“Blessed are the dreamers, and cursed be the man who opens their eyes. True, the dreamers cannot save us, neither they nor their disciples, but without dreamers the curse that lies upon us would be seven times heavier. Thanks to the dreamers, maybe we who are awake are a little less ossified and desperate than we would be without them.”
Shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize
Judas, the latest novel by Amos Oz, translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange, is set in 1969, and follows Shmuel Ash, a young, sensitive, idealist, infatuated with socialist ideas, who’s working on his post-graduate thesis on the topic “Jewish views of Jesus”. Due to certain circumstances, he has to abandon his studies and he applies for the job of a companion in exchange for room and board to an elderly, highly intellectual but cynical man, called Gersham Wald, who’s a recluse and is basically in need of a good discussion partner.
He shares the house with Atalia, a beautiful, middle-aged woman, who has become resentful toward the world and she has good reasons for that. She is the daughter of a deceased Zionist leader, and I don’t think it’s a spoiler, because we find that out very early in the novel that her father was opposed to the creation of the state of Israel and thus considered by many to be a traitor.
The novel spans only one winter and focuses on their long, thought-provoking philosophical discussions. Gersham Wald and Shmuel Ash represent two opposing, but very convincing worldviews, and I like how the book is fair at presenting both of their positions on various topics. By the end of the book, these three people end up changing each other and forming an unlikely family.
The novel invites the reader to reconsider the image of the traitor, tracing it back to the biblical story of Judas Iscariot, whose name has become synonymous with betrayal and, to certain people, even the synonym for Jewish people that has lead to horrifying consequences throughout history. So in this compact novel, Oz offers an alternative, and I must say, very convincing and nuanced version of the story of Judas, and it was very interesting to consider how a small change in the interpretation can shed a completely different light on a well-known story.
The overarching themes of the novel are treason and loyalty, and these themes are explored from different perspectives – from the political, historical, and religious to the very personal, and I think the success of this novel lies in it’s multi-layered approach to the idea of betrayal. He puts forward the idea that many people throughout history, who were ahead of their time, were accused of being traitors by their contemporaries, and asks the question at which point and by whose verdict does an idealist, who seeks to reform the world, become a traitor?
What I also loved about this novel is that, although I think it’s clear that, first and foremost, this is a novel of ideas, it’s also a classic coming-of-age story. Over the course of the novel, Shmuel Ash has to ask himself very hard questions and reconsider some of his views of the world. And in addition to that, the novel is also a story of love, remorse and loneliness, and a vivid portrait of divided Jerusalem of the time.
The novel felt like a quiet provocation, but I felt that its core message is an appeal for compassion and genuine discussion, even if it means entertaining a completely opposite point of view. I really loved this book, and I’m curious to read more by Oz.