Amos Oz - Yanai Yechiel - March 16, 2012
Amos Oz. Photo by Yanai Yechiel
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Among the cast of characters in Amoz Oz’s new book of short stories are Zvi Provizor, a pessimistic gardener; David Degan, a teacher and devout Marxist who reserves his love for cantorial music and women; Henya Kalish, whose rich brother wants to pay for her son, Yotam, to study in Italy, while Yotam himself wonders if he has the courage to leave kibbutz and go empty-handed into the world; Nina Sirota, an opinionated young woman who cannot stay with her husband for another night; and Martin Vandenberg, an ailing Holocaust survivor and shoemaker, whose pride and joy is Esperanto.

Some of the characters in “Between Friends” ‏(Keter Books; Hebrew‏) are chronic world reformers, though a few grasp that this task is beyond their abilities and make do with mending only what has gone wrong in their own lives. Others, like Nina, hope that “in another 10 or 20 years, the kibbutz will become a far more relaxed place. Now all the springs are still stretched to the limit and the whole machine is still shaking from massive effort.” In the meantime, on Kibbutz Yikhat, in the latter part of the 1950s, people wander among the paths, and their lives get tangled and are split apart. Amos Oz observes them − their fears, griefs, hopes and longings − with a sober gaze, with light, gentle touches, with empathy. He offers his readers a form of homage to his own past, or perhaps remembrance and farewell sent from afar. The machine, after all, has long since stopped shaking.

In 1965, 47 years ago, Amos Oz published his first book, “Where the Jackals Howl,” which was also a collection of stories against the backdrop of kibbutz life. Grim events played themselves out in the backyard of the collective community and behind the closed doors of its homes. There was little respite, if any, in “Jackals.” The stories of “Between Friends” are written in a different tone and with a very different sort of gaze.
“It’s been 40-something years since I last read ‘Where the Jackals Howl,’” says Oz, who will be 73 in May, “but I remember that the stories were about strong passions. The stories in ‘Between Friends’ are about forgoing and longing. The kibbutz is the same kibbutz. There is a fence. What’s inside the fence is lit up, what’s outside the fence − the orchards and the wadis and the ruins of the Arab village − is in darkness. In the earlier book the gaze was more outward, whereas here it is far more inward.”

a society full of loneliness

I have to say that Yikhat is an odd name for a kibbutz. Why Yikhat?

“I chose it because of the distant association [in Hebrew] with something sharp and dulled. The first ideal of the kibbutz was sharp: to transform human nature instantaneously. Effectively, they [the founders] set out as a youthful camp, in the innocent belief that they would remain 18 and 20 forever. A camp of young people who were liberated from their parents, from all the prohibitions and inhibitions of the Jewish village and Jewish religion − a camp in which everything is permitted, suffused with perpetual ecstasy, and where life is always at a peak. You work, argue, love and dance until your strength runs out. It was childish, of course. In time, it became dulled. And then what came to the fore were the constants of human nature. The vulnerability, the selfishness, the ambition, the materialism and the greed. It was a forlorn dream, imagining that it would be possible to triumph over all those forces, be reborn and create a new human being without the shortcomings of the old one.

“Like everything I write,” Oz continues, “the wellspring of ‘Between Friends’ is curiosity. I get up every morning at 5 [at home in Arad], go for a half-hour walk in the desert, come home and have a cup of coffee, sit down at the desk and ask myself what I would say if I were him, and what I would do if I were her. I think curiosity is actually a moral virtue. I think a person who is curious is slightly more moral than one who is not curious, because sometimes he enters into the skin of another. I think a curious person is even a better lover than one who is not curious. Even my political approach to the Palestinian question, for example, sprang from curiosity. I am not a Middle East expert or a historian or a strategist. I simply asked myself, at a very young age, what it would be like if I were one of them. So, that’s what I do − get up in the morning and ask myself: What if? That’s how I live and that’s how I write, and that’s how this book was also born: from curiosity that sprang up in me about characters who came from I know not where and started to bug me.”

Was it also written as a farewell to the kibbutz?

