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A Compelling, Chutzpadik History Of 'Jews And Words'

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."

Amos Oz is a novelist and professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. His daughter, Fania Oz-Salzberger, is a writer and professor at the University of Haifa.
Ben Weinstein Photography / Yale University Press
Yale University Press
Amos Oz is a novelist and professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. His daughter, Fania Oz-Salzberger, is a writer and professor at the University of Haifa.

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."

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NPR Staff