There’s nothing Jewish in the New Year celebrations. This year, however, on the eve of the new year, Amos Oz passed, leaving 2019 orphan of his words. As we progress in time we’ll realize how empty the Jewish conversation will be without him. What is not Jewish became suddenly so. This was one of his qualities: out of deep jewishness, out into the world. Wiser words were never spoken when we chant: “he makes peace all around, over Israel, and over the whole world”. Far from being a God-like figure, he had this gift of belief, consolation, and truth.
I first heard of Amos Oz when I was much too young. I read “My Michael” when I was under twenty years old. Not quite ready for Oz, yet. But there was something so bitter and dry and removed in that relationship, I realize now precisely why it spoke to me then. But mostly, Amos Oz was a star rising in the Israeli cultural sky, and I was as snobbish as anyone. After that I left him alone for many years, I had my own love stories to worry about.
By 2009 I was ready for Oz. I was approaching 52, I had been very recently divorced, and had come back to Israel in a new status after thirty years of my first arrival as a student in Alyiah. Amidst my sadness and longing two moments changed my life: I went into Steimatzky and bought “A Tale of Love & Darkness”, and I decided to register into the Shalom Hartman Institute (SHI) for their Summer CLP program. Both decisions led me to a new discourse. When you find yourself reading and speaking that which was in your heart and mind but found noone to talk to, it is a kind of re-birth. Suddenly everything makes sense again, it is a whole new paradigm.
So I owe Amos Oz and his “Tale…” my renewed visión on Zionism as the main Jewish alternative in modern times, while I owe SHI my new approach to our religión, rituals, and sources. To say it bluntly, I became a better Jew from 2009 on, and the process hasn’t stopped since. Having atended SHI seven times now, and having read “A Tale…” three times (going on a fourth), lectured about it, written about it, I have borrowed the words of brilliant Jewish minds and made them mine. In my modest, restricted way, I have tried to reproduce some of those words and ideas into my fellow Jews in tiny Montevideo and a little beyond; but it never gets too far; it is like a Shabat walk, always within a certain distance of one’s home.
This is what happens when you’re a vocational Jew but not a “professional” one. You don’t make your living from words but from business. So inevitably you have to borrow someone else’s words. Still, the reward surpasses any business deal, except when money allows you to realize a whim. The truth is that what really happens when you discover Oz (be it Amos Z’L or Fania, or both together) or the Hartmans (being David Z’L or Donniel or Tova or his followers), your unexpressed whim becomes a reality. There are actually people who live by the spoken and the written word and make a difference. They make a difference on you. The least one can do is try, as unconsequential as it might prove, to make a difference in your own shtetl. After all, that’s the spirit at SHI and that’s the source of Amos’ stories: small town, little people, big hope, embracing consolation. As when one studies sources, Jewish texts. Amos Oz’s work is now part of the greater Jewish heritage.
When I read the news of Amos Oz passing on Twitter Friday noon I was shocked. Much, much too soon, much too young. Lately cancer has been taking prematurely dear friends. Now it was Amos, a close close friend of mine, although I was never a friend of his. I’m sure my feeling is shared by tens of thousands of people around the world. He should have stayed around another ten years at least, to keep writing, lecturing, enlightening the Jewish people and the whole of humanity. To get the Nobel Prize. To soothe our pain, to inspire our leaders but mostly our people. To put complicated issues in simple terms. To use metaphor for politics. To increase our gene pool of what he and Fania named our “genealogy of words” in their book “Jews & Words”. To be, simply, iconically, Amos Oz. A symbol of modern Israel.
When David Hartman Z’L passed in early 2013 I thought I had had the privilege to listen to him three years in a row at SHI in those “Evenings with David Hartman”. The emotional attachment was weaker than with Oz, but then, he didn’t write stories; he told anecdotes and proposed ideas for Jewish life. I had even brought my young son with me to one of his lectures. That’s a legacy.
In both cases their legacy is assured. On their own right, both Fania Oz-Salzberger and Donniel Hartman guarantee that not only their elders’ work is kept, but that its message continues to grow. There won’t be more novels by Amos Oz nor books by David Hartman, but their ideas will blossom year after year, in the progressive cycle of life that we Jews know so well and celebrate so passionately. It is a cycle of aspirations and ideals. A people cannot live without those.
As Fania said during the ceremony at Tzavta before the burial, our challenge is to continue his legacy: to make the world a less painful place, to challenge common people to great ideals, to challenge history itself into those ideals. She quoted her father saying that one day ordinary people would rise and achieve extraordinary things, like peace and coexistence; in those words one can recognize the ancestral messianic voice of the prophets. Yes, he was called so by many, sometimes too often, too lightly. I doubt he ever felt that way. But no doubt his words inspire prophetic aspirations. Like Zionism, like Judaism.
Amos Oz was a deeply secular Jew. David Hartman was a deeply religious Jew. Both have shaped my own jewishness at this stage of my life, and for that I’m humbled and thankful. I’m still a non-believer, an essentially unrealized Zionist, mostly a biblical Jew, coping slowly with the teachings of the Rabbis (Chazal and so on); but I’m at peace with my jewishness because of the discourse of David Hartman Z’L and Amos Oz Z’L.
When being, feeling Jewish has become so complicated, when we enjoy so much freedom and equality (as never in History), to be at peace with one’s identity is no small achievement. I owe them that. Thank you.