Judas by Amos Oz
Rating: 4 stars
I read Judas as part of my goal to read three of the Man Book Prize International Prize shortlisted works for 2017.
I had to sit and think on this book for a while before deciding on its rating. It’s a slow, quiet book that will make you think. It took a while for me to get into, and honestly I could have put it down during the first 50 pages and not cared if I picked it back up again. But I’m glad I did finish it. It’s a quiet and thoughtful book.
If you like books with a lot of action or a fast pace, this isn’t for you. After finishing more fast-paced works like Into the Water and The Geek Feminist Revolution (with its short essays) it took a while to adjust to this really plotless novel. That may have been one of the reasons why it took me so long to really get into it.
The novel begins with Shmuel Ash, a young student at a university in Jerusalem working on his master’s project on Jewish views of Jesus. In rather short succession his research stalls, his girlfriend breaks up with him to marry an old boyfriend, and his parents are bankrupted and forced to stop paying for his studies. After dropping out of university Shmuel plans to leave Jerusalem and become a watchman in a new town. However, when he goes to list his few belongs for sale at the university he finds a handwritten notice for a caretaker / companion on the bulletin board.
That notice will lead to the job that he will remember for the rest of his life. He meets with an old man, Gershom Wald, and his widowed daughter-in-law Atalia in a gloomy house that receives no visitors except for the string of young men who answer the notices and keep Wald company for a few months before Atalia tells them to move on.
Initially Shmuel is a child. He never learned to listen to others and shows a disregard for what he could learn from them. Wald mainly just needs someone to argue with, and Shmuel is forced to learn how to listed to someone else for once. Their conversations make up a great deal of the novel, and I learned a lot more about the early years of Israel and Judaism than I knew before.
I was also upset with all of the men who stayed with Wald because of Atalia. All of the past caretakers developed a crush on the solitary and independent Atalia, despite her warnings that she was not looking for anything. They all, Shmuel included, thought that they could be special enough to change her mind. That a women like her had to want to be loved, even if she didn’t realize it. Even though Shmuel still harbors feelings for her, he at least seemed to learn to respect her as a person.
While there Shmuel begins his research again, this time looking more closely into the role of Judas. He is particularly taken with the idea of traitors, given Judas’s status as one of the greatest traitors in history and Atalia’s father, who was considered a traitor for being an early advocate of a two-state solution in Israel. He comes to hold an interesting view of Judas as the only true Christian, the only one who truly believed in Jesus even more than Jesus believed in himself. It was only afterwards that he was labeled a traitor for the rest of history.
I don’t want to get too political here, but the author is a known supporter of a two-state solution and that definitely comes through in this book. He also had a great quote on the New Testament and the story of Judas that I have to share below:
“A good editor should have edited this story out and saved the world a lot of trouble,” he said. “It’s not an innocent story. It is responsible for more bloodshed than any single story in history. This story is the Chernobyl of European anti-Semitism: pogroms, persecutions, inquisitions, massacres, Holocaust.”
I recommend this for anyone interested in the early days of Israel, the nature of traitors, or a slow, thoughtful read.