I enjoy reading books by writers from other cultures such as ancient Greek tales by Homer and Hesiod and even the earlier one called Gilgamesh, the latter making me think more deeply about the biblical Noah; novels from Spanish writers filled with magical realism, which helps me understand prophecy; books by a French Jewish Nobel Prize winner, and other books by prize winners. I find that they open my mind. I read nonfiction also, of course, but I find that fiction frequently is able to both soar and plumite, to see and say things nonfiction cannot do. I also enjoy novels written in Israel by Israeli authors. I find that they frequently reveal matters about Israel that go deeper than what is in newspapers and history books, and those with current events. Amos Oz books do that.
By Amos Oz
Amos Oz’s 2016 English version of his 2014 Hebrew “Judas,” expertly translated by Nicholas Lange, is, just as his over two dozen other books, a work of art, a thoughtful story written in splendid prose.
It is 1959 and early 1960 in Jerusalem, a city that at that time, before the 1967 war that reclaimed Jerusalem for Jews, was surrounded by Jordanians on three sides. It is winter, cold. People are somber. Oz captures the atmosphere of the time.
A young man, Shmuel Ash, a socialist, the main character of the novel, is unable to continue his university studies because his father, who was supporting him, goes bankrupt. He believes that this is why he quit. But while the family has no money, his father and mother are encouraging Shmuel to take a job and support himself and use the funds to complete his MA and move forward to his PhD, which his professor tells him there is a good chance he will get. The professor also offers to help him. But for some reason, Shmuel is unable to continue.
He takes a job caring for an elderly man who is sad, embittered, and dissatisfied. The man had lost his son in the 1948 war of Israel’s Independence. Shmuel’s job is to speak with him several hours every day. He is offered a small sum of money and free lodging. There are three people in the house: he, the elderly man, and a widow Atalia Abravanel was the wife of the son of the elderly man. He falls in love with the widow who is 45 years old, twice his age. The old man warns him not to fall in love with her. He tells Shmuel that he is not his first caretaker. There were three other caretakers before him. They also fell in love with her. She rejected them all. The old man tells Shmuel that she will die, as she wants to do, unmarried.
Atalia seems as embittered as her father-in-law. She was married to his son for two years. Her husband had joined the military despite the strong opposition of his wife, his father, and his wife’s father. He died after being captured by Arabs, tortured, and having his penis cut off and placed in his mouth.
Atalia’s father strongly and persistently believed that Jews and Arabs can live together, and the Jews should therefore not try to establish a state. He was rejected and reviled by Jews and Arabs whom he tried to help.
At the university and still now, Shmuel was fascinated by Judas, the disciple of Jesus. His understanding of Judas’ story and Judas’ actions explain the thinking and behaviors of all the characters in the novel. Contrary to what is stated or implied in the New Testament, Shmuel is convinced that Judas loved Jesus. He was the true disciple of Jesus, closer to Jesus than the other disciples. He was convinced that he would find a way to publicize the divinity of Jesus. He persuaded Jesus to let himself be hung on a pole by the Romans, but after hanging for a while, step away from the pole showing he could not be killed. This act, Judas told Jesus, will impress people and bring thousands to his side. Unfortunately, his plan did not work.
When Jesus died, Judas was considered a traitor. He was reviled by everyone. Despite his good intentions, despite his hard work, despite his many attempts to help others, nothing good came of his efforts. He, Judas, was seen by too-many Christians as the only Jew among Christians, and they hated other Jews because of him, for they see Judas and all Jews as traitors.
Readers will find it interesting to compare the thinking and acts of all the characters in 1959 Jerusalem with the youth’s understanding of Judas. They will also be interested in discovering what happens to all of the people in the book.