Amos Oz, 74 Years Old and a National Treasure, Still Dreams of Life on the Kibbutz
In a wide-ranging conversation, Israel’s greatest novelist talks about working the land, making art, and Natalie Portman
There’s no other living Israeli author who is as well known around the world as Amos Oz. Inside Israel, he’s one of the country’s most respected cultural figures. Oz has lived a tumultuous life. When he was 10 years old, he witnessed the founding of the Jewish state. When he was 12 years old, his mother committed suicide. When he was 15, he joined a kibbutz and changed his last name to Oz, Hebrew for “strength.” He eventually left the kibbutz for the desert because of his son’s asthma, but as he tells Vox Tablet contributor Daniel Estrin, he still dreams of kibbutz life at least once a week. In his newest short story collection, Between Friends, he revisits the early years of the kibbutz, when the collective farms were still a wild Israeli ideological experiment. Estrin sat with Amos Oz in his home in Tel Aviv for a far-ranging discussion about the new book, his love of Hebrew, his predictions for Israel’s future, and a bit of celebrity gossip. [Running time: 27:45.]
SARA IVRY, HOST:
Hi everyone, welcome back to Vox Tablet. It’s me, Sara Ivry. Today, we’re sitting down with Amos Oz.
There’s no other living Israeli author who’s as well known around the world as Amos Oz. Inside Israel, he’s one of the country’s most respected cultural figures. He’s lived a tumultuous life. When he was 10 years old, he witnessed the founding of the Jewish state. When he was 12 years old, his mother committed suicide. When he was 15, he joined a kibbutz and changed his last name to Oz, which is Hebrew for “strength.” He eventually left the kibbutz for the desert because of his son’s asthma. But in his newest book of short stories, called Between Friends, he revisits the early years of the kibbutz, when the collective farms were still a wild Israeli ideological experiment. Vox Tablet contributor Daniel Estrin sat with Amos OZ in his home in Tel Aviv for a far-ranging discussion about his new book and about his life.
DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST
Israel isn’t a country of celebrity worship. But still there’s this aura that surrounds Amos Oz. He’s a household name in Israel, and even though he hasn’t won the Nobel Prize for Literature yet, he’s rumored to be on the shortlist every year. You can tell he does his best to protect his privacy in this country of little privacy. There’s no name listed on his buzzer at the entrance to his apartment building. No name on his mail slot, either. In the elevator I ask a young kid, you know that Amos Oz lives in your building?
Yeah, he says, he sees him in the elevator sometimes. Have you read anything of his, I ask? My mom’s got A Tale of Love and Darkness, he says. It’s Amos Oz’s autobiography, his most celebrated work.
OZ: Hi, how are you?
ESTRIN: Hi, good to see you.
OZ: Come on in.
ESTRIN: Thank you so much.
OZ: Can I offer you some coffee, something cold to drink?
ESTRIN: Water would be great.
ESTRIN: Amos Oz lives on the top floor in a quiet, leafy district of north Tel Aviv. His front door opens to a cozy living room—he calls it the library. It’s got a panoramic view of the city and the blue haze of the Mediterranean Sea. The library is floor to ceiling with books—plus an aquarium squeezed in the middle. And a cat named Freddie.
(To Oz) Any particular book on your bookshelf that you… is your favorite?
OZ: You have here all the editions of A Tale of Love and Darkness in 52 or 53 editions, in 30 countries.
ESTRIN: What are some of the languages it has been translated into?
OZ: Well, there is a pirate edition in the Kurdish language, for instance. There is a translation into Hungarian, Bulgarian, Romanian, Czech, Greek. It’s translated into many many languages, over 30 countries.
ESTRIN: Amos Oz is now 74 years old. He’s of modest height, his hair is thin and mostly white, and he carries a pen and a fine toothed comb in his breast pocket. In this interview you’ll hear that his breathing is heavy. But had a lot to say—about his love of Hebrew, his predictions for Israel’s future, even a little bit of celebrity gossip. I started by asking him about his recent move to Tel Aviv.
ESTRIN: You have moved here recently from Arad. You grew up in Jerusalem, you spent, I think, 30 years in a kibbutz, from there you moved to the desert town of Arad and now you’re here in Tel Aviv. Why the move now?
OZ: Time to be closer to the children. Arad is very far away and our children all live in or around Tel Aviv so my wife and I have decided that it’s time to live closer to our kids.
