Who's a Jew?

By Oz-Salzberger, Fania | Newsweek, February 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Who's a Jew?


Oz-Salzberger, Fania, Newsweek


Byline: Fania Oz-Salzberger

Israeli novelist Amos Oz and his daughter define Jewishness today.

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.

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. …

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