Differences Into Words: How to Define Jewishness Today

Jewish identity was based from the very beginning on an exchange of ideas. When I was a child, I asked my father, why do Jews always answer a question with a question? He answered, why not? Stefan Boness/Panos

My father, Amos Oz, the renowned Israeli novelist, and I, a historian of ideas, recently published our first coauthored book, Jews and Words. It is a slim, playful, and learned essay on being Jewish, from the vantage point of two secular Israelis. Written in English, it is currently being translated into several languages including our native Hebrew.

As "atheists of the book," we roam through myriad Jewish texts, ideas, and quips, led by our deep love of the Bible and its numerous literary offspring. But the story is deeply political, too, entering several cultural disputes with gusto. The key topics for us are continuity, individualism within community, the time-leaping genius of ongoing debate, the role of strong and vocal women, and the power of gritty self-humor. But each of these Jewish uniquenesses can become a universal trope for today's global conversation. All are invited to the Jewish dinner table, where books were always present, and a "reverent irreverence" kept minds open and groping for new ideas. I spoke to Amos on Jewish uniqueness and universality. The resulting dialogue not only addresses the book's main themes, but also demonstrates its core argument: that families, not only nations, thrive by "putting differences into words."

Why do Jews like questions so much?

Jewish identity was based from the very beginning on an exchange of ideas. Very often this exchange of ideas takes the inquisitive form. When I was a child, I asked my father, why do Jews always answer a question with a question? He answered, why not?

Question marks are more important in Jewish tradition than exclamation marks. The Hebrew Bible did not use either mark, but it is full of questions. As soon as Adam and Eve start thinking for themselves, questions pile up. Some of them are still relevant today. Where are you? Who told you you were naked? Did you eat from the forbidden tree [of knowledge]? And in the next chapter: Where is your brother? Cain, the first man to answer a question with a question, says: am I my brother's keeper? Oh, yes, says the Bible, you are.

Israel is an extremely political society, and you are a very political intellectual. In the recent elections campaign, too, your words carried weight. Unlike the Jewish-Arab conflict, internal Jewish disagreements, however vast and venomous, are almost always verbal and nonviolent. How come?

I have been asked many times: When are you Israeli Jews going to give us a little civil war? After all, you have all those potent diversities and assorted fanatics. My answer is that the Israeli civil war has already been going on for 100 years. But in over a century of Zionism, no more than 50 Jews were killed by other Jews on political, ideological, and religious grounds. That includes the assassination of Prime Minister [Yitzhak] Rabin. Of course, one is too many. But we habitually conduct our painful internal disagreements not by shooting at each other, but by calling each other terrible names, thus inflicting ulcers and heart attacks on each other. In short, it's a traditional Jewish battle. Much preferred to the rivers of blood and fire through which so many other nations sorted out their differences.

‘Jews and Words’ by Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger. 248 pp. Yale University Press. $25.

Many ultra-Orthodox Jews would consider you, me, this conversation, and this media outlet as utterly alien to the "real" Jewish tradition. What will you say to them?

When those people say "the real Jewish tradition," they have in mind not the living and kicking Jewish legacy but a fossil. For more than 3,000 years Hebraic and Jewish civilization, in good times, has been an open-ended game of interpretations, reinterpretations, and counterinterpretations. A multigenerational seminary. Bright boys were encouraged to break new grounds as part of their bar mitzvah inauguration. Young men were expected to come forth with a chidush, an original thought on an ancient text. "There is no house of learning without a novelty," says the Talmud. Our tree of knowledge expands in all directions, with no disrespect to its roots. So the "real Jewish tradition" includes Noah, Nachmanides, and Newsweek.

A non-Jewish friend told me the other day that we Jews claim both uniqueness and normalcy at the same time. The scriptures used the term "goy" both to include us (originally it simply meant "nation") and to exclude us (as "goy" became "gentile"). Isaiah prophesied a future of global peace and universal values, with Jerusalem at its core. Shylock passionately claimed that a Jew is a regular human being, but Jews have adamantly pressed their "otherness" throughout the centuries, reinforcing anti-Semites and reinforced by them in turn. So maybe it's really time to decide: Are we different? Are we "superior"? Are we, as the joke goes, "just like everyone else, only more so"?

