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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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OZ: Literature is always about bygone times. It’s always looking back in time with a certain perspective. I look at bygone life which no longer exists and, as I said, I look at it without nostalgia but without anger either. I look at it with criticism and with compassion. I look at it with curiosity. I look at it with fascination, and I look at it with a certain smile.

ESTRIN: One of my favorite stories in the collection is called “Two Women,” and it’s about a man on the kibbutz who leaves his wife and moves in with another kibbutz member named Ariella. I’m wondering if you wouldn’t mind reading just one selection from that story.

OZ: I will do that.

ESTRIN: Right when they start their correspondence.

OZ: “In her mailbox, which was on the far left side of the mailbox cabinet near the entrance to the dining hall, Ariella found a folded note in Osnat’s round, unhurried handwriting. ‘Boaz always forgets to take his blood pressure pills. He needs to take them in the morning and at night before bed. And in the morning he has to take half a cholesterol pill. He shouldn’t put black pepper and a lot of salt on his salads and he should eat low fat cheese and no steak. He is allowed fish and chicken, but not strongly spiced and he shouldn’t gorge himself on sweets. Osnat  P.S. He should drink less black coffee.’”

ESTRIN: And then that correspondence continues into notes back and forth between the two women.

OZ: Yes. I got a letter from a female reader who gave me the greatest possible compliment. She said only a woman could have written this story. I couldn’t expect any better.

ESTRIN: That is a theme that recurs in the book: Wives and husbands on the kibbutz leaving each other for other kibbutz members. That idea of a tight knit society on the kibbutz where everyone knows each other’s dirty business, like their love lives. And I’m wondering if you think there are things that still exist in Israel from the old days of the kibbutz.

OZ: Love life is not dirty business at all. And as to your question there are many kibbutz genes in Israeli society. There is a certain directness, a certain lack of hierarchies, a latent anarchism in Israeli society which I regard as the heritage of the kibbutz and I think it’s a good heritage. I like it.

ESTRIN: Some of the characters on this fictional kibbutz lost their parents in the Holocaust, some of them didn’t, but all of them came to the kibbutz to create a new life. I think many of them seem a little repressed in some ways. Do you think that people are unhappier on a kibbutz?

OZ: Happiness is a big word. Happiness as a human condition is something I never believed in. I think there are moments of happiness. I don’t think there is a lasting happiness. I think this is unthinkable. In the Jewish tradition we have no less than six Hebrew words for joy: “simcha,” “alitzut,” “chedva,” “tzahala”, but no proper word for happiness and perhaps rightly so. Joy is something that comes and goes. The idea of everlasting happiness is alien to me. I don’t believe in it. I believe in moments of joy. Yes, I write many times about repressed characters, about characters who have made great sacrifices in order to establish the kibbutz.  The founding fathers and mothers of the kibbutz community believed that they can change human nature in one blow. If only everyone does the same work, lives in the same quarters, dresses the same clothes, shares everything, eats the same food then pettiness and selfishness and jealousy and gossip and envy will go away and disappear. This was naive, it was unrealistic. Human nature is almost unchangeable, certainly it cannot be changed in one blow, and in one generation. They wanted to change human nature immediately and at one blow. This had a certain cost, and this cost meant certain self-sacrifice and certain repression.

ESTRIN: I wonder if you think that Israelis are still trying to remake themselves, or is something different?

OZ: No, I don’t think so. I think this immature ambition to change human nature in one blow is gone.

ESTRIN: What has replaced it here?

OZ: Well, a certain kind of hedonism, middle class values, passion, noisiness, pushiness, warm-heartedness. Everything that is very Mediterranean is true about Israeli society. It’s a very Mediterranean society. People are talkative, open, heartwarming, hearty, and selfish, and greedy at the same time.

ESTRIN: Do you feel Mediterranean at all?

OZ: Yes, I feel very Mediterranean. I think I’m a Mediterranean kind of man.

ESTRIN: If I’ve done my math correctly you’re 74 years old now?

OZ: Yes.

ESTRIN: Your first book of short stories was published in 1965. You witnessed the founding of your country, you’ve lived through a lot of change, and now there are new generations of Israeli writers. Do you ever feel anachronistic in Israeli society? To what extent do you, Amos Oz, represent another era or other ideals that don’t exist anymore?

OZ: I never regarded myself as a representative. I’m a story teller, not a representative. Whether my stories and my novels reflect a certain Israeli reality or not is not for me to judge, but I am not in the business of representing. I’m not a sociologist. I don’t know how many Israelis are there or were there who resemble the characters in my stories and in my novels. I don’t know and I don’t care. This is not my business to portray Israeli society. I portray individuals; I don’t portray society.

ESTRIN: If you could think of an Israeli writer whom you would recommend people to read, maybe from a newer or younger generation, do you have one in mind?

OZ: I have many in mind and I will be unfair to some of them if I mention just one name, but I strongly recommend your readers to read Etgar Keret. I think he is an excellent writer. He is unexpected and full of surprises.

ESTRIN: You may not remember, but eight years ago, I took a class with you at Ben Gurion University in southern Israel. It was Shakespeare’s Othello. And I remember each week you stood in front of the class and you spoke for three hours without notes. My recollection of that time was as if you were reciting a novel. I really felt that it was like you were speaking the first draft- not the first draft of something, but the final draft. The way that you spoke Hebrew was different than the way I had heard other Israelis speak Hebrew. First of all, how would you describe your use of language and do you feel that you’re filling some kind of linguistic obligation in your work?

OZ: Well, thank you for the compliment, but my classes are never a first draft. I prepare and prepare very thoroughly for each class, for each lecture. It’s true that I often speak without notes, but I speak without notes because I prepare long and hard at home before I come to class. Yes I feel a particular obligation toward language. Language is my craft, language is my musical instrument. I treat the language the way the violinist treats the violin, and for me the most important thing in my writing and in my teaching is precision.

ESTRIN: Any favorite Hebrew words?

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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