Of the many “me with” pictures and remembrances in the wake of the death of Israel’s acclaimed author Amos Oz, a few stand out for me.
One is a shot of a young and happy Barbra Streisand with Oz, two beautiful people, full of life and determination. I don’t know when this photo was taken, but it is a joyous and cheering image.
Another is a picture posted by Oz’s daughter, Fania, showing two hands. One hand is hers, closely gripping what she heartbreakingly tells us is her father’s “writing hand”, complete with surgical tube attached. To me, it looks like a hand determined to stay in the game.
But the picture which most spoke to me was one of Oz with Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin. On the left (literally and metaphorically) is Oz, slight and compact, clasping hands with the bulky and benevolent president. And you just know that the two of them, while politically opposed to each other — Oz was famously a stalwart of the peace camp, Rivlin emerged from the right-wing Likud party to become president — had so much in common.
There were only a few months’ difference in age: Oz was born in May 1939 and Rivlin will be 80 in September this year.
Both men were born in Jerusalem and were classmates at the Gymnasia Rehavia. Oz’s family, the Klausners, were hard-core right-wing revisionist Zionists, the politics which Oz specifically rejected when he ran away from home to join a kibbutz.
As many tributes to Oz have made clear, Rivlin and he went back a long way, but the “prophet of Israel” was frequently summoned by presidents and prime ministers for late-night chats and consultations. Shimon Peres, himself a poet and essayist, often called Oz to help him to thrash out big problems facing the Jewish state.
Oz never claimed to have found solutions but instead often spoke in very homespun terms, as Rivlin recalled in his moving tribute to his friend.
He wrote: “What will we do now, Amos, now that you are no longer? You said in one of our conversations that “the way to bring the dead back to life is to invite them to join us from time to time, to make them a cup of coffee, to remember a few things with them, to try and make up with them a little, and to send them back to the darkness to wait for us patiently.”
I was charmed by the idea of this invitation to the dead, this message to those who have gone before. I wanted to make Oz my own, metaphorical, cup of coffee, so I did what everyone else who has ever interviewed him did, and went back to what he told me.
He said: “I love Israel even when I can’t stand it. I love it dearly at times of great drama… it’s not at its finest hour now.”
He went on: “But it’s a bad habit of intellectuals, when they are confronted with an accident, not to ask what I can do to help, but instead to say who can I blame?
“I do blame occasionally, but if you see a huge fire, there are several choices. You can run for your life, and let the fire burn. You can furiously place the blame on the guilty parties. Or you can take a glass of water and pour it on the fire.
“If you don’t have enough for a glass, fill a teaspoon. Every human being has a teaspoon. You have to do what you can.”
Get out your teaspoons.