Shylock does not have a Jewish bone (or pound of flesh) in his body. He was invented by Shakespeare, who probably never met a Jew in his life. But the contradiction between otherness on the one hand and belonging in the human family on the other hand is a false contradiction. The human family is a family of others. It's like an orchestra of different musical instruments. John Donne, Shakespeare's contemporary, wrote: "No man is an island." And I humbly add, "but every one of us is a peninsula." Every culture too is a peninsula, half connected to the mainland of humanity and half unique and exceptional.

Amos Oz as a young man. Micha Bar Am/Magnum Photos

Are we the chosen people? Not better than others, I mean, but age-old teachers of moral universalism, given this role either by God or by our ancestors.

While I renounce firmly every claim to Jewish superiority, I do think that the Jewish people has sounded, for generations, a unique set of voices. We lost sovereignty, land, and power, but not our enormous ethical ambitions. We indeed taught moral universalism, at a terrible price for ourselves. As Sholem Aleichem once said, out of the depth of Jewish plight and misery: dear God, can't you please choose someone else for a change?

Are we still different today?

We are as different as anyone else.

But the world has become more Jewish, hasn't it? At least in the great recent turn toward language, textuality, and ever-expanding conversation, online and offline?

If being Jewish means having a way with words, a certain sense of relativism, and a measure of pluralism, with a pinch of humor and self-doubt, then the answer is yes.

Let's talk about parenting: is there a deep Jewish secret here? Our coauthored book, which grew around the family dinner table, has much to say about books read around dinner tables. We revel in our ancestors' textual child rearing. Proust, Agnon, Bashevis Singer, all had book-loving mothers; so did you, and so do I. How is the bookish mom different from the Tiger Mom, or the soccer mom, or the TV-gazing mom?

Fania Oz-Salzberger and Amos Oz
Father and daughter. Ben Weinstein Photography

We all know the cliché jokes about the guilt-inflicting Jewish mother. But actually what Jewish mothers inflicted on their offspring throughout the generations was, first and foremost, curiosity. Fathers encouraged questioning and excellence, while mothers nurtured wonderment. Together, they fostered memory, and hence continuity.

Can secular Jews survive? A famous American rabbi already told us that our book is as temporary as a cut flower, because our own progeny is not likely to remain loyal to the Jewish heritage; you have to be religious to do that.

There is a long line of unorthodox, and even sacrilegious Jews, whose progeny are ferociously Jewish. Our own family proudly counts at least five generations of nonobservant, secular Jews. We have not become less Jewish. The state of Israel itself was dreamed up and carried out largely by newly secular Jews, who believed that Judaism is a nation and a civilization, not just a religion. They hoped that it would become a full member in the family of nations. Present-day Israel, including Tel Aviv, where myriads just voted for the secularist and future-oriented party Yesh Atid, is at the same time enjoying a veritable renaissance of age-old Jewish culture. Musicians and novelists are delving into the ancient and medieval texts with great panache. In this sense, Jews and Words is a very contemporary Israeli book.

Let's talk about languages. Over the millennia, Jews spoke and wrote significant texts in at least a dozen languages. Your parents—my grandparents—spoke many European tongues, but raised you in Hebrew alone. You raised me in Hebrew too, but now we are conversing in English for an international readership. Is Hebrew too marginal for today's world?

No language is too marginal to be universal. Modern culture is a choir of many voices, coming from the four corners of the earth. The Jewish world now speaks primarily two languages: Hebrew and English, in more or less equal numbers. We wrote this book in English aiming to send a Hebraic message to international readers.

When I wrote A Tale of Love and Darkness, I thought it would only be understood by my family and a few other Jerusalemites. It turned out that the book spoke to millions of readers in 30 languages. This shows that there is no contradiction between the parochial and the universal. Many great works of literature—from Russia, India, Egypt, Japan, and Latin America—are universal precisely because they are provincial. In a nutshell, this is what my Hebrew, my Israeliness, and my Jewish identity are about.