Amos Oz; Nicholas de Lange, trans.
  • Review
By – September 8, 2016

In Decem­ber 1959, an awk­ward but sweet grad­u­ate stu­dent who is depressed by his ex-girlfriend’s imme­di­ate mar­riage to anoth­er man, stalled in his stud­ies, and with­out mon­ey, Shmuel Ash decides to leave Jerusalem and aca­d­e­m­ic life. A stocky fig­ure wreathed in mass­es of curly hair, Shmuel hur­tles through the streets of the city with­out any direc­tion or notion of where he is going or what he will do next when he sees a notice seek­ing a com­pan­ion for an aging invalid.

Shmuel answers the ad and enters the lives of its two res­i­dents, Ger­shom Wald, an argu­men­ta­tive and loqua­cious retired teacher, and Atalia Abra­vanel, his secre­tive and allur­ing daugh­ter-in-law, in the dark house at the end of a lane on Jerusalem’s out­skirts. Through chance meet­ings with Atalia and long evenings with Wald, Shmuel learns what has brought them togeth­er to live out their lives in a ster­ile routine.

Inevitably Shmuel falls in love with Atalia, a love he knows will not be answered. But the love sto­ry is only one strand of this rich­ly tex­tured nov­el. In their night­ly con­ver­sa­tions Shmuel and Wald replay the his­to­ry of Israel and its for­ma­tion, informed by the argu­ments of Atalia’s dead father, labeled a trai­tor for his oppo­si­tion to the Jew­ish state and his vision of a Jew­ish-Arab state. Under­ly­ing that sto­ry is the sto­ry of Judas Iscar­i­ot, also labeled a trai­tor, the sub­ject of Shmuel’s sym­pa­thies and studies.

Amos Oz, whose ded­i­ca­tion to the two-state solu­tion has at times called his loy­al­ty into ques­tion, asks whether these men might be betrayed true believ­ers, men whose hearts were bro­ken by bold dreams that failed to come true.

Although Judas is set decades ago, its argu­ments are still rel­e­vant, and Oz’s char­ac­ters give them life, mak­ing Judas far rich­er than a nov­el of ideas. The char­ac­ters bear the scars of Israel’s his­to­ry, and Oz moves read­ers to both sym­pa­thy and under­stand­ing. Oz is also a mas­ter of descrip­tive writ­ing: his depic­tions of Jerusalem bring the read­er out into the city’s streets, feel­ing the chill of the rain and wor­ry­ing about slip­ping on the uneven stones. His sto­ry of the cru­ci­fix­ion, told by Judas, is a vis­cer­al, unfor­get­table retelling.

Oz, one of Israel’s most promi­nent and cel­e­brat­ed writ­ers, writes with grace and pow­er. Whether read as a love sto­ry, a com­ing-of-age nov­el, or sim­ply an array of thought-pro­vok­ing ideas, Judas will hold read­ers’ atten­tion through­out and linger in their minds long after the book is closed.

Relat­ed Content:

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions