WASHINGTON – There were hundreds of statements made by public figures in Israel on Friday following the death of its greatest writer, Amos Oz. From all the different expressions of grief and admiration, one sentence written by former MK Zehava Galon was, in my view, the most accurate. “It’s impossible to comprehend that Israel exists and there is no longer Amos Oz in it,” the former Meretz leader wrote on Twitter.
For hundreds of thousands of Israelis – those who belong to the defeated-yet-still-standing Israeli “peace camp” – Oz was the epitome of everything they wanted, and still want, Israel to become. To many, an Israel without his courageous voice seems like an incomplete country.
Oz gave hundreds of thousands of Israelis not only his wonderful literature, but also a lifelong model of patriotism with which they could identify. He served Israel as a young man living in a kibbutz near what was then the Jordanian border, and later as a soldier in a combat unit. He brought immense pride to Israel by representing it on some of the most prestigious cultural stages in the world. And through it all, he never shied away from criticizing the country’s moral failures and fighting to make it better.
Oz’s brand of patriotism was one that many Israelis – those who belong to the country's growing religious and right-wing majority – found increasingly difficult to tolerate over the years. What Oz considered the greatest act of patriotism – trying to end Israel’s military occupation over millions of Palestinians – his critics and attackers viewed as dangerous disloyalty. Some of the same politicians who are eulogizing him now were silent when he was being accused of treason by right-wing activists. It’s sad that we won’t be able to enjoy the shrewd and funny comments he would have probably made about those eulogies, if he were still with us.
>> From the archives: Israel's situation is bleak, but not necessarily irreversible | Amos Oz
On a personal level I owe a great debt to Amos Oz, not only for reasons that have to do with his public persona but also for more private ones. Oz introduced me to someone I had always wanted to meet, but never had the chance to: my great-grandfather.
Growing up, I often heard loving and nostalgic stories about Dr. Emmanuel Pfeffermann, or “Grandpa Monchi” as he was called in the family. I knew that he had come to Jerusalem in the mid-1920s and was a member of the core of professors who founded the Hebrew University. I also knew, from the stories, that his greatest source of pride was establishing the newspaper department at the university library, which later became Israel’s National Library. But because he died before I was born, I never got to know him as a person – until, at the age of 15, I first read Amos Oz’s masterpiece “A Tale of Love and Darkness.”
Dr. Pfeffermann, as Oz refers to him in his memoir, worked shoulder-to-shoulder with Oz’s father, Arieh Klausner. My great-grandfather was the director of the small-yet-growing newspaper department at the university library, and Oz’s father was his right-hand man. They were both overqualified for their jobs, as were many of the Jewish intellectuals who came to Jerusalem prior to the foundation of Israel and found themselves competing for a small number of academic jobs in the city’s then-miniature university.
In my favorite scene in the book, Oz writes about making a surprise visit to the library building with his mother, shortly before her suicide. They arrive at the newspaper department looking to surprise Oz’s father, and run into “the gentle, kindly Dr. Pfeffermann, who looked up from the pile of papers on his desk, smiled, and beckoned us with both his hands to come in.”
What follows is an amusing description of my great-grandfather trying to make Oz’s father aware of the fact that he has visitors. Oz’s father, in his description, “was standing on a small stepladder, with his back to us and all his attention concentrated on the big box files he was taking down from a high shelf, leafing through and returning to the shelf, before taking down another and another file, because apparently he could not find what he was looking for.”
“All this time,” Oz continues the story, “kind Dr. Pfeffermann did not make a sound, but sat comfortably in the chair behind his big desk, his smile growing broader and broader in an amused sort of way, and two or three other people who worked in the department stopped working and smirked as they looked at us and at Father’s back without saying anything, as though they were sharing in Dr. Pfeffermann’s little game and watching with amused curiosity to see when the man would finally notice his visitors, who were standing in the doorway patiently watching his back, the pretty woman’s hand resting on the little boy’s shoulder.
“From where he was standing on the top step of the ladder Father turned to his head of department and said, 'Excuse me, Dr. Pfeffermann, I believe there is something...' and suddenly he noticed the director’s broad smile –and he may have been alarmed because he could not understand what was making him smile – and Dr. Pfeffermann’s eyes guided Father’s bespectacled gaze from the desk to the doorway.”
The scene ends with Oz’s father asking to leave work early and the small family going out for an unplanned meal at a restaurant, despite his father’s insistence that there was no special occasion to celebrate.
When I first read this scene, I felt that it told me more about my great-grandfather than most of the stories I heard about him growing up. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, because no one in our family, or in the entire State of Israel, to be frank, is as good a storyteller as Amos Oz.
>> From the archives: Excerpts from two 2015 talks by Amos Oz
In this small story, my great-grandfather wasn’t even a main character: He was only playing a “supporting” role in the larger drama involving Oz’s parents. Yet Oz’s words, each one so accurately chosen, brought him to life better than any story I heard before or afterward. I always heard that my great-grandfather was kind, good-hearted and funny. But it was Amos Oz who gave those characterizations a real meaning in my imagination.
The ties between our families continued into the next generation when, in the 1970s, Oz – by then already one of Israel’s most famous authors – decided to teach philosophy at a regional high school on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. Both of my parents happened to be among his students; the interaction with him left a lifelong impression on them.
They were 17 when he became their teacher, and while he only officially taught them for one year, he remained their teacher for the rest of their lives – as a public figure, but also on a personal level. He reconnected with them over the years on a number of occasions, and in the last years of his life became more of a family friend than anything else.
My last conversation with him was in the spring of 2017, as I was just beginning my work for Haaretz in Washington. He said, half-jokingly, that if he were to try to write a work of fiction describing the events I was being asked to cover as a journalist in Trump’s Washington, no publisher would take it, because “everyone would say it’s beyond the realm of imagination.”
His death will be described in the coming hours and days as the end of an era in Israel. That may be true, but my personal experience tells me that Amos Oz’s words will have a lasting influence on Israel for decades. For me, his writing provided a way to discover something about my own family; for many Israelis in the future, his work will provide a way to discover important things about our country.