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Rereading Amos Oz a year after his death

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“Reading a piece of literature that has been translated from Hebrew,” Amos Oz said in a 1990 lecture at the University of Wisconsin, “is like making love through a blanket.”  I swooned.  Oz wasn’t just talking to me, though it sure felt like it.  I was twenty years old, in a lecture hall with 49 other undergrads taking a Hebrew Literature in Translation course.  When Oz spoke, everyone else in the room disappeared.  He was good looking–he had intense blue eyes, a lot of gray and sandy brown hair.  He was warm, sensitive, sexy, manly.  A true sabra.

Our professor, an Israeli who also chaired the Hebrew and Semitic Studies Department, brought him to speak to our class.  Oz talked about the limitations of translation as well as the access it provides.  He also discussed his views on the state of contemporary Israeli literature, and opened up to us about his own writing process.  It was fall semester.  Crisp red and brown leaves dotted the campus.  Oz mentioned the sound of them under his feet as he walked to our class.  Visiting from Israel where he lived, he said, he didn’t experience fall like we did in the midwest.

I grew up reading his books; many of them helped instill my infatuation with Israel.  Like the comment to my class, his writing was similarly sexual.  He eroticized the land and language of Israel in a way that felt personal and private–and it gave me permission to do the same.  To meet him up close in a classroom setting was a deep honor.  I was an ardent Zionist at the time, and I could relate.  I hung on Oz’s every word.

I stopped hanging on years ago when I began to oppose Zionism, but one year after his death (December 28, 2018), I’ve been thinking about the intense ways he influenced my mode–and eventual undoing–of liberal Zionism.

A few weeks after Oz’s visit, I sat in the department chair’s office asking him about study abroad programs in Israel.  I had visited for the first time in high school on an eight-week summer program, but I was dying to return, and for a longer period.  The chair wrote me a letter of recommendation to attend Hebrew University of Jerusalem for a Master’s degree, which I did, once I graduated.

Of course, Oz’s comments like the one he made to our class about the constraints of translated literature weren’t wrong.  You miss out on an authentic experience when you read in translation.  The professor of a Nabokov and Dostoyevsky course I took at Hebrew University–she had immigrated to Israel decades earlier from Moscow–once told me that nothing in the world compared to reading these two great authors in their original Russian.  One afternoon, once I had been living in Israel for a few months, I visited during her office hours.  She told me I looked tired, then asked how my Hebrew was coming along.  I admitted I felt a constant sort of fatigue living in another country, trying to learn another language.  She said my exhaustion would dissipate as my Hebrew improved.

While I was living in Jerusalem, Oz’s literature came to life.  His prose portrayed an Israel that was mythical and romantic–an Israel I saw with my own eyes.  Once I arrived, I saw first-hand the intense love he narrated so beautifully in his books, like his 1983 In the Land of Israel, for example, where he describes walking alone in his beloved city Jerusalem:

I return to the Damascus Gate by myself late that night.  The Al-Fajr building is already locked and dark.  Indeed, the Street of Paratroopers is almost deserted.  A lone car barrels past the traffic light, which keeps blinking yellow–it is well past midnight.  On the stone steps of the Plaza near the Damascus Gate sit a few bundled-up figures.  Elderly Arabs, their heads wrapped, and a few young Arabs, gathered in a corner of the square, stare silently at me.

I had read In the Land of Israel as an undergrad in the 1990s and I remember the quiet, reflective tone in passages like this one.  Studying in Wisconsin, I loved Israel from afar; which is to say, I romanticized the tiny country long before I lived there.  Jerusalem was like a long-distance lover I pined for, so that when I moved there in 1992 for graduate school, the Jerusalem I saw was the one presented in Oz’s books.

There, in Jerusalem, I saw what Oz saw.  My favorite time of day in the city was dusk when the light hit the stone of the city walls like a golden-pink rose.  I knew about that light years before I arrived to Israel: I drew it with pink and orange crayons in Hebrew school, sang songs about it at Zionist summer camp, read about it in the JUF newsletter on my parent’s kitchen table.  It wasn’t only Oz’s books that helped turn me into a liberal Zionist, of course.  The efforts to recruit young Jews into a nationalistic fervor for Zionism has long been manufactured, deliberately outlined by other smarter and older Zionists sitting in large offices with millions of dollars, strategizing how to get people like me to fall in love with the land.  They made sure it would feel like a private experience that I could only share with other young Zionists who felt the same.  Reading Oz simply solidified this growing love–and he personalized it with fantastic prose.

