“Jews and Words” – Book Review and Reflection

Jews and WordsDid you ever wonder why the Jewish kids always did the best in high school? Did you also ever wonder how the Jewish people have not only survived but prospered and contributed untold good to humanity, despite centuries of prejudice, ostracism, and persecution?

I always wondered, and I think I know now, after reading “Jews and Words” by Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salberger. It’s a tight little 204-page essay by two people who describe themselves as “secular Jewish Israelis.” At the outset, the authors declare who they are and whence they come:

“First, we don’t believe in God. Second, Hebrew is our mother tongue. Third, our Jewish identity is not faith-powered…There is not a religious bone in our bodies.

That’s pretty strong stuff to declare in a book that is, after all, about a people who are identified by their religion. I can’t imagine a Catholic author saying anything similar in a book about his confessional faith. But their ability to utter such words is, as it turns out, a logical conclusion to one of the big differences between Judaism and Catholicism – the infallible guy in Rome.

Near the end of the book, they write, “The Jews never had a pope…Because suppose we did have one, everyone would be slapping him (or her?) on the shoulder, saying that their grandfather knew his grandmother in Plonsk or Casablanca. Two degrees of separation at most. Familiarity, intimacy, contrariness – this is the stuff our communities are made of…Someone will always dissent. Our smoke will never be white. So much for a Jewish Pontiff.”

They earlier stated, “There is a Jewish theology of chutzpah. It resides in the subtle juncture of faith, argumentativeness, and self-targeting humor. It amounts to a uniquely irreverent reverence. Nothing is too holy to deserve the occasional send-off. You can laugh at the rabbi, at Moses, and the angels, and at the Almighty too.”

No, that’s not the way it was for someone who grew up Catholic. But maybe this Jewish approach to things is one of the reasons that I enjoyed being the only goy in attendance at monthly business networking meetings at a temple a few communities distant.

There’s another thing about the Jewish people that this book confirmed for me. I think I had it essentially right, but the book explains why. Before reading it, I had come to believe that one of the greatest sources of Jews’ strength and resiliency was that they remember who they are. I believed that their rituals, their traditions, their religious learning all undergird their collective identity.

The authors seem to agree. They write “Almost all societies have cherished the imperative of intergenerational storytelling. Almost all cultures have glorified the passing of the torch from old to young…But there is a Jewish twist to this universal imperative. …No ancient civilization…can offer a parallel comparable with Judaism’s insistence upon teaching the young and inculcating in them the traditions and customs of their people….Where other cultures left boys in their mothers’ care until they were old enough to pull a plough or wave a sword, Jews started acculturating their youngsters to the ancient narrative as soon as the tots could understand words, at two years old, and read them, often at the ripe age of three. Schooling, in short, began soon after weaning.”

The vessels for all that learning were the written texts. When the Jews went into the Babylonian captivity – and even before that – families understood that they must “act as relays of national memory embedded in written texts.”

So there it is – early literacy and facility with storytelling that gave the Jewish kids a big leg up on their contemporaries once the secular schooling began. No wonder they had so many honor students. And there too is the collective memory of who we are and how we got here. No wonder that the Jewish community has staying power.

That collective memory, those cultural touchstones and common points of reference, it seems to me, are fading away in modern America. It seems like there’s a lot of insubstantial fluff being taught today, mere stuff and nonsense. The Common Core, anyone?

We need a real common core, a cultural canon that every American must experience. A return to close familiarity with the Bible and all it offers would be a giant step back towards the right path.

And spare me, please, the knee-jerk, selective quoting of Tom Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists on the “wall of separation between church and state.” If you insist that the old plantation owner and slave driver’s private writings be the supreme law of the land, then bring in what he had to say about black people in “Notes on the State of Virginia.” You might have second thoughts.

But back to Amos and Fania’s thoughts on the matter. They point out that there are “more Bible-wise atheists in Israel than anywhere else.” And that, too, is an advantage.

They go on to say “Most Western nonbelievers today have not crossed paths with the Bible as a literary text. Unlike Homer, it is not widely taught in schools. Like Twitter, it is handed down in byte-sized chunks…The paradox is clear to an Israeli eye. Today, in many secular societies, religion itself obscures this exquisite work of art from view. The Constitution of the United States helps bar it from public schools, because it is mistaken for a (wholly, solely) religious text. This is a sad cultural loss.”

Can’t agree more with that one.

I’m glad I got this book. It also has a lot of things I never knew about the women of the Bible, about the resurrection of the Hebrew language, and about the delicious brand of humor that is distinctively Jewish.

If you like to read, if you love history, if you want to know why things are as they are, and if you enjoy learning “the rest of the story,” I think you’ll like it too.

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