Q&A with co-author of ‘Jews and Words’

Fania Oz-Salzberger (left), who co-authored “Jews and Words” with her father, Israeli novelist Amos Oz (right).  

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Fania Oz-Salzberger, co-author with her famous father, Israeli novelist Amos Oz, of the acclaimed book “Jews and Words,” will be the featured speaker of the 2013 “Big Jewish Community Read” as part of this year’s St. Louis Jewish Book Festival.  She will discuss the theme of the book she wrote with her father, which emphasizes the crucial role that words have played throughout the entire history of the Jewish people, including the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud and other sacred texts as well as Jewish fiction and even the role of Jewish humor.

Amos Oz, the internationally renowned author and professor of literature at Ben-Gurion University in Be’er Sheva, has been short-listed for years as worthy of a Nobel Prize in Literature. His daughter, Fania, is a respected writer in her own right and a history professor on the faculty of law at the University of Haifa.  

The Jewish Light caught up with Oz-Salzberger for an interview in the midst of her recent travels.

What was it like to work with your father, a towering literary figure, on  your co-authored book, “Jews and Words”?

Co-authoring “Jews and Words” was a unique experience and a fairly smooth ride; it grew directly from numerous conversations between my father and myself, ever since one of us was three years old. We agree on many topics, and enjoy the occasional quarrel as well. Of course, this book is not just a father-and-daughter opus, but also a novelist-and-historian conversation. Each of us brought decades of experience and debate into it. My advice: Don’t try to write a book with your parent before you are well into your forties and had a few conversations with your own offspring too.

In your book, you and your father describe yourselves as being “atheists of the Book,” and yet you make the case that the use of words plays a vital role as a sustaining force in  Jewish life.  How does your professed “atheism of the Book” affect how you evaluate the literature of the Hebrew Bible?

For us, the Jewish texts, especially the Bible, are great literature as well as a nation’s history. Let’s suppose, for the sake of the argument, that the Bible is mostly fiction, as some archeologists tell us these days. After all, no traces of great Israelite palaces were found in Jerusalem. To this we answer, in a typically Jewish way: so what? 

As a historian of ideas, I am far more impressed by the subtlety of biblical ethics, storytelling, law and poetry than by any archeological findings. As to my father, well, you don’t scare a novelist with fiction. Great fiction can tell human truths better than any facts on the ground. The texts are our pyramids, our cathedrals and our Chinese Wall. 

Some readers may read a book which questions God’s literal existence and fear that it has a tone of despair. Yet you claim that you reject a despairing outlook on life. Could you address this point?

Reading the Bible in Hebrew, alongside parts of the Talmud, the spectacular poetry of the Sephardi golden age, modern Jewish books and the wonderful new Hebrew literature, is an exhilarating journey. You cannot possibly despair of Jewish continuity, indeed of human survival, when you are acquainted with the Jewish “textline.” Our sort of secularity is not an escape route but a new way of remaining deeply Jewish. We are putting forward an Israeli proposal, based on the powerful creativity of modern Hebrew culture: it is possible to remain lovingly in the fold without being religious. Bookish atheists like ourselves have replaced faith with wonder.

In “Jews and Words” you make  favorable  references to such diverse Jews as Sigmund Freud, Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld,   What drew you and  your father to these figures, and what role do you see humor playing in sustaining Jewish continuity?

Hey, don’t forget the female line, from Sarah the matriarch, who laughed in God’s face, all the way to Sarah Silverman! They are mentioned too, along with a legion of other vocal Jewish women. We Jews, especially in modern times, would not have survived without a healthy dose of fearless wit. Did you notice that Jewish humor is almost always verbal rather than physical? It is far more Groucho than Harpo.

Our book lists dozens of instances of self-deprecating humor, ancient and modern, Sephardi and Ashkenazi, Orthodox and secular. Jews are quick to make fun, albeit rather fondly, of their ancestors, their rabbis and even their grandmothers. We occasionally laugh a little at the Almighty himself. My co-author and I call this “irreverent reverence,” and we love it.

What do you think motivated centuries of Jewish rabbis, sages and scholars to the relentless study of the meanings of the words of the Bible and other sacred texts?

Faith was a formidable engine, but alongside faith other Jewish uniquenesses were at work: the tremendous respect for written texts, the availability of books — or at least texts from books — on every family’s dinner table. Also the education of children (mostly boys, but smart girls always caught on) from a very tender age. The love of argument. The habit of questioning. Think of the Haggadah as a manual for teaching youngsters to ask their elders tough questions. I can’t think of any pre-modern culture, which developed such a gift for bequeathing literacy. Whenever we fled persecution and pogroms, we always held a child in one hand and a book in the other. 

What do you want your readers and the audience at “Big Read” to take away in terms of new insights into the role words play in their teachings?

I am hoping to tell at least one good Jewish joke they haven’t heard before. A bit more seriously, I hope to demonstrate that Hebrew and English, the two great languages of the Jews today, can have a very fruitful dialogue about the future of Jewish life and creativity. But my most important message — as a Jew, a historian, a daughter and a mom — can be squeezed into exactly 10 words: “Figure out ways to get your kids to love books.”