Entwining the personal with the political, this writer of international acclaim scrutinizes what it means to be an Israeli—the obligations, the conflicts, the joys, the uneasiness.
Born Amos Klausner in Jerusalem in 1939, Oz was the son of right-wing Zionist parents who emigrated in the early 1930s from Russia and Poland.
Reacting to his home’s scholarly atmosphere and his parents’ high expectations, Oz made the bold decisions at age 15 to change his last name from Klausner to Oz, join Kibbutz Hulda, and engage in field labor. “Oz in Hebrew means courage, strength, daring, determination—more or less everything that I needed badly when I left home for the kibbutz,” explained Oz. “I don’t know that I have it now, but I needed it then, so I made it my name.” In 1961, he completed Army service. (Later he would fight in both the 1967 Six-Day War and the October 1973 Yom Kippur War.)
Increasingly, however, Oz found himself pulled toward studying and writing. He took leave from the kibbutz to complete a degree at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Promising sales of his stories and novels allowed him increased time away from farming in the kibbutz to write. Over time, he would be a visiting Fellow at St. Cross College, Oxford, and an author in residence at both Hebrew University and Colorado Springs College in the United States. “In the end, when I look at myself, I am doing exactly what my father wanted me to do. In the kibbutz I look like one of the members, and yet I follow my forefathers. I deal with words. My escape was a full circle.”
In 1986, after 25 years in Kibbutz Hulda, Oz and his wife were compelled to move to a drier climate because one of their three children developed asthma. Currently, they live in the desert town of Arad. In addition to writing, Oz is a professor of Hebrew literature at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, in Beer-Sheva.
Oz cites a distinction between his fiction and nonfiction: “Whenever I find myself in total agreement with myself, then I write an article—usually in rage—telling the government what to do. But when I detect hesitation, more than one inner voice, I discover in me the embryo of characters, the seeds of a novel.” A prolific essayist and founding member of the Israeli movement Peace Now, Oz is typically described as a centrist and mediator of compromise. His most widely read nonfiction book is In the Land of Israel, a collection of personal and documentary pieces based on travels through Israel during the Lebanon War.
Domestic relationships often form the core of Oz’s fiction. The palpable and the personal illuminate the complex passions of his people and the dualities with which they struggle—flesh and spirit, peace and excitement, and, importantly, the collective optimism of the Israeli enterprise and individual skepticism. Oz has noted how living in a kibbutz shaped his thinking: “It evoked and fed my curiosity about the strange phenomenon of flawed, tormented human beings dreaming about perfection, aching for the Messiah, aspiring to change human nature. This perpetual paradox of magnanimous dream and unhappy reality is indeed one of the main threads in my writing.”
Excerpt from Amos Oz’s memoirs in progress, whose first chapter appeared in The New Yorker, December 1995
Occasionally, there was no money to buy food for the Sabbath. My mother would look at my father. He would look at the bookshelves (which held several thousand books), and I knew it was time to select the lambs for the sacrifice. I could see the pain in his eyes, but he was an ethical man. He knew food was more urgent than books, and that the good of the child must come first. I remember his back at the door, half a dozen precious books under his right arm, and I knew this must be the shape of Abraham’s back as he left his tent, carrying the unknowing Isaac, and set out for Mt. Moriah. These were leather-bound books with gilt-embossed titles, brought here from Warsaw or from Vilna. Normally, he would come back an hour of two later, devoid of books, carrying paper bags with bread and milk and eggs and, occasionally, tinned beef. But sometimes he came back smiling happily, looking as if he had just won the lottery, carrying neither food nor his beloved books: he had sold the books, but he bought others instead, because in the secondhand bookstore he had uncovered such irresistible treasures that he couldn’t help himself–they were once-in-a-lifetime discoveries.
I was about six or seven years old when the first great day in my life occurred. My father cleared part of one of the lowest shelves in his library for my use. To be precise, he bequeathed me ten inches of space. I was allowed to bring my own books, which until then had been piled on the night table next to my bed, and to arrange them upright on the shelf with their backs turned to the world. This was no less than a rite of initiation: a boy who stands his books erect is no longer a child but a man. From that moment, I was like my father. My books could stand. My books were erect.
Alas, I made a dreadful mistake. Father went to work and I was free to do whatever I wanted, but I had a very childish idea of how these things really ought to be done. I arranged my books by height, including books that were beneath my dignity, nursery books from babyhood. I didn’t want to exclude them, because I wanted to fill completely the space allocated to me. I was still euphoric, celebrating my triumph, when my father returned from work, cast one disgusted glance at my books, and turned to me with a long silent look that I will never forget. It was a look of disappointment and contempt, if not complete genetic despair. Finally, he hissed from between clenched teeth, “By height? Do you think books are soldiers? Do you think this is an honor guard? A military parade?” There was another long silence, after which he told me the facts of life, educating me about the innermost secrets of libraries. He opened up to me a dazzling view of the varieties of order: books could be arranged by topics, by titles, by chronology, by alphabetical order of the authors, by publishing house, and so on. That’s when I learned that life is full of different avenues. That anything could be arranged by very different principles. That there are many different coherent logics in the world. I spent hours on end arranging and rearranging my twenty-five or thirty volumes. That’s how books taught me the art of composition–not their contents but their physical being. That’s how books taught me about intoxicating twilight zones between the legitimate and the illegitimate. This lesson I cherish for life. When my time came to discover love, I was not a complete novice. I already knew that there were different ways, different possibilities, different avenues.
The Same Sea (2001)
The Story Begins: Essays on Literature (1999)
Panther in the Basement (1997)
Don’t Call it Night (1995)
To Know a Woman (1991)
The Slopes of Lebanon (1987)
In the Land of Israel (1983)
Unto Death (1975)
My Michael (1972)
Elsewhere, Perhaps (1966)