Judas by Amos Oz
Amos Oz’s Judas is a story of delicate balances. The sort of novel where you wonder what a room is like when nobody is in it. Judas plays what-if games with history. Oz’s aesthetic play is with big ideas. But when the subject is people, he has a skillful writer’s grace.
What if the Jewish people hadn’t rejected Jesus but accepted him into their faith, renovating it? Christianity would never have existed. The Spanish Inquisition, the Holocaust wouldn’t have happened. What if Judas hadn’t really betrayed Christ but instead was his most devoted follower? What about the conviction, opined by one ostracized character, that the founding of the Jewish state was a mistake that would lead to generations of enmity between Jews and Arabs?
Judas takes place in Jerusalem in the winter of 1959/60. Shmuel Ash’s life has caved in. His girlfriend, Yardena, has left him to marry her old boyfriend, who is apparently a dull but reliable expert on rainfall. The failure of a lawsuit undertaken by his parents has bankrupted the family business. With the loss of his parents’ financial support, Shmuel withdraws from college, where his professor considers him a promising researcher. Shmuel had been investigating Jewish attitudes towards Jesus and the true character of Judas, which he thinks have been obscured by generations of prejudice.
Shmuel is a Marxist. He has a beloved poster of the Cuban Revolution, also a poster of The Pieta. But the final bulwark of his life, the Marxist group who he would meet with weekly, has split due to ideological conflicts over the reign of Stalin. Since the two women in the group went over to the opposing side, Shmuel’s cadre has collapsed. Shmuel has been left with nothing.
The problem may be with Shmuel and not his circumstances. His older sister, Miri, who is studying medicine in Rome, also lost financial support. Miri responded by taking two jobs, one in the evening and another later at night, so she could afford to continue her studies. She also has a relationship, inconveniently, on the other side of town. She’s at the breaking point but holding it together. What’s wrong with her brother, Shmuel? Why isn’t he stepping up?
In 1959, the Israeli sector of Jerusalem is surrounded on three sides by the Jordanian sector. The border between them is fortified. In the western part of the city, in an isolated house, the last in an obscure lane which marks the city limit, Shmuel takes a job as a paid companion to a disabled old man in return for a pittance and an attic room.
It’s a dying house on a deserted street, sunk in the ground as if it were trying to crouch into its own basement. Two people live there, although there was formerly a third resident. Gershom Wald is the elderly gentleman who Shmuel is paid to talk to and perform menial tasks for. Gershom has lost the use of his legs. He is in perpetual mourning for his only child, a son who was mutilated and killed by the Arabs during the Israeli war of independence. Also in the house with him is his son’s embittered widow, Atalia. The third resident used to be Atalia’s father, branded a traitor and outcast because he gradually came to the view that the Israeli state should never have been created. This is a house where rooms can be kept permanently locked, or locked just to Shmuel, who for example, never sees the inside of Atalia’s room, a woman who is so secretive that Shmuel’s not even sure when she is in the room or not.
This is a Hawthorne-like House of the Seven Gables, filled with broken people. After Atalia’s father was disgraced, he withdrew to his bedroom and cut himself off, refusing to answer letters or take calls, even from his many Arab friends. After he died, the room was locked.
No one enters Atalia’s room whether she is in it or not and it is also kept locked. Gershom’s bedroom is mostly off limits. He spends most of his time in the downstairs library. He talks to two old friends on the telephone, elderly men arguing uselessly, taking notes on their reading that flush down the toilet. Of the three oldsters, Gershom says his two friends are worse off. Shmuel at least is paid to talk to him while they have no one but Gershom and his telephone calls. Atalia advises Shmuel to argue with her father-in-law, to keep him lively. She is trying to keep the senior from sinking further. Gershom also has no visitors. Atalia owns the house. Her father-in-law is her permanent guest. It’s a lonely house.
To interrogate received pieties, whether they be religious, social or political is an offering of originality and honesty that’s lacking otherwise. In contrast, unexamined lives can seem like a game of chess played with checkers. That is, a game that was supposed to be smart but turned out to be something much more banal and stupider.
In books like Judas by Amos Oz, the chess games are played with feelings, ideas and human character. And an upright and noble game it is. Like in Hermann Hesse (Demian) or Naguib Mahfouz (The Cairo Trilogy) with echoes of Thomas Mann’s dry irony, we have a young man, Shmuel, left in media res, suspended between possibilities. What path will he choose? That’s how I read it, and it does leave Amos Oz in some great company.