(a neighborhood in West Jerusalem)
It is December, 1959, Shmuel Ash, an asthmatic university student preparing his thesis on “Jewish views of Jesus” decides to abandon his studies and leave the divided city of Jerusalem. Ash’s girlfriend, Yardena has decided to breakup with him and marry a previous boyfriend. With his research stalling, and learning that his father’s finances have been ruined over a lost court case he can no longer support his student lifestyle, so he decides to embark on what he hopes will be a coping journey. Shmuel is an overly sensitive and emotional individual who has doubts about his own virility and cannot avoid tears when he witnesses mundane events. He loves to debate others, but does not have any interest when people present their views, and he now finds himself at the age of twenty-five in crisis.
Upon posting a notice of the sale of his possessions, Shmuel sees an ad for a companion to a seventy year old cultured invalid offering a room and some money. Shmuel answers the ad in a house on the western fringe of Jerusalem and after speaking with Gershom Wald, a cantankerous intellectual who suffers a number of health issues, and his forty five year old daughter in law, Atalia Abravanel he decides to take the position. We will learn that Wald and Abravanel are haunted by the memories of two other people; Shealtiel Abravanel, Atalia’s dead father, and Micha, Atalia’s late husband killed in the 1948 War of Independence, who was also Wald’s son. Amos Oz’s new novel, JUDAS focuses on the three characters that are alive, but a number of those who have passed play a significant role in the story. The major part of the book consists of dialogue between Wald, Atalia, and Shmuel as they discuss religion, the proper role of Zionism, the legacy of the 1948 War, and issues pertaining to their private lives.
David Ben-Gurion, the Jewish leader during the 1948 War and Israeli Prime Minister plays an important role, almost as a foil for Oz. Shealtiel Abravanel, Atalia’s father had been a member of the Zionist Executive Committee and the Council of the Jewish Agency before and during the war and he was the only one who opposed Ben-Gurion’s approach toward the Palestinian Arabs, eventually being forced to resign from both positions. Oz uses Gershon Wald to debate the justification of a Jewish state. He presents Arab fears of the Jews through the words of Wald and in conversations with Shmuel he discusses his admiration for Ben-Gurion and his Zionist vision. For Oz, Ben-Gurion stands for the justification of the founding of the Jewish state. For the Palestinian people, the 1948 War is referred to as Al Naqba, or the Catastrophe. For Atalia and Wald, the same term applies because one person lost a son, and the other a husband, and with that undercurrent seemingly always be in the background.
In a sense Oz’s characters make the book a referendum on Ben-Gurion’s leadership. Wald and Shmuel debate whether Ben-Gurion was correct in his refusal to try and reach some sort of an accommodation with the Palestinians and forgo the concept of a Jewish state. In addition, Ben-Gurion agreed to the Sevres pact with the British and French leading up to the 1956 Suez War. A war that proved to be the death knell of Britain’s Middle East Empire, but it also linked Israel to two dying colonial powers (the French would eventually withdraw from Algeria in 1962), creating a schism with the United States, and elevated Nasser’s status at home and the Arab world to new heights.
Shmuel and Wald spend six hours each day talking, arguing, and listening to the news on the radio, and for Shmuel, he at times had to succumb to Wald’s soliloquies on numerous topics. Be it Darwinism, the concept of love and hate, the validity of medieval critiques of Jesus, the Crusades, the plight of the socialist revolution following the disclosures by Khrushchev concerning Stalin in February, 1956, or Shmuel’s thesis “Jewish views of Jesus,” Wald would hold court, but gradually Shmuel would respond in his own thoughtful manner. Further, Shmuel would listen each day as Wald would pontificate, sometimes with a malicious tone on the telephone for what seemed like hours on end to the two or three friends that he still maintained. Despite what some would see as an ordeal, Shmuel developed affection for Wald and their relationship flourished. But, what most gnawed at Shmuel was the secrecy that existed, particularly on the part of Atalia, with whom he develops a rather curious relationship. He seems to be falling in love with a woman twenty five years older than himself, and she continues crawl out of her shell, then subsumes herself to a life of bitterness.
Throughout much of the novel Oz puts forth meditations concerning the life and death of Jesus zeroing in on the writings that focus on the validity of Christianity and its place in history. Much of what Oz has to say emerges from Shmuel’s research, which centers on his understanding as to why the Jews rejected Christianity. For Shmuel, Jesus was not a Christian, he was born and died a Jew and it never crossed his mind to found a new religion. Christianity’s creation was the work of Paul and his cohorts and they invented its concepts and ceremonies. Shmuel believes if only the Jews had accepted Jesus, their history of persecution would not have taken place. The one thing Shmuel cannot come to terms with is why the Jews refused to accept him, since all Jesus wanted to do was “purify the Jewish faith of all sorts of self-satisfied cultic accretions that had attached themselves to it, all sorts of fatty protrusions that the priests had cultivated and that the Pharisees had burdened them with…. [The Jews] were groaning beneath the yoke of the rich, bloated priesthood in Jerusalem.” (113)
The concept of betrayal goes to the core of Oz’s thought process. We witness it almost from the outset of the novel. Shmuel fantasizes about replacing his parents with people he can relate to on a different level. Shmuel’s grandfather may have been a double agent during World War II for the British. Obviously, Judas’ actions toward Jesus. The entire discussion concerning Atalia’s father involving his “treasonous” acts against the creation of the state of Israel, Ben-Gurion, and the Jewish people. Lastly, Atalia’s behavior for her job recounts a number of examples of betrayal as are her feelings for Shmuel, particularly as the novel comes to a close.
In summation, the novel is a journey for Shmuel Ash that takes him to a secluded place where he meets two individuals suffering from loss. All three characters seem to be at different stages of the Eriksonian life cycle with different needs and roles to play in each other’s lives. They argue, love each other in their own way and produce affection that will linger, in a sense love that each person could not fathom three months earlier as Shmuel enters Atalia and Gershon’s lives. Oz orchestrates the journey, he begins it, and knows when to bring it to a conclusion.
(West Jerusalem, Israel)