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My pen pal, Amos Oz

Heroes often disappoint in real life, but this favorite author was more: more intelligent, more charismatic, more articulate, more regal
Amos Oz, in his Ramat Aviv apartment, March 31, 2014. (Debbie Hill)
Amos Oz, in his Ramat Aviv apartment, March 31, 2014. (Debbie Hill)

It’s not every day that a literary giant agrees to be your pen pal, your personal cheerleader, your supporter.

But that’s just what Amos Oz did.

When I emailed him in April 2016, asking him to give counsel on how to marry my journalistic writing and my passion for peacemaking, he responded in less than 48 hours. I shared my story of how I had dabbled in dialogue groups and peacemaking — until I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Then I joined an Israeli-Palestinian breast cancer support group, looking to find something “good” in cancer. There, I met Ibtisam Erekat of Abu Dis, and we have become very close. I reckon I wanted in on Amos’s secret: how did he so artfully meld his literary writing with his persistent calls for a two-state solution? Where did he draw the strength and clarity to continue, over decades, to promote a message of peace?

What I got in response was gratitude.

“Thank you for sharing your fascinating story with me,” asserted my writing hero. “Our opinions align.” Me, the peon, and Amos, Israel’s most celebrated author and literary prophet. The man who had published more than 30 novels, countless essays, and hundreds of articles, whose works had been translated into more than 45 languages. His phrasing implied that our rank was shared: we, writers and peacemakers, were cut of similar cloth.

Of course, this embrace buoyed me. How could it not?

And that’s the kind of person he was: the real deal—and a humble mensch.

So were sown the seeds of friendship. Bolstered by Amos’s warmth and interest, I sent regular updates with links to peace articles I had penned, lectures I gave to groups in the US and in Israel on my friendship with Ibtisam, the occasional television appearance. Amos always responded quickly, and with enthusiasm. Even one-line missives glittered as if lifted from literature.

When I sent Amos a link to a short video Ibtisam and I had made as a peace greeting for a YALA peace conference, he replied with great enthusiasm. “Every drop of water in the desert is a treasure.”

In February 2018, I began a 16-month-long course, “Transforming Fear, Fighting Incitement and Building Support for Peace,” that trains mental health professionals and community organizers in how to facilitate Israeli-Palestinian dialogue (the course is sponsored by Neve Shalom Wahat al-Salam’s School for Peace). “Here I am in Aqaba,” I wrote to Amos, attaching photos from our five-day study trip in March 2018.

The view from my hotel room in Aqaba

“Your words and photos envelop the heart,” responded Amos. “Indeed, there is hope. We know that the greatest darkness always precedes the sunrise.”

In the fall, my “peace updates” included recounting my son’s attendance at the Kids4Peace summer camp, with photos of smiling teens boating around Eilat, the “tough life of a 12-year-old peacemaker.” “Thank you for warming my heart as I go through chemo,” replied Amos. He concluded with words of encouragement: we must all of us be persistent.

Amos also served as a matchmaker, connecting me to his dear, dear friend, Katya Chelli, a Parisian film editor who was working on a documentary film telling the story of Israeli doctors and Palestinian doctors teaming up to save Palestinian babies born with congenital heart defects. My most recent blog post was a piece on Katya’s documentary, being filmed during these very days at Hadassah hospital and through the West Bank. Amos was already too weak to do a phone interview. He sent me his quote via email and included this photo holding the documentary’s logo.

Amos Oz holds a logo designed for the “Healing Hearts” crowdfunding campaign.(Photo courtesy of Amos Oz. Logo created by YAK)

I am part of several writers groups online, and writers have shared their disappointment in meeting their favorite authors who turn out to be not very engaging people in real life. Less intellectual, less funny, less kind. Less. But not Amos. Amos was more in real life. More intelligent, more charismatic, more articulate. More good-looking, penetrating, regal.

I’m not here to wax prose about his oeuvre. Many have done so, and it speaks for itself. I’m here to bear witness to a mensch of the man who did not hesitate to spread his wing over a younger person trying to accomplish a tiny modicum of what he had done. To a literary legend who always made me feel like my sharing mattered. My activism mattered. I mattered.

Several weeks ago, perhaps it was October, Amos’s beloved cat, Freddie, died. Was it a sign?

Last Thursday, I walked through the rain to Café Hillel on Jaffa Street to finally meet in person Jawdatt Michael Zuhair, a peace activist from Gaza who had received a permit for the Christmas holiday. Amos was very intrigued by our peace partners in Gaza. Jawdatt and I took a photo, smiling in the pouring rain. When Amos feels better, I will send him this with an update from our friends in Gaza.

But it was not to be. Katya texted me in tears: “Amos needs morphine to breathe.”

On Friday, I learned that he was gone.

Amos, there was something about your stalwart support, your beautiful words, your faith in working towards peace that gave me strength. It made me feel less alone. It gave me light.

What are the antidotes for extremism, you mused: curiosity and a sense of humor. But you’ve taken those, and your words, your spirit, with you.

You loved this country. You loved this land. You believed in a different kind of future for this state, though you knew not how long it would take to get there. That gaping hole you’ve left behind — who will fill it?

Amos, you were so very good at talking to dead people. Maybe you’ll find a way to keep talking to us.

About the Author
Ruth Ebenstein is an award-winning American-Israeli writer, historian, public speaker, and health/peace activist who loves to laugh a lot--and heartily. She is the author of the forthcoming book, Bosom Buddies: How Breast Cancer Fostered An Unexpected Friendship Across the Israeli-Palestinian Divide. She is also the author of "All of this country is called Jerusalem": a curricular guide about the contemporary rescue operations of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and has written two teleplays for children, Follow that Goblin and Follow that Bunny. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, Washington Post, Los Angeles Review of Books, Tablet, WomansDay.com, Good Housekeeping, Triquarterly, CNN.com, USA Today, the Forward, Stars and Stripes, Education Week, Brain, Child, Fathom, and other publications. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
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