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A Tale of Love and Heartbreak

For Amos Oz, the real Israel was cherishable precisely because it was not a high ideal but a fact achieved only by labor and compromise

Adam Kirsch
December 28, 2018

It’s tempting to say that with the death of Amos Oz this morning at the age of 79, an era in Israeli history has ended. After all, Oz was the preeminent writer of the first Israeli generation to come of age after statehood. He was 9 years old in 1948 when the State of Israel was created, and he spent a lifetime writing about its people, its politics, and its institutions. His was the early Israel of Labor Zionism, sabras, and kibbutzim; many of his books explored the complexities of kibbutz life, starting with his debut, Where the Jackals Howl, in 1965. That Israel, of course, began to disappear long ago, and today it survives primarily as a myth. The death of Oz confirms rather than announces its passing.

Yet the fact is that Oz was only able to become the fictional chronicler of that Israel because he was not really a native of it. On the contrary, as he revealed in his great memoir A Tale of Love and Darkness, his actual upbringing was the opposite of the Zionist ideal in every respect. Far from being a son of the kibbutz, he was born to an intellectual, bookish family in a middle-class neighborhood in Jerusalem. Far from being a Labor Zionist, he was raised in a family whose politics were strongly right wing and Revisionist. Both tendencies coincided in the figure of his uncle, the renowned historian Joseph Klausner, whom Oz recalls in his memoir with pronounced irony and ambivalence. In addition to being a professor at Hebrew University, Joseph Klausner ran for president of the new state in 1949 as a representative of the Herut Party—the descendant of the prestate Irgun and the forerunner of the modern Likud.

For Oz, there was a close connection between the right-wing politics of men like his uncle—and of Menachem Begin, who cuts a comic figure in the memoir—and their bookishness. Nationalism, he suggests, is a fantasy of strength, and it appealed to weak people who lived in their minds, rather than in reality. The real Israel, the one he found on Kibbutz Hulda, was cherishable precisely because it was not an idea, but a fact, something achieved by real labor and compromise.

One of the most pointed stories in A Tale of Love and Darkness concerns the time the young Amos and his father tried to partake in the Zionist conquest of the Land of Israel, by planting a little patch of vegetable garden in their yard. Even this proved beyond their ability, however; the plants all died, and Oz’s father had to sneak out, buy full-grown plants at a nursery, and place them in the garden, in order to keep his son from disappointment. The episode is meant to underscore that, even for Jews living in Palestine, Zionism could seem like a distant ideal—not to say an impossible aspiration, one whose achievement could only come about by cutting corners.

For Oz, leaving home at the age of 14 and joining Kibbutz Hulda, where he would spend the next several decades, was partly a reaction to his mother’s suicide. But it was also a reaction against intellectuality and physical incompetence, which he sought to escape by plunging himself into the religion of work. Changing his name from Klausner to the Hebrew word for strength was a way of underscoring this transformation. It was as if he saw himself as a belated member of the Second Aliyah—the generation of idealistic Labor Zionist pioneers who came to Palestine before World War I and built the nucleus of the future state. Oz’s parents fled Europe for Jerusalem, but it was up to him make aliyah all over again.

The contradiction between the reality of Israel and the myths of Zionism would remain a constant theme of Oz’s work. One of the stories in his first book, “The Way of the Wind,” concerns a young kibbutznik named Gideon who wilts under the strong personality of his father, one of the collective’s founders. Hoping to finally win respect, he joins the paratroopers, the elite of the Israeli military. But when the time comes to jump from a plane near the kibbutz, Gideon’s desire for attention leads him to pull his backup chute, so he will stand out from the other jumpers—with the result that he ends up hanging from a live power line, in deadly danger. It is a wonderfully concise parable of the plight of Oz’s Israeli generation, forced to contend with a Zionist myth that both inspires and overwhelms them.

It was another interrogation of myth that first made Oz nationally known in Israel. After the Six-Day War, he was one of the moving forces behind The Seventh Day, a book of oral history that consisted of interviews with kibbutzniks who had fought in the war. They brooded about the contradiction between the high ideals of their upbringing and the brutality of war—and worried about the moral future of a Jewish state occupying a large Arab population. Oz was one of the founders of Peace Now, and a lifelong advocate for a two-state solution, for the same reason that he became a kibbutznik and a Labor Zionist in the first place—because of his respect for the reality of what Zionism had achieved, and his distrust of myths of strength and aggrandizement. Perhaps it took a master of fiction to understand that, in the end, it is the actual that is most precious.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.