Shmuel Ash is the kind of person who either irritates or arouses parental feelings in just about everyone he meets. He’s an obsessive academic fascinated by betrayers and the stories society tells about them and woefully underprepared for living independently. When we first meet him in Amos Oz’s slow-moving novel, Judas, his former girlfriend has married someone else and his parents’ bankruptcy cuts his university studies short. Only a chance sighting of a job offer on a college notice board saves him from homelessness. This job turns out to be just the kind of opportunity that pushes Shmuel out of the nest of complacency and, just maybe, into adult flight.
The job is a strange one. Shmuel is paid in room, board, and a little stipend to take care of an elderly, argumentative pedant for several hours every evening. He has few actual duties—make sure the old man eats, feed the fish, close the blinds—and is mostly there just to keep Gershom Wald while Wald’s daughter-in-law works. In his free time, he nurses a growing attraction to Atalia, the daughter-in-law (who everyone warns him about) and thinks about two betrayers: Judas Iscariot and Shealtiel Abravanel (Atalia’s father).
There is a slight plot to Judas, but the novel is more about the dialogues between Shmuel and the other characters about the centuries-old conflict between Christians and Jews, the roles of Judas and Shealtiel, Jewish views of Jesus and Judas, futility, and grief. Shmuel fascination with historic betrayers seems to come from his ideas that they were dreamers. He argues that Judas’ betrayal was necessary—and born out of genuine belief in Jesus’s divinity—because, without it, there wouldn’t have been a crucifixion. Without the crucifixion, there couldn’t have been a resurrection. And without a resurrection, Christianity might have withered on the vine. As for Shealtiel Abravanel, this fictional character argued against David Ben-Gurion and other Zionists against the creation of a Jewish State. Abravanel favored co-existence between Jews and Muslims. Unlike Judas, however, Abravanel failed. We’ll never know what his betrayal of Zionism might have wrought.
Because this book is primarily dialogue in the form of long speeches, this book is slow going. It took me a full week to get to the end. Readers who like more philosophical books might like this one.