Judas. Amos Oz.

Oz, Amos. Judas. Original publication in Hebrew 2014. Translation by Nicholas De Lange Houghton Mifflin New York, 2016. F;01/19.

There is a lot going on in and around this book, the author of which I encountered in the New Yorker who there published what must be one of his last short stories All Rivers. Oz died quite recently (December 28, 2018) of cancer. The short story was about an unattainable mysterious woman and a young male protagonist. Judas has that too, but it pulls in Israeli politics, Judeo-Christian religion, tradition, loneliness, war, isolation, and coming-of-age along with romantic love.

In 1959 Jewish independence was established but the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was just getting going, and the iconic founder of an Israeli state in Palestine, David Ben-Gurion, was prime minister. Shmuel Ash is a twentyish student in Jerusalem who drops out of his political philosophy program because his dad has had financial trouble and Shmuel’s girlfriend has married another man. Bereft, he answers an ad to be a caretaker for an elderly man, and finds in the dark Jerusalem house Atalia the daughter-in-law responsible for the old man and the man himself who form the environment for Shmuel’s winter experience and the substance of the story.

Atalia is twice the boy’s age but attractive, mysterious, and (to Shmuel) hopelessly unobtainable. The development of the relationship between them is a big part of the novel’s charm. Then there’s Shmuel’s contact (as his job) with the father-in-law Gershom Wald, a crabby iconoclastic philosophy-minded broken heart whose son (husband of Atalia) was killed in Israeli-Palestine warfare.

The metaphor involving Judas entangles the archetypal betrayer (this one of which may have been more faithful and much more important to the Christian faith than the other disciples) with Shmuel’s abandoned academic thesis about the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, and a sort of humanistic conciliation that would encompass all comers which had been advocated by Atalia’s father, now deceased:

…had it not been for Judas, there might not have been a crucifixion, and had there been no crucifixion, there would have been no Christianity.

Sour old Wald delivers some interesting aphorisms, like this one on love in the abstract:

…if a man comes to me and declares that he loves all the undeveloped countries, or that he loves Latin America, or that he loves the female sex—that is not love, it is rhetoric. Lip service. A slogan.

There is the requisite Jewish humour. A ne’er-do-well in a bar understands his indebtedness so:

I’ve never borrowed a cent from Ilya Schwarzbaum. And I never would. He’s a loathsome individual. A miserable Jewish go-between for all sorts of building sites and depots. Secondly, as I’ve already told you at least twice, I’ll repay him when I’ve got money. If I get money.

Shmuel and Atalia’s sexy dance is between a pair of literary stereotypes. She the hurt middle-aged sceptical distant woman (“I’m getting rather tired of people with feelings. It seems to me that all feelings are unnecessary and end badly”) and the wee-bit schlemiel twentyish Schmuel, with his sentimental heart (on a late-night walk he encounters an apparently starving “gray-white cat, not very big, little more than a kitten, in fact, soft and warm and woolly to the touch. As Shmuel’s hand stroked it, a low, steady purring sound broke from its throat.”)

And wandering around at night dreaming of Atalia Shmuel he isn’t unaware of some serious adult issues:

of a young rabbinical student He said to him in his heart: You and I are both searching for something that has no fixed measure. And for that reason we will not find it even if we search till morning and the next night and every night to come until the day of our death, and maybe after that.

A conservative Jewish friend of mine waved aside Oz as “the darling of the left and the New York Times.” No question his two-states political stance on the interminable Palestinian-Israeli conflict is conciliatory. But I see something more to this very Jewish novel than being nice to people and everybody getting along. It’s charming, intelligent, and for me reminiscent of fiction from the mid-to-late 20th century like that of Ondaatje and even Cunningham, but not quite at their best. The New Yorker short story was better, I’d say.

Worth the trouble: 8.9/8.8.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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