“The truth is that I never completely left [Kibbutz] Hulda. Many of my dreams take place there, and reflect an unresolved relationship with the kibbutz. I did not leave abruptly, but due to the health of my son, Daniel. There were a few things I didn’t like about kibbutz life. But I feel the absence of those things that I did like. And in this book I wanted to go back and look at them. Especially at the loneliness in a society where there is ‏(supposedly‏) no place for loneliness. In a few of the stories a situation is portrayed of “almost touching”: People very nearly touch, but something blocks it. Like in the painting by Michelangelo where finger almost touches finger.

“I am very curious about loneliness and grace, or a moment of grace amid loneliness, because that is a description of the human condition. The stories are set on a kibbutz, but they tell about universal situations, about the most basic forces in human existence. About loneliness. About love. About loss. About death. About desire. About forgoing and about longing. In fact, about the simple and profound matters which no person is unfamiliar with.

“There was an old-timer on kibbutz − Ephraim Avneri. I loved him very much. Ephraim Avneri used to say, ‘During the early days of the kibbutz I was as lonely as a finger.’ I didn’t get it. After all, a finger is one of a group. Until I understood: when one finger is erect and the others bent, that is double loneliness.

“It is very hard to write about good people,” Oz continues. “It is far easier to write about people who are wicked or disturbed or deviant. This book is about little people, each of whom has lost something. He doesn’t exactly know what or where, but is searching. There are also stories about the ambition to change the world. About world reformers and about the tragicomedy of world reformers. People who believe that if they just take hold of a shoelace and tug at it, they will be able to change the world.

“At the funeral of Moshe Hess, one of the veterans of Hulda, with the grave surrounded by ‘old people’ of 60-70, their faces flushed and all of them wearing caps, one of the young people burst out, ‘You have to know that you are the most wonderful Jews we have produced since the destruction of the Temple. No other Jews bore on their shoulders what you bore, and none ever will after you.’ In ‘Between Friends’ I look at these people one more time. Not only at the burden they bore. Also at their zealotry, their dogmatism and their quasi-religious devotion.”

In “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” you write: “And so at the age of 14 and a half, a couple of years after my mother’s death, I killed my father and the whole of Jerusalem, changed my name and went on my own to Kibbutz Hulda to live there over the ruins.” How did a boy of 14 and a half make such a complicated decision? And how do you remember your arrival at Hulda?

“I went to Hulda to rebel against my father. I wanted to be everything he was not, and not to be what he was. He was a scholar, I decided to be a tractor driver. He was right wing, I became a socialist. He was short, I decided to become very tall. ‏That one didn’t work out‏.

“I came on my own, with a big knapsack that I could barely carry, and I went to meet Ozer Huldai, the school principal. It was scary living with two strangers in a room, and getting up at 5:30 in the morning for work. There was a field of sugar beets in Hulda, and we had to pull the beets out of the ground. The beets were big and I was small. I knew it would be hard for me to get through a day’s work, but I had no idea how hard. Life-endangering. Martyrdom. After 10 beets I was sure I wouldn’t make it, but I told myself I had to. I was behind the line [of workers], because they were all big and tanned and sturdy, while I was weak and short. What was hardest was that I was even behind the girls. It’s hard to be a weak boy everywhere, and it’s even harder in a society that consecrates resilience and toughness. It was a hard time. People laughed at me. Made fun of me. Hit me.”

You were what was known in kibbutz parlance as an “outside boy.”

“I was an outside boy even before I came to Hulda. Being an outside boy is an existential condition, not a kibbutz condition.”

How did you choose the name “Oz” [instead of Klausner, his original surname]?

“At 14 and a half, oz [Hebrew for “strength” or “might”] was exactly what I lacked. The choice of the name was a whistle in the dark, to encourage me.”

Was your decision to live on Hulda “over the ruins” the right one?

“I do not regret it for a second. I regret a few of the experiences my children underwent on kibbutz. There were some hard bits, but I left Hulda without anger. For me, the kibbutz was an ultimate university of human nature. I spent 30 years with 300 people in intimate proximity. I saw everything − them and their lives − and knew their secrets. If I’d spent 30 years in Tel Aviv, or New York, I would not have had the slightest chance of becoming so intimately acquainted with 300 souls. The price was that they knew more about me than I would have wanted them to know. But that’s a fair price. In terms of my writing, I learned much of what I know about human nature on kibbutz.”

