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Are Books All We Have Left?

A masterful encyclopedia sums up our history and culture but raises the question of where Jewishness lies today

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Michael David, A Jew in Germany, 1993. Photograph by John Parnell, courtesy of Bill Lowe Gallery, Atlanta. (Image courtesy of The Jewish Museum, NY/Art Resource, NY.)

The genealogical lists that fill the Bible are notoriously hard going; but if you want to reflect on the strangeness and singularity of Jewish history, a good place to start is the list of generations in Genesis 11. Here are the fathers and sons who bridge the centuries between Noah and Abraham—men with names like Arpachshad, Peleg, and Serug, which are strange to the eye and on the tongue. When the name of Abram first appears in the Bible, it is in this list of names, and for an instant the context manages to defamiliarize it. We peer into an alternate reality where the syllables of Abram sound as foreign, as primordial, as Arpachshad—a world where Abram is not yet Abraham, not yet the father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

In these names, we can read in very concrete terms what it meant for the Jews to be a chosen people. There is only one reason why Abraham escaped the anonymity that encloses his ancestors and contemporaries. It is that, as we read in Genesis 12, God made him a gratuitous promise: “I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you.” In token of this covenant, God changed Abram’s name to Abraham just as, two generations later, he would change Jacob’s name to Israel, “for you have striven with God.” For centuries afterward, Jacob’s progeny would refer to themselves as b’nei Yisrael and am Yisrael, thus inscribing the name of God in their own name.

It is paradoxical, then, that in their new book, Jews and Words, the Israeli novelist Amos Oz and his historian daughter Fania Oz-Salzberger see in the name B’nei Yisrael the promise of a liberation from religion. Starting in the 19th century, they argue, Jews began to conceptualize Judaism as a religion, in parallel with Christianity and Islam. But historically speaking, the word and idea of “Judaism”—in Hebrew, yahadut—have shallow roots among the Jewish people. (In the Hebrew Encyclopedia, they point out, the word “Jew” has no entry: Look it up and you will be redirected to “The People of Israel.”)

Jews and WordsAmos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger
Fania Oz-Salzberger and Amos Oz. (Ben Weinstein Photography)

To the Ozes, the word yahadut is an ahistorical coinage, now favored by the Orthodox of Israel as a “tool for correcting the infidels.” But if you replace “the Jews” and “Judaism” with the older term “children of Israel,” they argue, you can find your way to a more capacious and potentially more secular way of thinking about what it means to belong to the Jewish people. The Children of Israel are not all those who believe in a certain creed or practice a certain set of laws; they are all those who descend (biologically or, the Ozes would insist, by culture and tradition) from the patriarchs. To be a Jew is not to practice a faith, but to belong to a nation; and you can’t forfeit membership in the nation by losing the faith.

This linguistic argument recapitulates the basic thrust of Zionism, which was largely a secularizing movement. The Zionist project was to reconceive Jewish nationhood in secular political terms; the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine was, in a way, only the symbol or capstone of this more fundamental ideological work. Yet there was always a deep paradox in this mission, which surfaces, once again, in the question of names. The inevitable name for the Jewish state, of which Amos Oz has become one of the greatest novelists, is Israel: From b’nei Yisrael and am Yisrael come medinat Yisrael. Yet the name Israel bears within it the memory of Jacob’s wrestling with the angel, and of the divine covenant. Israel could not have become Israel without God. The question that faces millions of Jews today, and that the Ozes are canvassing in their passionate book, is whether Israel can remain Israel once God has disappeared.

The title of Jews and Words suggests the answer that Oz and Oz-Salzberger have to give. “What kept the Jews going,” they write, “were the books.” From earliest times, the Torah was at the heart of Jewish identity. But with the destruction of the Temple and the kingdom of Judea, in the first century CE, words and books became the very substance of Jewish practice and belief. You could no longer offer a sacrifice in Jerusalem, but you could study the Mishnah at the beit midrash—and after the Mishnah the Talmud, and Maimonides, and the Kabbalah, and so on down the centuries. For the Ozes, initiation into Jewishness meant instruction, most often carried out from father to son, in how to read texts. “The children were made to inherit not only a faith, not only a collective fate, not only the irreversible mark of circumcision, but also the formative stamp of a library.”

