Judas, Amos Oz’s last novel, is set in Jerusalem during the winter of 1960, a turning point in the author’s career. My Michael, his first novel, is set in this year; it too is set in a Jerusalem of stray cats. There too the protagonist’s fingers are “short and chubby,” and one of the principal characters breaks an ankle after tripping down the stairs.
Despite its uneventful storyline, Judas is the sum total of the themes and ideas that prevailed across Amos Oz’s 60-year career. Shmuel Ash, a 25-year-old student, has dropped out of university. His heart has been broken, and he has failed to make headway in his research on Judas Iscariot. In any case, he is obliged to find gainful employment after his father falls into financial difficulties. Ash moves in with Gershom Wald, a disabled elderly man, and Atalia, an attractive middle-aged woman. In exchange for some basic services—making tea, feeding the fish, and most especially conversing with the old man for several hours every night—the student receives in return accommodation, a meager salary, and the opportunity to fall in love. Later on, the reader learns that Atalia’s father rejected Jewish statehood in favor of some supranational vision, and was summarily expelled from the Zionist Executive. Her husband, however, gave up his life to the Jewish state: he was killed during the legendary battle at Sha’ar Hagay on the outskirts of Jerusalem—the gateway to redemption.
Judas touches on the notion of treason, Jewish-Christian relations, the character of Judas Iscariot, and the justice of Zionism. Beneath this, however, runs a deeper, philosophical thread, about time and feeling.
Shaltiel Abravanel, Atalia’s recalcitrant father, spoke out at length against the nation-state as a concept, and against a Jewish state in particular. “The very idea of a world divided into hundreds of states with border crossings, barbed wire fences, passports, flags, armies and separate currencies seemed to him like an archaic, primitive, murderous delusion, an anachronistic idea that would soon disappear…soon all states are going to be vanish, to be replaced by various communities speaking different languages living side by side with each other, among each other, without the lethal toys of sovereignty, armies and border crossings and all sorts of deadly weaponry…Maybe the Arab fear of what appeared to them as the ambitious Zionist scheme to Judaise the whole land would gradually be dispelled…And in this way, not in a single day or a single year, the first shoots of trust and even personal friendship between Jews and Arabs might sprout.”
One must be patient, he says. Things will emerge gradually. And not just with statecraft. The reassessment of the notion of time is but one process that Shmuel Ash passes through. When the reader first encounters him, he is a breathless and impatient student suffering from asthma; he nurses a revolutionary zeal, but is quickly exhausted. Later in the book, however, his paces slows, so much so that he is even compared to a hibernating animal. His resignation from the quotidian struggle of his daily life, and retreat into the belowground isolation of his new dwelling, seems to suggest just that; hibernation is not just sleep after all, but also a constant lowering, of the heart beat and the rate of respiration.
Amos Oz makes repeated yet understated references to the dangers of speed and recklessness. The woes experienced by his characters all occur with tremendous speed, or are the result of overzealous behavior.
Judas itself passes through a similar process, of slowing down then rejuvenation. It opens with short punchy chapters, two to four pages apiece, each offering swift condensed doses of information. One scene follows rapidly after another, rather like the trailer to an action movie. But then the pace transforms, so radically that the plotline could reasonably be compared to a person’s lifespan—a jittery child in the beginning, ending up with the slow, measured steps of a nonagenarian.
Amos Oz makes repeated yet understated references to the dangers of speed and recklessness. The woes experienced by his characters all occur with tremendous speed, or are the result of overzealous behavior. Shmuel’s parents lost all their savings in one fell swoop, and he himself is injured because he rushes to be with Atalia: “If you didn’t run you wouldn’t hurt yourself… You had no reason to run.” Shmuel is then horrified by the extreme brevity of intercourse with Atalia, his first physical contact with a woman for a long time. So brief, it seems to him like it had ended before it even started.
A similar anxiety drives Shaltiel Abravanel. After a 2000-year hibernation period, he fears that the Jews’ unmeasured reconnection with their land (in the form of a sovereign state) will end as quickly as it began. The Zionist enterprise, for him, is unsustainable. They will be burned, just as the impatient Gershom Wald burns his tongue by not waiting from his tea to cool. Easy come, easy go.
