Amos Oz: “Without a wound,” he once said, “there is no author”

December 29, 2018

Amos Oz speaking at the funeral of President Shimon Peres at Mount Herzl, Jerusalem, in 2016.

 

AMOS OZ, “VIEWED BY MANY AS THE CONSCIENCE OF HIS COUNTRY”

[Note by Tom Gross]

Amos Oz, perhaps Israel’s greatest writer, died yesterday at age 79 after a short battle with cancer. For those who haven’t read it, his autobiographical novel A Tale of Love and Darkness, is an outstanding contribution to modern Jewish, Israeli and European history.

Oz won multiple awards in many countries and many people around the world repeatedly urged the Nobel committee to award him the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday from Brazil (where he is on a state visit), that Oz was “one of Israel’s greatest ever authors” who “deftly and emotionally expressed important aspects of the Israeli experience… His words and his writings will continue to accompany us for many years.”

Ayman Odeh, one of Israel’s most senior Arab politicians, who heads the Joint Arab List party in the Knesset, said yesterday. “I met Amos Oz a number of times and even when we argued (quite a lot!) he was a partner who stood for equality, ending the occupation and peace. He was not afraid to speak his mind and was an exceptional talent.”

 

A STAUNCH DEFENDER OF ISRAEL TOO

I attach five obituaries and articles about Amos Oz from today’s British and American media.

I would like to add that while many of the tributes tend to focus on his criticism of the Israeli government, he was also often a staunch defender of Israel against a wave or European-led criticism.

For example, in this dispatch in 2014 (Amos Oz: I would like to ask you some questions), in a German media interview, Oz strongly defends the Netanyahu government during the 2014 Gaza conflict:

“I never agreed with Jesus Christ about the need to turn the other cheek to an enemy. Unlike European pacifists I never believed the ultimate evil in the world is war. In my view the ultimate evil in the world is aggression, and the only way to repel aggression is unfortunately by force. That is where the difference lies between a European pacifist and an Israeli peacenik like myself. And if I may add a little anecdote: A relative of mine who survived the Nazi Holocaust in Theresienstadt always reminded her children and her grandchildren that her life was saved in 1945 not by peace demonstrators with placards and flowers but by Soviet soldiers and submachine guns.”

In this dispatch from 2015, Oz asked why some on the far left in America and Europe were questioning Israel’s right to exist. “Nobody presented this question in Germany during the days of Hitler or in Russia under Stalin,” said Oz. “But the question is being presented more and more often about Israel, and I don’t like it… there is something dark, looming underneath that is based on the assumption that Jews are not like everybody else.”

You may want to watch this short clip of Amos Oz being interviewed by the BBC in 2016.

***

* More on Amos Oz here:

Amos Oz: Doves should be hawkish on Palestinian compliance (& Saudi ‘Game of Thrones’; Corbyn applauds call for ‘dismantling’ of Israel)

 


VERONIKA JACOBS

I would also like to pay brief tribute to Veronika Jacobs (pictured above), who drowned to death yesterday while walking her dog. (The exact circumstances are not yet known.) Veronika previously worked as a political advisor at the Israeli embassy in Prague. She was a long-standing subscriber to this Mideast email list and I always found her to be a talented, engaging and sweet person. -- Tom Gross

 

ARTICLES

“HE INSISTED THE PROMISED LAND LAY AHEAD – EVEN IF HE WOULD NOT LIVE TO SEE IT”

Amos Oz: the novelist prophet who never lost hope for Israel
By Jonathan Freedland
The Guardian
December 28, 2018

To critics at home, Oz was a bleeding-heart liberal – but to audiences around the world he was a literary giant, steadfast in his belief for a two-state solution

On Friday afternoon, a text arrived from Israel letting me know of the death of Amos Oz, hailed for decades as that country’s greatest novelist. “The last, best voice of an Israel that is all but gone,” it read.

Oz himself would doubtless have found a way to wave aside such talk, dismissing it as melodramatic. But there’s truth in it. For he was indeed the embodiment of a particular Israel, one that dominated in the first years of the state’s life but which has steadily receded to the margins.

To his internal critics, he was the face of the mainly-Ashkenazi, European Jewish elite that built the country, a bleeding-heart liberal constantly scolding the nation for its ongoing occupation of Palestinian lands, a founder of the Peace Now movement who never stopped demanding his fellow Israelis behave more wisely and more justly. More than once he was denounced as a traitor, an insult he once told me he regarded as nothing less than “a badge of honour”, putting him in the same company as Jeremiah, Abraham Lincoln and Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion.

