Judas, Amos Oz, author; Jonathan Davis, narrator
I would describe this book as literary. I do not think it will appeal to a broad audience, but those interested in the history of Israel and the relationship of Jesus Christ and Judas Iscariot, will find it inspirational. Various theories about their relationship and the relationship between Arab and Jew, and about the creation of the Jewish nation, are philosophically and historically explored with positive and negative views as competing ideas are presented.
The time is near the end of 1959. A young, rather unkempt looking, sensitive, university student, named Shmuel Ash, a Socialist, grows completely disillusioned with his life when his girlfriend, Yardena, suddenly leaves him to marry her ex-boyfriend. His personality, which is difficult to define either positively or negatively, no longer suits her. At the same time as this traumatic break-up occurs, Shmuel’s father suffers a business and financial reversal. He can no longer pay for Shmuel’s education. Rather than go to work to support himself and his studies, he leaves school, gives up his thesis on the Gospel of Judas, disappointing his family, and abandons his friends to wallow in his disappointments. He answers an advertisement to be a part time caretaker for an elderly, disabled man. The pay is a pittance but he needs a place to stay and wants to get away from everyone.
The elderly man, to whom he becomes a companion, Gershom Wald, lives with a woman, Atalia Abravanel. She is the widow of his son, Micha, who was killed in the War for Independence, fought in 1948, right after Israel was born. Wald had been a staunch Zionist. He believed in the Jewish nation. Atalia’s father, however, Shealtiel Abravanel, had not. He was considered a traitor and friend of the Arabs. Abravanel thought everyone should simply live together, all people, and didn’t believe in two separate states, either. He predicted the riots and upheaval to come if Israel became a reality, and he was ostracized by everyone. When Micah went off to fight, Atalia, begged him not to go. Shortly afterward, he was tortured, mutilated and murdered by the Arabs.
Atalia mesmerized Shmuel, even though she remained aloof, only describing his duties to him and keeping her distance. He worked for a few hours a day, from mid-afternoon until early evening. The rest of the time was his to pursue whatever he wished. He was often encouraged to use his time to study or write. Shmuel and the old man engaged in conversation about philosophy, concerning Israel, Jesus and Judas, and also, on occasion, about his life. Slowly the history of their different relationships was revealed as were the different theories about Judas and his role in the death of Christ and its effect on future civilizations. Did Judas betray Jesus, encouraging the crucifixion, or did he truly believe that G-d was Christ’s father, and would save him with unique powers that would lift him from the cross? If Jesus was Jewish, did he found Christianity or did Judas, with his historic reputation of treachery? In many ways, Abravanel and Judas are twinned, as both are characterized as traitors. Abravanel was considered a traitor to Jews and to Israel, and he predicted the chaos to come. Judas was considered the disciple who betrayed Jesus, and perhaps, caused the chaos to come.
While Wald provided Shmuel with somewhat of a father image, as Shmuel also was a stand-in for his son, it is more difficult to explain Atalia. She is somewhat of an enigma. Older than Shmuel, and depicted as the eternal grieving widow, she seems also to either mentor him or torment him as she entices him to her bed. It is difficult to determine her real purpose, and I found that the sex scenes seemed to add little to the narrative. One thing is certain, Shmuel is lonely and lost, and she seems to enrich his life, in some way.
In the book, the reader witnesses both Arab and Jew committing heinous crimes against each other, and although both viewpoints are presented, it seems obvious that the war, that 37 year old Micha gave his life to, was unavoidable. Gershom Wald is acutely aware of the fact that the Arabs wanted to drive the Jews into the sea, and his daughter-in-law’s father is acutely aware of the consequences he predicted becoming a reality. Are either of these viewpoints wrong? As Shmuel talks with the rabbi and his daughter-in-law, they develop and share ideas. They reveal their own characters to each other. Shmuel learns that Atalia is in complete control of Gershom’s care. They are both living in her home. She determined when each companion to Wald would leave, and none stayed very long. They all fell in love with her, and she soon tired of them. Shmuel would also suffer the same fate.
Did Abravanel truly betray the Jewish people with his opposition to the Jewish state. If there was no Jewish state, would Jews and Arabs live side by side? Would there be these constant wars in the Middle East? Was Judas really the man who betrayed Jesus or was Jesus really the G-d that Judas believed him to be? What would have happened to the world if there had been no Judas? Would there be anti-Semitism? Would there be a Christian Religion. Would a Jewish nation have been necessary? Would the world be at peace today, if Judas had been interpreted differently, if he really wasn’t the disciple who betrayed Jesus, but was a man who felt betrayed himself, by his own strong love and belief in Jesus as the son of G-d? If Abravanel’s warnings had been heeded would the world be more peaceful?
Shmuel’s fatal flaw seems to be that he always thinks too long about acting, but never actually does act. By the time he decides to do something, the moment has passed. Will he ever discover his own purpose in life as he is attempting to discover the purpose of Judas and Jesus? The book explores this and more, as Shmuel and Gershom write and speak about their thoughts on Jesus and Judaism and Jesus and Judas and discuss the Arab/Jewish problem in the land of Israel. Each of the characters was haunted by their memories and thoughts. Examining their innermost beliefs, the author is able to philosophize about the Arab/Jewish problems and the Jewish/Christian problems and the possibility of any of those conflicts being resolved.
The book examines relationships and the effect of different loyalties, political beliefs, socialization, and communication, on relationships as they all relate to each other, and how they relate to Israel and the Jews, to Judaism and Jesus. The book is particularly well read by the narrator with authentic accents and the expression of temperament that comes through with the portrayal of each character.
Two men are cast out, Abravanel and Judas, for similar reasons. We are left with the questions: What would the world be like if there had never been a Judas who was defined as a traitor, which ultimately birthed Christianity? What would the world be like if Abravanel had not been called a traitor and the Jewish nation had not been established?