ESTRIN: I read that when you used to live in Arad you had a daily routine walking in the desert in the morning and then sitting down to write. I’m wondering what is your daily routine now that you’re here in Tel Aviv?
OZ: I still get up at five o’clock every morning and I drink a cup of coffee and I sit myself by my desk before six and start writing. I work solidly for five or six hours, then I take a break. I have lunch, I take a little siesta and in the afternoon I go back to my study to destroy what I have written in the morning.
ESTRIN: (laughs) Have you destroyed anything today?
OZ: A little bit, yes.
ESTRIN: I’m wondering if you get a lot of correspondence from your readers, from people around the world.
OZ: Too much. I get many letters from readers. Some of them are very moving, some of them are very personal, some of them are heartwarming. People who read A Tale of Love and Darkness, for instance, write to me, “I have listened to your story now it is your turn to listen to mine.” And then they write me their entire life story and sometimes these are very exciting stories. I make a point of trying to answer each and every one of them at least in a couple of lines.
ESTRIN: Let’s talk about Between Friends, your new collection of short stories. The stories are intertwined; they’re about one cast of characters living on a fictional kibbutz in the 1950s in Israel. I think they’re quiet, they’re poetic, sometimes funny, mostly sad. Why did you want to write about the kibbutz?
OZ: Thank you for the compliments. I have lived in a kibbutz for more than 30 years, and although I left the kibbutz 27 years ago, I still go back there in my dreams at least once a week. Good dreams, bad dreams, trivial dreams. I dream about the kibbutz very often. This signaled to me that it’s time to go back and have a distant look at the kibbutz over the 1950s as I found it when I came there first at the age of 15 to start my life anew. And in Between Friends I tried to watch the kibbutz not with nostalgia, not with anger, but with precision and compassion.
ESTRIN: Are any of the characters in the book based on some of the people that you lived with on your kibbutz?
OZ: I never do that. I never use real life models. I used to have a friend in kibbutz Hulda that each time he walks in front of my window, he stops for a moment and combs his hair so that if he gets into one of my stories he will get there with his hair neatly combed. But this is just not the way I work. I don’t use real life models ever.
ESTRIN: The stories in the book refer to elements of kibbutz life that are long gone. Things like the children’s house where the children live and sleep at night instead of with their parents, and kibbutz wide votes that decided where a person goes to college, what you study, what job you have, if you may travel abroad. Today all those things seem to me a little bit anachronistic and maybe a little ridiculous. You don’t spare any criticism of those in the stories, but do you have any fondness for those things?
OZ: Literature is always about bygone times. It’s always looking back in time with a certain perspective. I look at bygone life which no longer exists and, as I said, I look at it without nostalgia but without anger either. I look at it with criticism and with compassion. I look at it with curiosity. I look at it with fascination, and I look at it with a certain smile.
ESTRIN: One of my favorite stories in the collection is called “Two Women,” and it’s about a man on the kibbutz who leaves his wife and moves in with another kibbutz member named Ariella. I’m wondering if you wouldn’t mind reading just one selection from that story.
OZ: I will do that.
ESTRIN: Right when they start their correspondence.
OZ: “In her mailbox, which was on the far left side of the mailbox cabinet near the entrance to the dining hall, Ariella found a folded note in Osnat’s round, unhurried handwriting. ‘Boaz always forgets to take his blood pressure pills. He needs to take them in the morning and at night before bed. And in the morning he has to take half a cholesterol pill. He shouldn’t put black pepper and a lot of salt on his salads and he should eat low fat cheese and no steak. He is allowed fish and chicken, but not strongly spiced and he shouldn’t gorge himself on sweets. Osnat P.S. He should drink less black coffee.’”
ESTRIN: And then that correspondence continues into notes back and forth between the two women.
OZ: Yes. I got a letter from a female reader who gave me the greatest possible compliment. She said only a woman could have written this story. I couldn’t expect any better.
ESTRIN: That is a theme that recurs in the book: Wives and husbands on the kibbutz leaving each other for other kibbutz members. That idea of a tight knit society on the kibbutz where everyone knows each other’s dirty business, like their love lives. And I’m wondering if you think there are things that still exist in Israel from the old days of the kibbutz.
