This book is an essay. It is a nonfiction, speculative, raw, and occasionally playful attempt to say something a bit new on a topic of immense pedigree. We offer you our personal take on one core aspect of Jewish history: the relationship of Jews with words.
The authors are a father and a daughter. One is a writer and literary scholar, the other a historian. We have discussed and disputed topics relevant to this book ever since one of us was about three years old. Nevertheless, our coauthorship warrants some justification.
The best way to account for our teamwork is to spell up front what this essay says. It says that Jewish history and peoplehood form a unique continuum, which is neither ethnic nor political. To be sure, our history includes ethnic and political lineages, but they are not its prime arteries. Instead, the national and cultural genealogy of the Jews has always depended on the intergenerational transmittal of verbal content. It is about faith, of course, but even more effectively it is about texts. Significantly, the texts have long been available in writing. Tellingly, controversy was built into them from the very start. At its best, Jewish reverence has an irreverent edge. At its best, Jewish self-importance is tinged by self-examination, sometimes scathing, sometimes hilarious. While scholarship matters enormously, family matters even more. These two mainstays tend to overlap. Fathers, mothers, teachers. Sons, daughters, students. Text, question, dispute. We don't know about God, but Jewish continuity was always paved with words.
For this very reason, our history excels as a story. Indeed, several histories and numerous stories are intertwined in the annals of the Jews. Many scholars and writers have braved this maze. Here we are offering a joint walk through some its pathways, entwining the gazes of a novelist and a historian, and adding our own interlocution to its myriad conversing voices.
In this slender volume no attempt was made to run the gamut of Jewish works, even the best known or the most influential. There are numerous texts we have not read. The essayistic genre can deliver dense and panoramic discussions of vast topics, but it is also particularly prone to selective reading, personal bias, and an arrogant grope for generalization. Regardless of such generic faults, we take full responsibility for each of these shortcomings, and for many others the reader may encounter. Here is another thing our book tries to spell out: in Jewish tradition every reader is a proofreader, every student a critic, and every writer, including the Author of the universe, begs a great many questions.
If this set of suggestions is persuasive, then our joint father-and-daughter project might make sense.
From Jews and Words by Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger. Copyright 2012 by Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger. Excerpted by permission of Yale University Press.