Today, most Jewish children are still circumcised—though it’s possible we’re about to undergo a sea change in public attitudes toward circumcision that will make it a much more difficult choice for Jewish parents. But not all Jews inherit the same faith—they are Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, secular, atheist, indifferent. And not all of us inherit the same fate; on the contrary, the fate of Jews in America, the pressures and possibilities we face, are very different from those facing Jews in Israel. Every day it is becoming easier to imagine how those differences may one day result in a serious breach between the world’s two major Jewish communities.

What that leaves is the library. Not the contents of the library, of course—Jews today grow up with a very different reading list than our ancestors had 300 or 2,000 years ago. What the Ozes are banking on is that the very idea of libraries, of reading and writing, of textuality, are enough to sustain a coherent Jewish identity. Much of Jews and Words is devoted to an affectionate exploration of Jewish feelings toward books, writing, and the intellect in general. In the Seder’s Four Sons and the dialectic of the Talmud, the Ozes see a Jewish respect for questioning and debate. In the anxiety Jewish parents famously feel for their children, they find the key to cultural transmission: “Jewish parenting had, perhaps still has, a unique academic edge. Being a parent meant performing some level of text-based teaching.” In the bar mitzvah boy’s speech, they find the Jewish pressure to contribute something new to tradition. All these qualities persist, they argue, in modern, secular Israel, helping to explain the country’s high-tech prowess: “We are talking habits, not chromosomes.”

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If Volume 10, 1975-2005, does not contain any major Jewish works from the Orthodox or even Conservative religious writings, of which there is an enormous amount and which population represents a quarter to a third of world Jewry, then Volume 10 (and maybe the whole series) does not truly cover Jews but only the secular world and perspective of liberal Jews – which is the narrow portion of Jews that Oz, father and daughter, represent and seek to privilege because of their ideological biases.

In Jews and Words, the Ozes do cite Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld as paragons of Jewish humor.

Digital books and comments like this one on the web are, in my opinion, the vital edge of Jewish and all other communication. I love books and I will always love books. But I know that Orthodox teenagers are texting each other on Shabbos, and that’s a picture of the future forming before our very eyes.

SiegelAcevedo says:

It will be interesting to see if and how a work like this addresses Jews-by-choice. While the immediate context of conversion is of course religious, adopting/adapting-to a peoplehood does go far beyond rule and letter of law. The tension between text and experience, the coming to grips with the ethical applications and existential implications of the traditional literature outside of a literal reading– the centrality of books and words, and the sense of it all as a contemporaneous ongoing dialog, is part and parcel of this convert’s life— as this article maintains it’s been for all Jews, religious and secular, through the millennia. Which of course means in any case that I look forward to adding all this new/old material to my already sagging bookshelf!

Volume 10 certainly does contain a range of works from all denominations of Judaism. In addition to the section on liturgy, there are selections from Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Adin Steinsaltz, Esther Jungreis, J. David Bleich, Nisson Wolpin, Shlomo Carlebach, David Feldman, David Golinkin, Norman Lamm, Immanuel Jakobovits, and Ovadia Yosef . . . and this just brings us to 1989 (I can add more info, as executive editor of the series).

Thank you Joyce Rappaport for your response. The article implied that it was primarily focused on “fiction” and literature – and not having the book itself, that was the only information about it that I had.

