- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 5, 2004


By Amos Oz

Harcourt, $26, 538 pages.


In spite of himself. As I read this magnificent memoir by the Israeli novelist Amos Oz, that phrase kept running through my head. There is such conviction in Mr. Oz’s writing and such integrity: he manages the impossible by being somehow passionate and dispassionate all at once.

And to anyone who knows Mr. Oz as writer or as public figure — the author astride his country and operating in the perilous sphere of politics and society, the soldier/ peace activist, the man who left his family to live for more than three decades on a kibbutz, or collective settlement — the real surprise of this memoir is the reverence it shows for everything Mr. Oz’s enemies (and perhaps even some of his friends) believe he has rejected as an artist and as a human being. For Amos Oz grew up in the heart of that brand of intellectual and political Zionism known as Revisionism, which followed the teachings of Vladimir Jabotinsky. Indeed, Mr. Oz might fancifully be styled Revisionist royalty, since he was the great-nephew of Joseph Klausner, perhaps the brightest star in Revisionism after Jabotinsky’s death.

Revisionism championed a vigorous implementation of the Zionist claim to Palestine on both sides of the Jordan River and rejected the Socialism which dominated Israel’s society and economy for its first three decades. To understand the symbolic importance of Amos Klausner’s changing his name to Oz and at the tender age of 15 embracing the socialist collective life, imagine a teenage Kennedy becoming a Republican. Or to stay on Israeli ground, Benjamin Netanyahu (whose parents were part of Klausner’s circle) becoming a teenage Kibbutznik and a Labor politician.

And yet how tender is Mr. Oz’s portrait of the Revisionists in this memoir. How he can empathize with them, understand them, feel with them. His parents, he writes, were naturally inclined towards the liberal attitudes he was later to display towards the displaced Palestinian Arabs, “but the pacifist ideals of Martin Buber’s Brit Shalom — sentimental kinship between Jews and Arabs, total abandonment of the dream of a Hebrew state so that the Arabs could take pity on us and kindly allow us to live here at their feet— such ideals appeared to my parents as spineless appeasement, craven defeatism of the type that had characterized the centuries of Jewish Diaspora life.”

Mr. Oz is of course characterizing his parents’ attitudes, not his own. But am I the only reader who sees in his language — the tone he adopts in talking about them and his actual choice of words — more than a touch of sympathy? Certainly, they are not the words you’d expect from a celebrated peacenik. Indeed, he is more understanding about his parents than he is about himself. When he discusses his own prelapsarian patriotic fervor, he is unsparing of his youthful self: harsh, even cruel, about the child he once was.

But in evoking the atmosphere which nurtured him and made him the kind of person he is, he seems very much to be binding himself into his heritage. Now that he is in his 60s, there is a palpable sense in this book of wanting to connect himself and his own children to their forebears, who are vividly and beautifully evoked as far back as the 18th century. Indeed, there is a poignancy about Mr. Oz’s personal quest to understand his parents’ marriage and in particular his mother’s suicide when he was 12. Just as there is about his desire to imagine as fully as possible, to understand truly, the Zionist enterprise. And underlying this last quest is the quintessentially Wordsworthian question:

“Whither is fled the visionary gleam?

Where is it now, the glory and the dream?”

Today’s right-wing in Israel, which is in some ways the descendent of the Revisionism embraced by the Klausners, is something to which Mr. Oz remains implacably opposed. Like many Israelis on the left, he feels that the Likud governments have hijacked his country. Some hint of why this is may be found in his current antipathy to his hometown of Jerusalem, which he likens these days to the Iranian holy city of Qum.

The Revisionism he grew up with, so memorably evoked in “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” was anything but a religious movement. Orthodox Judaism was one of the many aspects of what Revisionists saw as “ghetto Judaism,” which needed to be dropped in the brave new world of Zionism and Modernism. Indeed, when faced with the unpalatable choice of sending young Amos to either a religious or a socialist school, his father opted for the Orthodox academy on the grounds that what it preached was finished anyway in the modern world, unlike the siren song of socialism which, he feared, was all too alive and well and alluring. No prophet he, as things turned out.

What emerges above all from Mr. Oz’s portrait of the world in which he was raised was the high value placed upon secular humanistic culture: “On my parents’ scale of values, the more Western something was, the more cultured it was considered. For all that Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were dear to their Russian souls, I suspect that Germany — despite Hitler — seemed to them more cultured than Russia or Poland, and France more so than Germany. England stood even higher on their scale than France. As for America, there they were not so sure: after all, it was a country where people shot at Indians, held up mail trains, chased gold, and hunted girls.”

It is to Mr. Oz’s credit that in these polarized times, he is attacked as much from the left in Israel as from the right. His chief sin in the eyes of the Israeli left appears to be his sturdy rejection of its self-destructive categorization of Zionism as an essentially colonialist enterprise. He glories in the development of the ancient indigenous Semitic tongue Hebrew as a dynamic, evolving modern language which he sees as perhaps Zionism’s greatest achievement. As a child, he took intense pride in the contribution of Joseph Klausner to this process:

“As a child the thing I most admired Uncle Joseph for was that, as I had been told, he had invented and given us several simple, everyday Hebrew words, words that seem to have been known and used forever, including ‘pencil,’ ‘iceberg,’ ‘shirt,’ ‘greenhouse,’ ‘toast,’ ‘cargo,’ ‘monotonous,’ ‘multicolored,’ ‘sensual,’ ‘crane,’ and ‘rhinoceros.’ (Come to think of it, what would I have put on each morning if Uncle Joseph had not given us the word ‘shirt’? A ‘coat of many colors’? And what would I have written with if not his pencil? A ‘lead stylus’? Not to mention ‘sensual,’ a rather surprising gift from this puritanical uncle.)”

There is so much in this memoir, almost all of it gold. (An exception is Mr. Oz’s handling of his adolescent sexuality, which is characterized by a striking lack of any originality of insight and is in general heavy-handed and cringe-making.) Mr. Oz is fortunate in his translator, Nicholas de Jonge of Cambridge University, who has made it possible for us English-speaking readers to appreciate the subtleties of style and thought which grace most of the text.

Mr. Oz is a memorable portraitist, and that of his mother in her slow descent through depression towards suicide is perhaps the most affecting in the book. But there are many others, some comic, some tragic, many just plain interesting. Mr. Oz is haunted by the image of his uncle and aunt who, along with their son who was almost exactly his age, were murdered by the Nazis in Lithuania during World War II.

Mr. Oz experienced firsthand the siege of Jerusalem in 1948 and he is able to capture in this book its torments and terror. Interestingly, he has never been able to do likewise in the case of his combat experiences in Israel’s 1967 and 1973 wars which were, he feels, too ghastly for any words he has been able to summon up to describe them. The glory and the dream may be tattered, the visionary gleam elusive these days, but not in the heart and soul of Amos Oz as he revisits his childhood — and the glory days of Zionism — in “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” surely one of this year’s best books.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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