Media Analysis

Amos Oz’s burden

Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr

The death of Amos Oz on December 28 is an event of literary and political significance. The politics outweighed the books in the end, but first I need to honor Oz’s achievement as a storyteller.

I have four volumes of Oz’s major works, and all have provided great pleasure and insight. A writer’s words speak for themselves, and if you want to appreciate Oz’s gifts, just read two passages.

“My Michael” was his breakthrough novel at age 29; it is an achingly-well-told story of a young mother’s disintegration in Jerusalem during and after the ’56 war. In this excerpt, the narrator, Hannah Gonen, describes torturing an Orthodox neighbor boy of 17 who has developed a crush on her, and shared romantic poems with her.

I was unkind to him. I asked him why he seemed so dreamy and vacant today. Had he fallen in love with one of the girls in his class?

My question brought out large beads of perspiration on Yoram’s brow… I looked at him fixedly so as to increase his embarrassment. Humiliation and despair inspired a wave of nervous audacity in the youth.

He turned a gloomy, tormented face on me and muttered, “I’m not involved with any girl in my class, Mrs. Gonen, or with any girl at all. I’m sorry, I don’t want to be rude, but you really shouldn’t have asked me that question…”

I said, “I’m sorry, Yoram, I forgot for a moment that you go to an Orthodox school. I was curious. There’s no reason why you should share your secrets with me. You are seventeen and I am twenty-seven. Naturally I seem like an old hag to you.”

“Old–you? On the contrary, Mrs. Gonen, on the contrary… What I was trying to say was… You take an interest my problem and… with you I can sometimes… No. When I try to put it into words, it comes out all back to front…”

“Relax, Yoram. You don’t have to say it.”

He was mine. All mine. He was at my mercy. I could paint any expression I liked on his face. Like on a sheet of paper. It was years since I had last enjoyed this grim game…

And here is a passage from Oz’s bestselling 2005 memoir, “A Tale of Love and Darkness.” It is also about the psychological disintegration of a woman, his mother Fania Mussman Klausner:

Once, when I was seven or eight, my mother said to me, as we sat on the last seat but one on the bus to the clinic or the shoe shop, that while it was true that books could change with the years just as much as people could, the difference was that whereas people would always drop you when the time came that they could no longer get any advantage or pleasure or interest or at least a good feeling from you, a book would never abandon you… even if you betrayed them, would never turn their back on you: they would go on waiting for you silent and humbly on their shelf. They would wait for ten years… Until one night, when you suddenly needed a book, even at three in the morning, even if it was a book you had abandoned and erased from your heart for years and years, it would never disappoint you, it would come down from its shelf and keep you company in your moment of need. It would not try to get its own back or make excuses or ask itself if it was worth its while or you deserved it or if you still suited each other, it would come at once as soon as you asked. A book would never let you down.

What can you say– that is simply ravishing.

Oz’s grief over the suicide of his mother, in her sister’s apartment in Tel Aviv on January 6, 1952, when she was 39 and her only son was 12-1/2 years old and home with his father in their house in north Jerusalem, was Oz’s torment and the source of his greatest work. His mother or a brilliant sensitive woman like her is in all the fiction that I have read of his, and her presence makes it haunting and special. Born in Rovno in Poland/the Ukraine, Fania Mussman was a mystic and a storyteller and a depressive. She married a diligent rationalist librarian in Arieh Klausner, and the marriage was soon loveless. The tension between the intelligent, stamp-collecting, prescriptive father, and the fable-loving, world-disdaining, deeply-intuitive mother gives Oz’s work lasting power.

Fania Klausner had lost a privileged life in Poland when her family emigrated; and Zionism and Israel left her cold, in stark contrast to her husband, who was born to a Revisionist family. There are times in Oz’s work that the author seems to blame Jerusalem for his mother’s suicide. After she died, young Amos went at 14 to Kibbutz Hulda, a socialist enclave near Tel Aviv where he made the determination (per the New York Times’s obituary) to do everything the opposite of his father. He gave up the name Klausner for Oz — an act of defiance; his great uncle Joseph was one of the founders of Hebrew University and famously exonerated Spinoza from the excommunication in the 1920s — and though he was klutzy at the physical tasks the kibbutz demanded, Oz began publishing short stories and the movement seized on his literary talent. He was given time off to write, and soon became a professor of literature. Before long his books were published in the United States by top publishers.

This strikes me as Oz’s burden. His star rose just when the Jewish state needed it most. He was from Zionist royalty like it or not, and his life was intertwined with the idealistic myth of the young state. His mother had killed herself, he said repeatedly, in the same apartment where Yigael Yadin then deputy chief of staff helped plan the 1948 war– a war that young Oz had planned out himself with matchsticks on his bed. Every week as a boy, his parents walked with him across town to visit Joseph Klausner and the great novelist S.Y. Agnon in south Jerusalem (across from the new US embassy). Oz knew many in the Zionist pantheon, from Menachem Ussishkin to David Ben-Gurion.

There is a natural question, was Oz’s reputation deserved? On his death, he got star treatment in the New York Times, a whole page inside and a literary appreciation jumping off the front page that called “A Tale of Love and Darkness” his “masterpiece.” That claim is not true. “A Tale of Love and Darkness” is marred by long passages of self-indulgent wordplay and pointless remembrances and maddeningly circular storytelling. He dangles his mother’s suicide over the distended tale in a teasing and amateurish manner. The early novels of his that I have, including the kibbutz classic, “Elsewhere, Perhaps,” are far better as stories.