Outside the country, however, he could make diaspora Jewish audiences swoon; they saw him as a pin-up for the Israel of their dreams. Ruggedly handsome, his face battle-scarred by service in Israel’s 1967 and 1973 wars, he could have been a model of the “new Jew” the first Zionists longed to forge in the Mediterranean sun. They wanted the new Israeli to be a soldier, farmer and poet. Oz was all three, a member of Kibbutz Hulda where he took his turn picking fruit and washing dishes, turning over the proceeds of his novels to the collective coffers.

In a way, that man was Oz’s first invented character. He was not born an Oz, but a Klausner, growing up not on a kibbutz, but in Jerusalem. His father was a scholar and librarian; the future novelist was raised in what he called “a house full of footnotes”. He fled to the kibbutz aged 15, renaming himself Oz – Hebrew for strength.

The trigger for that escape and reinvention may well have been the suicide of his mother, Fania, when Amos was just 12. Indeed, that event haunted Oz’s fiction. When we met in 2001, he told me that it was the mystery he had spent his life, and his books, “trying to decode”. He confronted it most explicitly in what may well be his finest work, A Tale of Love and Darkness, a novelistic memoir thought to be the biggest-selling literary work in Israeli history.

Throughout Oz’s fiction, the same motifs recur: interlocking love triangles, oedipal longings, unspoken desires, often attached to a protagonist paralysed into inaction and a woman out of reach. A mystery might linger – perhaps a buried scandal, related to the country’s recent past. They are quiet, but intensely evocative stories, full of both the intimacy of relationships and of place, especially the Jerusalem of the author’s youth.

Yet Oz’s novels were fated to be read as manifestos, each one assumed to be a veiled address on the state of the nation. It was not abnormal for Shimon Peres to review an Oz novel; Peres was only one of several Israeli prime ministers known to summon the novelist for what he called “a late night tête-à-tête”. Part of that was what Oz described as “the Judeo-Slavonic tradition”, which insisted a novelist also play the role of prophet, telling the tribe where they were going wrong. Oz chafed against that a bit, once complaining to me that, “No one expected Virginia Woolf to write about the Munich agreement, but everyone assumes my novels are parables about the new intifada.”

But part of it was his own fault, because Oz had a twin career as an essayist and polemicist. He was one of a group of young writers to edit an anthology immediately after the six-day war of 1967 – they called it The Seventh Day – which argued that Israel should immediately give up the land it had won in the West Bank and Gaza, and seek the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. That was an outlandishly radical stance at the time, but within three decades it would become the international consensus. Oz never abandoned it.

His great gift was to express complex moral ideas through compelling metaphor, even in his second language of English. He would argue that after the Holocaust the Jews were a drowning man: they therefore had the right to grab hold of a piece of driftwood, even if it meant forcing another man, the Palestinians, to share it. What they did not have was the right to grab the entire piece of wood and force the other man into the sea – which is what Israel had done in 1967. He would say that Jews and Palestinians both understood that a two-state solution was necessary, the problem lay with their leaders: “The patient is ready for the operation,” he wrote. “But the surgeons are cowards.”

Some found him hard to categorise. In Israel, he was a trenchant critic and dissenter. Outside, he was a fierce defender of his country with little patience for those who could not understand the Jewish need for a home of their own. If he had an ideology, it was hostility to fanaticism and a belief in compromise. He believed that compromise was too often seen “as weakness, as pitiful surrender”. Whereas, he wrote, “in the lives of families, neighbours and nations, choosing to compromise is in fact choosing life”. The opposite of compromise is not pride or integrity, he argued. “The opposite of compromise is fanaticism and death.”

Oz was garlanded with prizes and adoring audiences in Europe especially – his essay How to Cure a Fanatic is taught in Swedish schools – and he was often mentioned as a possible Nobel contender. In Israel, he continued to enjoy a large and attentive readership. But his views, which once reflected those of half of the population, became ever more marginal in his own land. The peace constituency shrank; fewer Israelis rallied to his message of enlightened compromise.

But he never lost his belief that the story of Israel and Palestine would end with resolution. Like so many before him in that part of the world, he insisted the promised land lay ahead – even if he would not live to see it.