OZ: Love life is not dirty business at all. And as to your question there are many kibbutz genes in Israeli society. There is a certain directness, a certain lack of hierarchies, a latent anarchism in Israeli society which I regard as the heritage of the kibbutz and I think it’s a good heritage. I like it.
ESTRIN: Some of the characters on this fictional kibbutz lost their parents in the Holocaust, some of them didn’t, but all of them came to the kibbutz to create a new life. I think many of them seem a little repressed in some ways. Do you think that people are unhappier on a kibbutz?
OZ: Happiness is a big word. Happiness as a human condition is something I never believed in. I think there are moments of happiness. I don’t think there is a lasting happiness. I think this is unthinkable. In the Jewish tradition we have no less than six Hebrew words for joy: “simcha,” “alitzut,” “chedva,” “tzahala”, but no proper word for happiness and perhaps rightly so. Joy is something that comes and goes. The idea of everlasting happiness is alien to me. I don’t believe in it. I believe in moments of joy. Yes, I write many times about repressed characters, about characters who have made great sacrifices in order to establish the kibbutz. The founding fathers and mothers of the kibbutz community believed that they can change human nature in one blow. If only everyone does the same work, lives in the same quarters, dresses the same clothes, shares everything, eats the same food then pettiness and selfishness and jealousy and gossip and envy will go away and disappear. This was naive, it was unrealistic. Human nature is almost unchangeable, certainly it cannot be changed in one blow, and in one generation. They wanted to change human nature immediately and at one blow. This had a certain cost, and this cost meant certain self-sacrifice and certain repression.
ESTRIN: I wonder if you think that Israelis are still trying to remake themselves, or is something different?
OZ: No, I don’t think so. I think this immature ambition to change human nature in one blow is gone.
ESTRIN: What has replaced it here?
OZ: Well, a certain kind of hedonism, middle class values, passion, noisiness, pushiness, warm-heartedness. Everything that is very Mediterranean is true about Israeli society. It’s a very Mediterranean society. People are talkative, open, heartwarming, hearty, and selfish, and greedy at the same time.
ESTRIN: Do you feel Mediterranean at all?
OZ: Yes, I feel very Mediterranean. I think I’m a Mediterranean kind of man.
ESTRIN: If I’ve done my math correctly you’re 74 years old now?
ESTRIN: Your first book of short stories was published in 1965. You witnessed the founding of your country, you’ve lived through a lot of change, and now there are new generations of Israeli writers. Do you ever feel anachronistic in Israeli society? To what extent do you, Amos Oz, represent another era or other ideals that don’t exist anymore?
OZ: I never regarded myself as a representative. I’m a story teller, not a representative. Whether my stories and my novels reflect a certain Israeli reality or not is not for me to judge, but I am not in the business of representing. I’m not a sociologist. I don’t know how many Israelis are there or were there who resemble the characters in my stories and in my novels. I don’t know and I don’t care. This is not my business to portray Israeli society. I portray individuals; I don’t portray society.
ESTRIN: If you could think of an Israeli writer whom you would recommend people to read, maybe from a newer or younger generation, do you have one in mind?
OZ: I have many in mind and I will be unfair to some of them if I mention just one name, but I strongly recommend your readers to read Etgar Keret. I think he is an excellent writer. He is unexpected and full of surprises.
ESTRIN: You may not remember, but eight years ago, I took a class with you at Ben Gurion University in southern Israel. It was Shakespeare’s Othello. And I remember each week you stood in front of the class and you spoke for three hours without notes. My recollection of that time was as if you were reciting a novel. I really felt that it was like you were speaking the first draft- not the first draft of something, but the final draft. The way that you spoke Hebrew was different than the way I had heard other Israelis speak Hebrew. First of all, how would you describe your use of language and do you feel that you’re filling some kind of linguistic obligation in your work?
OZ: Well, thank you for the compliment, but my classes are never a first draft. I prepare and prepare very thoroughly for each class, for each lecture. It’s true that I often speak without notes, but I speak without notes because I prepare long and hard at home before I come to class. Yes I feel a particular obligation toward language. Language is my craft, language is my musical instrument. I treat the language the way the violinist treats the violin, and for me the most important thing in my writing and in my teaching is precision.
ESTRIN: Any favorite Hebrew words?