All literary fiction is subsidized, to one degree or another, and Oz was indulged by American publishers. He was useful to American Jews to demonstrate Israel’s greatness. My father was no Zionist but he got his books. I learned to pronounce Oz’s name from Robert Siegel on NPR (AH-muss O’s).

Oz took on that burden. His main character besides his beloved mother was Israel. The books teem with thrilling/ridiculous Jewish characters whose lives track the rise and victory of Zionism; and his great theme was that Europe had forced his parents to leave.

Here we get into the political aspect of Oz’s work. Even as he humanized Israeli culture, and made it real and noble and often comic, Oz’s work contains deep contempt for Europe. He said in Love and Darkness,

“The Europe that abused, humiliated and oppressed the Arabs by means of imperialism, colonialism, exploitation and repressions is the same Europe that oppressed and persecuted the Jews and eventually allowed or even helped the Germans to root them out of every corner of the continent and murder almost all of them.”

How shallow and tendentious. And what about Britain and Denmark and French resistance?

Oz believed in the new Jew and the Zionist miracle. In his kibbutz novel he wrote that when one of three European-born brothers returns to Berlin to make a fortune, he chose a “sterile” life, while the brother who is a truck driver on the kibbutz and quotes scripture to explain his romantic problems got the full and meaningful one.

In his memoir, he quoted his aunt as saying of a charismatic teacher in prewar Poland: “His thoughts were our thoughts… He believed that the Land of Israel was the only place where the Jews could be cured of their mental illnesses and prove to themselves and to the world that they had some good qualities too.”

Oz seems to have taken that teaching to heart. knew the names of many relatives who were killed in the Holocaust, including his studious and naive father’s brother David. He several times passed on the story that when his father Arieh left Vilna, in Poland/Lithunia, the walls were covered with graffiti, Jews out of Europe, and that when he returned on visits long after the war, the walls  bore the slogan, Jews out of Palestine. Oz made many cracks about Diaspora Jews.

He was an Israeli provincial in some ways, and seems more provincial by the moment. He was a Zionist formed by the European experience of his forbears and insisted on the primacy of that experience. Jews are unsafe in the west. We need a place. This is the reason Roger Cohen embraced him so in the New York Times; because Cohen believes the same thing.

Whether or not you think those attitudes are anachronistic, there is no doubt Oz was one of the last vibrant connections to the Shoah generation. He expressed their dreams and despair and fears as well as anyone, and on that basis his reputation is deserved.

The political burden will end up hurting his reputation, though. There are no full Palestinian characters in any of the works I’ve read, though Hannah Gonen is plagued by memories of two youths who were ethnically cleansed. He was insistent on shopworn Zionist themes. In his last little book, “Dear Zealots,” Oz railed against the “brainwashing of the left” and said that he still “believes that the Jewish people has a natural, historical, legal right to a sovereign existence as a majority, if only in a very small democratic state.” The right to be a majority. Peace Now and J Street avoid that language. He asserted in A Tale of Love and Darkness that Jews were ethnically cleansed from Palestine to a far greater degree than Palestinians were ethnically cleansed.

Oz exalted Jewish bookish culture and was dismissive of Palestinian culture. That indifference and worse produced his famous and insistent metaphor, that Jews and Palestinians are living in the same house but they need a divorce. And it produced his caricatures of Palestinian political attitudes. Some Palestinians are against the occupation, and they’re good Palestinians, he wrote in Dear Zealots, before flattening the rest:

“On the other hand, many Palestinians are waging a war of fanatical Islam, a war for their fervent aspiration to demolish Israel as the state of Jewish people and the state of all its citizens. (According to fanatical Islam, the Jews are too despicable to be considered a nation…) That is a criminal war that any decent person must resist.”

I understand what a nobleman Oz was for liberal Zionists. He helped found Peace Now and come up with the Geneva initiative. J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami eulogized Oz as “an inspiration to all of us,” this “amazing man,” a “guiding light” who “blazed” a path. IfNotNow honored Oz as “of blessed memory.” Though his political views were actually not so progressive, Oz represented the very best of the nostalgic Israeli achievement, and now he is gone. Israel will never have his like again, and neither will Israel lovers.

Oz anticipated that. His last book contains this prediction:

I see days not far ahead when mechanics in Amsterdam, Dublin or Madrid refuse to service El Al planes. Consumers boycott Israeli products. Investors and tourists stay away from Israel. The Israeli economy collapses. We are already at least halfway there.

h/t James North

Note: The passages from Oz’s books were translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange.

Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Phil, this is so beautiful. You so thoroughly discuss the complexities of Oz’s identity, explain why liberal Zionists loved him, and also why his opinions were ultimately limited and dangerous. Such gorgeous writing–thank you for this.

Phil, Thank you as always for your wonderful writing. I am not a literary authority but my experience of a Tale of Love and Darkness is different to yours. The “maddeningly circular storytelling” is the charm of the book. Having lived in Jerusalem for many years, following the passages of… Read more »

Re: ” there’s something fundamentally wrong with us.”

When I think of Zionist Israel, I’m always reminded of that adage: “The Test Of Virtue Is Power.”

Did Oz’s stories teach virtue?

How shallow and tendentious! And then you raise the exemplars of the British, Danish and French resistance. Talk about shallow. on May 9, 1945 the Jews were feeling the pain of what had been done to them and I’m sure most of them said, “but don’t forget the british french… Read more »