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Amos Oz, 74 Years Old and a National Treasure, Still Dreams of Life on the Kibbutz

In a wide-ranging conversation, Israel’s greatest novelist talks about working the land, making art, and Natalie Portman

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Amos Oz, 2013.(Daniel Estrin)
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SARA IVRY, HOST:

Hi everyone, welcome back to Vox Tablet. It’s me, Sara Ivry. Today, we’re sitting down with Amos Oz.

There’s no other living Israeli author who’s as well known around the world as Amos Oz. Inside Israel, he’s one of the country’s most respected cultural figures. He’s lived a tumultuous life. When he was 10 years old, he witnessed the founding of the Jewish state. When he was 12 years old, his mother committed suicide. When he was 15, he joined a kibbutz and changed his last name to Oz, which is Hebrew for “strength.” He eventually left the kibbutz for the desert because of his son’s asthma. But in his newest book of short stories, called Between Friends, he revisits the early years of the kibbutz, when the collective farms were still a wild Israeli ideological experiment. Vox Tablet contributor Daniel Estrin sat with Amos OZ in his home in Tel Aviv for a far-ranging discussion about his new book and about his life.

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST

Israel isn’t a country of celebrity worship. But still there’s this aura that surrounds Amos Oz. He’s a household name in Israel, and even though he hasn’t won the Nobel Prize for Literature yet, he’s rumored to be on the shortlist every year. You can tell he does his best to protect his privacy in this country of little privacy. There’s no name listed on his buzzer at the entrance to his apartment building. No name on his mail slot, either. In the elevator I ask a young kid, you know that Amos Oz lives in your building?

Yeah, he says, he sees him in the elevator sometimes. Have you read anything of his, I ask? My mom’s got A Tale of Love and Darkness, he says. It’s Amos Oz’s autobiography, his most celebrated work.

OZ: Hi, how are you?

ESTRIN: Hi, good to see you.

OZ: Come on in.

ESTRIN: Thank you so much.

OZ: Can I offer you some coffee, something cold to drink?

ESTRIN: Water would be great.

ESTRIN: Amos Oz lives on the top floor in a quiet, leafy district of north Tel Aviv. His front door opens to a cozy living room—he calls it the library. It’s got a panoramic view of the city and the blue haze of the Mediterranean Sea. The library is floor to ceiling with books—plus an aquarium squeezed in the middle. And a cat named Freddie.

(To Oz) Any particular book on your bookshelf that you… is your favorite?

OZ: You have here all the editions of A Tale of Love and Darkness in 52 or 53 editions, in 30 countries.

ESTRIN: What are some of the languages it has been translated into?

OZ: Well, there is a pirate edition in the Kurdish language, for instance. There is a translation into Hungarian, Bulgarian, Romanian, Czech, Greek. It’s translated into many many languages, over 30 countries.

ESTRIN: Amos Oz is now 74 years old. He’s of modest height, his hair is thin and mostly white, and he carries a pen and a fine toothed comb in his breast pocket. In this interview you’ll hear that his breathing is heavy. But had a lot to say—about his love of Hebrew, his predictions for Israel’s future, even a little bit of celebrity gossip. I started by asking him about his recent move to Tel Aviv.

ESTRIN: You have moved here recently from Arad. You grew up in Jerusalem, you spent, I think, 30 years in a kibbutz, from there you moved to the desert town of Arad and now you’re here in Tel Aviv. Why the move now?

OZ: Time to be closer to the children. Arad is very far away and our children all live in or around Tel Aviv so my wife and I have decided that it’s time to live closer to our kids.

ESTRIN: I read that when you used to live in Arad you had a daily routine walking in the desert in the morning and then sitting down to write. I’m wondering what is your daily routine now that you’re here in Tel Aviv?

OZ: I still get up at five o’clock every morning and I drink a cup of coffee and I sit myself by my desk before six and start writing. I work solidly for five or six hours, then I take a break. I have lunch, I take a little siesta and in the afternoon I go back to my study to destroy what I have written in the morning.

ESTRIN: (laughs) Have you destroyed anything today?

OZ: A little bit, yes.

ESTRIN: I’m wondering if you get a lot of correspondence from your readers, from people around the world.

OZ: Too much. I get many letters from readers. Some of them are very moving, some of them are very personal, some of them are heartwarming. People who read A Tale of Love and Darkness, for instance, write to me, “I have listened to your story now it is your turn to listen to mine.” And then they write me their entire life story and sometimes these are very exciting stories. I make a point of trying to answer each and every one of them at least in a couple of lines.

ESTRIN: Let’s talk about Between Friends, your new collection of short stories. The stories are intertwined; they’re about one cast of characters living on a fictional kibbutz in the 1950s in Israel. I think they’re quiet, they’re poetic, sometimes funny, mostly sad. Why did you want to write about the kibbutz?

OZ: Thank you for the compliments. I have lived in a kibbutz for more than 30 years, and although I left the kibbutz 27 years ago, I still go back there in my dreams at least once a week. Good dreams, bad dreams, trivial dreams. I dream about the kibbutz very often. This signaled to me that it’s time to go back and have a distant look at the kibbutz over the 1950s as I found it when I came there first at the age of 15 to start my life anew. And in Between Friends I tried to watch the kibbutz not with nostalgia, not with anger, but with precision and compassion.

ESTRIN: Are any of the characters in the book based on some of the people that you lived with on your kibbutz?

OZ: I never do that. I never use real life models. I used to have a friend in kibbutz Hulda that each time he walks in front of my window, he stops for a moment and combs his hair so that if he gets into one of my stories he will get there with his hair neatly combed. But this is just not the way I work. I don’t use real life models ever.

ESTRIN: The stories in the book refer to elements of kibbutz life that are long gone. Things like the children’s house where the children live and sleep at night instead of with their parents, and kibbutz wide votes that decided where a person goes to college, what you study, what job you have, if you may travel abroad. Today all those things seem to me a little bit anachronistic and maybe a little ridiculous. You don’t spare any criticism of those in the stories, but do you have any fondness for those things?

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Amos Oz, 74 Years Old and a National Treasure, Still Dreams of Life on the Kibbutz

In a wide-ranging conversation, Israel’s greatest novelist talks about working the land, making art, and Natalie Portman