There’s a lot to like about Judas, the 2017 Man Booker Prize nominated novel by Amos Oz. An Israeli, Oz has exceptionally beautiful prose and seems to have mastered romantic longing in his stories.
This one if about Schmuel, a university student dedicated to the study if Jewish views of Christ – and that also if Judas, a largely demonised character in Christian mythology but not so much in historical record. But Schmuel’s life is upended when his parents announce they can no longer afford his school fees, and his girlfriend leaves him to marry her ex.
Schmuel quickly finds himself living as a companion to an old Jewish politician and his daughter-in-law, a sad and mysterious women who quickly he comes to dream about.
Its a book about foolish young hearts, unrequited love, intellectual curiosity, and the ostracising of the Jews for their failure to recognise Jesus as the messiah. Some of this was deeply religious, and some political and much of it admittedly outside of my sphere of understanding. And this did slow down my reading of what ultimately is a finely crafted story.
This was a book I really didn’t want to read. It’s not often a book – even one as long as this one – will take me a month to get through. But the subject matter was dense, painful and far too real.
The first level of the novel is the story of a marriage breakdown – Jacob and Julia are entering middle life to find that after working so hard to be good parents to their three sons and good Jews, they have forgotten how to be real with each other. This is raw and brilliant writing – but not for the faint-hearted. Safran Foer pulls no punches here. This is human nature in all its complexity – the beauty of forgiveness, the shallowness and frailty of betrayal. You won’t question him as a writer.
While this might seem like enough for any modern novel, it is also very tied up with Jewish identity. Although Jacob and Julia want to be seen as good Jews – even forcing their unwilling son Sam to have a bar mitzvah because “this is what we do”, they themselves acknowledge they don’t hold as fast as they should to their traditions and customs. Yet Jacob’s grandfather – a Holocaust survivor who immigrated to America – reminds them of the importance of protecting those traditions each day. In addition, Jacob’s Israeli cousins espouse the view that all Jews should have stayed in the Holy Land and that living in America is a kind of betrayal to their heritage.
When an earthquake devastates Jerusalem and her enemies look to make war, will Jacob answer the call of his cousins? Like Abraham before him, when called upon to sacrifice all that he loves, will Jacob answer his God with “Here I Am”, or will he be incapable?
Complex, brilliant, too much.