The life of Amos Oz (1939- ), perhaps the most well-known Israeli author in the world, was tragically altered at the age of twelve: his mother, who suffered from depression, committed suicide. The only son of two highly educated Eastern European immigrants, he grew up in a rather poor and semi-religious part of Jerusalem. Two year after his mother’s death he felt he could no longer stay at home; he joined a kibbutz, all by himself. Most Israeli readers were well aware of Oz’s trauma, even before he movingly depicted it in his autobiography, A Tale of Love and Darkness (2002).
My Michael, published in 1968, was one of the first Israeli novels narrated in female first person. Hannah, a young woman born in Jerusalem, is a gifted literature student. She falls in love with Michael, a geology student, who has come from Tel Aviv to study in the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Within the austere and somewhat gloomy streets of the city a love affair flourishes. They marry and a son is born. Michael is a contentious and ambitious student, eager to complete a doctorate in Geology. Hannah, unlike him, gives up her studies and takes the position of a teacher in a religious nursery school to support the family.
Hannah is a talented, imaginative, curious young woman. But she is also emotionally unstable, often drifting into fantasies and hallucinations. The reader gradually learns that her words cannot be trusted, since she is often unable to discern between her inner experience and the real world. The story begins with the shocking sentence: “I am writing because people I loved have died”, but later it becomes clear that this is not true. She ‘recalls’ playing with two Arab boys in her childhood, and this, too, turns out to be a fantasy. When her husband is drafted to fight in the 1956 Sinai war, she inflict sickness upon herself – walking out of the bath, half-naked, to the porch on a cold winter day in Jerusalem: “No sooner had my husband shut the door behind him that I leaped barefoot out of the bed and across to the window again. I was a wild, disobedient child. I strained my vocal cords like a drunkard, singing and shouting. The pain and pleasure enflamed each other. The pain was delicious and exhilarating. I filled my lungs with air”. She comes down with pneumonia and is unable to care for herself and her son. And like in Amos Oz’s true life experience, as her mental state deteriorates her husband is having and affair with a colleague, pushing her even further to an emotional abyss.
Hannah sometimes perceives herself as an object, as a way of fending off painful life events. Rather that portraying her emotions, she describes herself as she thinks others see her: “I am at rest. Events can’t touch me no more … there is sameness in me. Even in my new summer dress I am still the same. I was carefully made, beautifully wrapped, tied up with a pretty ribbon and put on display, bought and unwrapped, used and set aside.”
Surprisingly, this is perhaps the first feminine first-person voice in Israeli literature. Following the Six-Day war, when ideas of strong self-defending Israelis were prevalent, Oz portrays this fragile woman, living on the verge of reality, completely detached from life in Israel. She is indifferent to historical developments or political debates – in fact, if her husband hadn’t been drafted, she probable wouldn’t have known that a war broke out. All she sees are the streets of Jerusalem and her fantasies and illusions.
So, did Amos Oz portray Hannah from a feminist standpoint? She is, after all, emotionally unbalanced, a woman who can’t be fully trusted to care for herself and her son. Hannah is, perhaps, an extreme symbol of characteristics often found in more moderate form among women: indecisive professional choices, a constant need for approval, self-perception founded on appearance, a childish desire to be spoiled, even a certain self-absorption and detachment from society. Inner barriers must be surmounted so that women won’t be pushed to the edge of society.
Within an Israeli context, Hannah’s fragility is even more intriguing. After the Six-Day war, when the belief in military power and self-defense was prevalent and brave soldiers were the ultimate heroes, Hannah was the first female character to depict life here in the first person. Yet her view is so utterly remote from the common narrative – that of the strong, manly ‘new Jew’. But Amos Oz insists: her voice should be heard; she is just as much a part of Israeli society as generals and soldiers. Using a female first-person narration is a strong, unequivocal assertion that the common narrative must include the experience of people like Hannah.
Looking back, Amos Oz appears to have had a profound historical insight. At a time when the anxiety of the war made most Israelis cling even more to the ideal of self-defense, he sought a more complex, broad, open-minded approach to Israeli society, one that would embrace men and women, weak and strong, men of action and intellectuals.