There are some grim descriptions in “Between Friends.” Is the kibbutz to blame?

“Someone who lives in a regular society and has a lousy childhood will blame his parents. The same person with the same lousy childhood on kibbutz will blame the kibbutz. Someone who lives in a regular society and doesn’t fulfill his ambitions will blame himself or the CEO. If he lives on kibbutz, he will blame the kibbutz.

“Unlike others, I am no longer slaughtering sacred cows. There was a time when I did. Not today. Besides which, in every cowshed there is one sick old cow left, surrounded by a herd of exultant, gung-ho slaughterers. I am almost always on the side of the cow. It’s not that I don’t know what a foul smell that cow gives off. And it’s not that I worship it. But between the cow and the slaughterers who gather around − I prefer the cow. I am talking about Zionism, the kibbutz and the labor movement.”

For further reading:

The thin line between fiction and autobiography in Israeli novels
A mother's kisses
Israeli author Amos Oz, now in an Iraqi bookstore near you

In his memoir “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” Oz describes his anxieties as a novice writer. Reading Hemingway and Remarque lifted his spirit, but also filled him with dread. He had not had their experience of life’s turmoil, of war and the struggle for freedom. “No one who lacked experience of that world could get even half a temporary permit to write stories or novels,” he wrote. Moreover, a writer needed to live in a “real place” − Paris, Madrid, New York, Monte Carlo. “But here, in the kibbutz, what was there? A henhouse, a barn, children’s houses ...”

Oz found the solution to this problem in “Winesburg, Ohio,” Sherwood Anderson’s story collection published in 1919. In “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” Oz notes that Anderson’s work “was a string of stories and episodes that grew out of each other and were connected to each other, particularly because they all took place in a single, poor, godforsaken provincial town. It was filled with small-time people: an old carpenter, an absent-minded young man, someone who owned a hotel and a servant girl. The stories were also connected to each other because the characters slipped from story to story: Central characters in one story reappeared as secondary, background characters in another.”

The characters and events in “Winesburg, Ohio” were what Oz “supposed had no place in literature”; they were, he had thought until then, “far beneath the dignity of literature, below its acceptability threshold.”

Hand luggage

It now emerges that in “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” Oz provides a precise description for the stories in “Between Friends,” which he would publish 10 years after his previous monumental work. Anderson, Oz wrote, “opened my eyes to write about what was around me. Thanks to him I suddenly realized that the written word does not depend on Milan or London, but always revolves around the hand that is writing, wherever it happens to be writing: Where you are is the center of the universe.”

So it was that in the forsaken study in Hulda, he placed a standard, simple notebook on a table, along with a ballpoint pen and a pencil with an eraser and lukewarm water from the tap in a plastic cup. And there, in the center of the universe, he sat down to write his first stories. We owe a large debt to Sherwood Anderson.

How hard was it?

“It wasn’t easy to write on kibbutz. After I published a few stories I went to the secretariat and asked for one day a week to write. Big argument. ‘A precedent.’ ‘Everyone can say he is an artist.’ ‘We in the secretariat are not authorized to decide who is an artist and who is not. And if everyone is an artist, who will milk the cows?’ One of the members of the secretariat, an ‘old ’ man of 45, said: ‘Young Amos might be the new Tolstoy, but what does he know about people? Let him work in the fields until he’s 40, and then write.’

“I was given one day a week to write − provided I worked more on the other days. I published one book and then another, and went back to the secretariat hesitantly: ‘Maybe you can give me another day for writing?’ Big argument. ‘A precedent.’ ‘Who will milk the cows?’ Discussion in the weekly general assembly. I was given two days. That was followed by a creeping annexation to three days. When money started to come in from my books, the kibbutz coordinator came to me and asked, after some stuttering, whether the output could be increased if one or two pensioners helped me out.

