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
OZ: No I can’t point to any particular words as being my favorite Hebrew words. I love the Hebrew language and I’m very biased about it. I could speak about the Hebrew language for hours and hours. I think it’s a wonderful musical instrument. I think Modern Hebrew has many things in common with Elizabethan English. I think a writer or a poet of contemporary Hebrew can still take very daring liberties with the language, can even legislate into the language, because Hebrew is like melting lava, like an erupting volcano, and one can still leave a certain imprint on the language.
ESTRIN: Well, I know that your father, first of all, invented a number of words.
OZ: My great-uncle invented a number of words.
ESTRIN: Your great-uncle.
OZ: Yes, my great-uncle. He invented a number of Hebrew words, and I have invented a couple of Hebrew words, and I am very proud of them.
ESTRIN: Can you tell us which ones?
OZ: It’s difficult to translate them into English because they don’t exist into English, but one of them is the verb “To rhinocerize.”
OZ: “To rhinocerize” a derivation from the noun rhinoceros. That was a play by the French playwright Ionesco– the Romanian-French playwright Ionesco called The Rhinoceros. It’s about a society where people are becoming more and more conformist, and they adjust themselves to the herd every day, and this play is called The Rhinoceros and it was played very successfully in Israel in the 1960s. So in one of my articles I invented the verb “to rhinocerize” or the noun “rhinocerized” to describe a man who becomes conformist, who change his or her opinions in order to adjust to a certain general mood or certain general trend.
ESTRIN: That’s “lehitkarnef,” right?
OZ: “Lehitkarnef,” that’s right.
ESTRIN: Do you ever hear anyone use it out on the street and think “That’s mine!”
OZ: It came back to me from a taxi driver who had no idea that I was the proud parent of this word. I felt very proud and very happy. It was as close to immortality as a mortal can get; to have a word which you have invented coming back to you from a taxi driver.
ESTRIN: That’s amazing. Do you remember the conversation?
OZ: Yes, we talked about politics, we talked about a certain politician, and the taxi driver said that this politician is completely rhinocerized.
ESTRIN: (laughs) Would you mind giving one more example of a word that you invented?
OZ: Yes we have a Hebrew noun for star, and I have invented the adjective “starry,” like starry nights. It didn’t exist in Hebrew, “mecochav.”
ESTRIN: Ok, I’m still curious. Tell me one more.
OZ: No, no. These are the two words which are institutionalized into the language. There might be occasional other ones, but they are not part of the blood cycle of the language. These two became part of the blood cycle of the language.
ESTRIN: Back to the book Between Friends. The opening story and the closing story center around death. The opening story, the very first scene is about the kibbutz gardener who likes to tell discouraging news and one of the first things he says is “such and such a writer has died.” I wonder if that was a little wink from you as a writer. Do you think much about death?
OZ: It’s time to think about death. I’m 74, of course I think very often about death. I think every human being should be prepared for death, and I think there is part of life which will be devoted to preparation for death. I think this helps you knock everything into the right proportions. The last story, “Esperanto,” is about the death of an idealist and to some extent about the death of the old time kibbutz, the old style kibbutz and the evolution of the new type of kibbutz; more tolerant, more soft, more receptive toward individual weaknesses.
ESTRIN: What was the old kibbutz like, if not tolerant and receptive to weakness?
OZ: It was extremely demanding. It insisted that everyone has to change, that everyone has to control their ambitions, their appetites, their desires, their personal wishes. It was a very ascetic society in the 1950s and before.
ESTRIN: Is there any moment that stands out in your mind from your experience on the kibbutz, emblematic of that old kibbutz?
OZ: There are many such moments. I remember a fiery, fiery argument in the secretariat of Kibbutz Hulda when I applied for one working day each week for my writing at the very beginning of my career as a writer, and there was a huge debate in the kibbutz committee. Some people said “yes” and some people said “no, it’s a dangerous precedent. Everyone can call themselves an artist and then who will milk the cows?” And, “It’s not for the committee to decide who is an artist and who isn’t an artist.” There was even one man who said, that “young Amos may be the new Tolstoy, but he is too young to be a writer; let him work in the field until he’s 40, and then he knows something about life and he can write.” Maybe he was right.
ESTRIN: Did they eventually give you a few more days to write a week?
OZ: First one day a week, then two days a week. Then, when I wrote a best seller and became a source of income to the communal treasury, three days a week.
ESTRIN: Today, do you ever go back to visit old friends at the kibbutz?
OZ: Quite often, yes. I have many dear friends in Hulda and my wife and I go there from time to time.
ESTRIN: Could you imagine yourself ever living there again?
OZ: I think it’s too late in life to go back to the kibbutz, and it’s a different kibbutz today, but if I had to choose between life in the kibbutz of the 1950s and life in today’s kibbutz, which is much softer, much milder, much more tolerant, I would prefer today’s kibbutz to the kibbutz of the 1950s.
ESTRIN: Amos Oz, in your career you’ve come to be known not just for your fiction writing, but for political writing, too. You’ve been very critical of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. How optimistic are you about seeing peace in your lifetime?
OZ: I don’t know if I’m optimistic about my own life expectancy. I don’t know how much I still have to live. But I believe that peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians is unavoidable. How soon it will happen, I don’t know. It’s difficult to be a prophet in the land of the prophets. It’s too much competition in the prophecy business around here. But it’s unavoidable, and it will come.
ESTRIN: Speaking of prophets, you are among a small handful of writers in Israel who some people call prophets. I’ve heard that expression here and there. When you write an Op-Ed article, it’s on the front page of the newspaper. What does that role mean to you?
OZ: I never regarded myself as a prophet; I can’t read the future and I don’t have any particular wisdom which other people don’t have. I have imagination and I use it in my political thinking. I ask myself, from time to time, how would I feel if I were a Palestinian under Israeli occupation. I ask myself, from time to time, how would I feel if I were an Orthodox Jew. I ask myself, from time to time, how would I feel if I were an Oriental Sepharadi Jew in a developing town and I use my imagination in my political manifestations. But no, I never regarded myself as a prophet.
ESTRIN: Do people argue with you in the taxi, in the street, about your views?
OZ: And how! In Arad I used to sit myself in a street café and pick up an argument with strangers who recognized me because I’m on television from time to time, and I like to arguments very much. I like to be involved in a passionate argument with total strangers.
ESTRIN: You never get sick of that here?
A new show at the Jewish Museum in New York follows contrasting exhibits in Liverpool and Paris