 

AMOS OZ, WHO CAPTURED THE CHARACTERS AND LANDSCAPES OF HIS NATION

Amos Oz, Israeli Author and Peace Advocate, Dies at 79
By Isabel Kershner
The New York Times
Dec. 28, 2018

JERUSALEM – Amos Oz, the renowned Israeli author whose work captured the characters and landscapes of his young nation, and who matured into a leading moral voice and an insistent advocate for peace with the Palestinians, died on Friday. He was 79.

His death was announced by his daughter Fania Oz-Salzberger, who wrote on Twitter that he had died after a short battle with cancer, “in his sleep, peacefully.” She did not say where he died.

In recent years Mr. Oz had been living in Tel Aviv.

One of Israel’s most prolific writers and respected intellectuals, Mr. Oz began storytelling in his early 20s. He published more than a dozen novels, including “My Michael” and “Black Box,” as well as collections of short fiction, works of nonfiction and many essays. His work was translated into more than 35 languages.

His acclaimed memoir, “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” was first published in Hebrew in 2002 and became an international best seller. A movie based on the book, directed by and starring Natalie Portman, was released in 2016.

Among a generation of native Israeli writers that included A. B. Yehoshua and David Grossman, Mr. Oz wrote richly in modern Hebrew. The revival of that ancient language was extolled by the founders of the state as a crucial element in forging a new Israeli identity.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was in Brazil on Friday, described Mr. Oz as “one of the greatest authors” Israel has produced and said that he “deftly and emotionally expressed important aspects of the Israeli experience.”

Alluding to Mr. Oz’s piercingly eloquent left-wing advocacy, Mr. Netanyahu, a conservative, added, “Even though we had differences of opinion in many fields, I greatly appreciate his contributions to the Hebrew language and the renewal of Hebrew literature.”

Mr. Oz published more than a dozen novels, including “My Michael” (1968), as well as collections of short fiction, works of nonfiction and many essays.

Mr. Oz came into the world nine years before the state of Israel was established, in what was then Palestine under British rule, and his life spanned the country’s history. He weathered its upheavals and pried into its divisions like an angry, secular prophet.

His own soul was scored by early tragedy after his mother committed suicide when he was 12. Much of his writing revolved around intimate portraits of Israeli life laced with a sense of loss and melancholy.

“Without a wound,” he once said, “there is no author.”

Though a passionate voice for peace, Mr. Oz was not a pacifist and had no illusions about the hostile neighborhood in which Israel exists. He served in the military, fought in two wars as a reserve soldier in a tank unit and said it was sometimes necessary to use force in order to fight aggression, in the tradition of pragmatic Labor Zionism.

Soon after the 1967 Middle East war, in which Israel conquered the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, Mr. Oz began advocating for withdrawal and a two-state solution, meaning the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, long before the idea became mainstream.

In the late 1970s he helped found Peace Now, a left-wing group that formed during the negotiations for a peace treaty with Egypt.

With the weakening of the Israeli left in the wake of the violence of the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, which broke out in 2000, and the national shift toward the right, Mr. Oz’s voice seemed to become increasingly anachronistic. Critics on the far right called him a traitor.

Mr. Oz said there was nothing new in that. In a 2014 interview with the newspaper Yediot Ahronot on the occasion of the publication of his novel “The Gospel According to Judas,” published in English as “Judas” in 2016, Mr. Oz said that he was first branded a traitor as a child when he was seen associating with a British sergeant, and that he had been called a traitor since 1967.

“Sometimes – not always, but sometimes,” he said, “the title, traitor, can be worn as a badge of honor.” He suggested that he was in good company, citing others who had been so branded, including Winston Churchill, David Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin.

Nor was he immune to criticism from the far left. In a review of Mr. Oz’s last book, “Dear Zealot,” in the liberal newspaper Haaretz, Avraham Burg, a former politician who posits that the two-state solution is dead and calls for a single, binational Jewish-Palestinian state, wrote, “Oz, as a fanatic supporter of the two-state solution, tramples everything on the way to his expired solution.”

“Dear Zealot,” a slim volume published in 2017, is made up of three essays on the theme of fanaticism, which Mr. Oz termed the worst scourge of the 21st century. He described the book as loaded “with the conclusions of a whole life.”

Mr. Oz’s concern about zealotry in Israel and beyond was already pronounced nearly two decades ago. Days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001, he wrote in an opinion piece in The New York Times, “Being the victims of Arab and Muslim fundamentalism often blinds us so that we tend to ignore the rise of chauvinistic and religious extremism not only in the domain of Islam but also in various parts of the Christian world, and indeed among the Jewish people.”

