The title suggests what the subject matter is going to be. So the first line that tells you that the story is set in the winter of 1959 takes you by the surprise. Shmuel Ash is writing his thesis on Jewish attitudes to Jesus, and he has come to a dead end. He does not understand the relationship between Jesus and Judas, although he recognises that without Judas’ betrayal there would be no story to discuss. His problem is that Jewish writers from the first two centuries of the common era who mention Jesus say nothing about Judas, and that this tradition then continues throughout the ages.
Shmuel tries to resolve his academic problems by withdrawing from writing his thesis and taking a job looking after Gershom Wald, an invalid in a strange house in old Jerusalem. Shmuel is hired by the old man’s daughter-in-law, Atalia, and for his board and lodging all he has to do if converse with the old man and to make sure that he takes his pills and eats the food prepared or him by a neighbour.
[I did wonder if there was any significance in Atalia being named after the Biblical Queen who murdered her way to the throne of Judah, and who was herself the victim of a murderous coup. There is however no reference to this Queen in the story. This does not mean that a literate Israeli audience is not expected to pick up this resonance, especially as Atalia is a private detective who spies on people.]
Gershom Wald is a combative, argumentative old man who does not have the strength in his legs to enable him to look after himself. Atalia is a very private and very attractive woman who only wants transient relations with men. This is because her husband and Gershom’s son was brutally murdered in one of the clashes of the 1948 war. It is also because her father, Shealtiel Abravanel, was opposed to Ben Gurion’s vision for the creation of a Zionist state. Oz must have chosen the name Abravanel for his fictional characters because it is an extremely distinguished name in the Sephardic Jewish community. It helps to make his point that there was an alternative to the aggressive nationalisms that arose in nineteenth century eastern Europe, of which Zionism was one.
Shmuel’s view of Judas is that he was the first Christian. This Judas did not see Gethsemane as a betrayal because he believed that Christ would come down from the cross and confound his enemies. When this did not happen, Judas’ belief was shattered, his faith destroyed, his life made worthless. Similarly, Abravanel is presented in the book as someone who was a leading figure in Zionism, but who came to believe that there were other ways to create a Jewish homeland than the creation of a state. He is forced to resign from the governing bodies of Zionism and puts himself in internal exile, a sort of solitary confinement in his own house. Atalia and Gershom move into the house, following the butchering of her husband.
This is a book about the nature of betrayal, about the relationship between Jews and Christianity, and it all goes back to Judas and the argument that he is the archetypal Jew in Christian theology, and that he is the root cause of anti-semitism. I think that this overlooks the anti-semitism that was rife in the Hellenistic and Roman worlds. It also overlooks the fact that the two most anti-Jewish of the Gospels are those written by Matthew and John, both of whom were Jewish. It is, however, an argument that needs to be examined.
The betrayal at the heart of this story, however, is characterised by Shealtiel Abravanel. Has he betrayed the Zionist ideal by his rejection of the State of Israel? There will be those who give the kneejerk response of saying that of course he has. There will be those who excoriate Amos Oz for suggesting that the opposite is possible. I am not sure from this story where Oz’ loyalties lie, and that I think is the point. The author is not telling us what to think, he is challenging us to think. Some people will find that seriously disturbing.
I would urge you to read this book, and to think very seriously about the possibilities that are laid out before us. It may be essential to the peace of the world to understand what the author is trying to get us to understand.