Indeed, impatience is perhaps the most Israeli attribute. It characterizes how people drive, queue, talk to one another (disregard for others is one of the novel’s main themes). We’ve waited two thousand years and can wait no more. The Zionists were advised to wait a bit longer, the ultra-Orthodox were worried about the theological implications; but the founding fathers were done waiting. Sometimes, one needs to act quickly and decisively, Wald tells Abravanel, his rival. Ben-Gurion detected a rare window of opportunity and quickly seized it, knowing that otherwise the Jewish people would be left without a land of their own. Across Judas, the choice between recklessness and measured slowness is always resolved in favor of the latter. There are very few events, reported sparsely and only accounted for retroactively. Like elsewhere in Oz’s oeuvre, feeling trumps action.
At first glance, one is tempted to suggest that Judas is overly sentimental, laden with kitsch even. I’ve already mentioned the ubiquity of cats, perhaps the most powerful magnets of cheap popularity. Shmuel is described as walking around “cuddled” in the rain-drenched and windswept streets of Jerusalem; it’s safe to assume that more than one reader would feel compelled to hug him. Wald’s agony is “stifled,” and emits “a slight smell of agedness” rather than stench per se (Kundera once wrote that “kitsch is the absolute denial of shit”). The wind blowing through the cypress trees is “light”; the music is “soft,” and a shot fired by a Jordanian sniper only amplifies the silence of the alleys. It is, of course, a “lone” shot, echoing the loneliness of the protagonists, perhaps also mankind in general. In his loneliness, Shmuel Ash pictures the inside of Atalia’s dimly lit bedroom, off-limits to him. The walls of Jerusalem’s buildings do not shine “under this blazing light,” as in the title of Oz’s 1995 book, but are rather “honey smooth.” Atalia’s overbearing violet perfume is “delicate,” naturally.
The link between Amos Oz’s choice of adjectives and the concept of time is obvious. They reflect frustration with the recklessness, the pushing and shoving, the recurrent salvos, the horn-blowing and blinding light as typical of the Israeli reality as is Netanyahu’s grip on power. It was Oz who said, after Netanyahu’s defeat in 1999: “It feels like an electric generator has been taken out of my bedroom.”
Amos Oz, therefore, strives to moderate the pace, the light, and the noise, as if his characters are suffering from sensory hypersensitivity, or are autistic (there’s something pathologically reclusive in Shmuel Ash’s self-imposed insulation), or are old people asking the DJ at a wedding to turn the music down. For Oz, though, it’s a matter of ideology rather than age: as a teenager, he left his Revisionist home over his disagreement—among other things—with Jabotinsky’s adage that “silence is despicable.”
But what about the possibility that excessive silence is despicable, or at least kitsch too? Might it be that his soft music, light wind, and dim light harbor no unrealistic, sycophantic, desperately consolatory dimension? Is Oz simply serving us a soporific, a desensitizing dessert in the form of a novel?
Amos Oz strives to moderate the pace, the light, and the noise, as if his characters are suffering from sensory hypersensitivity
To a degree, perhaps, but not entirely. Firstly, Amos Oz knows full well what he is doing. He puts the following words in Atalia’s mouth: “Maybe, little by little, we’ll anesthetize you, so it hurts less. These walls are accustomed to swallowing pain.” Later, he references Natan Zach’s attack on the “artificial and ostentatious” output of his fellow poet Natan Alterman.
Secondly, Amos Oz himself is very critical of artistic sentimentality, as when he refers to the film about loneliness and despair that Shmuel watches at Edison Cinema as “mediocre.” And finally and most importantly: throughout his career (starting in his debut book, Where the Jackals Howl) Oz lambasted the sabra, the “new Jew” who represses his emotions. It is not merely scorn; Oz cautions against the tragic consequences of repressed emotions, for the individual and for the family both. He makes a passing, somewhat ironic, reference to the fact that in the period that Judas is set in, men did not cry. He castigates Shmuel—as he had done to many of his other characters—for his pathetic attempts to live up to the Sabra ideal:
Wald “Have you ever noticed that every now and then a bittersweet strain creeps into Mendelssohn’s music, a heartrending echo of an old Jewish melody? “Mendelssohn,” he said. “Yes. Too emotional for my taste.” Gershon Wald smiled: “But you are such an emotional young man.”
