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The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Louise Adler

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,

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