Amos Oz in the Midrashic Mode

By Lowin, Joseph | Midstream, January 2001 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Amos Oz in the Midrashic Mode

Lowin, Joseph, Midstream

"Fouillez-moi. Un tresor est cache dedans."

-- La Fontaine

In Imagining the Child in Modern Jewish Fiction (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), Naomi Sokoloff amply demonstrates that childhood and children hold a prominent place in Jewish and Hebrew fiction. Recently, within the past half-dozen years, three Israeli novels, by three prominent writers -- Meir Shalev's The Loves of Judith, 1994 (1999); David Grossman's, The Zigzag Kid, 1994 (1997); and Amos Oz's Panther in the Basement, 1995 (1997) J suggested an area of inquiry that should be of particular interest to readers and students of Jewish narrative. What lessons--pertaining to both Jewish esthetic practice and Jewish ethical concerns -- can be derived from a study of the way childhood is presented in a work of fiction?

The three novels mentioned -- each in its own way -- provide fertile ground for addressing this question. This essay will focus on Panther in the Basement, by Amos Oz, precisely because that novel helps to clarify a Jewish take on the relationship between ethics and esthetics.

Panther in the Basement is a novel written in the Midrashic mode, and it is not Amos Oz's first novel to be so composed. One of the most interesting aspects of his 1985 novel, A Perfect Peace, is its Midrashic construction, its rewriting and reinterpretation of a Biblical text. The Hebrew title of the novel derives from the El Maleh Rahamim prayer recited at funerals and Yizkor services. In addition, there are many allusions in the novel to Biblical characters and events. The most developed allusion is to the trio of King Saul, his son Jonathan, and the charismatic intruder and supplanter, the sweet singer of Israel, David. It is a simple enough thing to see Yolek as the fast-fading king, his son Yonatan as the weak-willed Jonathan, and Azariah -- with his guitar, his poems, his prophecies that come true, and his ability to fix anything broken -- as a talented if irritating David.

Panther in the Basement also rewrites the David story. For example, the British soldier whom Proffy, the central character, befriends, retells, in his own key, the story of King David. "His David was a village boy who was cut out to be a poet and a lover, but God made him king, which did not suit him, and condemned him to living a life of wars and intrigues. Small wonder that at the end of his life David was tormented by the same evil spirit that he himself had inflicted on his predecessor, Saul, who was a better man than he." Furthermore, as Proffy listens to this exegesis, he hears in it a lesson for modern times. Commenting on the commentary, he says, "Sergeant Dunlop talked about Saul and David and Michal and Jonathan and Absalom and Joab in tones of faint wonderment, as if they, too, were youngsters from the Hebrew Underground with whom he had once sat in the Orient Palace, learning Hebrew from them and teaching them a little Philistine in return."

But Panther in the Basement engages in rewriting on a much grander and more complex scale. It, too, as we have seen, contains the rewriting of Biblical texts. It also embodies a rewriting of Oz's own previous collection of novellas, The Hill of Evil Counsel (1975). The repeated expression "Perfidious Albion," with its tell-tale epic epithet, is first found in the stories of The Hill of Evil Counsel, where it plays a relatively marginal role. What Amos Oz does in this novel is to take that expression from his previous work and rework it to give it symbolic meaning beyond its words.

The novel's title is also a reiteration of a 1940s film, entitled Panther in the Basement, in which Tyrone Power is "given a free hand ... to disappear in the fog and assume and discard identities at his sole discretion." Another movie, Lightning Bolt, with Olivia de Havilland and Humphrey Bogart, provides a heroic model for the children of the book. "Humphrey Bogart was captured by the enemy. Wounded, unshaven, with his clothes torn, and a thin trickle of blood trailing from the corner of his mouth, he confronted his interrogators with a faint smile that was polite yet mocking.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)


1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited article

Amos Oz in the Midrashic Mode


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.