There, in Jerusalem, as I walked through Jaffa Gate, the morning smells of olives and za’atar and lemon and mint wafted through the corridors of the Old City.  The Arab store owners opened the doors of their shops and set their items out for the day as they bargained with tourists.  By the end of the afternoon–when the rose light started to hit the stone–the Arab shop owners would start putting away everything that hadn’t sold that day.  They’d wash the ancient stone in front of their shops, and they’d do it all over again the next day.

It strikes me now that, like Oz often did, I too, referred to Palestinians as Arabs.  I saw them as exotic background scenery like I had read about in his books–from there, sort of, insofar as they add to the scene–but with passivity and a lack of legitimacy.

One could argue, of course, that Oz does give voice to Palestinians in his books.  In the Land of Israel, for example, is based on conversations Oz had with Palestinians and Israelis throughout the country and he quotes the people he talked to extensively.  But the book still has a romanticized, mythical feel to it:

Snow on the graves of the soldiers who died in the war in Lebanon.  Snow on the soldiers still fighting in Lebanon to separate the Druses from the Christians in the Shouf Mountains, the Christians from the Palestinians in Tyre and Sidon, to separate curse from curse.

It’s a tragic and doomed but beloved land, Oz intimates, and all the players seem to know it.  Though Oz traveled around the country on “a journey among people of strong convictions,” as stated in his 1993 forward to the book–“individuals inclined to exclamation points”–he still maintained a convenient distance from acknowledging Palestinian history.

Instead, Oz chose when to use the word Arab and when to use Palestinian.  He referred to “Arab villages,” “Arab laborers,” “Arab towns,” “the Israeli-Arab conflict,” throughout In the Land of Israel.  He asked a settler, “who is right, the Arabs or us?”  Oz enticed readers like me with a seemingly progressive stance.  Deeper inside the writing, however, Oz stopped short and unveiled colonialist rhetoric.

But I wasn’t thinking about any of that when I was in love with Israel.  Like Oz, I stopped short.  I believed I could be both a lover of justice and a Zionist–these weren’t in opposition for me back then.  Indeed, Zionism and Judaism were synonymous in my mind–and so I relished and romanticized Jerusalem like Oz did.

There, among the cobblestones of Yoel Solomon Street, was Champs Bar, where I fell in love at age twenty-two.  A boyfriend in Israel.  Tavit was an Armenian-Christian who lived in the Armenian Quarter of the Old City.  Unlike me, Tavit was from there.  He showed me different parts of the city–little and big places he knew in East and West Jerusalem as he zig-zagged between both worlds.

There, in a quiet corner of the courtyard behind the noises of Yoel Solomon Street in back of the jewelry store Turquoise, Tavit and I had sex on what I believed were ancient Jewish stones.  Even the sounds that snuck over the wall of the courtyard had a calm to them.  “[T]hat Jerusalem stillness which can be heard,” Oz described in In the Land of Israel, “if you listen for it, even in the noisiest street.”  After, we walked back into Champs, giggling, thinking no one knew what we had been up to.  

There, In the middle of Zion Square, I met friends in the evenings getting off the buses on Jaffa Road after my grad classes.  We exchanged money illegally with the Orthodox guy adjacent to the square, who would only do it when his father wasn’t lurking in the shop, where we also bought packs of cigarettes–a different brand for each of us as though to assert our various personalities as we smoked.

There, on Ben Yehuda Street, several of us girls locked arms and kicked up our legs and danced when we were drunk.  Israelis who worked in the restaurants nearby looked at us and scoffed, tired, for they were working for a living while we drank, our extended student-visas tucked into our American passports in our backpacks.  We ate at Apple Pizza and made fun of each other for eating the featured corn and pineapple slices.

There, on the 23 bus we sang out loud our favorite Zionist songs–“Eli, Eli,” “Halleluya,” “Yerushalayim shel Zahav,” (“Jerusalem of Gold”) were just a few–as we rode through Palestinian neighborhoods, ignoring, too, the Palestinians on the bus with us we thought of as Arabs.