While many Israelis blame the Palestinians for the impasse in the peace process, dismissing the Palestinian leadership’s willingness or ability to reach a deal, Mr. Oz held Israeli leadership accountable. And he rejected any notion of a one-state solution, saying he was not ready to live as a minority in what would inevitably become an Arab country.

In addition, Mr. Oz wanted the character of Israel to be defined by humanistic Jewish culture, not only by Jewish religion and nationality.

He was born Amos Klausner in Jerusalem on May 4, 1939, and his early years were spent in an atmosphere that was both scholarly and militant. His father, Yehuda Arieh Klausner, a librarian, and his mother, Fania Mussman, had immigrated from Eastern Europe. They met in Jerusalem. Though polyglots themselves, they insisted that their son speak only Hebrew.

Amos spent his childhood in the city in a suffocating, book-crammed apartment with a steady diet of what he called “blood and fire,” referring to his parents’ belief in the necessity of strength and power to establish and maintain the Jewish state. As a young teenager, two and a half years after his mother’s suicide, he rebelled and moved to Kibbutz Hulda, swapping his urban home for fresh air and a communal life. It was there that he changed his surname to Oz, Hebrew for courage.

He said he “decided to become everything his father was not.”

He completed his secondary education in Hulda and worked in the rolling farmland between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The hardy, pioneering characters of the Socialist kibbutz movement would later inhabit some of his novels.

In Hulda, he met Nily Zuckerman. They married in 1960. She and their three children, Fania, Galia and Daniel, survive him, as do several grandchildren.

After Mr. Oz completed mandatory military service in 1961, the kibbutz assembly sent him to study at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he received a B.A. in philosophy and literature.

Returning to Hulda after graduation, he settled into a routine of writing and farming. He also did guard and dining-room duty and taught in the kibbutz high school.

He fought in the 1967 and 1973 wars and spent a year as a visiting fellow at Oxford University.

After returning to Israel, the family moved from lush Hulda to the southern desert town of Arad, where the dry air was considered beneficial for their son, Daniel, who suffered from asthma. They made Arad their home for decades.

There, Mr. Oz described a daily routine of rising at 5 a.m., drinking coffee and going for a walk to breathe the desert air before settling down to write in his small basement study.

In a 2009 interview with The New York Times, he said he marked the separation between his political and literary writing by using pens with two colors of ink, one blue and the other black, that sat on his desk.

“I never mix them up,” he said of the pens. “One is to tell the government to go to hell. The other is to tell stories.”

Mr. Oz also became a professor in the department of Hebrew literature at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, in Beersheba.

He won some of the literary world’s highest honors, including the Goethe Prize and the French Knight’s Cross of the Légion D’Honneur. He was perennially considered a possible recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

In awarding him the prestigious Israel Prize in 1998, the judges wrote, “For some 35 years, in his writing he has accompanied the realities of Israeli life and expressed them uniquely as he touches upon the pain and ebullience of the Israeli soul.”

Politics often infused his literary efforts, and he sometimes used literature to explicate politics.

Torn by the 100-year conflict with the Palestinians, Mr. Oz told The New York Times in 2013: “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a clash of right and right. Tragedies are resolved in one of two ways: The Shakespearean way or the Anton Chekhov way. In a tragedy by Shakespeare, the stage at the end is littered with dead bodies. In a tragedy by Chekhov, everyone is unhappy, bitter, disillusioned and melancholy, but they are alive. My colleagues in the peace movement and I are working for a Chekhovian, not a Shakespearean conclusion.”

Two years later, as an act of protest against the government, he said he would no longer participate in Foreign Ministry events at embassies overseas.

Still, the strong feelings he professed for Israel never faded.

“I love Israel even when I cannot stand it,” he wrote in his last book. “Should I be fated to collapse in the street one day, I want to collapse in a street in Israel. Not in London, nor Paris, nor Berlin, nor New York. Here strangers will come and pick me up (and when I’m back on my feet, there will certainly be quite a few who would be pleased to see me fall).”

He added, “What I have seen here in my life is far less and far more than what my parents and their parents dreamed of.”

