This death caught us all unawares, like those of Haim Nahman Bialik, Theodor Herzl or Ze’ev Jabotinsky; the shock itself shows the enormity of Amos Oz’s place in our consciousness and in our identity as Israelis. Over time a great artist became a great name, part of the national heritage, and you can certainly feel a kinship with him even if you’ve never read a single line he wrote. Oz was in that category, a writer who is far greater than the sum of his books.
Much has been written, and will be written, about his contribution as a writer. Let’s agree, briefly, that he simply wrote beautifully. The beauty of his prose joined his good looks, which embodied Israeli beauty — or the beautiful Israeli: in other words, the Israeli with a conscience. In a nutshell, then, let’s say that the president of the so-called white tribe died Friday.
The image that is etched in my memory in that regard is his eulogy at the state funeral of Shimon Peres. I believe he was the only author who was invited to deliver an official eulogy. All the other speakers were statesmen. That says something about his great reputation, but also about his deep ties of ideological belonging to the generation of founders, whose leaders are dying one after another, leaving behind large marble tombstones surrounded by fallow fields and wilderness.
The question of whether he was a great writer remains open for now. There is no doubt that his masterpiece was actually one of his later books, “A Tale of Love and Darkness.” The beloved, hyper-Israeli work was embraced by every sensitive Israeli reader, who felt that it was written about him. Accordingly, it was embraced by readers of Hebrew literature in translation as a representation of consummate Israeliness.
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But this consummate Israeliness was in fact already dead when Oz expressed it with such unique beauty. Part of the beauty of “A Tale” lies in its being the mummy of Israeliness, or a kind of museum of the essential Israeliness of the founding generation.
I find the most authentic Oz, for good and for ill, in his nonfiction book “In the Land of Israel,” a collection of articles that appeared in the now-defunct daily Davar, which was published in 1983. This is a series of Israeli travel articles, which read as if Oz wants to tell his readers, sitting in their peaceful living rooms, how much rage there is in the development towns, how much messianic fervor in the settlements and so on. An infuriating book, although it’s not the author’s fault. What was infuriating was the very fact that Oz was what he was, a member of the white tribe, who goes out to discover the Israeli jungle.
Oz the intellectual tried throughout his latter years to repair Israeliness as it was revealed to him at the time in Beit Shemesh, in Ofra and in the territories. To be more precise, he tried to bring it back into his imaginary museum, in numerous opinion pieces attacking what he identified as ultranationalist tendencies or neo-Nazism, as he put it, that are developing in Israel.
But the dwindling tribe of those who identify with his admonitions was unable to translate them into action. Clearly none of their remaining number is capable of writing so beautifully, so seductively and so enchantingly as to briefly seem to persuade us of the righteousness of his path.