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Micah Reader in December 2017 by Brenda Levenson
The English translation of Amos Oz’s novel Judas was published in 2016. The story, which takes place in 1959, addresses Christianity, religion and politics, issues that were bound to draw our group into a lively discussion by their complexity.
Shmuel Ash occupies center stage of the novel. A young biblical scholar working on a dissertation about Judas, Shmuel leaves the university in Jerusalem after finding out that his father has lost all his money, even though the family situation does not seem to be a valid excuse for his decision. Without a place to live and little money, Shmuel responds to an ad to be a companion to an elderly man, help him with his meals and more. Free room and board come with the job. Shmuel’s “patient” is the brilliant Gershom Wald who keeps himself entertained by holding long arguments with a number of people over the phone. The other occupant in the well-maintained but old house is Atalia Abravanel, whose connection to Gershom Wald is disclosed later in the novel.
Shmuel ‘s functions, to which Atalia introduces him, are to follow a strict routine, which Oz emphasizes through repetition of the daily schedule. The advantage is that Wald’s schedule provides time for Shmuel to continue work on his dissertation.
The topic of Shmuel’s dissertation led us into a discussion of Christianity, some of us disputing Shmuel’s claim that the religion would not have spread as it did, or even caught on, had Judas not been condemned as a traitor. As we know, it is partially to Paul of Tarsus (1st century of the C.E.) and more so to the Roman emperor Constantine (4th century of the CE) that the world owes the spread of Christianity when he declared it the religion of the Roman Empire, a brilliant political act.
This rich novel where politics compete with religion, allegedly reflects Amos Oz’s opinions on the many issues he tackles. A quotation by Chaim Weitzmann that Amos Oz cites: “If it (Israel) is a state, it will not be Jewish, and if it is Jewish, it will certainly not be a state” led us to discussion about Israel and its future. The mysterious and seductive Atalia was a subject of interest, as was her late father, Shealtiel Abravanel, modeled on a Zionist leader who died in disgrace.
Our readers commented on the “beautiful writing” of the book and how “descriptive” it is, whether Oz is describing Atalia’s clothes, a stray alley cat Shmuel befriends briefly on one of his evening walks, or the silent streets of Jerusalem at night. In a public radio interview some years ago, Oz talked about his close collaboration with Nicholas de Lange, his long-time translator.
Several in our group noted that all three characters of the novel are depressed, which led us to cite the author’s memoir, A Tale of Light and Darkness, in which Oz tells of his depressed mother who committed suicide when he was a young boy, and of his difficult childhood, living with his father. As one of our readers added, most of Oz’s subjects in all his novels suffer from depression, which does not diminish the rank of Amos Oz as one of the giants of Israeli literature.