“The truth is I had an unmediated reading public in Hulda − people who told me straight to my face what they liked and what they didn’t like. Of course, the one thing that was forbidden to me was to take people from Hulda as models. And I really did not do that. There was one kibbutz member, Meir, who told me, ‘Before I pass under your window I stop to comb my hair, so that if I get into one of your stories I will look neat.’ But there was no reason for him to stop. I didn’t put any of them into my stories, at least not in a way in which they could recognize themselves. And even if I had put them in as they were, they would not have taken affront, because people generally have such a high opinion of themselves that even if you describe them precisely, as they are, they do not recognize themselves and are not insulted.”

Were you aware of the concern that the monumentality of “A Tale of Love and Darkness” would paralyze your writing?

“There will be no ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness Rides Again,’ or ‘Son of a Tale of Love and Darkness.’ Throughout all these years I tried − successfully, I hope − not to write the same book twice.”

How does short-story writing differ from novel writing?

“For someone who has written a few novels, writing a short story is a very difficult challenge. It’s like someone who is used to traveling from country to country with large suitcases, and suddenly he is told, ‘This time you travel with hand luggage only.’ You need to be smart at packing to write a short story.”

In “The Same Sea” ‏(1999‏), you write about yourself and your parents. In the section “My hand on the latch of the window,” you talk to them and ask if they are both resting in peace “At least you can’t fight over me,” you tell them. “I’m tidy, hard-working, successful. Bringing you more and more pride and joy, a regular sorcerer’s apprentice. I’m tired but I never give up.”

Is that where you planted the seeds of acceptance and conciliation for “A Tale of Love and Darkness” and “Between Friends”?

“For a great many years I was furious with my mother for committing suicide, as though she had run off with a lover and abandoned us without leaving a note; with my father for losing her and for apparently being a horrible person, otherwise he would not have lost her; and with myself for having apparently been a terrible child, because if I hadn’t been I would not have lost her.

“As the years passed, the anger gave way to curiosity and sympathy and humor: the three forces which, it would seem, set my writing hand in motion. Even compassion ‏(though I am a bit leery of the word ‘compassion,’ because it is connected to the word ‘pity’‏).

“In ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness,’ I wrote about my parents as though they are my children. Without an ounce of anger. You will not find one iota of anger there. You will find curiosity, sympathy and humor. I wrote it with the intent to invite the dead to my house, to have them meet my wife and children, to sit them down and say to them: ‘Dear deceased, have a cup of coffee and let’s talk, at long last. Because when you were alive we didn’t talk. What do I mean by saying we didn’t talk? We talked endlessly − about Ben-Gurion, Stalin, the White Paper and illegal immigrants − but we did not talk about the important things: about feelings. About where you came from, what your hopes were and what you found. So come on, have a cup of coffee and let’s talk. Afterward, go on your way.’

“I don’t want the dead to stay in my home, but rather to drop in occasionally for a short visit and a chat about the important things.

“In the stories of ‘Between Friends’ I did the same, as though inviting those characters, living or dead, into my home and telling them: ‘Sit down, we will talk about forgoing things, about dreams. We will talk about loss. We will talk about searching. We will talk about the human effort to touch another human being, to touch the other. We will talk about things which are usually not talked about.’”

Political involvement

Oz published his first stories in the literary journal Keshet in 1962. One of them was about a paratrooper who was killed in a parachuting demonstration on Independence Day, another about an Israeli reprisal raid in the 1950s. In May 1962, Oz was among those whose work was published in the first issue of a journal published by Min Hayesod, an activist group within Mapai. Among the contributors were renowned thinkers such as Nathan Rotenstreich, Shlomo Grodzensky, Dan Horowitz and Eli Schweid, along with former defense minister Pinhas Lavon.

The “Lavon affair,” which was an offshoot of “rotten affair” ‏(in which Egyptian Jews spied for Israel in Egypt and were caught and effectively abandoned to their fate‏) generated titanic battles. Israel was rocked by election campaigns, dismissals and commissions of inquiry. Mapai, the forerunner of Labor, was torn by power struggles between David Ben-Gurion and his supporters, and the party’s leadership under Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir. Lavon, who had been the defense minister during the spying debacle, was removed as head of the Histadrut labor federation. He refused to disappear and established Min Hayesod. The group held its founding meeting in Hulda Forest; that was Amos Oz’s first appearance as a political activist.

