‘Jews are defined by words, not religion or ethnicity’

Interview with Fania Oz-Salzberger: Deep family connection to texts far beyond mobile phones


Frank Sinatra’s daughter Nancy once released a song called, These Boots are Made for Walking. Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger’s book, Jews and Words, could have been sub-titled, These Books are Made for Talking.

The novelist father and historian daughter’s “Abraham to Seinfeld” tour of Jewish civilisation is a treat. But at the heart rests a single, powerful proposition: Jews are a people not because of religious beliefs (the authors are atheists) or common ethnic descent (historically, many have been converts). Instead, Jews collectively share a “textline”, a tradition of books and discussion from the Bible onwards, which has travelled down the ages, around Shabbat- and dinner-tables, in salons, yeshivot and now cyberspace. Jews reproduce through textual intercourse.

“Perhaps the greatest centre of life was the family home,” says the 52-year-old Haifa University professor, Fania, whose intonation carries a trace of her father’s.

“On the table, there were two things, food and texts. Even a very poor family that could not afford a book had textuality — they would say the blessings, the prayers and, after dinner, chant the songs. The text was always on the table.

“Even now, I allow my teenage boys to bring books to the table. It is more complicated when they bring their iPad but even an iPad is a book in many ways — a tablet.”

‘Even an iPad is a book in many ways - a tablet

Jews and Words was issued as a companion to the Posen Library of Jewish Civilisation, the 10-volume anthology sponsored by philanthropist Felix Posen, on whose academic board Professor Oz-Salzberger sits. When Posen first approached her father to write it, some 10 years ago, he turned it down — “he is not in the habit of writing commissioned books.”

But when the prospect of collaboration with his daughter later arose, he warmed to it. “I wouldn’t have done it earlier” she says. “I needed to carve my own identity as a writer and researcher before I could team up with my dad.”

It is his first book composed in English but she has published and edited several works in the language before.

She was mentored for her Oxford University doctorate — on the German enlightenment — by Isaiah Berlin, and taught at North American and Australian universities before her current post.

A book on Jewish words written in English might seem ironic but contemporary Israelis are a cosmopolitan tribe. “So many members of my generation — academics, scientists, hi-tech people — are travelling the globe, so English has become very natural to us,” she points out, and suggests that “there are two great Jewish languages these days, English and Hebrew.

“We think these two great Jewish languages should converse more freely. This is the reason we wrote the book in English.”

The writing flowed smoothly because “we are so very conversant with each other. We have been going over each other’s lectures and articles for a long time now.”

Their secular outlook is nourished by an “irreverent reverence” for the Jewish past. “People tell us you can’t be secular and pass the torch on to your kids because your kids will not be in the business of being Jewish at all. But when we look at our own clan, we are talking of at least five generations of secularity.

“My father’s grandparents were already secular Jews. That’s also true for my mother’s family. Then you have my own children and my sister’s children, who are no less secular and no less Jewish.”

For “members of the Jewish world” — she prefers the term to “diaspora Jewry” —- Israel is proving to be a beacon. “Israel shows that it doesn’t have to be the synagogue or the family table alone. Any concert hall, theatre stage, or night club can be a hub of Jewish existence and creativity.

“In Tel Aviv, so many new songs are written around the lyrics of the Bible or the medieval poets of Sepharad. There is a whole renaissance around the Jewish bookshelf — it’s so rich, it keeps delivering. This is the secular synagogue.”

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