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Pages

A Compelling, Chutzpadik History Of 'Jews And Words'

Dec 1, 2012
Originally published on December 13, 2012 8:42 am

For thousands of years the Jewish people have been forced to move around — fleeing bigotry, slavery, pogroms, famines and tyrants. But words are portable, and to Jews — who are among those known as "the People of the Book" — they are precious possessions. As Amos Oz and his daughter, Fania Oz-Salzberger, write in their new book, Jews and Words, "Ours is not a bloodline, but a text line."

Oz, a professor of literature at Ben-Gurion University in Be'er Sheva, and Oz-Salzberger, a writer and historian at the University of Haifa, talk with NPR's Scott Simon about Jews and Words. The father-daughter team explain their ideas about "Jewish atheism," Judaism's evolving traditions and the origins of chutzpah.


Interview Highlights

On what it means to be a "Jewish atheist"

Oz: "We regard Judaism as a civilization, not just as a religion. I think there are many, many ways to be a Jew. And one of those ways to be a Jew is to be a nonreligious Jew. The heritage contains, first and foremost, books, texts, spiritual creativity. And religion is only one of the components of this magnificent heritage."

Oz-Salzberger: "But part of the poetry is that we can pick and choose our legacies as we please. Every generation anew. And we feel very much at home with some of the heritage and not so much at home with other parts, and we feel entitled to be lovingly selective."

On the relationship between the early itinerant nature of Jews and their dependency on words

Oz: "For thousands of years, we Jews had nothing but books. We had no lands, we had no holy sites, we had no magnificent architecture, we had no heroes. We had books, we had texts, and those texts were always discussed around the family table. They became part of the family life, and they traveled from one generation to the next — not unchanged, not unchallenged, but reinterpreted in each generation and reread by each generation."

On Jewish individualism, and the many characters in the Hebrew Bible

Oz-Salzberger: "I think the Greeks had many protagonists of drama, comedy, tragedy, philosophy, of course history — but the Jews had even more. I'm talking about quantity, not necessarily quality. The Bible seems to be full of individual characters, male and female, trying to elbow their way into memory, which many of them succeeded in doing. So we have always been a very individualistic collective, a very vocal one, and often a very debating one. And we love it this way. We'd like to keep it."

Oz: "If you promise to take the following with a grain of salt, I would add that you can never get two Jews to agree with each other on anything. It's difficult to find one Jew who agrees with himself or herself on something, because everyone has a divided mind and soul, everyone is ambivalent. So our civilization is a civilization of dispute, of disagreement and of argument."

On the evolution of the idea of chutzpah from the Hebrew term for the court of justice

Oz-Salzberger: "The term is beit din chatzuf, which is a court of justice which is not manned according to the rules, but its ruling still passes as legal and viable. So there is a sense of transcending the laid laws which has been part and parcel of the mainstream, the healthy mainstream of Judaism, and we love it very much. We call it, in several places in our book, we call it 'reverent irreverence.' People did believe in God. But they often made no bones about critiquing the Lord, and shouting at him, and waving a fist at him and thinking that he got it wrong. This irreverent reverence is part of what has been called, in modern times, the 'chutzpah tradition,' which we deeply relate to as Israelis and as modern human beings."

Oz: "The very term 'Israel' means 'he who struggles with God.' This is the literal, dictionary sense of the word 'Israel.' So chutzpah is built into this civilization. A pupil is not expected to obey, to follow and to learn by heart. A student is expected to say a chiddush, which means something new, something original, something of his or her own interpretation of the sacred texts."

On how their book is an answer to concerns about the assimilation and loss of tradition among North American Jews

Oz: "This book is a teaser; it's an appetizer. It's meant to propose to Jews in Israel, in America and everywhere — and it means to propose to non-Jews — to relate to a wonderful line of texts, full of wisdom, full of humor, full of inventiveness, full of chutzpah. We are trying to seduce people — Jews and non-Jews alike — we are trying to seduce people to this wonderful heritage, and we are trying to emphasize that you don't have to be religious and you don't even have to be Jewish in order to be attracted to this legacy. In other words, if I may put it paradoxically, you don't have to be a Jew to be Jewish."

On collaborating on this book as a father-daughter team

Oz-Salzberger: "It went flowingly. It was a very smooth experience. It happened almost accidentally. We were offered to write a little essay together, and it turned out that we had been talking to one another of the topics of this book ever since one of us was 3 years old. ...

"And so, you know, putting it on paper was a wonderful exercise and part of the game of the intertextuality that we are talking about. We strongly believe that our children, and their children after them, in their own universes, be it Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr or what have you, I think they will continue, because this is a legacy to continue. I'm not fearful about the future of Jewish textuality. And by the way, I don't think we are worried about the future of the book either. ... Because in many ways our bookishness has come now — you know, looking at it from antiquity until today — full circle, tablet to tablet, scroll to scroll. And back with the tablets and the scrolls with a vengeance."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Jews are among those who are sometimes called the People of the Book. And as a people, they've had to move around a lot; fleeing bigotry, slavery, pogroms, famines and tyrants. But words are portable, precious possessions. As one of Israel's most famous novelists and his daughter, a historian, say in their new book, ours not a bloodline, but a text line. Their book is called, "Jews and Words." Amos Oz, who's also a professor of literature at Ben Gurion University, and his daughter, Fania Oz-Salzberger, a writer and historian at the University of Haifa, joined us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

AMOS OZ: Thanks for having us.