There, on Jaffa Road near Nahalat Shiva, the bald shop owner sold condoms to Tavit, winking at me as we left the shop to make our way to the corner of the courtyard behind Turquoise.  My sexual coming-of-age was inseparable from the ways I sexualized the land.  Jerusalem was sex itself (who’d rather have sex on a cold stone than a bed?)  I remember reading Oz’s 1979 Under This Blazing Light in college, where he also sexualized Jerusalem:

Sometimes, when I had nothing better to do, I used to go to Jerusalem to woo her…Jerusalem is mine, yet a stranger to me; captured and yet resentful; yielding yet withdrawn.

One night, Tavit drove us up a hill and we sat in his car gazing down at the Old City walls with the professed perspective of a wise sage–though it was mostly bravado.  Outside it was quiet. We didn’t talk.  “[O]ne felt an urge to sprawl facing the view of the city walls,” Oz wrote in A Tale of Love and Darkness, “to doze in the shade of the foliage or calmly drink in the silence of the hills and the stone.”  Tavit said Jerusalem and I both had sexy, curvy hips as we surveyed the city’s hills in between its stones.  Then he touched my hips.  I traced the arch of his eyebrow with my finger, comparing it to the arch of those hills, too.

There, at the Western Wall, my friends and I smoked a joint, dozing on and off all night on the huge stones that look like benches at the back of the plaza, confident the Israeli police on guard would protect us.  They laughed when they smelled our weed.  We laughed, too, unaware of the extent of our privilege.  They refused when we offered it to them, which, of course, we thought was classy.  Then we practiced our paltry Hebrew, asking them to correct us–giving them even more power than they already had.

There, in Jerusalem’s Russian Compound, my friends dared me to kiss an Israeli soldier outside of the bar Glasnost, which was next to the bar Cannabis.  “Is that your M16 or are you just happy to see me?” I asked, though the idiom was lost because I had garbled a few Hebrew words I knew.  I smiled and tossed my head back, drunk from the White Russian drinks I had earlier.  The soldier, who had striking green eyes and curly black hair, flirted back.  My friends started chanting, “nshika, nshika, nshika,”–“kiss, kiss, kiss” in Hebrew–and we began to make out against the bar’s stone wall.  I felt his M16 against my thigh as he pushed himself against me.

My Hebrew got better with each year I spent in Jerusalem–I would live there five in total before returning here, to Chicago–and I realized my professor had been right.  The exhaustion that came with learning another language while living in a foreign country had evaporated.

I often thought about Oz’s comment to my class about the limitations of translation.  If reading literature translated from Hebrew was like making love through a blanket, as he said, then its opposite was also true.  Speaking Hebrew was sexy and raw and real.  It was private and intimate, too.  It was the language of the land I was in love with.

Of course, Hebrew is also the language of Israel’s ongoing military occupation of millions of Palestinians who have been dehumanized in Hebrew, evicted and expelled in Hebrew, the language Palestinians routinely hear at checkpoints.  But I wasn’t concerned with all that.  I was thinking about Oz’s passage in Under This Blazing Light where he writes that private acts, when done in Hebrew, guarantee you’re in the heart of the language:

If you live in Hebrew, if you think, dream, make love in Hebrew, sing in Hebrew in the shower, tell lies in Hebrew, you are ‘inside.’

It’s true that one develops an intimacy with language.  I remember the first dream I had in Hebrew after studying it for years.  I woke up with a new confidence with the language that felt very private to me.

It was necessary for Israel, of course, to create a culture around Hebrew after 1948, a phenomenon Motti Regev and Edwin Seroussi, in their 2004 book, Popular Music & National Culture in Israel, call the “nostalgic industry.”  Through Hebrew songs–the same songs I sang on the 23 bus with my friends–the music became “the central Zionist project of inventing a new, ‘native’ Jewish national culture in Israel.”  Like someone who has been pre-programmed, my experience of singing with my friends–while seemingly spontaneous–had already been planned and manufactured by those smarter and older Zionists sitting in their large offices.

In Under This Blazing Light, Oz wrote that the revival of the Hebrew language “can indeed be seen as the most certain achievement of Zionism.”  In the same book, Oz sexualizes Hebrew by comparing it to a woman who teases and taunts:

The New Hebrew is, so to speak, a flirt in heat.  One day she is seemingly all yours and completely with you, at your feet, ready for anything, happy for any audacious activity, and all at once you’re lying there behind her, flat on her back and a trifle ridiculous, and she runs off to her new lovers…

The Hebrew language, like the land itself was flirty, sexual, erotic. These things were true for me.  But other things were true, too, like the way my experiences followed the prescribed, contrived formula to get young Zionists like me to fall in line–while we fell in love–and to have us believe that our experiences were unique and individualized.

