His Halo Weighed on Him, but Amos Oz Was Above All a Mensch

He was interested in others with an almost childlike curiosity. He listened. Even taxi drivers knew it

Amos Oz during the hand over ceremony of the Goethe award in the Paulskirche in Frankfurt, Germany, August 2005.
FRANK MAY / dpa Picture-Alliance

Two weeks ago, I went to David Ben-Gurion’s hut in Sde Boker. The taxi driver who took me was a tanned Likud supporter from Be’er Sheva. The whole way there he tried to persuade me how wrong leftists were.

Then he suddenly asked, “Do you know Amos Oz? I drove him for years. I love that man. You have no idea what kind of person he was. He remembers the names of my children and grandchildren and what each of them does. And the way he listens! There’s no one like him. Where is he?”

I bit my lip. “Amos is very sick,” I told him, and scared myself. The big man worked hard to keep from bursting into tears, but he wouldn’t calm down. From that moment, we didn’t talk about anything else. Just Amos and Amos. And how it couldn’t be. A person like that.

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And that’s exactly the kind of person he was. Four years ago, the owner of a small restaurant on a Greek island asked me to get her a book by Amos Oz, because he was the best author she had ever read. Which book? “It doesn’t matter. All I have is ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness,’ and I’ve read it eight times,” she said.

With great trepidation, I asked Amos if maybe he could help me, because I couldn’t find anything in a store. He found a Greek translation of “The Same Sea.” “What’s your friend’s name,” he asked? I told him. He wrote her a beautiful dedication.

I brought her the book. She caressed the cover happily. “He asked that you read it and give him your opinion,” I told her. She didn’t believe me. That’s the kind of person he was.

The beautiful, smiling Amos Oz, full of humor directed mainly at himself; the man who was turned into a symbol verging on a cliché by his admirers and haters alike; the distinguished, world-famous author who worked miracles with the Hebrew language and left a stamp on every author who came after him was above all a human being, one modest and generous almost to the point of exaggeration.

He was indeed always interested in the welfare of others and details about their lives. He was willing to read any juvenile manuscript by beginning writers, and even before they dared ask his opinion, he would call, full of warm encouragement. “I ate it up, I couldn’t put it down. And Nily read it before me,” he said, referring to his wife. “And believe me, she’s a much better reader than I am, my Nily. And she liked it a lot.”

Only at the very end would he add a tiny sliver of constructive criticism. You needed an especially sensitive ear to understand that this was a significant comment suggesting a thorough weeding, clearing and maybe even plowing. That’s the kind of person he was.

The halo that was conferred on him weighed on him greatly. It drew fire, roused empty jealousy and drove away too many people who fed on this false image. Still, he managed to forge a natural, warm connection with  people, one that made no distinction between the rich and the poor, the unknown and the famous. He was interested in others with an almost childlike curiosity. He listened. He helped. He embraced.

He was a friend full of optimism and goodness and love. Sometimes, despite his fierce intelligence, he was terribly naive. He believed in people so much that even when he saw their weaknesses with his eagle eye, he had pity on them; he never tired of hearing even the most idiotic stories they told him, and could find some beauty and comfort in them.

And to the end, he comforted everyone else, telling them not to worry about him, that everything was okay. And now he is so badly missed. That’s the kind of person he was.