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Our Favorite Amos Oz Books

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 To use words, to write, to unfurl sentences, to construct paragraphs almost shamelessly in an ode to this writer defies the talents of any wordmaster.

As Amos Oz did in his writing and public life, I acknowledge my life in the turmoil of this political place, my days of living war and unquiet peace in this geographically blistered space. But whatever understanding I have of this world I live in is because it has been defined, deconstructed, and dug into by Amos Oz. With guts and grace, he has introduced me to people I never knew, to glorious moments of love and to harrowing struggles with death. And I am proud that the words Amos Oz chose, with such art and grace, are written in a language that swam to these shores on the waves of the Red Sea, the Atlantic, and the Mediterranean.

There is an inaudible line up to which words may reach and beyond which there begins the expanse of silence. (Unto Death / Amos Oz / 1971)

Elsewhere, Perhaps (1966), reviewed by Judith Frankel

Amos Oz is foremost amongst Israel's younger novelists. My Michael was acclaimed when published here (UK) in 1972. Now we can enjoy (in English) his first novel, Elsewhere, Perhaps, published in Hebrew in 1966.

Oz, a member of Kibbutz Hulda, sets this novel with illuminating accuracy in a border kibbutz, Metsudat Ram: unpretentious and vigorous, this community has the underlying innocence of any small group dedicated to its founding idealism: so the kibbutz is the more vulnerable when immorality and deceit begin worming their way through its closely-meshed network of relationships and loyalties.

This is the theme – a theme of love, anxiety and faithlessness. A girl sleeps with the husband of her father's mistress. A libertine visitor contaminates the younger set with his determined hedonism. Families break apart, emotions and fears cascade and interweave.

The plot, in bare outline, may seem to have strayed from Woman's Own, but characters are fleshed out and we care about them. The unfolding is clever. In dispassionate tones, a guide ushers tourists round the kibbutz, explaining its ways; meanwhile, revealed in alternate sections, is the private life of that same guide and of his beautiful and adored daughter. Amos Oz explores with delicate perceptions the ripple effect of their involvements upon the families of those they love and who love them.

So much coming recently from Israel has perforce focused our thinking upon the darker side of human nature. It's heartening that we can nevertheless expect works of fine discrimination from her artists. Assisted by a generous and imaginative translation from Nicholas de Lange, Oz gives us the welcome opportunity to appreciate Israelis as people, not political pawns.

A Tale of Love and Darkness (2002), reviewed by Judy Shapiro

I read A Tale of Love and Darkness in English several years ago. It is an autobiographical masterpiece. It is a candid and at times a heartbreaking tale of the author's childhood in Jerusalem and move to Kibbutz Hulda when he became more independent. I had not read any of the previous works of Amos Oz, but I had been aware of his very left wing political views.

This book was like nothing I had ever read before. I was taken on a journey back in time to an Israel before I was born. I was introduced to a Jewish family unlike my own, but in many ways similar. The story was compelling; the translation superb. I was transported into a private, intimate life of an intelligent, sensitive, inquisitive young boy growing up with sad parents who were unable to reach their professional potential, and a respected, accomplished uncle who could or would not help them.

Oz's visual, aural and olfactory memories of his youth drew me deeper and deeper into a bygone world, yet one on which much of the cultural and social foundation of the modern State of Israel is built.

Several years ago, while my husband was attending a medical meeting in Athens, I climbed one of the hills nearby. The climb was arduous and I was glad to reach the top and enjoy the view. While seated on a bench next to another climber, as tourists often do, we started to make conversation. When she discovered I was from Israel, her eyes lit up. "I love Israel," she enthused. "I hope to visit one day. I have read the books of Amos Oz and feel I know so much about the country, its history and its people." She zipped open her backpack and took out the English translation of A Tale of Love and Darkness, which, she said she was in the midst of reading. To have climbed up this hill with a 544-page book in tow seemed to me proof of her admiration of the author. At the time, neither of us could have known that this book would be translated into 28 languages and over one million copies would be sold worldwide.

I feel indebted to Amos Oz for sharing episodes of his life. I am awed by the strength of the human spirit to overcome unhappiness and misfortune and even use them as a springboard to create.

jewsandwords (2012), reviewed by Morty Liebowitz

In 2012, Amos Oz and his daughter Fania Oz-Salzberger, a historian, published a volume of essays titled jewsandwords (formatting of title follows their specifications).

In these essays they, as self-defined atheists, describe with religious fervor their connection to Jewish texts, not as religious but as cultural riches.

Their way with words is not to be denied. "We don't know about God, but Jewish continuity was always paved with words". In describing the controversy in modern archeology about the size and importance of Davidic Jerusalem they state, "Solomon's splendid palace may well be a flimsy abode, a fib or a fable. In all honesty ancient Jewish architecture is not a major point of pride. But the texts are palatial." They go on to make the point with regards to current policies that we don't need ruins to establish our claims to the land; those claims legitimately rest on our compelling bookshelf.

