“Here is a story from the winter days of the end of 1959 and the beginning of 1960. It is a story of error and desire, of unrequited love, and of a religious question that remains unresolved. Some of the buildings still bore the marks of the war that had divided the city a decade earlier. In the background you could hear the distant strains of an accordion, or the plaintive sounds of a harmonica behind closed shutters.”

This first paragraph sets the scene: war, hidden lives and emotions, and religion. The city is Jerusalem. Amos Oz died at the end of 2018, and this is his last book. It is the book of an older man, looking back at the past, wondering about alternative paths that, if taken, might have avoided conflicts that have become entrenched.

Oz has been writing about Israel for years. But in Judas, he raises questions not only about the creation of Israel but about Jesus and the conflictual relationship between Jews and Christians. And at the heart of both these stories is a man labelled a traitor.

Shmuel Ash is a student in Jerusalem, in love with his studies and with Yardena. But Yardena has had enough of him: “Either you’re like an excited puppy…or else you’re lying on your bed for days like an unaired quilt”, she tells him and leaves to marry someone else.

Shmuel’s father loses his business, so Shmuel has to give up university. When he sees an advertisement for a “humanities student with conversational skills and an interest in history” to spend a few hours with a 70-year-old man in return for a small salary and board and lodgings, it seems a perfect way to retreat from the world.

The house in the advertisement is old and draws him into its meandering corridor, much as he is later drawn into the lives of the two people who live there. “[T]he passage was not level, but sloped downhill, as if it were a riverbed, not a dark corridor.” He is interviewed by the old man, Gershom Wald, and a young woman whom he later finds out is his daughter-in-law, Atalia Abravanel. He moves in and becomes part of the household, and inevitably, falls in love with Atalia, the mysterious woman just out of reach.

Shmuel is writing his thesis on Jesus and the Jews, trying to understand the how the animosity between Jews and Christians started. After all, Jesus and his apostles were Jewish. Jesus did not want to start a new religion. According to Shmuel, Judas was a spy sent by the Jewish authorities to infiltrate Jesus’s entourage, to find out more about this young preacher. But Judas starts to believe in Jesus and thinks the only way that Jesus can prove his divinity is to go to Jerusalem. But things do not go as Judas planned. Jesus is crucified, and Judas is labelled a traitor.

There is a parallel story here, which Shmuel learns from Wald and Atalia: the story of her father, Shealtiel Abravanel. Abravanel was also branded a traitor because he challenged Ben Gurion on the foundation of the state of Israel, the only member of the Zionist executive committee to do so. Abravanel believed that Arabs and Israelis could live together, but it had to be done through constant dialogue and not through conflict. Like Judas, he is also banished and lives out his days in the old house. 

The conflict that Abravanel tries to avoid leaves its scars on the family. Micha, Wald’s son and Atalia’s husband, was killed in 1948, presumably by Arabs, during the fighting on the road to Jerusalem.

It is a house of ghosts, still lives and betrayals: Abravanel’s room has been left as it was, a shrine to him, and Wald lives with the memories of his dead son. For Wald and Atalia, there seems to be no way out of the house and the pattern their lives have fallen into.   

Oz has a way with words that bring people and scenes to life. The house and Jerusalem are characters in their own right. The house has grills on the windows but in the courtyard are geraniums, sprouting from “a mass of rusty pots and disused pans, paraffin stoves, buckets, basins, tin cans and even a cracked lavatory bowl, all filled with soil and promoted to the rank of flowerpot. … And over all this, lay the silence of a cold winter’s evening. Not the kind of limpid silence that invites you in, but rather an indifferent, age-old silence that turns its back on you.”

Oz writes beautifully and provocatively. This is a book to savour that leaves you plenty to think about.