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JEWS and Words is the product of a lifelong dialogue between renowned Israeli novelist Amos Oz and his historian daughter Fania Oz-Salzberger. Collaborations between writers are often fascinating, although the participants rarely explain the nuts and bolts.
Who wrote what? Who edited whom? How cogent can the dialogue between a novelist and a historian be? How does a daughterscholar speak to a father-storyteller? These questions hover over this collection of four coauthored essays but remain unresolved for this curious reader.
The father-daughter authors contend the history of the Jews is written not as a ‘‘ bloodline, but as a text line’’, that the continuity across generations is created by the reading of shared texts. Both proudly declare themselves secular, atheist Israelis whose first language is Hebrew. Each of the essays proposes that Jewish identity is founded on the word, books and reading.
While not disavowing Jewish exceptionalism, the sum of these disquisitions on textuality, biblical Jewish heroines, timelessness and identity is an argument for the remarkable literarity of the Jews. The primacy of education and learning is asserted, evidenced by the fact that every boy from the age of three to 13 goes to cheder, traditional school teaching the basics of Judaism and the Hebrew language, regardless of class, status or geography.
A continuity is thus established between the
FBy Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger Yale University Press, 224pp, $32.95 (HB) sages of the Second Temple and the Jewish thinkers of the 19th and 20th centuries, from Karl Marx, Heinrich Heine and Sigmund Freud to Jacques Derrida.
The tradition is deeply filial. But it isn’t deferential; it is interrogatory, argumentative even, encouraging the students’ attempts to prevail intellectually over their teachers. The authors occasionally lapse into sentimentality in celebrating this tradition: ‘‘ Fathers and teachers read. Sons and students listened, sang, spoke and memorised. Mothers and daughters sat at the family table where literacy was dished out and served. Somehow we do not believe they were passed.’’ Really?
The definition of a Jewish holiday is: ‘‘ They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.’’ Jewish holidays, like the cheder, enabled intellectual and physical nourishment, sustaining body and mind. Through the millennia of exile, parents exhorted children to remember and pass on the stories.
Books were vehicles for the transmission of legal, religious and moral codes through the generations. ‘‘ Children were made to inherit not only a faith, not only a collective fate, not only the irreversible mark of circumcis- ion, but also the formative stamp of a library.’’
These essays offer some fine literary exegesis, including a reflection on the Jewish habit of answering a question with a question. In the great primal story of Cain and Abel, God asks Cain: ‘‘ Where is Abel your brother?’’ And Cain is accorded the accolade of the first man to answer a question with a question: ‘‘ Am I my brother’s keeper?’’
The authors call themselves the Atheists of the Book, sharing with believers a firm conviction in the sanctity of words. The Jews are described as a talkative people, the proof in the direct lineage of Abraham to Jerry Seinfeld. Reason, debate, persuasion are the traditional means of communication. Unlike the Gentile relish in physical prowess, Jews prefer the sport of word games, puns and bon mots. The Gentile reaches for a ball, the Jew for a dictionary. Jewish jokes are more verbal than physical, which is why apparently pantomime is un-Jewish.
Jews and Words asserts the uniqueness of Jewish culture and tradition. In the quieter moments — and there aren’t many in this talkative ethno-specific text — a sceptical reader might consider that Jesuits could make a similar claim on behalf of their tradition with its reverence for intellectual rigour.
I hope it was Amos Oz who insisted on the inclusion of an essay on ‘‘ vocal women’’. From a deeply patriarchal culture, the authors make a valiant effort to reclaim a lineage of powerful Jewish heroines: Lillith, Sarah,