For his views as a liberal humanist, many may take issue with Amos Oz and his perceptions of modern political realities. No proud citizen of Israel, however, can take issue with his command of language, history and, if you read this thin volume carefully enough, his take on Jewish humor.

Judas (2014), reviewed by Vera Freudmann

Amos Oz's last book is set in the Jerusalem of 1959 and explores themes of love, loss and loyalty. Shmuel Ash, a young man who suddenly finds himself with no purpose or attachments, takes a live-in-job with elderly, cantankerous Shalom Wald. His duties are light, his main task to converse with Wald every evening.

Sharing the crumbling old house is Atalia Abarbanel, the beautiful and sensuous widow of Wald's son, who died fighting in the War of Independence. We know that Shmuel will fall in love with the older woman, and that this love will give him no joy apart from the occasional company of his beloved. Her father, Shaltiel, was a prominent personality during Israel's earliest days, one who opposed statehood and believed the people of the regions could and should live side by side in harmony. For this belief, he was shunned as a traitor. Running through the narrative are references to Shmuel's abandoned thesis on Judas, the betrayer of Jesus – or was he?

As Oz draws his themes together, his own unwavering belief in the viability and necessity of a two-state solution for the still-troubled region of today, will be present in the mind of the reader.

This serious and beautifully written novel offers prodigious rewards.

Dear Zealots (2017), reviewed by Judith Cooper-Weill

Amos Oz, the writer and teacher with the chiseled face and magnificent command of Hebrew, attributed his gift for storytelling to his passion for listening and his consuming need to write.

Over the years, evolving from a childhood as Amos Klausner in Mandate Jerusalem with his Revisionist family to his move to Kibbutz Hulda as a teenager, following his mother's suicide, and continuing with his many years in the planned-from-scratch desert town of Arad, he became a passionate advocate of the two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians.

This book, Dear Zealot, can be seen as Oz's "last will and testament" to the Israeli public, in which he expands on a speech delivered in Tuebingen, Germany, where he received one of his many awards. It deals with life-and-death issues and summarizes his conclusions regarding the "curse of nationalism" and the threats posed by Jewish fanaticism and supremacy ever since the destruction of the First and Second Temples.

Rabbi Shlomo Goren, former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel and first head of the military rabbinate, wrote a number of responsa to acute questions concerning Torah teachings and justice in which he forbade harming noncombatants or even enemy soldiers unless required during actual fighting, let alone drawing parallels today with wars from ancient times.

Amos Oz took care to publish his text in as accessible a form as possible so that as many people as possible would read it, especially those who do not share his political opinions. It's a slim, pocket-sized volume of just 130 pages in Hebrew (the original Tuebingen speech was translated into many languages).

Oz - which means 'strength', a name he adopted at the age of 15 - knew how it felt to be called a traitor and declared himself proud of the appellation. Reflecting on the perceived meanings of treachery, treason, deception and betrayal, he produced one of his finest novels, Judas, delving into a scandal in pre-state Jerusalem as well as reinterpreting the behavior of Jesus' apostle.

For the novels, stories and literary essays, he used what he called his black pen, to present arguments for which he could hear a number of voices. When he found, on the other hand, that he "agreed with himself one hundred percent", he would use his blue pen to fire off a scathing comment, a protest or some heartfelt advice – "not that anyone listens". Dear Zealot is written with the blue pen, following many discussions with his daughter Prof. Fania Oz-Salzberger, who co-authored Jews and Words.

Dear Zealots addresses the arguments of the Right in Israel, who have now been in power for some 40 years. Opting for "managing the conflict" rather than dividing the land, will inevitably erode Israel's democracy, perhaps irretrievably, he believes. Oz sees humanism as a major component of Judaism and with no contradiction between them; democracy stems from humanism.

The Jewish nation, unlike most others, defines itself not through genes or victories in battle but through books. Oz ponders the significance for modern Israel of the Jewish religion and the rich Hebrew culture and asks not who caused our current situation but what can we now do?

If you see a fire, you are obliged to try and put it out, even if all you have is a spoonful of water. Oz is not a pacifist or one who turns the other cheek. But while he knows that Israel sometimes needs to use force, he asks that we not cause unnecessary pain. The strength of a society lies in its pluralism, "many lights and not just one", the sparks ignited by differences.

And of course people did listen to Amos Oz: he is generally admired as an eloquent prophet and literary giant, but his last years were pessimistic. Bialik believed that a nation needs spiritual leadership especially in troubled times. While Oz never lost his own spark, that seductive energy which fuelled his creativity and his stubborn pursuit of Israel's dream, did he ultimately become a symbol of something which has ceased to exist?

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Sunday, 24 October 2021

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