Looking back, of course, I can identify cracks in the myth, seeds that were planted along the way, but undoing Zionism was a slow process.  In my 30s I began talking with Palestinians and listening to their stories of expulsion and occupation.  I started reading Edward Said and Ilan Pappe and Amira Hass and others who had long been writing about Palestine.  I visited Palestine and stayed with Palestinians. Once I had undone my Zionism, I saw everything differently.

Now, when I think about the years I lived in Jerusalem in my 20s, it seems fitting that I was hanging out with Armenians and later, Palestinians.  I didn’t have many Jewish friends in Israel, and the few I did were studying abroad, like I was.  Something inside me I could not name knew the land wasn’t just for the Jews.  Despite the messages I received growing up, I must have felt in my core something unsettling.  Regardless of its intense beauty, I began to see Oz’s prose as limited.  He stopped short, whereas I had gone farther.

Later, in Jerusalem, I returned, after opposing Zionism.  There, on Jaffa Road, I saw the city as a backdrop of a play in which I had been a player: Mamilla Mall seamlessly connecting new stones to ancient ones–attaching West Jerusalem to East–by way of fancy shops. Birthright participants spending a night in a Bedouin tent on Day 8 of 10–a deliberate scheduling maneuver by those smarter and older Zionists sitting in their large offices who count on the sexual tension that has built up during Days 1-8 between the participants.  Before the young Zionists fool around later–many of them for the first time while on their first trip to Israel–they’re served tea by Bedouins they’ve been taught to fetishize.

There, in Jerusalem, buses of tourists, young Zionists eager to consummate their love for the land, arrive by the thousands, and are shuffled into fancy hotels.  It wasn’t quiet.  It wasn’t calm.  I didn’t think of the pink light or the stones at dusk.

Now, in Chicago, when I look at Oz’s books on my bookshelf, I’m not sure what to do.  I reread many of them while writing this essay, and Oz’s prose was just as beautiful as I remembered.  But it was dripping with the liberal Zionism that I grew up with.  His books were hard to read.  I had spent decades longing for something that was a myth while Palestinians longed for the land that had been taken from them. Oz just couldn’t get past his own yearning for the only land he ever loved.  “[D]o not cut loose from those longings,” Oz wrote on the last page of In the Land of Israel, “for what are we without our longings?”

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There’s a word for the literary aesthetic of Amos Oz: schmaltz https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schmaltz#Derived_meanings “In American English, via Yiddish, schmaltz (adj. schmaltzy) also has an informal meaning of ‘excessively sentimental or florid music or art’ or ‘maudlin sentimentality’, similar to one of the uses of the words corn or corny. …” “Those who read Oz’s prose can easily find in it that kind of “Brotherhood of the agonizing strong males”. Perry Anderson rightly described it as the… Read more »

i always love your stories liz. “I knew about that light years before I arrived to Israel: I drew it with pink and orange crayons in Hebrew school, sang songs about it at Zionist summer camp, read about it in the JUF newsletter on my parent’s kitchen table. … “The efforts to recruit young Jews into a nationalistic fervor for Zionism has long been manufactured, deliberately outlined by other smarter and older Zionists sitting in… Read more »

For the record re Amos Oz: http://links.org.au/node/828 Michael Warschawski on Gaza: “Blaming the `two sides,’ International intervention now!” December 30, 2008 Excerpt: “Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, defence minister Ehud Barack, foreign minister Tzipi Livni and army chief Gabi Ashkenazi will one day have to answer to war crimes charges in an international court of justice, like other war criminals. Accordingly, our duty today is to document their acts and statements in order to be… Read more »

You do know, don’t you, that the “Moscobiyya” Russian compound that you write of is the location of a key prison and torture center in Jerusalem? Worth mentioning? You can see the metal cages they’ve bolted onto the old windows if you walk down Heleni Hamalkha St. (Named for my queenly namesake.)

Happens I never had to overcome a Zionist attitude. Learned all about I/P from my wife, a Palestinian. Maybe a similar ‘overcoming’ is losing my approval of Democrats which I was raised to believe in (and should believe in if my age is any indicator of ‘should’). So the exciting new Democrats — Sanders, and then AOC and friends — may not have everything right, but my God do the Davos DEMs have a lot… Read more »