“Kafka was the most important prophet of the 20th century. He predicted the dehumanization and the tyranny, the cruelty of those in power and the impotence of a human being …”Amos Oz

 The world of Jewish letters — and world letters beyond all ethnic barriers — lost three of its heaviest hitters last year.

In January of 2018, Aharon Appelfeld — child Holocaust survivor and native Romanian — died in Israel at 85. Appelfeld’s stories portend doom and detail its aftermath.

Just before Memorial Day, Philip Roth, also 85, passed away in Manhattan, leaving his doctorate in international shiksa studies (“When She Was Good,” 1967) on the wall of the Newark Public Library.

And with just a few days left in 2018, sabra and kibbutznik Amos Oz — like the other two, often mentioned as a serious contender for the Nobel — succumbed to cancer in Tel Aviv.

All three knew one another. And each can be found in the index to Kafka’s Last Trial” by Benjamin Balint. Published last year, the work is ostensibly an account of a long-running court battle over the manuscripts and papers of Franz Kafka. Though a modest 279 pages, it is so very much more; the book is a literary meditation on what exactly it means to be a Jew.

That question cannot be answered succinctly (except, perhaps, via zealousness or hubris, often both), and Appelfeld, Roth and Oz each left behind their own thoughts on the subject in long shelves of compelling narrative.

“But you happen to be a Jew,” says one character in Appelfeld’s most famous work, “Badenheim 1939,” his first novel translated into English.

“A Jew?” the second man replies. “What does that mean? Perhaps you will be so kind as to tell me what it means.”

And because there is no easy answer, we can look forward to more stories dramatically bedeviled by the inquiry — What is a Jew? — for as long as human beings are giving accounts of their existence.

Of the trio, Oz — dead at 79, the recipient, like Roth, of the international Franz Kafka Prize – was the only one I had the honor of meeting. It was October 1994 when he gave a lecture at Baltimore Hebrew University upon winning the school’s Maurice A. Stiller Prize in Literature.

The next day, I managed a few hours alone with Oz by driving him from his hotel to Penn Station. I wanted to be near the author for the same reasons that — as a very young reporter, chasing musicians instead of writers — I sought out Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon.

I wanted to be let in on the secret. “The blues,” Muddy told me in the cold basement of the Congress Hotel on Franklin Street back in March of 1978, “comes from the days when you had to turn the kettle up high and sing way down low.” (The Mississippi bluesman likely gave the same quote a thousand times to a thousand white boys over the years, but it sounded sweet to me.]

Oz and I shared a love of “Winesburg, Ohio,” Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 fork-in-the-road of American literature, but we did not speak of Kafka. That would’ve been beyond me at the time, a 30-something just beginning to form an understanding of Jewish life in Baltimore and Jewish fiction.

I have learned as much about the haunted clockwork of Franz’s mind by watching Orson Welles’ gorgeous, 1962 black-and-white film adaptation of “The Trial” as I did reading it. Which is why I will soon be reading it again. Today, I know that Kafka believed the true artist is the one who had nothing to say, their works ferrying neither message nor argument or opinion. If but that were true today.

At Penn Station, Oz patiently answered my questions while making ardent observations of an Orthodox family nearby. “God,” he said, looking in the direction of shtreimels and sheitels, “has no interest in religion.”

When I told him I couldn’t wait to quit the newspaper and drop anchor at my basement workbench for fiction and memoir, Oz replied, as though seeing something of his younger self in me, “Don’t be too quick to chain yourself to your writing desk.”

And beyond that, did not explain.

Rafael Alvarez can be reached via orlo.leini@gmail.com