 

WIDELY TRANSLATED ISRAELI NOVELIST REGARDED AS THE CONSCIENCE OF HIS COUNTRY

Amos Oz obituary: Widely translated Israeli novelist regarded as the conscience of his country
The Times (of London)
December 29 2018

Many saw Amos Oz as a latter-day prophet. He spent a lifetime calling to the people of Israel, first from a kibbutz, then from a hill top in the Negev desert and latterly from his studio in Tel Aviv, urging them to see where they and their nation were going wrong.

He spent decades pushing for a peaceful end to his country’s conflict with the Palestinians, believing in the ideal of a two-state solution. Yet in the past decade he had become an increasingly lonely voice. “It’s very comfortable to think the Palestinian problem is fast asleep and we can live our lives normally,” he told The Times in 2012. “This is an illusion. Sooner or later it’s going to hit us in the face.”

Although staunchly secular, he was a master of Hebrew, his language rich with biblical idiom. My Michael (1968), his most acclaimed work, which was compared to Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, is set in the Jerusalem of the 1950s and gives a brooding, melancholic description of the breakdown of a marriage. Yet for many it told the story of the collective anti-climax felt by the post-independence Jewish nation. Black Box (1986) was written as a fractious correspondence between several people and seemed to suggest that Israel, like the heroine, faced a choice between the old Ashkenazi liberalism and the new Middle East extremism. The Same Sea (1999), a novel in verse, dealt with ethnicity in describing the lives of four people brought together by death.

Oz believed that what makes the Israeli experience different from that in most other countries is that the country was created out of dreams. “Let’s not forget that a dream come true is a disappointment,” he said. “The only way to keep a dream rosy and unspoiled is never to live it out. This is true not just of building a country, it’s true of a sexual fantasy or writing a novel.”

He was born Amos Klausner, an only child, in 1939 in Jerusalem. His Lithuanian father was Yehuda Klausner, a leading philologist Oz once described as a “right-wing, secular intellectual who could read 17 languages and converse in 12”. The atmosphere at home was stiflingly intellectual. It was, Oz said, “a house full of footnotes”.

Young Amos was telling stories before he learnt to write. “The children, even the girls, would gather to hear my stories because I put a lot of suspense, action and violence in them,” he said. He recalled a boyhood in British-run Jerusalem in How to Cure a Fanatic (2004). “I was a stone-throwing kid . . . In fact, the first words I ever learnt to say in English except for ‘yes’ and ‘no’ were ‘British, go home!’, which is what we Jewish kids used to shout as we were throwing stones at the British patrols.”

He was 12 when his Polish-born mother, Fania (née Mussman), who had abandoned her studies to be an increasingly depressed housewife, took her own life. He explored the repercussions in his powerful memoir A Tale of Love and Darkness (2002), the first work of modern Hebrew to appear in an official Chinese textbook. In 2015 it was made into a Hebrew-language film directed by Natalie Portman.

His father remarried and Amos acquired a half-brother, David, and a half-sister, Marganita. By then he had rebelled, changing his last name to Oz (Hebrew for strength) and running away at the age of 14 to join the Hulda kibbutz in central Israel, where he had ambitions to be a “tall, suntanned tractor driver”. He recalled that Wednesdays were film night: “Some films were X-rated, but along with the other underage kids I managed to sneak in once the lights went down. Sex was very accessible for kibbutz boys and girls of 15 and 16. No one was embarrassed about going to bed together.”

He stayed at Hulda for 30 years, so that for a time Israel’s most celebrated writer could be found taking his turn as a nightwatchman with the other kibbutznikim. Once he was published, the kibbutz gave him a studio and time to write, with his royalties going into kibbutz coffers.

His first ten years were interrupted by service in the Arab-Israeli war of 1956. About this time he met Nily Zuckerman, who instilled in him a love of recorder music. They married in 1960. She survives him with their daughters, Fania, a professor of history in Haifa, and Gallia, a film director, and their son, Daniel, a poet, whose asthma prompted a move in 1986 to the dry air of Arad in the Negev.

Oz’s first work, Where the Jackals Howl, a collection of short stories, was published in 1965. He made his breakthrough the next year with Elsewhere, Perhaps, which dealt with the intensity of kibbutz life. Some took it as a metaphor for life in Israel, a burden that almost all of his fiction would have to bear, but he insisted that it was to be read as a tale in its own right.