SIMON: Let's try and understand your family first. As you write in the book, you're non-believers, but you also say you're Jewish atheists. So, how can that be?

OZ: We regard Judaism as a civilization, not just as a religion. I think there are many, many ways to be a Jew. And one of those ways to be a Jew is to be a non-religious Jew. The heritage contains, first and foremost, books, texts, and religion is only one of the components of this magnificent heritage.

FANIA OZ-SALZBERGER: But part of the point here is that we can pick and choose our legacies, as we please, every generation and you. And we feel very much at home with some of the heritage and not so much at home with other parts. And we feel entitled to be lovingly selective.

SIMON: How much does what you see as a relationship between Jews and words trace back to, I think, the point at which we began, how very portable Jews have had to be in all parts of the world.

OZ: For thousands of years, we Jews had nothing but books. We had no land, we had no holy sites, we had no heroes. We had books, we had texts, and those texts were always discussed around the family table. And they traveled from one generation to the next not unchallenged, but reinterpreted in each generation and reread by each generation.

SIMON: You write in the book that Greeks had more gods but that the Hebrew Bible registered more humans, I think is the way you put it. What effect has that had?

OZ-SALZBERGER: Well, not only did the Greeks had more gods, I think the Greeks had many protagonists of drama, comedy, tragedies, philosophy, of course, history. But the Jews had even more. I'm talking about quantity, not necessarily quality. The bible seems to be full of individual characters, male and female, trying to elbow their way into memory, which many of them succeeded in doing. So, we have always been a very individualistic collective, a very vocal one, and often a very debating one. And we love it this way. We'd like to keep it.

OZ: If you promise to take the following with a grain of salt, I would add that you never get two Jews to agree with each other on anything. It's difficult to find one Jew who agrees with himself or herself on something because everyone has a divided mind and soul. Everyone is ambivalent. So, our civilization is a civilization of argument.

SIMON: Well, it's interesting because you make a big place in this book for chutzpah.

OZ-SALZBERGER: Oh yes.

SIMON: If I could get you to talk about chutzpah. You trace it back to, I think, the phrase is the impudent court of justice.

OZ-SALZBERGER: (Foreign language spoken), which is part of justice, which is not meant, according to the rules, but its ruling still passes as legal and viable. So, there is a sense of transcending the laid laws, which has been part and parcel of the mainstream, the healthy mainstream, of Judaism. And we love it very much. We call it in several places in our book, we call it reverent irreverence. People did believe in God, but they often made no bones about critiquing the Lord and shouting at him and waving a fist at him and thinking that he got it wrong. This irreverent reverence is part of what has been called in modern times the chutzpah tradition that we deeply relate to as Israelis and as modern human beings.

OZ: The very term Israel means he who struggles with God. This is the literal dictionary sense of the word Israel. So, chutzpah is built into this civilization. A pupil is not expected to obey and to learn by heart. A student is expected to say something of his or her own interpretation of the sacred texts.

SIMON: So, there is a direct line between Abraham, Moses and Alan Dershowitz.

OZ: Absolutely.

OZ-SALZBERGER: And Seinfeld and Sarah Silverman, very much so, very much so.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: You are pretty blunt in the book about saying Jews talk a lot.

OZ-SALZBERGER: Oh yes. By the way, Jews talk a lot and Jewish women talk nine times more than Jewish men. I've got (unintelligible) for that. Please put it on (unintelligible)...

SIMON: All right. Do either of you have any concern that you sometimes hear expressed that North American Jews in particular have become so assimilated into a popular North American culture that they don't carry on certain traditions?

OZ: This book is a teaser. It's an appetizer. It's meant to propose to Jews in Israel, in America and everywhere, and it means to propose to non-Jews, to relate to a wonderful line of texts full of wisdom, full of humor. And we are trying to seduce people - Jews and non-Jews alike - to seduce people to this wonderful heritage. And we are trying to emphasize that you don't have to be religious and you don't even have to be Jewish in order to be attracted to this legacy. In other words, if I may put it paradoxically, you don't have to be a Jew to be Jewish.

SIMON: May I ask, finally, how does it work for a father and daughter to write a book?

OZ-SALZBERGER: Well, it went slowlyingly(ph) for the very small experience. It happened almost accidentally. We were offered to try and write a little essay together. And it turned out that we had been talking to one another of the topics of this book ever since one of us was three years old. And...

SIMON: I'm guessing that's you.

OZ-SALZBERGER: Well done. And so, you know, putting it on paper was a wonderful exercise and part of the game of the intertextuality that we are talking about. We strongly believe that our children and their children after them, in their own universes, be it Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr or what have you, I think they will continue, because this is a legacy to continue. I'm not fearful about the future of Jewish textuality. And, by the way, I don't think we are worried about the future of the book either, Scott, if I may say so. 'Cause in many ways, our bookishness has come now, you know, looking at it from antiquity until today, full-circle, tablet to tablet, scroll to scroll. I'm back with the tablets and the scrolls with a vengeance.

SIMON: Oh my gosh, that just occurred to me, except you have a lot more room, I mean, you have room for millions of commandments on these tablets, don't you?

OZ-SALZBERGER: And you can make the letters bigger. That's a great improvement.

SIMON: That can help, can't it? Fania Oz-Salzberger, Amos Oz. Their new book, "Jews and Words." It's part of the Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization Project in conjunction with Yale University Press. Thank you so much both for being with us.

OZ-SALZBERGER: Thank you very much for having us.

OZ: Thank you for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.