The very first line of Judas, the most recent novel by acclaimed Israeli author Amos Oz, sets the mood for the entire book. “Here is a story from the winter days of the end of 1959 and the beginning of 1960. It is a story of error and desire, of unrequited love, and of a religious question that remains unresolved.”
This is the tale of Shmuel Ash, a young student who has abandoned his academic studies in the wake of a broken relationship. Shmuel shutters himself up in servitude to Gershom Wald, a crippled scholar with a sharp mind and a passion for argument. Settling into a routine of serving tea and companionship, of eating hot, spicy goulash for lunch and dusting his thick beard with fragrant talcum powder, Shmuel finds himself attracted to the other resident of his temporary Jerusalem home, an embittered war widow by the name of Atalia.
Through the prism of Oz’s lyrical, nostalgic descriptions, Judas (Vintage Digital, September 2016) transports us to a windy, rain-swept Jerusalem, familiar to those who have seen the recent screen adaptation of his autobiographic novel, A Tale of Love and Darkness. Yet besides for a few forays into the darkened alleyways of a divided city, where the night’s silence is disturbed from time to time by the errant gunfire of Jordanian snipers, most of the action, or rather the interaction between the characters, takes place within the shadowy rooms of Wald’s home.
In the evenings, Shmuel’s academic discussions with Wald touch on a wide range of subjects and frequently deal with Shmuel’s neglected thesis dealing with Jewish views on Jesus. In his work, Shmuel has highlighted the role of Judas Iscariot, the disciple who notoriously betrayed Jesus.
Shmuel, although an atheist, loves the words of Jesus and attempts to present an alternative argument to traditional gospel. He suggests that Judas was “the most loyal and devoted of all his disciples and that he never betrayed him, but on the contrary, he meant to prove his greatness to the whole world.” Still, Shmuel finds it difficult to prove this theory and even more difficult to complete his thesis.
The focus of Shmuel’s incomplete work runs in parallel to another theme of betrayal in the novel. Atalia’s late father Shealtiel Abravanel, it turns out, was a Zionist patriot who opposed the establishment of a Jewish State and believed in peaceful coexistence with the Arabs. “They all wanted as one man to set up a state, and they all knew as one man that we would have to defend ourselves by force,” Wald muses. Except for Abravanel.
“He was a traitor,” Wald states, a traitor portrayed in the novel as a contemporary equivalent of Judas. Yet, Shmuel doesn’t accept this treachery at face value. Even as he strives to redeem Judas’s reputation he attempts to get closer to the mysterious Atalia and unveil the true role her father played in Israel’s birth.
“Treason is not very easy to define,” the author said in a recent interview with The Times of Israel. “In a sense, life itself is a treason, because we’re born of the dreams of our parents, and we can never live up to the magnitude of those initial dreams or our own early dreams. We compromise, we settle for less; maybe this a form of treason, too,” Oz said.
Reading Oz’s multi-layered discussion of treason, one can’t help but find Shmuel, the novel’s fallible antihero, guilty of treason as well. Shmuel has betrayed his parents’ dreams, his chosen career path. He has taken a break from real life to seek solace in nightly scholarly discourse while pursuing a woman who will never submit to his desire for a lasting relationship. Like Wald, Shmuel himself becomes a cripple, both emotionally and, after a fall on the house’s broken front step, physically as well.
Oz, himself, has been called a traitor by some of his countrymen because of his undying support for a two-state solution. “Sometimes, not always, but sometimes, the title, traitor, can be worn as a badge of honor,” Oz said in an interview with Eshkol Nevo published in Yediot Aharonot. “A traitor is sometimes someone who dares to change.”
In Judas, Oz has not betrayed his readers. The opposite is quite the case. In this thought-provoking fiction, the author has once again successfully intertwined the internal conflicts of an imperfect protagonist with the story of Israel’s traumatic founding and early years. Judas is a welcome addition to Oz’s impressive body of work.
Amos Oz, born in Jerusalem in 1939, is the internationally acclaimed author of fourteen novels and collections of short fiction as well as numerous works of nonfiction. He is the recipient of the Prix Femina, the Israel Prize, the Goethe Prize, and the 2013 Franz Kafka Prize. His autobiographical novel A Tale of Love and Darkness was an international bestseller and came to the screen as the 2015 directorial feature film debut of Natalie Portman.