man who was disgraced by being thrown out of both the Zionist Executive Committee and the Council of the Jewish Agency because he believed that they had “all deviated from the path,” and were carried away by David Ben-Gurion’s “lunacy”. (p. 205)

He was firm in his belief that Zionism could not be achieved through confrontation with the Arabs, whereas I had understood by the end of the forties that it could not be achieved without some such confontration. (p. 206, Gershom Wald speaking to Shmuel about Abravanel)

How easy it is for any of us to become a traitor, especially when we follow today’s rhetoric to follow you heart. For “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” Jeremiah 17:9 (a quote sprinkled throughout the text.) How easy it is to be blind to any truth but our own, to betray the ones we love.

The themes of Arab opposition, Jewish denial of Jesus as savior, and the intricacies of a family in the Land of Israel make this an extremely powerful book. It is as pertinent to us today as it was in the 40s, indeed as it was in the times of the New Testament. Surely this is a most worthy contender for the Man Booker International Prize; it is one of my favorites on the long list.

Find more reviews at Winstonsdad’s Blog, David’s Book World, A Little Blog of Books, and Tony’s Reading List.

Judas by Amos Oz
Translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange
published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
320 pages