Posts Tagged ‘Jewishness’

JUDAS, by Amos Oz, Chatto and Windus, 2014.

WARNING: Contains Spoilers.

A most interesting and intriguing novel.
It is full of story parallels, deft discussion, of sense of place and time. Amos Oz has a wonderful way with description, sense of place, with character, mood.

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It was the winter of 1959. The setting is as much the major character as the others in the book: it is Jerusalem, just ten years after Independence.
This is the real story.

There is the story of post-graduate student Schmuel Ash, Schmuel had to leave his studies, his finances had fallen through. That is a story in itself. And then there is the matter of his girlfriend: she had left him and gone back and married her previous boyfriend.
Schmuel joined a strange household that provided board and lodging, a little income, for providing in turn company for an aged man, Gersham Wald.
It was an old house, in the extreme west of the city. Also in the house was Atalia. Atalia had married the man’s son; the son died early in the War of Independence. Her father was known as ‘the traitor’. He had been a top Zionist, a member of the council, but resigned at the outset of setting up the State of Israel, for advocating Arab friensship.
His story is most fascinating; he offered an alternative to the State, the possibility of harmony with the Arab population. It was an opportunity missed. Could it have worked?

All is speculation.

Schmuel’s dissertation topic was Jewish Views of Jesus. His research led him to believe that Judas was the only true believer in Jesus, the one and only true Christian. All the other disciples had denied him at that crucial time. All but Judas. Yet Judas was the cause for all future anti-semitism. Judas was the true believer, yet also the traitor.
Like Atalia’s father.
What is suggested here, is that it is possible her father’s ideas for co-habitation, sharing, were the true ones.
All is speculation.

Jerusalem in winter.
It rained nearly every day; it was bitterly cold at times. Schmuel walked the night streets constantly, sometimes with Atalia, often alone. They walked through Gehenna: We’re in hell, he said to her. Aren’t we always? she replied. They went up on Mount Zion to catch the sunrise, it was bitterly cold; a soldier was on guard at King David’s tomb. He had been there all night.
Shots rang out: there was always a sniper over the border hoping for a lucky hit, no matter what time of night or early morning. And there were borders everywhere in the city.
We are constantly made aware of the barbed wire, the nearness of borders, the ruined Arab villages.

There are presences, missing, but brooding constantly: the son and the father, Micha and Abravanal. And of course over all there was the living presence of David Ben-Gurion, and his vision of the Israeli State. Like the Christian Trinity.

Over all is winter, and its sense of aridity. This sense grows throughout the book: Atalia and Micha had no children; Gersham Wald’s child Micha was dead. The way he died, Atalia found out much later and by accident, was horrific; she could never shake it. Neither she nor Gersham could sleep at night afterwards.She could never have another lasting relationship. Schmuel’s own relationship, and it is hinted also with his family, had broken irreparably and thrown him back into his self-enclosedness, as epitomized by this household he had retreated into.
We see this in the Socialist groups Schmuel was a part of at the university. They would meet and have discussions at the workingmen’s café, and yet the closest they ever came to the working people a table or two away was to timidly ask for a light.
Part and parcel of all this in the novel’s context is the image of Abravanal,  Atalia’s distant and unapproachable father, whose message could have saved all, and yet who neglected his family: the universal that fails the personal.
And so we come to the present state: Gersham Wald, Schmuel’s aged companion, speculates and argues fruitlessly and endlessly with old sparring partners over the phone every day. All is arid, without fruit, without a future.
This is also a metaphor for embattled Jerusalem, surrounded by enemies. The mood only lifts once Schmuel leaves the city.

We can read this as the State of Israel itself, surrounded by enemies, without friends or allies, or  recognition. A State completely cut off from all, and friendless.
The State of Israel, 1959.
2
All through the book Atalia is described as eminently desirable, yet unattainable. She is a strong woman, a property owner, and works for her living. Is she Israel in potential, with their lost future?
This could be a criticism of the book. Atalia must always be dependent on male interest, she cannot live for herself. They flock around her; every reference to her by others and the author is coloured by this. Amos Oz is trying to write a strong independent woman character – is it the society he places her in, she is part of, or is it the author’s opinion also, that she cannot be allowed her own place in the world? Her missing partner always throws an imbalance to her existence. Is Israeli culture so inflexibly male-dominated?

On one level this is a story all about alpha males: Avaranal was ousted, and so turned bitter and retreated into himself. David Ben-Gurion won the narrative-of-the-State contest. Atalia can do little but serve the failing father.
Schmuel is an interesting foil, he is passive, and has a carer personality, he learned to his surprise. To Atalia he becomes another male to be cared for as he fell badly, and was laid up for a couple of weeks. Her response to this is not resentment, for she is intrigued by him, his passivity, and also his enthusiasm.

On another level the book is all about Big Narratives. they figure prominently. It was when Schmuel espoused his theories that his previous girlfriend had taken him to bed; it was when he told Atalia of his thesis that she responded. Avaranal and Gersham Walt were tied together not just as fathers in law, but over the theory of the State of Israel. All their fates, Micha as well, are all bound up in David Ben-Gurion’s theory of the State.

