"We Jews are notoriously unable to agree about anything that begins with the words 'we Jews.' "
Even with that in mind, novelist Amos Oz and his daughter, historian Fania Oz-Salzberger, bravely propose that it is the relationship between Jews and texts that makes "we Jews" Jews. Through a combination of literary analysis, jokes and historical context, Mr. Oz and Ms. Oz-Salzberger give a fascinating overview of Jewish intellectual traditions from a secular perspective. While they are not quite successful in presenting a totally cohesive argument, their essays charmingly approach significant aspects of Jewish identity.
Yale University Press ($25).
While the collection is academic, it includes such gems as a theoretical analysis of the old joke:
"So a Jewish grandmother walks on a beach with her beloved grandson when a big wave suddenly sweeps the boy underwater. 'Dear God Almighty,' cries Grandma, 'how can you do this to me? I suffered all my life and never lost faith. Shame on you!' Not a minute passed by, and another big wave brings the child back to her arms safe and sound. 'Dear God Almighty,' she says, 'that's very kind of you, I'm sure, but where's his hat?' "
Even those of us who don't have this grandma probably know one, "essentially a hefty double portion of the Jewish mother." One step beyond the laugh, the authors see in this and other jokes a model of how Jews relate to God.
Mr. Oz is an internationally acclaimed Israeli author and journalist, politically known for his vocal support of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Ms. Oz-Salzberger is a historian and professor who has held distinguished positions at universities in Israel as well as the United States. Both are secular, and, without arguing against faith, they approach their subject from a point where religion is immaterial to their admiration of and identification with Jewish culture. Although they are proud of their heritage, they are critical of it, and they do not argue for its superiority. The results are fair-minded essays written by people who are invested in the subject.
An interesting component of this particular text is the language. Mr. Oz and Ms. Oz-Salzberger are both native Hebrew speakers who, in writing this collection for the Yale University Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization, skipped the step of a translator. Given the authors are non-native speakers, some expressions are not quite idiomatic (Einstein's "private theory of relativity," for example), but the essays are clear and relatable.
The essays are presented with an unusual blend of academic tone and familiarity, a particularly disarming approach to a complex and loaded subject. The authors are clearly well-informed, and comfortably trace their argument through ancient and modern stories, interpretations and approaches to Judaism. Lest their essays on centuries of intellectual tradition become too dry, Mr. Oz and Ms. Oz-Salzberger throw in stories and a conversational voice to pull people through the scholarly argument. The grandma is joined by quotes from Woody Allen movies and Isaac Bashevis Singer novels.
The book is separated into four sections with a preface and an epilogue. All of the essays are presented through textual analysis of the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud and modern works.
The first section, "Continuity," lays the argument for how generations of Jews are tied together not by genetics or faith, but by their emphasis on education, literacy and a constant conversation. This last aspect comes back in the third section, "Time and Timelessness," which uses Jewish concepts of time to bolster the idea that generations remain in dialogue. Finally, "Each Person Has a Name; or, Do Jews Need Judaism" looks at Jewish identity, individualism and communalism.
While none of the sections, which feel like related essays, makes a pointed and cohesive argument with the others, the second, "Vocal Women," seems most out of place. Although it is nice to recognize the central role that women play in Jewish history and texts, this chapter feels like a distraction from the title subject. Despite this, the essays are smart, well thought-out, and thought provoking.
While "Jews and Words" is not an introduction to Judaism, anyone with interest will find plenty to inspire thought and conversation as the authors add their voices to the discussion that is Judaism. The result is educational, expressing deep admiration for Jewish texts and placing that within a context of tradition. Readers with any background will find details and stories to engage with, argue with and think about. Plus, there's always grandma to lighten up the mood.
Mona Moraru is a writer and editor living in East Liberty (firstname.lastname@example.org).