In memory of Amos Oz – exorcising the tribe’s demons

Portrait of Israeli author Amos Oz as he poses in his study, Arad, Israel, July 19, 2007. (Photo by Dan Porges/Getty Images)
Portrait of Israeli author Amos Oz as he poses in his study, Arad, Israel, July 19, 2007. (Photo by Dan Porges/Getty Images)

I didn’t know Amos Oz personally. I never made my way to Arad where he lived for the last few decades after leaving Kibbutz Hulda with his family. So why the choking sensation in my throat when I heard of his death a few weeks ago, and the sadness at his “shloshim,” a month since his funeral.

Perhaps, because more than any of the other novelists of what has been called “the generation of the state” writers, whose fiction emerged in the late fifties and sixties, ostensibly rebelling against the collective mentality of ’48, the handsome, youthful-looking Oz repeatedly shared his family story, and the reader felt he came to know him.

Oz saw the storyteller as the tribal witch-doctor. In his essay “Under the Blazing Light,” he explains how the storyteller captures the elemental fears, the ghosts and nightmares of the tribe. and by doing so, brings relief, exorcises the evil spirits from the community, the nation. Amos Oz did this by narrating his family story that mirrored the pathology of the country as he was coming of age when the State of Israel was established.

The reader comes to know the demons that plagued his sensitive mother who yearned for  European culture left behind, succumbed to depression and ultimately died by suicide; how he as a teenager, fled Jerusalem to live on kibbutz.

The determining narrative to which Oz returns time and again in his works is not only the family story, but the national subtext, the personal narrative as it refracts historical moments and intellectual currents of modern Jewish history and Zionism. One comes to know the young boy at the crossroads of Jewish history, at the point that the British are about to end the Mandate and leave the country, and the Jews are about to fight a terrible war with the Arabs to establish the Jewish State. This War of Independence reinforces the enmity between Jew and Arab which Oz would continue to grapple with. He would seek reconciliation, prophesy the destructiveness of the settlement movement after 1967, and yet never forget the suffering, the fears, the humiliations, Jews carried with them from the Galut.

Nevertheless, his daughter, Fanya Oz-Saltzberger eulogized her father as an optimist, one who believed “there could be peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, that man could improve, learn to listen to each other’s stories.. touch the pain of the other.” Oz believed in an Israeli society in which there was both “Judaism and humanism.”

The personal story of his mother’s suicide against the background of the messianic birth pangs of the new state, echoes in works like “The Hill of Evil Counsel”and “The Panther in the Basement.” In ”My Michael,” the figure of the brooding Hannah Gonen captures his mother’s romantic longing for death. The psychological depiction of her despair has influenced the characterization of women in later Israeli literature. Yigal Schwartz, Prof. of Hebrew Literature at Ben –Gurion University and editor for the Keter Publishing Co. who worked with Oz, wrote, ”Oz depicted Jerusalem in the image of Hannah, and vice-versa… In ‘My Michael,’ Jerusalem was a gray, isolated city at the edges of the middle east, but the Jerusalem syndrome broke through its surface, bringing fragments of great dreams, apocalyptic messianic winds, the forces that gave birth to the Six Day War.”

The national subtext interfaces with the personal. In a beautiful scene in his autobiographical “ A Tale of Love and Darkness,” Oz describes the night of November 29,1947 when the United Nations voted for the Palestinian Partition. The entire Beit Yisrael neighborhood gathered in the yard and street before the Lemberg home and on the surrounding balconies, to listen to the one radio in the neighborhood. Oz, then a child of eight woke at midnight and saw the crowd standing under the yellow street light, “like a giant meeting of silent spirits in the pale light….hundreds of men and women frozen; neighbors and acquaintances and strangers, some in night clothes, and some in jackets and ties.” He describes the cry that went up, “an animal-like cry that made the rocks tremble; a cry that froze the blood, as if all those that had been killed or yet would be killed let out a cry, which passed in a moment.” The child Amos was lifted up and passed from one person to another until he landed on his father’s shoulders, the child held high at this glorious moment symbolizing a great new hope for the Jewish people, which for one evanescent moment, his parents shared. “My mother and father stood in an embrace, carressing one another like two children lost in the woods, as I had never seen them before that evening or afterwards.”

But the demons returned and his mother took her life.

In “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” Amos Oz tells us that he grew up in a word –and-book obsessed world, and yearned for the kibbutz “somewhere beyond the hills where a new race of heroic Jews were developing; strong, silent, pragmatic, entirely different from the Galut Jews, with their concern about “what the goyim will think”.. At fourteen, two years after his mother died, Oz picked himself up, fled the claustrophobic world of books and Galut yearnings. He went to live on Kibbutz Hulda to become a new Jew. But he quickly learned that beneath the pragmatic exterior of the “new Jews,” subterranean Galut fears and neuroses still flowed. His early stories in the collection, “Where the Jackals Howl,” are complex psychological descriptions of these kibbutznickim, living in a primal atmosphere of threat and eroticism.

In the story the “Nomads and the Viper,” Oz depicts the elemental quality of the land and the Bedouin’s oneness with it. There is a sensuous attraction to the Bedouin, a love-death attraction to the Arab that is found in Oz’s later book, “My Michael”.

During this early period as a writer Oz, as his contemporaries, A.B.Yehoshua and Aharon Appelfeld, influenced by Agnon, wrote symbolic tales depicting lone existential figures, like Camus’ “The Stranger.” Oz’s narrators often defined themselves contra to the kibbutz community values in which they lived. He exposed the pathology of the country, But critical as he might be, he could not disengage himself from the fate of the young nation, the intense involvement with the future of the Jews. He was the tribal witch-doctor who exorcised the evil spirits. Amos Oz is no longer with us, but his work continues its purifying task.

About the Author
Rochelle Furstenberg is a journalist and literary critic who has written extensively on literary and cultural topics.
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