9Athena says:

There are Jews, other Jews and Jews in the mists of time. Persian Jews, Armenian Jews, Yemenite Jews (Himyarite Jews), Siberian Jews in the Oblasts, Ethiopian Jews, Greek Jews-Jews of every time and clime. Hebrew was forbidden to write or speak in ordinary living. The language was recreated (or reinvented) with the advent of modern Israel. In enforcing the strictures of ordinary communication Hebrew meanings and comprehension were blurred and lost. Yet the Jews knew they were Jews , even when they voluntarily converted or chose other beliefs. Each disparate segment came up with unique customs and traditions. But they were Jews. The unifying principle? They knew they were Jews.
American Jews? Another blip on the scope of Jewish history. Israel? We had it before and lost it. The tribes themselves decided to break away from Judea. Why? Another opportunity and again another loss. And again. But here we are; fragmented in Israel and without- as we pursue or are pushed to our ongoing history. Still we are Jews forged in a greater bond than man attempts to devise or explain or rationalize. Write your books, read your books, and the truth is greater than the dicta and petty pronouncements of self- appointed agents of the Almighty. Let’s discuss this again in the year 3500 CE.

Being a lefty looney like A. Oz means being loved by the world of the elites and the feminists the abortionists, the journos and the rest of the Obama-worshipping destroyers.

Kevin_in_Chicago says:


The recognition of Judaism being a civilization and a culture needs differentiation between culture and civilization. A culture is the fruit of a civilization, but a civilization is not the same as a culture. Included in Jewish civilization should begin with the first scholar to bring civilization into the definition of Judaism, Dr. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan who defined Judaism as the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people. Most American Jews view Yiddish as a defining aspect of their Jewish culture, but cetainly Ladino was conveyed by the Sephardic culture. And both are part of the Jewish civilization.

When Jews had to leave Judea, they were not Hebrew-speaking. Most spoke Aramaic, many spoke Greek, and some spoke Latin and other languages. Many Jews became Arabophones and took Arab names. Some adopted Islam so their intellectual acceptance could become complete. Each Jewish culture assimilated to some degree into another civilization but succeeded more often to create their own cultures. This phenomenon has continued through Jewish history as the Jewish people contended with a history that was more the exception than the rule of peoples.

The question remains as to what will happen in places like the U.S. where, as a nation of immigrants, groups tend to be absorbed. In the 1950s, Jewish professionals including rabbis decided to define and identify Jews as a religion because the U.S. did privilege religion but ethnicity was a concept in contention with American identification. Since then, ethnicity has gained more “respectability” as a conceptual identity, and there are many Jews who do not involve themselves in religion, but are Jewish. There is a statement prevalent that there are more Jewish atheists than there are atheists in other groups. First, the statement has not been tested for veracity, but all of us know Jews who are “very Jewish” and very unreligious. So can atheism be a Jewish culture? I cannot answer that question. However, we certainly know that these Jews are a part of the Jewish civilization.

Nevertheless, Hebrew is not just another language. When the Zionist movement wanted to “pick up” where the Jews left off when they were forced to leave their homeland, shouldn’t they have picked Aramaic? After all, so much of the religious discussions and decisions was in Aramaic.

The Zionists knew that Aramaic was not their “Ur-language.” Hebrew was the language that we spoke before we were Jews, before we were influenced by Persians, Greeks and Romans. It is a Jewish “jahiliyyah” — a term I take from Arabic to describe the pre-Islamic period, and means, a period of ignorance or innocence. In a sense, Hebrew being spoken today in Israel is a language unincumbered by the paradoxically non-Jewish influences that made Israelites into Jews.

A great article about an important topic. However, the anthology
described above – a project I strongly support – seems to privilege a
specifically American (and perhaps also partly Israeli) perspective on
secular Jewish culture. That’s understandable given the editors’
background, the presumed audience and the relative importance of
Jewish-American culture vis-à-vis other diasporas. But I would appreciate to see more European and Soviet/Russian – Jewish voices being included in the “canon”.

Interesting article. I just have one point to make and wish the editors had caught this. If I didn’t know otherwise, after reading “Today, most Jewish children are still circumcised” I would wonder if there are any girls among Jewish children.


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Are Books All We Have Left?

A masterful encyclopedia sums up our history and culture but raises the question of where Jewishness lies today