Betrayal in Jerusalem


by Amos Oz, translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 305 pp., $25.00
Amos Oz
Amos Oz; drawing by David Levine

On a wintry day in Jerusalem in late 1959, Shmuel Ash spots an enigmatic job posting on a university campus board:

Offered to a single humanities student with conversational skills and an interest in history, free accommodation and a modest monthly sum in return for spending five hours per evening with a seventy-year-old invalid, an educated, widely cultured man. He is able to take care of himself and seeks company, not assistance.

Ash, whose parents, we are told, “had lost their entire life savings in an instant, whose own research had stalled, who had dropped out of university, and whose girlfriend had suddenly married her former boyfriend,” decides to accept the position.

Ash moves to a house that is inhabited by two people, Atalia Abravanel, forty-five, and Gershom Wald, her seventy-year-old invalid father-in-law. They are haunted by the memories of two others who have a presence in the house: Shealtiel Abravanel, Atalia’s dead father, and Micha, Atalia’s late husband and Wald’s son. As we learn later, Micha was killed in the 1948 war and his corpse savagely desecrated.

The 1948 war between Jews and Arabs in Palestine is called the War of Independence by Jews and Al Naqba, or the Catastrophe, by Palestinian Arabs. What is striking in Judas, Amos Oz’s captivating new novel, is that the Jewish Abravanels, both father and daughter, view the 1948 war as an unmitigated catastrophe. This is so in their own lives through the loss of Micha, and for Jews nationally by heaping misery on Jews and Arabs alike.

Oz’s story zooms in on the trio of the living, which has expanded to include Ash, then zooms out onto a quintet that includes the two living-dead with their tight hold on the living. Much of the book consists of conversations between Ash, Wald, and Atalia about religion, Zionism, and the legacy of the war, as well as increasingly intimate exchanges about their private lives.

Shmuel Ash is twenty-five years old. As Lord Byron once asked: “Is there anything in the future that can possibly console us for not being always twenty-five?” In the case of the stocky and bearded Ash, the answer is Atalia—the lady of the house. Ash, “shy, emotional, socialist, asthmatic,” falls deeply in love with her.

Ash is based on the nineteenth-century Russian literary archetype of the “superfluous man”: well-read, intelligent, idealistic, with copious goodwill, and yet utterly ineffectual. Ash can interpret the world but can barely change his own underwear. Like Goncharov’s Oblomov, he stays in bed until midday, a grown baby who dusts his beard with scented talc powder.

Ash is the novel’s link between the story that takes place in 1959 and the one about Jesus and Judas that took place in the first century. His academic research, which he had recently given up, was dedicated to the way in which Jews viewed Jesus. When he tries to explain his…

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