This year Yale University Press authors Judith Walkowitz, Frederic Raphael and Fania Oz-Salzberger will be contributing to the Jewish Book Week, appearing in talks and lectures to discuss their books and related topics. In this article Fania Oz-Salzberger introduces Jews and Words, which was written with her father, the renowned novelist Amos Oz. Through a blend of storytelling and scholarship, conversation and argument, father and daughter tell the tales behind Judaism’s most enduring names, adages, disputes, texts and quips. Their book roams the gamut of Jewish history to explain the integral relationship of Jews and words.
Jewish Book Week is a unique nine-day literary festival in London which explores Jewish thought, life, history and literature. The festival has been running since 1952, making it one of the oldest in Britain. It is the largest single such event in London, dubbed ‘the capital’s richest annual banquet of writers and ideas’ by The Independent.
Jews and Words tells a story, and grinds a few axes, on two of our favourite perennial themes: How did the Jews remain Jews? and, How can books keep families and generations together?
We offer our readers a hard yet playful look at our own Jewish identity, as a father and daughter, novelist and historian. We are Israeli secular Jews, bred on Hebrew texts, and fascinated by Jewish continuity. Our conversation dwells on parenthood, scholarship, humour and an ancient habit of intellectual innovation.
Entering some current frays, we argue against narrowly orthodox concepts of ‘Judaism’, and see our legacy as a line of gritty individuals, most of whom were readers, many of whom asked difficult questions. Ours is not a bloodline, we say, but a text line. Alongside religiosity, Jews have always cherished literacy, instilling it to their children at a very young age. Family tables combined food and texts since time immemorial, to the great benefit of women as well as men. Defeated and persecuted, Jews were often forced to flee; but they fled holding a child in one hand and a book in the other. Jewish continuity is thus more verbal than political or ethnic.
The Jewish nation was not ‘invented’ in modern times. Rather, it posits a special model of nationhood, dependent on common textuality predating modernity. This nationhood hinged on parents and teachers, and on children socialized to become parents and teachers, rather than on kings, politicians, ideologues and soldiers.
Our readers are enthusiastically invited to argue with us as they read. Can one remain Jewish without God? Our answer is an adamant ‘yes’: our love of the Bible is not diminished by acknowledging that much of it might be ‘fiction’, because we know that fiction can tell deep human truths. Is sensuality relevant to scholarliness? Very much so; familial love, food and words can blend into a powerful intergenerational potion. On this juncture, Judaism outdid Christianity and Islam. Are chutzpah, doubt and irreverence good things? Indeed they are: Hebrews and Jews have struggled with (and sometimes ridiculed) the Almighty as well as the mighty. All the way from Abraham to Woody Allen.
Fortunately, our private dialogue became a book at the invitation of the Posen Library of Jewish Civilization, joining the inaugural volume of this forthcoming 10-volume anthology. Felix Posen, a unique visionary of cultural Judaism with a special knack for approaching young people with new ideas, invited us to write this volume. Felix understood that the vast Library project, led by some of the best contemporary scholars of Jewish history, needs a lighter, essayistic voice to spell out some of its deep themes. We agreed.
Be warned: we are taking sides. We deem ourselves ‘Atheists of the Book’. We refuse to leave Jewish identity and morality to ultra-purists, in Israel and beyond. Our understanding of being Jewish goes against the grain of the nationalists, the chauvinists, but also the fashionable deniers of the Jewish past or a Jewish future. We wrote this book in English, but we live and thrive in Hebrew. And, last but not least, you don’t have to be a Jew to take full part in this conversation. All you have to be is a reader and book-lover.
Do you disagree? Excellent. Pitch in, and welcome to our family dinner table. Just keep in mind the quintessentially Yiddish admonition: Don’t take everything to heart. It’s not healthy for you. Hot er gesogt! It’s just words.