Amos Oz was an Israeli before there was an Israel. He gives a view of Israel in his novel Don’t Call it Night that I found unsympathetic, detached. Now that I have read his memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, I comprehend his view of Israel through his own experiences.
Amos Oz was born as Amos Klausner in Jerusalem in 1939. He was the son of two young people who came in the Third Aliyah, in the years of rising antisemitism in Europe. In a leisurely pace he remembers the last years of the British mandate, the isolation of Jerusalem during the War of Independence, and his family life during the subsequent years. His views today derive from bitterness developed during the years of Israel’s formation.
In the lives of individuals and of peoples, too, the worst conflicts are often those that break out between those who are persecuted. It is mere wishful thinking to imagine that the persecuted and the oppressed will united out of solidarity and man the barricades together against a ruthless oppressor. In reality, two children of the same abusive father will not necessarily make common cause, brought close together by their shared fate. Often each sees in the other not a partner is misfortune but in fact the image of their common oppressor.
Political views are interesting, memories of the formation of Israel are instructive, but the moving part of the memoir is his account of his mother’s last years. The Zionists who came into the land in the 1930s were idealistic and middle class, motivated to create new, more perfect society. The Jerusalem in which Amos grew up was populated by middle European Jews, people who could not go back but who also could not fully accept the “oriental” environment.
My grandmother Shlomit arived in Jerusalem straight from Vilna one hot summer’s day in 1933, took one startled look at the sweaty markets, the colorful stalls, … she saw the shoulders and arms of Middle Eastern men and the strident colors of the fruit and vegetables, she saw the hills all around and the rocky slopes and immediately pronounced her final verdict: “The Levant is full of germs.”
Oz’s parents were educated and aspired to intellectual life. His father, with his knowledge of history and ability to read 15 languages, could not find work as a lecturer when there were more lecturers than students. He worked as a poorly paid librarian, while Oz’s mother kept house in a two-room basement apartment and took students when she could. — and drifted into despair. We know from early in the book that she took her own life, but do know how or why. The suspense builds when, in the last pages of his memoir, Oz alternates memories of his early years on the Kibbutz with memories of his mother’s last days. Until now, his mother’s role of his life has been suppressed. He remembers his father, after the funeral:
We never talked about my mother. Not a single word….
I have hardly ever spoken about my mother till now, till I came to write these pages. Not with my father or my wife, or my children or with anybody else. After my father died, I hardly spoke about him either. As if I were a foundling.
In this memoir, Oz reclaims that past, experiencing the darkness, feeling the love.