Conversely, Amos Oz ridicules not only those who repress their emotions, but also those who flaunt them excessively, those who become addicted to the comfort of kitsch. In this respect, his critique is directed at Europe, where he has more readers than in Israel. He seems to be aiming at them when he writes that Jesus’ religion was “a softer version of Judaism” and that “Atalia’s father was one of those people who believe that every conflict is merely a misunderstanding…a drop or two of good-will, and at once we shall all be brothers in heart and soul…the foes will fall on each other’s necks in tears, like in a Dostoevsky novel.”
When Nietzsche wrote that publishing the New Testament and the Old Testament in one tome is a barbarian act, he meant that the sugarcoated outlook of Christianity does an injustice to the sharp, coarse, but realistic approach of the Old Testament. Indeed, there is something naïve about the Christian perception of the Middle Eastern reality, a perception that automatically identifies the Palestinians as the underdogs.
It’s not for nothing that Gershom Wald describes the prospect of Arab acceptance of Jewish presence as “sugarcoated.” Wald rejects universal love supporting a cosmopolitan vision of life without borders in the name of humanity as a whole. It is a “lofty cliché,” he says; kitsch, in other words. This is where the ideological and the poetic intersect.
According to Wald, Shaltiel Abravanel was a dreamer too. “He also believed, like Jesus, in universal love, the love of all those created in the divine image for all others created in that image…I, my dear, do not believe in the love of all for all. Love is a limited commodity. A man can love five men and women, maybe ten, sometimes even fifteen. And even that, only rarely. But if a man comes to me and declares that he loves the whole third world, or that he loves Latin America, or that he loves the female sex, that is not love, it is rhetoric. Lip-service. A slogan. We were not born to love more than a handful of people.”
But this accusation by Wald can easily be turned against him as well. Just like mankind, the nation is an artificial community, one whose members are not necessarily acquainted with one another. But this unfounded and illusory belief in the nation and its purpose is a prerequisite for Wald’s coming to term with the disaster that strikes him—his son’s death during the War of Independence. This is the bottom line of Benedict Anderson’s seminal study Imagined Communities: the nation is indeed a fabrication, but one that helps us rationalize our willingness to give away our lives. And despite its artificialness, it is a much more coherent, much more powerful platform for solidarity than mankind as a whole. And this is one thing that the prophets of universalism often forget.
Exile was a period of passive and patient waiting, of passionate and lustful longings for the Land of Israel. It was a time of an existence without sovereignty and without territory—that is, without a functioning national framework. Zionism was to remedy all these ills; but just like many other treatments, the side-effects were brutal, especially if administered as overdose. This is how idle passivity turned into rushed agitation: oversentimentality substituted by emotional opacity, followed by cynicism. In place of the absence of territory, a cult of land.
Amos Oz’s project, in this book and beyond, is to pave a golden path of words between the malignant passivity and the destructive overdrive; between the sentimental pathos and the ironic abandon; between Mendelssohn and Kaveret, the 1970s Israeli rock band; between Gnessin and Etgar Keret; between naïve cosmopolitanism and messianic nationalism; between religious fanaticism and secular emptiness; between the two one-state solutions, the ruling Arab-majority one and the ruling Jewish-minority one; between socialism, critiqued in Judas as erasing individuality, and the ruthless capitalism that fragments society and isolates the individual; between his Revisionist upbringing and his adult life in Kibbutz Hulda; between Peace Now and Peace Never.
At the end of Judah, Shmuel Ash leaves Jerusalem for Arad, hoping that the sleepy town would cure him of his asthma, his shortness of breath as well as his shortness of attention. On the road, he observes a fig tree, and is reminded of Jesus’ encounter with a fig tree—the one he cursed for failing to bear fruit, although the tree was taking the pace of nature.
In Judas, then, Amos Oz asserts that impatience is the marker of our time: ephemeral excitations, the capitalist race for innovation, New Age prophets peddling immediate redemptions. A collective attention deficiency disorder, that comes at the expense of a good book.