Book Review | jews and words
the lower-case jew
Every online bookseller, from Barnes & Noble to Amazon to Abebooks.com, lists the title incorrectly. So does the publisher, Yale University Press. The new book by Amos Oz and his daughter Fania Oz-Salzberger is not Jews and Words, it’s jews and words. As we shall see, in this case—lower case—size matters.
Together, Oz père et fille comprise a festival of ironies. They’re biblical scholars who have jettisoned the faith of their ancestors (“atheists of the Book” is their self-description); serious academics who like to retell jokes; Hebrew speakers who live in Israel but choose to collaborate in English.
Famous Amos is one of the Jewish state’s most respected novelists. And his reputation is not confined to Israel—for the past several years he’s been on the short list for the Nobel Prize in Literature. As a political thinker, however, he has found himself marginalized: The Peace Now movement, which he co-founded, grew more irrelevant with each Hamas missile fired from Gaza. Perhaps that’s why his 20th book gazes so intently in the rear-view mirror. In it, the Oz professors—he of literature, she of history—examine the reasons for Jewish perseverance and prominence for three millennia and counting.
Is it because the Jews are God’s chosen people? According to the authors, divine inspiration had nothing to do with it. Words were responsible—and only words, invented, articulated and eventually written in biblical form by human beings. Verbs, adverbs, adjectives, nouns, pronouns, etc. led to literacy, and literacy led to enlightenment.
From early times onward, when danger threatened, the Jews first grabbed their children and then they grabbed the Good Book. While in flight, and when settling in new places, they scoured the Pentateuch for wisdom. In it they read sentences, paragraphs, chapters, poetry, prose. These could be thunderous and seemingly eternal, as in the story of Abraham: “I have made you the father of a multitude of nations,” saith the Lord. Or they could be world-weary and seemingly modern, as in Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” The authors regard neither quote as valid.
Atheists would of course have no use for the first. As for the second, say the professors, “Ecclesiastes’s sense that time is meaningless was not at all typical of Israelite writers before him or Jewish writers after him. We think that it is still out of character today.” The Viennese therapist Viktor Frankl, for example, having survived Theresienstadt and Auschwitz, “still had more use for the word hope than despair, in his Man’s Search for Meaning. Likewise Mischa, in Jurek Becker’s Jacob the Liar, tells himself and his fellow ghetto inmates, “‘It does not make sense to speak of the future.’”
The genocide of World War II, they continue, “did not produce a latter-day Ecclesiastes. Suicides, yes. Individuals who lost the battle for meaning, yes. But no one wrote, after Auschwitz, anything akin to ‘there is nothing new under the sun.’ Somehow the circularity or repetitiveness of history was no longer an option.”
Again and again, as this small but wide-ranging volume demonstrates, Jews, ancient and modern, have shuttled between the terminals of faith and doubt. “Think of the Abraham-to-Seinfeld, or the Sarah-to-Hannah Arendt, proneness to argument. Jewish literature, from scripture to stand-up, displays a recurring love of the counterproposition, the answerback, the chutzpah. And this talkative irreverence is rooted in a constant habit of rational (if emotive) deliberation, and a deep sense of the importance of words.”
Thus the characters of the Bible wrestled with angels, metaphorical and celestial. Thus Talmudic scholars wrangled with the meaning—or meaninglessness—of a phrase. Thus Einstein redefined time and space yet posited that God did not play dice with the universe. Thus Freud labeled his father’s religion “an illusion,” yet remained a member of B’nai Brith and collected Jewish jokes. Thus Isaac Bashevis Singer resurrected the shtetls and pieties of his childhood, yet added demons and imps of his own invention. Thus in
Annie Hall Woody Allen speaks of an existential dread, yet expresses it in Jewish locutions:
NINE-YEAR-OLD ALVY: The universe is expanding.
DOCTOR: The universe is expanding?
ALVY: Well, the universe is everything, and if it’s expanding, someday it will break apart and that would be the end of everything!
ALVY’S MOTHER: What is that your business? [To the doctor:] He stopped doing his homework!
ALVY: What’s the point?