Why is it that you have not addressed the Lavon affair and Min Hayesod in your writing?

“My writing days are not yet over. Maybe I will write about that. By now I understand that for me, the revolt against Ben-Gurion was the continuation of my revolt against my father. Ben-Gurion was omnipresent. His figure was completely dominant. Nowadays, when people talk about the prime minister and the defense minister, they have no conception of how overwhelming the figure of Ben-Gurion was in the early 1960s. He was indeed the father of the nation. And Lavon − in the name of some ideal of voluntarism and the centrality of the individual − took issue with him and against the cult of the state as a tool. At that time, there was something liberating about Lavon’s struggle. I now see Ben-Gurion, with all his faults, as a political giant. Back then, I saw only the faults.”

For more than 50 years, Oz published essays and fiction in Davar ‏(the now-defunct organ of the Histadrut‏), Shdemot ‏(the literary digest of the kibbutz movement‏), Emda ‏(an organ of the left wing, published from 1974-1999‏), the mass-circulation Yedioth Ahronoth and in Haaretz, as well as in leading media newspapers and magazines in Europe and the United States. In 1967, he was one of the moderators of the talks which were afterward published as “The Seventh Day,” a collection of soldiers’ reflections on the Six-Day War.

In any event, back in 1961, Oz mustered the courage to send a response to an article Ben-Gurion had published in Davar. It was printed, and a few days later Ben-Gurion replied to him in the newspaper in the form of a long essay. There was great excitement in the dining room of Kibbutz Hulda when a phone call of supreme importance was received: Amos Oz was invited to meet with David Ben-Gurion. The story of the meeting, which was scheduled for early in the morning in the defense establishment compound in Tel Aviv, is juicy and riveting ‏(it is recounted in “A Tale of Love and Darkness”‏). Its readers were like flies on the wall of Ben-Gurion’s bureau, where the father of the nation became overwrought before Oz’s astonished eyes. Even though Oz plays no more than a bit part, the story contains more than a hint of the nascent writer’s emerging political involvement.

In 1970, at the height of the War of Attrition, a symposium was held at the left wing Tzavta Club in Tel Aviv to mark the third anniversary of the Six-Day War. Among the participants was Prime Minister Golda Meir. “What do you dream about?” Oz asked her. “I don’t have time to dream,” she replied with a scowl. “I can’t sleep, because the phone keeps ringing with reports about casualties.”

The acrimonious exchange sparked a media furor and marked the onset of the heated political debate over the future of the territories Israel had conquered in 1967 and how Israel should proceed on the diplomatic front. ‏(After Meir’s death, the leader of the left wing Mapam party, Yaakov Hazan, said she had admitted to him that Oz’s question had taken her by surprise and had offended her. That, she explained, was why “I stuttered in my reply, because I didn’t want to answer.”‏)

In 1973, before the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, Oz announced his support for the Moked party, led by the peace activist Meir Pa’il. In 1977 he backed the dovish Aryeh “Lova” Eliav, and afterward − apart from a leap to Labor under Shimon Peres − he supported Meretz, whose platforms support civil rights and peace. On the eve of the last elections, he said: “The Labor Party has concluded its historic role.” That remark drew the wrath of the then leader of the party, Ehud Barak, who ridiculed Oz’s skills as a historian.

Golda Meir and Ehud Barak apparently had trouble responding to a simple truth: Amos Oz is a courageous person and writer. In his spirit, his writing, his protest and his persistence. For many years − 50, to be exact − he has fought for beliefs and opinions. For more than 40 years he has been calling for the division of the country into its two nations; writing, speaking and working against the occupation, tyranny and brute force; and arguing that our rule over another nation is endangering Israel’s existence in the Middle East. No platform or media outlet, in Israel or abroad, will reject an article by him or an interview with him.

