Jews and Words (Anglais) Broché – 4 mars 2014
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Revue de presse
"Thrilling and entertaining, Jews and Words challenges cliches and stereotypes at every page. Its tone is half serious and half humorous, mixing a mastery of its subject with an informal touch. It promises to be very controversial and widely read." --Mario Vargas Llosa
"Ingenious and thrilling, Jews and Words manages to cram more than 5,000 years of prayers, songs, stories, arguments, praises, curses and jokes into the suitcase of a thin, page-turning work of... what? History? Anthropology? Literary criticism? Theology? All of these and more. It's a wonderful book." --Jonathan Safran Foer --Ce texte fait référence à l'édition Relié .
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Words, they write, are more important to Judaism than places and people. Their serious but frequently playful book, which will be released in November 2012, emphasizes education as the key element in Jewish culture. Jews, they say, have always insisted on educating their children from an early age. Despite frequent persecutions, Judaism is maintained by books that are taught and read in schools, family tables, and alone.
They discuss many subjects; "women" is one of them. In the biblical book "Song of Songs by Solomon," the Hebrew word translated "by" is asher. This word could mean "to" here, and the passage would read, "The song that I will sing to Solomon." This avoids the perplexing question: Is it reasonable to suppose that King Solomon wrote this love poem and two other books ascribed to him with different world views? True, Jewish sages say that he wrote one in his youth reflecting youthful interests, one in middle age, and one when he was old. But by understanding asher as "to," one can argue that this love poem, was composed by a woman expressing love to Solomon. This is one of many female contributions to Judaism.
The two highlight dozens of biblical instances where women play decisive roles. The prophetess Deborah, for example, had to encourage a male to lead the army against Israel's enemy, and he refused to go unless she joined him. It is also easy to see Eve being more proactive than her husband Adam.
True, those who prefer to set women in a second place position refer to their interpretation of Psalm 45:14, "All the glory of the king's daughter is within" - women belong at home - but these advocates read the passage out of context. The verse is speaking about the jewelry, clothes, and other precious items that Salomon's foreign brides, some princesses, brought with them to his kingdom when he married them. They had this rich "glory" at home. Besides, the Bible is teeming with examples of Israelite women outside the home and in the streets.
Another restriction placed on women by many ultra-Orthodox Jews is their insistence that women not sing in the presence of men because their voice is enticing. This claim, of course, says more about their problem than about women. There is no biblical rule forbidding men listening to female singing. Biblical figures didn't have this concern. II Samuel, for instance, states that Barzillai, a priest of King David, lamented that he is too old to enjoy female singing as he would like to do. Exodus reports that Moses' sister Miriam and other women sang, and Moses didn't insist that men to stuff their ears.
Oz and Oz-Salzberger analyze the lives of dozens of biblical women and show their praiseworthy strengths, such as Miriam who saved her brother Moses, while "her father and brother may have been out for a drink." They also tell how the biblical portrayal of women is far more positive than the disapproving depiction of ladies in Greek mythology and theater. They show the need for ultra-Orthodox Jews to return to biblical Judaism.
The negative thing is about the prose. I have read in translation most of what Amos Oz has written, and his prose seems to me, as it comes through the translations of Nicholas de Lange, exquisitely courteous to the reader. It is free of rhetoric and tries to make its meaning as easy to understand as possible. It is like the language of Primo Levi or Alberto Moravia, as their Italian prose comes into English. The definition of great writing as an effort to strip away artistic pretension in order to reveal an underlying truth comes ultimately from Tolstoy. The main difference between Oz and such literary ancestors is that Oz's prose has more irony, much of it playful, which I take to be an aspect of modern Israeli culture. Reading Oz has always been a pleasure for me, both for the ideas and the language.
So I was surprised that the prose of this book was so rhetorical. The authors, Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger (father and daughter), wrote it in English, which is not their native language. Some of the prose is purple, suited more to the 19th century than ours:
"Trading dusty wisdoms for sweet sin and sour uncertainties. Embarking on ships to new worlds saddled with guilt and longing. Yiddish clung to their necks like a heartbroken mother."
Maybe this is tongue-in-cheek, but more likely it shows that no matter how erudite you are, it is risky to write in a foreign language. It is also a failure of editing. I particularly disliked the use of a rhetorical device called "polysyndeton" (and...and...and) which to me sounds like a poorly educated politician trying to whip up a crowd:
"This is where Heine belongs, and Sigmund Freud, and Franz Kafka, and Walter Benjamin, and Else Lasker- Schüler."
The very positive thing I want to say about this book is that the main idea, their definition of what it is to be a Jew, was a dazzling revelation to me. Judaism is not a theology, for whatever theology it has is that of a primitive tribe. It is not a race, because there is little certainty that the ancestors of someone calling himself or herself a Jew include pastoralists in the hill country of Israel and Palestine three thousand years ago. It is not an identification with a place, or with a civilization or even a belief in God, for Oz and Oz-Salzberger are atheists, but still think of themselves a Jews.
The core of Judaism, according to Oz and Oz-Salzberger, is a dedication to the transmission of learning from one generation to another through formal discussions about the meanings of texts. This reverence towards books, and the transmission of this reverence, defines what it means to be a Jew. The tradition of parents transmitting knowledge and texts to children, such as rabbis to students in yeshivas, is ancient, and something similar is perhaps found in most groups which call themselves Jewish. It is a common theme in Jewish literature and in Israeli film. This definition of Judaism, obvious once presented, had never occurred to me.
Other things I liked about this book were the discussion of the origin and characteristics of modern Hebrew, the origin of the word and the concept of "Judaism" (which seems to have been a 19th century German invention), the compendium of Jewish jokes at the end of the book and a variety of miscellaneous facts: that the mezuzah which Jews sometimes put on the doorways to their houses comes from Persia, and the phrase "people of the book" comes from the Quran.
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