ALVY’S MOTHER: What has the universe got to do with it? You’re here in Brooklyn! Brooklyn is not expanding!
The authors go on to note wisely that “Jewish humor is almost always verbal, and thus it is characteristically far more Groucho than Harpo.” And not only humor. The verbs denoting “speak,” “say” or “talk” appear in the Bible more than 6,000 times, making the utterance of words its most common activity. “By comparison, the verb for ‘make’ or ‘do’ has fewer than 2,000 appearances.”
And yet…and yet. As erudite as the Oz team is, when it comes time to define just what characterizes the Jewish mind, the Jewish tradition—indeed, Judaism itself, their book is suddenly at a loss for words. “Who is a Jew?” they inquire. Answer: “Whoever is wrestling with the question, ‘Who is a Jew?’” This is droll enough for a sophisticated Broadway comedy but insufficient for a self-defined “essay on Judaism.” It’s also…well, debatable. The Catholic historians Thomas Cahill and Paul Johnson, for example, wrote scintillating and respectful histories of the Jews; both wrestled with that question. So did Christians such as Woodrow Wilson, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Winston Churchill, as well as the skeptical Mark Twain and the radical unbeliever Jean-Paul Sartre.
Moreover, in their anxiety to appear as hip as iPhones, the authors overuse techie terminology: Hebrew, “rebooted into existence” is “the greatest linguist startup in modern times.” Eve “kick-starts human history” by luring Adam to the tree of knowledge. This only serves to make their little book seem a bit overcaffeinated and underdeveloped.
But those are minor quibbles. I have two major ones. The first is their continual slighting of the religious element in Judaism. A fervent trust in Jehovah—carefully spelled G-d and followed by the phrase “Blessed be he” in Orthodox texts, underlies most Jewish writings up to and including the 20th century, even after the Holocaust (see Elie Wiesel’s long shelf of works that sometimes puts Jehovah on trial but never rejects Him).
The 21st century, as the authors are at pains to indicate, is another matter. “As Jewish atheists,” they write, “we take religion to be a great human invention.” As such, it is “neither falsehood nor forgery.” A skeptic might regard the Jewish scriptures “like other holy texts, as an apocryphal web of prejudices.” A Marxist “might deem them tools of oppression, although in this case the oppressors were, nebbish, no grander than a convoy of frail and tattered rabbis.” A multiculturalist would find “nothing in the Bible that is less or more interesting than any other ethnocultural endeavor.” In any case, pace millions of Jewish believers, there’s nothing sacred in the sacred writings.
As the authors see it, the ancient Jewish religion is gradually withering away, to be replaced by a benign, well-educated secular humanism. If only the world were populated by people like Amos and Fania, they would not only be correct, they would find themselves the leaders of a great new movement, fusing scholarship and tolerance.
Alas, their title undercuts their assertions. Case in point: T. S. Eliot’s “Gerontion”:
My house is a decayed house,
and the jew squats on the window sill, the owner,
Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp,
Blistered in Brussels, patched and peeled in London…
Note the use of the lower case. In his notoriously anti-Semitic poem, Eliot did the same thing the authors have done, reducing the Jew to the jew. That’s something the Nobel Laureate never tried with any other religious or ethnic group.
Surely the Oz family knows that to a literate audience—or to an illiterate one for that matter—a capital letter indicates esteem. A minuscale letter implies the very opposite. (As if to atone for their insensitivity, the authors capitalize “Jews” and “Jewish” throughout the text.) If there is any doubt about the case of cases, see how anything Jewish is literally downgraded on the Internet’s most virulent hate sites.
Although jews and words obviously means well, the typography of one word in the title could be used to make a great deal of unintended mischief. Ergo: On the one hand, this notable work belongs on the shelf of any civilized Jew, indeed any civilized gentile, secular or religious. On the other hand, after centuries, the Yiddish proverb still has a message for both groups—and for the authors: Verter zol men vegn un nit tseyln. Words should be weighed, not counted.
Stefan Kanfer is the author of social histories, biographies and novels, the latest of which is The Eskimo Hunts in New York.