on Jews and Words, by Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger (Yale University Press)

In The Book of Dialogue, the Jewish poet Edmond Jabès wrote, “Judaism warrants that the written belongs to the unwritten as well as the unwritten to the written, because Utterance means book to the Jew, and book, an ever-resumed reading of his fate.” Born in Cairo, Jabès fled to Paris in 1957 when Egypt expelled its Jewish population during the Suez war. Judaism coheres through history, from Paris back to Cairo and then back centuries through wanderings and exiles, because the Jew keeps turning to the book, and keeps making books, to try to understand what is happening. Initially, there was a revelation: God said, “I am.” He revealed himself to the elders. Everything since that startling pronouncement has been commentary.

OzCover.jpeg“Ours is not a bloodline but a textline,” write the novelist Amoz Oz and his historian daughter Fania Oz-Salzberger in Jews and Words. They continue, “Very early in exilic history, Jewish families understood that they must act as relays of national memory embedded in written texts.” The children inherited not only a faith but a library. Literacy mattered as means of cultural survival. Education “was spirited, it was playful, it was about ideas, it encouraged curiosity, and it required reading … What kept the Jews going were the books. So when you ran for your life from a massacre and pogrom, from burning home and synagogue, it was children and books you took with you.”

OzBoth.jpegFather and daughter Oz are secular Jews whose “Jewish identity is not faith-powered.” They are Israelis whose daily tongue is Hebrew. They make no special claims for the Jews. "There is nothing mystical or miraculous – nothing divine – about Jewish continuities,” they say. “We do not admire, let alone worship, our great forebears. A few ancient Athenians are dearer to our hearts than most biblical Israelites.” With a novelist’s fervor, Amos Oz believes that words create reality; there is the singularity of experience, but until it becomes story, it is unsharable:

“There is something singular in the past-gazing creativeness of those multitudes of literate Jews, their cumulative records, and their capacity to keep talking and making sense to each other across vast stretches of time, across languages and across cultures. They are all talking to one another. Like a constant argument at a never-ending Sabbath meal, it is not likeability or like-mindedness that keeps the flame alive; it is the lexicon of great issues and deep familiarities.”

Jews and Words first makes its case for literary continuity. Then, even while conceding the patriarchal nature of Jewish teaching, the authors go on to consider how women have enhanced the tradition. “Jewish women were often silenced,” they write, yet by the late nineteenth century, they “may have been the most enthusiastic readers in Europe.” This occurred because “when books could finally become domesticized, kept in the family home, three great changes began to occur: in the content and rituals of the family home, in the character and genres of books, and in the women, who were finally granted proximity to written words.”

OzGaza.jpgIn the first chapter, the authors seem to reveal the impetus for the book – a concern that secular Jews in the West are recoiling from all things biblical and Talmudic, identifying them with the “nationalist and triumphalist” tendencies of the most ugly aspects of Israeli society. As George Steiner once put it, “It is the logical flaw in Zionism, a secular-political movement, to invoke a theological-scriptural mystique to which it cannot, in avowed truth, subscribe.” The Oz’es seem to agree when they point out that Jewish history is built of words, not geography. Amos Oz recently labeled Israel “an apartheid state” while castigating the Netanyahu government. In Jews and Words, he comments further:

“We cannot ignore the political meaning of our claim to a Jewish textline, and our belief in the superiority of books over material remains. Our sense of a Jewish history, which indeed springs from the Bible, does not needs the Bible to stand for God’s own word. Nor do we require it to be ‘historically accurate” … Nor do we have any ideological use for the biblical Jerusalem to be a glorious city of great edifices. Our inheritance is compiled of a few modest geographical markers and a great bookshelf.”

OzWBooks.jpgAs the authors note, Zionism was supposed to put an end to Jewish victimhood and the bloodiness of history. “In some ways, it did. Triumphally,” they write. “But thus far, contrary to the founders’ better hopes, most Israeli Jews are still intimate with both combat and victimhood.” Elsewhere, Amos Oz has frequently reiterated his belief that “in terms of collective Jewish creativity, the post-Holocaust Diaspora has been barren. Individual Jewish creators – to the extent that they remain Jewish, that is – are still living on the collective creativity of the non-existent Jewish centers of eastern and Central Europe. They are living on an overdraft.”

Indeed, when I first read the title Jews and Words, I was expecting a book about modern literary output, comedic language, and all things Jewishy in the arts and entertainment. Perhaps the book would have been more accurately titled as Jews and Texts -- because the Oz’es are making a different sort of appeal. They are asking for nothing less than a reorientation of Jewish culture towards its textual heritage: “Jews and their words are so much more than Judaism.”

OzScripture.jpegLiterature represents our attempt to capture an elusive or hidden reality and to explain human experience. The Oz’es see the ancient texts in the same light. Inquiry and argument, illumination and murk. No wonder they find a colleague in Spinoza, who was kicked out of his synagogue’s community for his “brave denial of biblical authority over metaphysical truth and historical narrative.” The Oz’es are arguing against traditional orthodoxies of all sorts, the dangerously political and fundamentalist, but also the thoughtlessly conventional. They assert, “We were not a people because we thought so and so, but because we read so and so.”

[Published November 20, 2012. 248 pages, $25.00 hardcover]