Military service in the Six-Day War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973 left scars of several types, including two on his face that gave him a rugged handsomeness. His contribution to The Seventh Day, a collection of memories from combatants in the conflict, was a dissenting cry against the euphoric chorus that greeted the Israeli victory, in which he criticised the term “liberated territories”, declaring: “Only people, not land, can be liberated.” Later Oz came to know England well during a year as a visiting fellow at the University of Oxford, from 1969 to 1970. His books, translated by Nicholas de Lange and published by Chatto, acquired an important place in the British canon.

Unto Death (1971) showed that Oz could widen his scope: set in medieval times, its main characters were crusader knights. Similarly, Touch the Water, Touch the Wind (1973) entered a realm of Jewish magical realism. He returned to more familiar ground in The Hill of Evil Counsel (1976), a collection of stories describing Jerusalem seen through the eyes of a boy during the twilight of the British Mandate for Palestine. The kibbutz was the setting of A Perfect Peace (1982).

All these kept the Israeli book prizes coming in, but none had the international success of My Michael until In the Land of Israel (1983), a record of his travels around the Jewish state after the Lebanon War, which sold five million copies in English alone. Particularly provocative was the chapter that Oz virtually “handed over” to the voice of a man he called Z, who advocated a fascistic solution to the “Arab problem”.

Oz was small with grey hair and a worn face, who had bright and observant eyes. His basement study in the Negev had three walls lined from floor to ceiling with books, while the fourth overlooked an overgrown garden. His routine involved rising early and enjoying a walk before writing, which he did standing up.

He was once offered a safe place on the Labour Party’s list for the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, but refused, saying: “Who would write my stories for me?” Nevertheless, he was a late-night visitor to more than one Israeli prime minister – although not Benjamin Netanyahu, of whom he was a fierce critic.

In 2013 Oz and his wife left the desert for Tel Aviv. Then Judas (2016), set in Jerusalem in the winter of 1959, was shortlisted for the Man Booker international prize. Last year his final collection of essays, Dear Zealots, was published, reflecting his strong belief that a better future was still possible. Oz would never have been pompous enough to say so, but he became a conscience for the Israeli people. Above all he was a passionate Jew and a passionate Israeli: fiery, idealistic and, despite everything, incurably optimistic.

 

“LEADING ISRAELI WRITER, POLITICAL ACTIVIST AND PEACE CAMPAIGNER”

Amos Oz obituary
Leading Israeli writer, political activist and peace campaigner
By Julia Pascal
The Guardian
December 29, 2018

A child of European Jewry, the Israeli writer Amos Oz, who has died aged 79, became the father of a Hebrew literature where the personal and the public overlapped. Oz was prominent as a supporter of the Oslo peace accords of the 1990s and in the debates that followed. Although he was a frequent critic of Israeli politics, he was shamelessly in love with the newly emerging modern Hebrew. “I feel for the language‚” he said, “everything that perhaps I don’t feel for the country.”

Oz was born into a Jerusalem household bursting with failed literary and intellectual ambitions, chiefly those of his father. His parents had arrived from eastern Europe in Palestine in the mid-1930s, when the country was packed with a highly competitive, multilingual European Jewish intelligentsia. Oz’s upbringing was coloured by this hothouse of debate and the rebellions against the British at the end of the Mandate. He was also imbued with the heroic ideal of “the new Jew”.

Writing of this in detail in his 2004 autobiography, A Tale of Love and Darkness, he poignantly described the birth of the new Hebrew language and the modern Hebraic state of mind. He also showed how the Jewish culture of the enlightenment fizzled out in the 30s and 40s. If the Palestinian Jews were at war with the British, they were also at war with themselves.

Oz observed this political and personal Jewish trauma, which was to become the seedbed of his own writing career. The Yiddish mysticism and romantic melancholia of his mother, Fania (nee Mussman), collided with the European rationalism of his father, Yehuda Klausner. When his mother took her own life, Amos was 12, and it is the death of a rebellious woman locked into a sterile marriage that haunts his memoir. After his mother’s death, Amos Klausner changed his surname to Oz, the Hebrew word for strength.

Oz, witness to his parents’ failed marriage and to the failure of the European diaspora dream, did not belong to their internal landscape. Where they were Jews, he was an Israeli. Where they brought the values of the 19th century to Jerusalem, he adopted the values of the socialist kibbutz, as a tractor driver, security patrol and canteen worker. Where his parents were ill at ease in Hebrew, he was to become its champion. Where they were of the right and admired Vladimir Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin, he was the prince of the left and the Israeli NGO Peace Now.