It may not be surprising that the kid who went to Kibbutz Hulda at the age of 14 and a half in order to live “over the ruins” and has published 27 books that have been translated into 41 languages, also committed himself to a stubborn struggle over the ruins of our life and has not wavered from it. Still, he could have concentrated on his literary work, shied away from political issues and spared himself the anger of those who ask, “Who gave you the right to speak out?” And the criticism of those, on both the right and the left, who maintain that he says too much or too little. But Oz stands by his decision. Maybe he wasn’t just whistling in the dark when he changed his name as a teenager.

You have been publishing less writing lately.

“For years, I wrote not only to the ‘convinced’ or the opponents, but precisely to the hesitant. I am writing less now because I have the feeling that the hesitant have become indifferent and only the convinced will read me. I see no point in writing for those who agree or for the dissenters. I have no interest in denouncing my opponents or in mocking them, and I have no interest in airing nuances on behalf of a community of the convinced who have already become airy from so much airing.”

Cowards and patsies

So you aren’t helping the indifferent?

“I continue to make my voice heard and to express my opinion in lectures, in other appearances and by signing public statements. In the hope that, despite everything, my voice has listeners.”

These days the talk is about the “dead peace” and the removal of the agreement with the Palestinians from the agenda.

“I don’t know on what basis. The avoidance of moving forward toward a compromise solution between Israel and Palestine is endangering Israel’s very existence. The peace I am talking about has been on the table for years and is waiting for us. All we have to do is bend over and pick it up. Or, put more cautiously, it is still possible to reduce the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to an Israeli-Gaza conflict. Everyone knows the price: to say farewell to the territories. To agree to two capitals in Jerusalem and exist alongside a Palestinian state in the West Bank. In fact, I do not see this as a price but as an added value for Israel’s future. I will put it simply: If there will not be two states here, there will be one state. And if there will be one state, we will disappear.

“The supporters of peace were dealt a potent blow by the evacuation from Gaza. For years we were told that if we leave the territories there will be peace. We left Gaza and the Qassam rockets came. That is a very difficult blow, though one which can be coped with by the argument that it was necessary to leave Gaza but without handing it to Hamas on a silver platter. But because this is an ‘as if’ argument, it is a complex one. And the fact is that for all those years we said that if we were to leave Gaza, good things would follow. We left Gaza and bad things followed. It’s hard to deal with that. I can say that I have no doubt that if we had stayed in Gaza, the price in blood would have been far higher than it has been since we left. I can say that, but it won’t help in the face of the simple argument, ‘We left and look what happened. We came out as patsies.’

“Most Israelis still agree to leave the West Bank with border modifications. But they are unwilling to leave as patsies. [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and [Defense Minister Ehud] Barak would obtain a large majority in the Knesset if they would declare, tomorrow, their readiness to leave the territories. What is preventing and stopping them is their fear − the fear of dealing with the fanatics, and the fear that the same thing will happen as in Gaza. Netanyahu and Barak are cowards. They know what has to be done but do not dare. They too are afraid of looking like patsies.”

In the meantime, they have abandoned the Palestinian issue and alerted the world to the Iranian challenge.

“Instead of moving ahead to an agreement with the Palestinian Authority, they are whipping themselves into a frenzy ahead of an attack on Iran. An attack on Iran will not be of much use, because you cannot bomb knowledge and you cannot bomb motivation, and the Iranians have both the knowledge and the motivation to make nuclear weapons. Even if an attack on Iran postpones the manufacture of nuclear weapons for a year or two, it will immeasurably heighten the motivation to use the weapons.

“During the first Lebanon war, [Prime Minister Menachem] Begin talked about ‘Hitler hiding in a bunker in Beirut.’ I wrote an article back then entitled, ‘Hitler is Already Dead, Mr. Prime Minister.’ What was written in that article I now direct at Netanyahu. Anyone who compares Iran of today to Hitler, and Israel to Auschwitz, is committing an act that is anti-Zionist and demagogic, encouraging people to emigrate from Israel and sowing hysteria.

“You ask if I am worried? I am not only worried. I am fearful. I see processes and trends that are threatening everything I hold dear. And also the existence of the State of Israel.”