Jews and Words

Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger

  • Review
By – November 7, 2012

This uncon­ven­tion­al book-length essay, filled with chutz­pah, wis­dom, humor, and com­mon sense, posits a stun­ning the­sis about the Jew­ish expe­ri­ence across time and space. The authors argue that Jew­ish civ­i­liza­tion is not defined the­o­log­i­cal­ly or racial­ly, but tex­tu­al­ly. They take the expres­sion Peo­ple of the Book” both lit­er­al­ly and fig­u­ra­tive­ly. How­ev­er, the book” is not mere­ly the Jew­ish Bible; nor is it the Bible plus its Tal­mu­dic after­math. It is the tex­tu­al con­tin­u­um” of trans­mit­ted writ­ten and spo­ken expres­sion over the cen­turies. It is a heavy­weight con­tin­u­um of book­ish­ness – of both reli­gious and sec­u­lar writ­ing and read­ing – that dis­tin­guish­es col­lec­tive Jew­ish identity.

Not that the authors have much respect for col­lec­tive notions of Judaism; they pre­fer a focus on Jew­ish indi­vid­u­als: end­less­ly radi­at­ing links between par­ents and chil­dren, teach­ers and stu­dents, writ­ers and read­ers. They savor the push and pull of argu­ment, of ver­bal engage­ment, of striv­ing for the last word. All func­tion­al fam­i­lies,” they write, depend upon putting dis­agree­ments into words.” But espe­cial­ly Jew­ish fam­i­lies – and the embrac­ing Jew­ish Family.

While trac­ing the Jew­ish pecu­liar­i­ty” of sto­ry­telling as a text-anchored pre­cept,” the authors, father and daugh­ter, pro­vide copi­ous his­tor­i­cal exam­ples and inci­sive gloss­es on those examples.

The essay has four major focal points devel­oped in chap­ters titled Con­ti­nu­ity,” Vocal Women,” Time and Time­less­ness,” and Each Per­son Has a Name; or, Do Jews Need Judaism?” With­in each, there are abun­dant cere­bral sur­pris­es, often inter­wo­ven, always pas­sion­ate­ly atten­tive to intel­lec­tu­al nuance and lit­er­ary grace.

The authors have added mean­ing­ful­ly and joy­ful­ly to the con­tin­u­um they cel­e­brate. Read­ers will come away from this entranc­ing med­i­ta­tion need­ing to add com­ments of their own.

Epi­logue, index of names, sources.

Relat­ed Content:

Philip K. Jason is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of Eng­lish at the Unit­ed States Naval Acad­e­my. A for­mer edi­tor of Poet Lore, he is the author or edi­tor of twen­ty books, includ­ing Acts and Shad­ows: The Viet­nam War in Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary Cul­ture and Don’t Wave Good­bye: The Chil­dren’s Flight from Nazi Per­se­cu­tion to Amer­i­can Free­dom.

Discussion Questions