How the Mighty Have Fallen
Israeli literary icon Amos Oz died on Dec. 28 at age 79. Author Ayelet Tsabari considers his legacy.
When I first heard the news of Israeli literary giant Amos Oz’s death at the age of 79, I was devastated and stunned. Stunned, because in my mind he remained younger than he had been in reality, infinitely strong and resilient—the epitome of the sabra (native born Israeli). In all of his pictures, Oz appeared robust. In Israel, we’d say, “yefey hablorit vehatoar” (literally translated as “handsome of forelock and countenance”) to describe the young men of Oz’s generation, heroic and innocent in their youthful devotion to the country, beautiful inside and out.
Oz was my first literary crush. I was a young teen when I came across his first book, Where the Jackals Howl, a collection of stories published in 1965, when he was only 26. I was deeply moved by it, swept up by the tales of life on a kibbutz, mesmerized by the haunting sense of disquiet and melancholy that threaded the narrative, astounded by the beauty of the language. Oz was young then and more prone to metaphor and poetry than he’d become in his later years, and I fell head over heels in love with his prose—and with him. I’d read certain lines over and over again, mouthing them to myself, hoping his genius might rub off onto me. I knew then that I wanted to write short stories just like his. Soon, I was mimicking Oz’s style in my own writing, the atmosphere, the richness, even the settings; I wrote short stories that took place in a kibbutz, a place with which I’d had no personal experience. That Where the Jackals Howl was, in fact, a critique of the kibbutz movement went over my head. I became fascinated by it; I wanted to live on a kibbutz too. This group of stories and Oz’s subsequent books presented to me an Israeliness I aspired to, wished to inhabit. An Israeliness that for me, a young girl of Yemeni descent who grew up in a suburb of Tel Aviv, felt foreign, unattainable.
In high school, I read My Michael, first published in 1968, and was enthralled by protagonist Hannah Gonen’s feverish, mad hallucinations, her alienation and vulnerability. I was carried away by the lyrical descriptions and impressed by Oz’s ability to write an entire novel from a female point of view (though 40 years later, in the introduction for the reissue of the book, Oz admitted he wouldn’t have dared to attempt that today). The first line in that novel remained one of the strongest and most evocative I’d ever read: “I am writing this because people I loved have died. I am writing this because when I was young I was full of the power of loving, and now that power of loving is dying. I don’t want to die.” (Translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange.)
The more I learned about Oz, the more I admired him. There were his unapologetically left-wing politics—he was long an advocate of the two-state solution—which, as a young woman just developing her own political worldviews, I found inspirational. I discovered that he lived in the southern desert city of Arad—how exotic!—that he was blue-eyed and devastatingly handsome. At 17, when I visited Arad for the first time, I walked the dusty streets he had walked in, breathed in the dry desert air, and dreamed about running into him.
Oz’s books travelled with me when I, as a young adult, moved to a kibbutz with a gentle, blue-eyed boyfriend. (A coincidence?) And, years later, when I migrated to Vancouver, Canada, I scoured the city’s bookstores for translations of Oz’s books for my then-boyfriend. It was a means of introducing him, I thought, to the place I had come from.
It wasn’t Oz’s fault when I fell out of love with him. After all, questioning and re-evaluating the heroes of our youth is a part of growing up; Oz himself had gone through an ideological transformation as a young man, abandoning his revisionist background to become a labor Zionist. At some point, as a Jew of middle Eastern descent—a Mizrahi, not Ashkenazi—I began to realize the Israeliness he depicted was not my own. The realization made me feel excluded. As I grew older and developed a strong Mizrahi identity, I started to think of the superficial, sometimes stereotypical depiction of Mizrahi characters in some of his early work, and I craved books that resonated within my own experience. I grew weary of the lionized literary canon in Israel of which Oz was a part, so I rebelled against it. I searched for other voices and thus discovered writers such as Sami Michael, Eli Amir, and Ronit Matalon. I finally started publishing my own Mizrahi stories.
In retrospect, perhaps there was also a level of guilt on my part. In an interview with the Irish Times, Oz said that he was “hopelessly chauvinistic” for the Hebrew language, and here I was: someone who had once shared that passion with him, abandoning it for a foreign tongue, English. It was a similar sense of guilt I’d felt toward my dead father, himself a devoted lover of the Hebrew language. I felt as though I disappointed them, as though I betrayed my first love. I was embarrassed to admit that I found a freedom in the anonymity of English, in its lightness, in our lack of shared history.
When Oz’s memoir A Tale of Love and Darkness came out in 2002, despite the overwhelming success the book had received—including, later, a Natalie Portman film adaptation—I didn’t feel compelled to read it. Maybe it had something to do with something Oz himself had done, upon publication: He sent the book to Marwan Barghouti, the imprisoned former Palestinian Fatah Tanzim leader; it was an act for which he had been criticized for by many Israelis, some who even called for the retraction of Oz’s prestigious Israel Prize. In his dedication to Barghouti, Oz wrote, “This story is our story. I hope you read it and understand us better, as we attempt to understand you.” I thought the gesture itself, the attempt to create dialogue with a Palestinian leader, was an honorable one. But the dedication irked me. The book is an account of Oz’s childhood in Jerusalem, growing up in a highly educated revisionist Zionist family of Eastern European descent that had ties with some of the most prominent figures in Israeli history, and of his teenage years on Kibbutz Hulda. This wasn’t my story, I thought.
But then the first thing I did when I heard of his death on Dec. 28 was to buy A Tale of Love and Darkness. I began reading it, immediately feeling foolish and guilty for waiting for as long as I had. As I might have expected, the book is a wonder, filled with humor, heart, and insight.
In What Is in an Apple, a book of conversations with his editor Shira Hadad, Oz said he had chosen the surname Oz (which means “courage”) for himself when he moved to the kibbutz at age 14 because “courage and strength were what I lacked the most.” Reading A Tale of Love and Darkness this week, I discovered that all this time he had felt like an outsider himself, that he wanted desperately to be less bookish, more kibbutznik—in other words, more muscular, more of a “new Jew”—to belong. Perhaps the name was a self-fulfilling prophecy, because Oz was a courageous writer and a courageous man. As a writer, I learned from him to push beyond my comfort zone, to dare to write truthfully about my home and my culture, to strive for precision and beauty. I also learned from him to fight for my beliefs and ideas, and not to be afraid to let them be heard. Oz was an outspoken supporter of two states for two peoples for decades; he was one of the founders of Peace Now and associated with the left-wing party Meretz. Toward the end of his days he refused to appear at events organized by the Foreign Ministry in Israeli embassies around the world, in protest of the current government’s policy. I didn’t always agree with him, but I admired his fearlessness and resolve.
He was also, I learned, a champion of many emerging writers, many who have been sharing on social media over the last few days supportive notes and letters that Oz had sent them in the beginning of their careers and even as teens. I realize now that had I been brave enough to write to him when I was younger, he probably would have been just as kind and generous to me.
In an interview that was filmed just two months before his death and broadcast by Israel’s KAN News, Oz said, “It’s clear to me that the gospel does not have to come now from the mouth of an old privileged Ashkenazi male from the era of the hablorit vehatoar. I think the gospel should come from women and men who are younger, from a completely different background than my own. I’ve been talking for decades. It’s time for others to speak.”
Watching him now, looking less robust than I remembered, heartbreakingly vulnerable in his old age and illness, but with the same spark of wit and wisdom in his eyes he had always carried, I am grateful to him for leaving us not only with his remarkable literary legacy, but also for these hopeful, generous words.