Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Oz's Israel

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Oz's Israel

Article excerpt

Oz's Israel A TALE OF LOVE AND DARKNESS By AMOS Oz Harcourt. 544pp. $26.

JUST OVER FORTY years ago, a university literature student named Amos Oz summoned the courage to ring S.Y. Agnon's doorbell. Upon hearing the young man's name, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist asked: "Aren't you the child who, having been left an orphan by his poor mother and distanced himself from his father, went off to live the life of the kibbutz? Are you not he who in his youth was reprimanded by his parents in this very house, because he used to pick the raisins off the cake?"

Readers of Oz have long known the autobiographical background to many of his fiction's most memorable characters. The sad or manic heroines-such as Hannah Gonen in My Michael and the mother in "The Hill of Evil Counsel"-harken back to Oz's mother, the doomed Fania Klausner, who took her life when her only son was twelve. The voluble pedants-such as the father in Fima, addicted to explicating the "point" of his lengthy anecdotes-recall Oz's father. And the odd adolescentssuch as the boy who appears out of nowhere to join a kibbutz m A Perfect Peace-retell some of Oz's own experience.

But now, in A Tale of Love and Darkness, Amos Oz has set aside fiction to write a straightforward memoir. His mother's descent into depression is the central story, but Oz's book-one of his longest and most complex-attempts much more. He traces the family back to Europe, describes the social life of his lowermiddle-class Jerusalem neighborhood and the political hopes of his parents' generation, retails first-hand gossip about the personalities he encountered as a youngster, and sketches the inner landscape of a precocious, troubled boy who became a major writer.

In a town glutted with émigré intellectuals, Arieh Klausner-compulsive explainer, walking etymological dictionary and maker of puns, author of books on comparative literature-eked out his living as a librarian. He sarcastically called his son "Your Highness," and in winter warmed the boy's freshly squeezed orange juice in a pan to ward off the chill. Fania kept house, charmed her social circle, and read a lot.

Oz means the "darkness" in his memoir's title literally: a description of the Klausners' cramped, tworoom basement apartment opens the book. During the 1948 siege of Jerusalem, these two rooms accommodated refugees from more vulnerable neighborhoods, who stepped over the sleeping family at night on their way to the toilet that could not be flushed for lack of water. One of the refugees was Arieh's uncle, the childless Professor Joseph Klausner. In normal times, Uncle Joseph lived in a nearby neighborhood among the privileged intellectuals. On Sabbath afternoons he would be visited at home by his many admirers, including his nephew. Uncle Joseph's admiring books on early Christianity had made his name among non-Jews. At the Hebrew University, which was dominated by anti-war Jews who had come from Germany, the hawkish and Odessa-born Klausner felt insufficiently esteemed. Lampooned mercilessly as "Professor Bakhlam" in Agnon's novel Sbirah, Uncle Joseph gets tough but sympathetic treatment in Oz's memoir.

The militancy of the Klausner family was more talk than deeds. The contribution of Oz's father to Menachem Begin's underground insurgency against the British was limited to helping with the occasional propaganda leaflet. In a passage written to be quoted, even by those who do not share the mature Oz's leftist convictions, he reports his father's tearful response (the only time he ever displayed emotion to his son) to the public broadcast of the U.N. vote partitioning Palestine between Jews and Arabs: "Bullies may well bother you in the street or in school someday. They may do it precisely because you are a little bit like me. But from now on, from the moment we have our own state, you will never be bullied just because you are a Jew. From tonight that's finished here. Forever." The impact of this utterance has less to do with the doctrines of Revisionist Zionism than with its expression of the Jewish consensus. …

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