With the claim, “Ours is not a bloodline, but a textline,” premier Israeli novelist, Amos Oz, and his daughter, esteemed academic historian, Fania Oz-Salzberger open their collaborative argument on language, literature and the eternal question of Jewish identity. Addressing current claims that hold there is no such thing as “a Jewish nation,” Oz and Oz-Salzberger posit that Jewish culture is defined and represented by writing in the same way other non-diaspora cultures rely upon monuments, cities, walls, borders, heroes, rituals and similar iconic markers.
“Jews and Words” is a very small, short book - or an exceedingly long essay - a fortunate brevity because the discussion is deep. It is also amusing, exhilarating, instructive and relies upon a provocative mixture of scholarship, narrative skill and wry, yet passionate writing. While addressing terminally challenging external conversations, the writers also conduct an ongoing internal negotiation between fiction and non-fiction voices, gendered concerns and generational issues.
To organize their endeavor Oz and Oz-Salzberger chose four main topics “Continuity,” “Vocal Women,” “Time and Timelessness” and “Each Person Has a Name.”
The first section immediately clarifies, “We are not about stones, clans, or chromosomes. You don’t have to be an archeologist, anthropologist or a geneticist to trace and substantiate the Jewish continuum. You don’t have to be an observant Jew.
You don’t have to be a Jew or, for that matter, an anti-Semite. All you have to be is a reader.” Readers are asked to agree that there is an observable lineage of Hebrew and non-Hebrew texts with related commentaries that secular Jewish Israelis can rely upon for self-definition. This first section serves as an amazingly rich historical bed for the continuing essay.
In “Vocal Women”, the writers acknowledge, “Most of the Jewish tradition can justly be tagged chauvinist by present-day standards. But we are looking for significant threads, not for majority attitudes.” They proceed with an excruciatingly detailed examination of the occurrences and consequences of Jewish women developing and practicing agency.
They continuously ask and answer questions such as, “What happened to the active women during the era of the Second Temple, the Mishnah and the Talmud?” They conclude, “What other traditional society, one wonders, produced so many documented, named, vocal and opinionated female members before the onset of modernity?”
“Time and Timelessness” addresses the various ways Jews treat time-seldom linear and often denying chronology altogether.
While their poets express the concept as “an ancient Hebraic gaze all the way back to Abraham shepherding his clans and flocks into the Promised Land,” the writers also provide concrete details. “Jewish civilization spans, by its own count, almost six millennia since the Creation and some three and a half millennia since Moses.
If we stay on solid historical turf and stick to our textline, to the solid sequence of books, we still have at lease two and three-quarters thousand years on our hands.” When centuries of bigotry, pogroms, famines and orders of expulsion continuously drove Jewish populations from point to point, engaging in textual dialogue preserved a timeline otherwise shattered.
Words, after all, are portable.
The last section, “Each Person Has a Name,” is about collectivity and individuality and asks, “Do Jews need Judaism?”
While they argue multiple viewpoints in answering the question, ultimately the writers fall back upon a cultural truism - “We Jews are notoriously unable to agree about anything that begins with the words ‘We Jews.’” Oz and Oz-Salzberger stated early on that they are secular Jewish Israelis with no belief in God, Hebrew as a mother tongue and an identity that is not powered by faith. For them studying, learning and analyzing texts serve as a gateway to the world and they promote an understanding of the Jewish textline as a history of human endeavor, rather than as scripture study all too often politically inclined towards atavistic nationalism.
“Jews and Words” is difficult to capture in an 800-word book review. Academics in the field will no doubt find much to criticize in the writers’ conceptual premise but for the general reader, the text is lyrical and loving, an enlightening, free-flowing conversation that avoids any pretense of dogmatic finalism. Also, it is important to note that this book came from the Manhattan Public Library’s new collection.
Our library is an easy place to find ready copies of favorite series entries, current pop fiction and biographies, emerging literary voices, and mixed media.
However, hunting and gathering in the stacks reveals spectacular gems that all too often go unnoticed and unsung. “Jews and Words,” a mindful, refreshing challenge belongs in your personal library where you can add copious marginalia and frequently revisit at your leisure.
Carolyn J. Kelly is a freelance writer and a Manhattan resident.