Schmuel’s thesis got to the point where he thought Judas was only the only disciple who truly believed in Christ’s divinity. He engineered the crucifixion, in Jerusalem, as incontrovertible proof. It failed, he thought.
On the level of parallels, we see here that Avaranal’s ‘dream’ of co-habitation, harmony, like the love that Christ preached, as ultimately failing also.
Which leaves them with… a moment-by-moment piecemeal arrangement, peace and war: and hoping the peace lasts longer than the fighting.
But the heart had gone out of it: on the ruined Arab village there had been attempts to build a hall. It was unfinished, restarted and again unfinished. The heart, the sense of reconstruction, had gone out of it.
3
Reading through online reviews of the book I was amazed at the intemperate language  used; it was downright vicious in places. Many clearly had no idea of the aesthetics and concerns of novel-writing, they were using their platform to hit out at the author. He was accused of being a neo-Marxist, or anti-Zionist, of giving the State of Israel a bad press, of toadying up to anti-Israeli Western media. A traitor.
That is what the book is about, that word Traitor. It can be a product of hindsight, of present actions; it can also, the book claims, have positive intent that is turned by events.

All this is very much the battened-down attitude of a State under attack: there can be no nuanced, open discussion; there can be no questioning voices.
There is a similar attitude in Russia at the current time.
These are the tactics of States still fighting for their legitimacy. How long will it take?
All the more imperative to open those discussions, questions, nuances now.

See also: Days of Ziklag, by S Yizhar, 1958.http://www.ithl.org.il/page_14274

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THE FLOATING CASTLE, by Karen Margolis, 2012. £3.59.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Floating-Castle-Karen-Margolis-ebook/dp/B008A661LI/

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The Pretoria Castle

This ebook is a must.

I invite all to spend time with the wonderful, warm Litinsky family.
A modern Jewish family relocates from their early life in South Africa to London. It was the beginning of the 1960s: This country is no place to bring up children… after Sharpeville.
And already we see the bigger picture, the extra dimensions: we do not live our lives in isolation. Ever.

The book begins with the young family moving from Cape Town to the Transvaal. It ends with the family arriving in Portsmouth, and moving onto London.
They start new lives each time, with all the wrenching upheaval, the breaking away from years laid down in the memory, and to learn new ways of living, speaking, thinking even, this entails.
But more, the books begins and ends with the gathered family remembering itself and  celebrating the Passover ceremony in each new home. Who remains? Who has gone?

And what is the main prayer of the Passover? Next year, in Jerusalem.
One has to learn to fit in, integrate, yet all the time some part keeps one separate – we witness the attitudes of the new Church of England school in London belittling the Jewish holiday traditions, where a holiday  is indeed a holy day.
But there are also the challenges of new ideas and ideals as left wing politics, feminism, find homes in the hearts and minds of the growing children.

I would like to invite you  to meet, spend time with, Isaac and Verena Litinsky, their twin daughters Davida and Sarah, younger siblings spoilt Raphael, and Alicia. But then, of course, there are the extended families of both mother and father’s side, their own experiences of a shocking century.

The family unit is a wide and internationally based web of relationships.
The family unit touches the people they live among, with, beside. In the Transvaal there are the black Africans working in the household: Susan, the nanny, who cooks the specifically Jewish food, and lives by choice apart. Her wedding…. No, you must read for yourself.

Father Isaac flew to London earlier to find work and look for accommodation. The family followed later, by boat.
Here we see where book title, The Floating Castle, begins to throw wider and wider shadows and shapes on the canvas of our reading.
We see how the family arranges itself into at times autocratic, at times capitalist and democratic relationships; we see how other cultures, the travelling companions, the ship-board relationships, impinge, threaten the stability of the family unit: is Verena really taken with that other man? What of Davida’s developing relationships outside the family unit?

At times the Jewish ceremony can seem as strange to the children as the others around them. They visit a Christian Church in Johannesburg with their nanny. Sarah concludes that it’s bunk, if the messiah had really come then they would all be in paradise by now, and they are plainly not.
We see the characters from the inside, through unreliable narration like this. It gives us insights, it provokes empathy. The tone of voice is caught seemingly effortlessly

The background stories fill in, and we see the sense in madness, the folly in sense, as ordered and disordered lives worked themselves out to unforeseeable conclusions. Human, all so human.

The book shifts locale and time giving us the later stories of the character’s lives, and their earlier experiences. And how they reflect in each other.
It gives us, for instance: What does it cost to borrow a ride on a bike? Enough to say, Nanny Susan saved dignity, and the day.
We read into this how one learns bargaining; how the body can be a bargaining counter. Here is the beginning of gender politics, body consciousness; it shows how natural curiosity can devolve into objectification, given a background of gender inequality.

‘Faith’, we say easily, and yet we discern in this story, how the word goes deeper. We discern here how it can permeate every part of one’s being, one’s experiences, one’s interactions with the world. It can colour one’s whole view:
The London Jews… They’re not real Jews, not in the way we understand.’ was Isaac’s verdict.
But we also see Isaac’s Jewishness held up for examination, where the holes show through, and the patches.
We should have gone to Israel, he said, we have lost something staying too long in London, We have stretched the thread of tradition too far.
But Israel, itself, volatile, threatened, and threatening: was that a place for the children? We see Aunt Masha after her parent’s died, living perpetually alone. She was a constant fount of vitality, but duty and  tradition tied her heart, hand and foot.

And on the other hand there’s Molly. She was a member of the Black Sash Movement in South Africa, a fighter for black rights. Molly is a splendid character; she is full of the contradictions of her place and time: comfortable and white interloper fighting for the impoverished and black indigenous peoples. She is passionate, brave, puts herself on the line constantly.

The book is strong and yet flexible, the characters all well realised, warmly depicted, and all so likeable. For all their faults, short-comings. The writing is finely nuanced, crafted; a joy to read.

I have really enjoyed my time with the Litinsky family.

I really must go back and re-read from the beginning.