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Dial Israel: Amos Oz, 1939-2018

The reportage on the death of Amos Oz has focused less on the loss of a major literary force and more on the late writer’s substantial political significance. On some level, this is not all that surprising; mainstream media is not exactly a go-to source for a literary disquisition. But not to diminish Oz’s (mostly) insightful political commentary, the intertwining of art and politics is–in much of the world– a given. And especially so in Israel, where, Oz wrote, “history is interwoven with biography… Private life is virtually not private here. A woman might say, for example, ‘Our son was born while Joel was in the bunkers during the War of Attrition.’ Or, ‘We moved into this apartment exactly one week before the Six-Day War.’ Or, ‘He came back from the States during Sadat’s visit.’”

The Amos Oz literary canon—decades long—is subordinated. What is truly fascinating is that Oz was heavily indebted to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, transposing faraway small-town America—close-knit, secretive, gossipy—to the close-knit, secretive, and gossipy kibbutz life he knew so well. I’d actually read much of Oz’s work before reading Winesburg, Ohio; it was Oz’s interest in Anderson that piqued my own curiosity. At a book signing many years ago, I told Oz exactly that. He seemed politely uninterested.

Oz had the mixed blessing of a prodigious output, which ranged from dull to breathtaking. My Michael, the novel that put Oz on the international map, is a big, fat bore.  A Perfect Peace, on the other hand, set on a kibbutz around the time of the 1967 Six-Day War—and told via multiple, shifting perspectives—is stunning in every way.

Oz mined the Israeli quotidian for his fiction. The paradox is that the Israeli quotidian holds no interest in the United States. Israel occupies a pivotal role on the American political stage and is a lighting rod for devotion or derision, generating reams of political analysis.. Yet with all that, there is a distinct lack of interest in…well, Israel. This is not to minimize the importance of the region’s life-and-death politics or an Israeli government that operates under Mafia ethics, but the idea of a living, breathing country seems beyond the American purview. Oz’s work is studded with the rhythms of a small, cacophonous Mediterranean country: The Champs-Elysèes hair salon—a small-town business with a preposterous name—owned by two bickering sisters-in-law.  The kibbutznik who occupies his usual spot in the dining hall, pouring over the sports pages. In Fima, the eponymous protagonist delivers an unwanted, condescending political discourse to his cabdriver; the cabdriver, in response, pokes fun at Fima’s hat.

Like his fiction, Oz’s political commentary ranged from the stunningly insightful to the not-so. The single most concise, lethal summation of the Israeli political worldview can be found via one his character’s ruminations in the novel Don’t Call It Night:  “…a vicious circle of self-righteousness and hysteria: Kicking out at everything that stood in its way and at the same time pleading for mercy and demanding to be loved. A tacky cocktail of destiny, arrogance and self-pity…” Some of his political prose, though, could get a little purple. He very articulately rendered the two competing national movements—Israeli and Palestinian—as a battle between right vs. right. He also just as articulately compared the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a divorce: Both sides face up to irreconcilable differences, split the property, and go their separate ways. These observations are trenchant only if predicated on the assumption that these are two evenly matched antagonists. In reality, one side has one of the world’s most sophisticated militaries and is backed by the heft of the United States. The other side lives in isolated, impoverished Bantustans. It flings rocks.

Amos Oz was no radical. In the American context, he probably would have been an ardent McGovernite. In the benighted state of the Israeli body politic, that is no small thing.

Oz’s nonfiction In the Land of Israel was published in the early 1980s. It is one of his most masterful works, in which he dips into the myriad strata of Israeli society: the religious, the settlers, the Palestinians, the Sephardim. There are encounters with an elderly Jewish farm couple—actually born in the Land of Israel in the early 1900s—and a chance encounter on a park bench with an elderly Romanian man and his fractured Hebrew. A few years after the book’s publication, an actress mounted an ambitious one-woman show in which she assumed some of the various personae in Oz’s book. How I wish I could remember the details, because what followed still sounds improbable: Her show—featuring a talk by none other than Amos Oz himself—was coming to Atlantic City, right near where I’d grown up and was still living. Amos Oz! Live in Atlantic City!

Improbable or not, it truly did take place, and on the appointed evening I arrived with great eagerness. While waiting on line at the bar before the performance, I casually turned around and found, to my immense surprise, a very anxious-looking Oz standing right next to me. Startled, I asked him how he was doing. “I’ll let you know afterwards,” he responded. It was comforting to know that even Amos Oz was not immune from the same anxieties the rest of us face.

On an elevator ride in the 1990s, I was chatting with a work friend. The new Amos Oz novel had come out and I mused out loud on where I could purchase it. A well-meaning stranger, overhearing my conversation, mentioned Books of Wonder, a New York City children’s bookstore. I was thoroughly nonplussed and then realized a few minutes later that this man must have heard the word Oz and instinctively assumed I was referring to Oz, Wizard Of and not Oz, Amos. In retrospect, though, this man was inadvertently perceptive. Oz’s legacy, ultimately, were books of wonder.

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