Review: Jews and Words

Posted 16 April, 2014 by Lianne in Books / 0 Comments

Jews and Words
By: Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger
Format/Source: Paperback courtesy of Yale University Press via GoodReads First Reads programme

Why are words so important to so many Jews? Novelist Amos Oz and historian Fania Oz-Salzberger roam the gamut of Jewish history to explain the integral relationship of Jews and words. Through a blend of storytelling and scholarship, conversation and argument, father and daughter tell the tales behind Judaism’s most enduring names, adages, disputes, texts, and quips. These words, they argue, compose the chain connecting Abraham with the Jews of every subsequent generation.

Framing the discussion within such topics as continuity, women, timelessness, and individualism, Oz and Oz-Salzberger deftly engage Jewish personalities across the ages, from the unnamed, possibly female author of the Song of Songs through obscure Talmudists to contemporary writers. They suggest that Jewish continuity, even Jewish uniqueness, depends not on central places, monuments, heroic personalities, or rituals but rather on written words and an ongoing debate between the generations. Full of learning, lyricism, and humor, Jews and Words offers an extraordinary tour of the words at the heart of Jewish culture and extends a hand to the reader, any reader, to join the conversation.

The premise of this non-fiction title intrigued me as it touched on academic themes of interest: identity, community, the history of a people. I never really read much on Jewish culture and history beyond events from other national histories so I thought this would make a good introduction. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I won a copy of this book from the GoodReads First Reads programme.

I thought it was interesting how one of the central arguments that both authors focus on with regards to Jewish culture and history was the importance of books. Words, as the book blurb, are definitely central, but for some reason I only thought language. Books, by extension, are also important, perhaps even more so because of how it communicates values, ideas, beliefs from one generation to the next. It is also in keeping with the notion that the Jewish people are one of the peoples of the book. The authors draw up references, text and examples from various literary sources, either from the Torah or other cultural titles, which was very interesting and informative.

To my surprise, curiosity, and ultimately my dismay, the authors chose not to include Jewish beliefs and the religion itself in-depth in the discussions. The authors mentioned that they are non-believers–which is their choice, I’m not so hung up on that–but I think it reinforced in my mind that this book is not an introductory book to the Jewish people and that it colours much of their approach to the book. It also adds further questions to the questions that they already raise in the book regarding Jews and Judaism and whether you can separate the faith aspect from the collective identity. Modern-day Israeli identity, yes, I have read articles on the subject of non-practicising Israelis, but with regards to Judaism and the term “Jews” I’m a little more skeptical about the split and this book did not provide any solid explanation or persuasion that there can be a difference. The last chapter in particular touched on this but again, I was not convinced. I guess I’m a little disappointed because I was expecting a more rounded approach–or at least a fleshed out look at how the religious aspect informed the secular and cultural side of the Jewish people–and did not expect the focus on the secular. Or put it another way, for a book discussing identity, I was expecting a more comprehensive look at the different elements that contribute to Jewish identity and while they do cite religious texts, it would have been interesting to see how the ideas and beliefs contributed to that identity.

While the dialogue and debate opened up differing perspectives to the cultural/social/historical/whathaveyou nature of Jewish identity, it does drift structurally. There are four chapters, each focusing on a specific topic, which serves as a guiding point. The first two chapters were pretty cohesive and strong, moving from one point to another, but I found the chapter on “time and timelessness” a little all over the place, touching on points here and there but not fleshing the point out to my satisfaction. It also took me a while to realise that the two authors were also debating on ideas back and forth, which made it a little confusing at times; the authors should have placed subheadings to differentiate their ideas because a reader with no idea that the book is structured that way would be terribly confused by some of the contradicting/confusing ideas being tossed around.

While fascinating, I don’t think I could recommend this book as a first-stop if you’re curious about Jewish identity, culture, and community. It’s informative, and it certainly touches on a lot of elements of Jewish culture, but given its partial nature as a dialogue between two individuals about Jewishness as a whole, it does leave the reader wondering what to make of all of the debates and the information. If you’re looking for an introduction, best look elsewhere and then return to this book for a perspective glance.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

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