December 28, 2018
By Gal Beckerman
Israel, born out of a dream, a yearning, and then forced to face, for better or worse, what reality brings, found in Amos Oz a writer who combined both the country’s essential idealism and the ability to see the cracked nature of what had been wrought.
Mr. Oz, who died on Friday at the age of 79, was Israel’s most significant cultural ambassador for nearly 50 years, perennially mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. But what he most proudly championed was modern Hebrew itself, the form of the language that Zionism revived. Mr. Oz never stopped professing an enduring love for its mongrel qualities. He thrilled at the chance to work in a tongue that had deep biblical references embedded in the root of nearly every word, but that also borrowed heavily from Yiddish, Russian, English and Arabic.
This new-old language was the perfect vehicle for the role Mr. Oz came to embody, a sort of sociologist and psychologist of the Israeli soul. “I bring up the evil spirits and record the traumas, the fantasies, the lunacies of Israeli Jews, natives and those from Central Europe,” Mr. Oz said in a 1978 interview with The Times. “I deal with their ambitions and the powderbox of self-denial and self-hatred.”
His biography suited him well for this job — he was in many ways the quintessential new Jew that Zionism had hoped to create. As a teenager, he left Jerusalem on his own, changed his last name from Klausner to Oz, which means courage in Hebrew, and moved to a kibbutz, one of the socialist farming communities where Israelis lived out their truest fantasies of cultivating themselves and the land to become robust and hearty.
Inspired by “Winesburg, Ohio,” Sherwood Anderson’s collection of realist stories about small-town life, Mr. Oz began writing in his twenties about the characters he saw around him in his kibbutz. Those stories eventually made up his first collection, “Where the Jackals Howl,” published in 1965. Anderson, he would later say, “showed me that the real world is everywhere, even in a small kibbutz. I discovered that all the secrets are the same — love, hatred, fear, loneliness — all the great and simple things of life and literature.”
As a writer, Mr. Oz kept returning to the rural, communal life of the kibbutz in a spare, modernist style that focused on the complexities of interpersonal relations, from his 1973 novel, “Elsewhere, Perhaps,” to his 2013 story collection, “Between Friends.”
But his breakthrough, both in Israel and internationally, was a far more psychological work, “My Michael,” a 1972 novel, his first book to be translated into English. It is told from the perspective of Hannah Gonen, a young woman misunderstood by, and alienated from, her husband. Mr. Oz follows her sexual obsessions, which seem to emerge from a need to be seen — creating a sort of “Madame Bovary” set against the backdrop of white Jerusalem stone. Hannah describes one moment early in her relationship with Michael, her then-boyfriend, when he unbuttoned his coat and drew her inside it to the warmth of his body: “He felt very real. So did I. I was not a figment of his thoughts, he was not a fear inside me.”
Mr. Oz’s masterpiece is his 2004 memoir, “A Tale of Love and Darkness.” It was unlike anything he had ever written, telling the story of his own coming of age in Jerusalem with precision and brutal honesty. He captured the mystical air of the city, how it was transformed with the birth of the state, his own bookish youth and his mother’s depression, which led to her suicide when Mr. Oz was 12. In the memoir, he remembers his mother telling him: “I think you will grow up to be a sort of prattling puppy dog like your father, and you’ll also be a man who is quiet and full and closed like a well in a village that has been abandoned by all its inhabitants. Like me.”
It’s an extraordinary book that will endure as one of the greatest works in modern Hebrew. In many ways, through this memoir, Mr. Oz perfected what he had tried to do again and again in his fiction — to capture the coming together of the personal and the political, with neither of the two elements suffering from the collision.
Mr. Oz’s politics defined him to the international audience he often dazzled with his metaphors to explain the conflict (“the only solution is turning the house into two smaller apartments”; “I would say that the patient, Israeli and Palestinian, is unhappily ready for surgery, while the doctors are cowards”). He became a critic of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza following the Six-Day War, and was a mainstay of the left who insistently argued, in essays and opinion pieces and speeches, that the only solution to the conflict with the Palestinians was to create two states for two peoples.
Given how he envisioned the future of his country, his voice became an increasingly marginalized one in Israel in recent years, even as his stature continued to grow around the world. The native-born, kibbutz-influenced, adamantly secular, left-leaning Israelis of European descent who dominated Israel throughout much of Mr. Oz’s life have had to make way for Sephardic and Russian Jews, and the Orthodox, putting Mr. Oz increasingly in the position of an aging lefty, a prophet with fewer people willing to listen to him in his own country.
In his last novel, “Judas,” shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, he explored, by revisiting the story of the New Testament traitor, what exactly it means to be out of step with your own society. “Anyone willing to change will always be considered a traitor by those who cannot change and are scared to death of change and don’t understand it and loathe change,” he told me when I interviewed him in 2016. He felt himself a man possessed of moral clarity but denigrated for it in a country that could not make the difficult decisions he thought were necessary.
For all his frustrations with Israeli society and its direction, he was always an optimist, a man who had gone all in on the Zionist experiment and saw no reason to believe that perfection was ever on offer.
In his final essay collection, “Dear Zealots,” published at the end of last year, he wrote that he was, “afraid of the fanaticism and the violence, which are becoming increasingly prevalent in Israel, and I am also ashamed of them.” But this didn’t get in the way of his love of Israel. “I like being Israeli. I like being a citizen of a country where there are eight and a half million prime ministers, eight and a half million prophets, eight and a half million messiahs. Each of us has our own personal formula for redemption, or at least for a solution. Everyone shouts, and few listen. It’s never boring here.”