Judas by Amos Oz

Judas by Amos Oz (trans. Nicholas de Lange)

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Judas is a thoughtful and complex coming-of-age novel set in Jerusalem in 1959-60. Shmuel is an idealistic student whose life seems to be at a dead end. When he sees a mysterious handwritten note on a campus noticeboard, he takes a job as the companion to an elderly invalid in a different part of the city. As well as arguing with and listening to the old man, he must share the house with a strange older woman who soon fascinates him, though she appears less intrigued by Shmuel. What follows is a narrative about conflict, conversation, religion, treason, and love, as Shmuel tries to find his way forward in life and processes the thoughts and lives of his two new companions.

Amos Oz combines youthful uncertainty and idealism with big questions of political and religious divide and debate. Shmuel’s curiosity about Gershom Wald, the old man, and Atalia, the mysterious woman, seems to battle with his abandoned intellectual curiosity in the figure of Judas and of Jewish views of Jesus, with information about these areas taking up different chapters. He is an interesting central character, the kind of protagonist who falls into a situation through being lost and melancholy and then leaves it somehow transformed. Conflict in Israel is central to the novel, but so is unrequited love and desire, and attempts to understand different viewpoints and how this may change ideas about treason for example. The narrative follows a classic plot of lost student obsessing over various things and battling desire and mystery, but it is the insightful musings, conversation, and detail that give the novel its spark.