He reinvented himself, discarding the stereotype of the ghetto Jew as a pale, urban weakling. Klausner became Oz, the rugged, outdoor, tough guy. He left Jerusalem for Kibbutz Hulda at the age of 15, by which time he had already decided to be a writer. When he was six he had posted a sign on his bedroom door – “Amos Klausner, author”. His early works in Hebrew publications included the story A Gift to Mother (1953) and a variety of poetry (1959). It was when his fiction was translated into English in 1969 that his international reputation was established.

Oz’s public image was not just that of a great Hebrew writer but that of an author-politician. He acknowledged that he was part of a “Judeo-Slavonic tradition” where writers are also expected to be prophets for their people. He longed for a two-state solution. “It will come, everyone knows it will come,” he told me in 2004. “The question is when.” Always recognising Palestinian desire for sovereignty, he asked: “Why can’t we just divorce like the Czechs and the Slovaks. Without blood?” In 2004 he published Help Us to Divorce.

During the hopeless period of the Lebanon war and the intifadas of the late 20th century, Israel needed voices that spoke to the outside world offering a more humanitarian face than that of Ariel Sharon. Oz and his contemporaries – the novelist AB Yehoshua and playwright Joshua Sobol – became Israel’s alternative spokesmen. They were the artist-politicians, much as Bertolt Brecht, Jean-Paul Sartre and George Orwell had been in the first part of the century. But, if Oz was fighting the bullish Sharon he was also the self-declared enemy of the orthodox and the fundamentalists.

Oz had a huge literary and personal following. Of all his artistic peers, he was the most photogenic and won admirers of all generations. Wounded in the 1967 and 1971 wars, he was Israel’s most beloved peacenik. At Kibbutz Hulda, where he lived for more than 30 years, he learned his socialist politics. His fellow kibbutzniks inspired many of the characters in his writing and, in return, his royalties went to the common budget.

His best known works are My Michael (1968), The Hill of Evil Counsel (1976), A Perfect Peace (1982), To Know a Woman (1989), Don’t Call It Night (1995), Black Box (1988) and The Same Sea (1999).But an Israeli novelist cannot escape the political crucible. One newspaper editorial criticised My Michael because “no nice Jewish girl would dream of falling in love with an Arab”. Even prime ministers telephoned Oz in the middle of the night to ask for his political advice. But, as Oz pointed out, “of course, they never took it”.

After leaving the kibbutz in 1986, Oz became professor of Hebrew literature at the Ben Gurion University of the Negev (1987-2005), living far from Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, at Arad, one of the driest places on earth. He was a visiting professor at Berkeley, Oxford, Boston and Princeton.

Oz was not only a novelist but also a provocative non-fiction writer. With In the Land of Israel (1983), he produced a striking collection of hard-hitting monologues by Jews and Arabs from wildly differing political standpoints. To many reading him in English translation, his non-fiction carried the greatest weight. Israel needed champions and it was in these direct narratives that Oz explored the complexity of a country so often depicted in the western press as a rogue state.

In 2012 he wrote Jews and Words, “a conversation” with his daughter Fania exploring language, Jewish culture and gender. Three years later came Natalie Portman’s movie of A Tale of Love and Darkness.

If his essays and political interventions were positively received, the often lyrical style of Oz’s novels had much less impact abroad. Either way, he was a bestseller in Israel, often topping sales of more than 10,000 copies a day.

In Judas (2016), his first novel in 10 years, he challenged the central Christian trope of the Jew as traitor as embodied in the New Testament figure. His volume of essays Dear Zealots: Letters from a Divided Land (2018), maintained his reputation as a major interlocutor in Jewish political history.

Among many honours, he was made a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur (1997), received the Bialik prize (1986), the Israel prize for literature (1998) and the Franz Kafka prize (2013).

In 1960 he married Nily Zuckerman. She survives him, along with their son, Daniel, and two daughters, Fania and Gallia.

 

“ISRAEL’S MOST SIGNIFICANT CULTURAL AMBASSADOR FOR NEARLY 50 YEARS”

(This article appears on the front page of today’s New York Times.)

Amos Oz, a Writer Who Grasped Depths of the Israeli Soul
The New York Times
By Gal Beckerman
December 29, 2018

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.”

 

* You can also find other items that are not in these dispatches if you “like” this page on Facebook www.facebook.com/TomGrossMedia

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.