OZ: No I can’t point to any particular words as being my favorite Hebrew words. I love the Hebrew language and I’m very biased about it. I could speak about the Hebrew language for hours and hours. I think it’s a wonderful musical instrument. I think Modern Hebrew has many things in common with Elizabethan English. I think a writer or a poet of contemporary Hebrew can still take very daring liberties with the language, can even legislate into the language, because Hebrew is like melting lava, like an erupting volcano, and one can still leave a certain imprint on the language.
ESTRIN: Well, I know that your father, first of all, invented a number of words.
OZ: My great-uncle invented a number of words.
ESTRIN: Your great-uncle.
OZ: Yes, my great-uncle. He invented a number of Hebrew words, and I have invented a couple of Hebrew words, and I am very proud of them.
ESTRIN: Can you tell us which ones?
OZ: It’s difficult to translate them into English because they don’t exist into English, but one of them is the verb “To rhinocerize.”
OZ: “To rhinocerize” a derivation from the noun rhinoceros. That was a play by the French playwright Ionesco– the Romanian-French playwright Ionesco called The Rhinoceros. It’s about a society where people are becoming more and more conformist, and they adjust themselves to the herd every day, and this play is called The Rhinoceros and it was played very successfully in Israel in the 1960s. So in one of my articles I invented the verb “to rhinocerize” or the noun “rhinocerized” to describe a man who becomes conformist, who change his or her opinions in order to adjust to a certain general mood or certain general trend.
ESTRIN: That’s “lehitkarnef,” right?
OZ: “Lehitkarnef,” that’s right.
ESTRIN: Do you ever hear anyone use it out on the street and think “That’s mine!”
OZ: It came back to me from a taxi driver who had no idea that I was the proud parent of this word. I felt very proud and very happy. It was as close to immortality as a mortal can get; to have a word which you have invented coming back to you from a taxi driver.
ESTRIN: That’s amazing. Do you remember the conversation?
OZ: Yes, we talked about politics, we talked about a certain politician, and the taxi driver said that this politician is completely rhinocerized.
ESTRIN: (laughs) Would you mind giving one more example of a word that you invented?
OZ: Yes we have a Hebrew noun for star, and I have invented the adjective “starry,” like starry nights. It didn’t exist in Hebrew, “mecochav.”
ESTRIN: Ok, I’m still curious. Tell me one more.
OZ: No, no. These are the two words which are institutionalized into the language. There might be occasional other ones, but they are not part of the blood cycle of the language. These two became part of the blood cycle of the language.
ESTRIN: Back to the book Between Friends. The opening story and the closing story center around death. The opening story, the very first scene is about the kibbutz gardener who likes to tell discouraging news and one of the first things he says is “such and such a writer has died.” I wonder if that was a little wink from you as a writer. Do you think much about death?
OZ: It’s time to think about death. I’m 74, of course I think very often about death. I think every human being should be prepared for death, and I think there is part of life which will be devoted to preparation for death. I think this helps you knock everything into the right proportions. The last story, “Esperanto,” is about the death of an idealist and to some extent about the death of the old time kibbutz, the old style kibbutz and the evolution of the new type of kibbutz; more tolerant, more soft, more receptive toward individual weaknesses.
ESTRIN: What was the old kibbutz like, if not tolerant and receptive to weakness?
OZ: It was extremely demanding. It insisted that everyone has to change, that everyone has to control their ambitions, their appetites, their desires, their personal wishes. It was a very ascetic society in the 1950s and before.
ESTRIN: Is there any moment that stands out in your mind from your experience on the kibbutz, emblematic of that old kibbutz?
OZ: There are many such moments. I remember a fiery, fiery argument in the secretariat of Kibbutz Hulda when I applied for one working day each week for my writing at the very beginning of my career as a writer, and there was a huge debate in the kibbutz committee. Some people said “yes” and some people said “no, it’s a dangerous precedent. Everyone can call themselves an artist and then who will milk the cows?” And, “It’s not for the committee to decide who is an artist and who isn’t an artist.” There was even one man who said, that “young Amos may be the new Tolstoy, but he is too young to be a writer; let him work in the field until he’s 40, and then he knows something about life and he can write.” Maybe he was right.
ESTRIN: Did they eventually give you a few more days to write a week?
OZ: First one day a week, then two days a week. Then, when I wrote a best seller and became a source of income to the communal treasury, three days a week.
ESTRIN: Today, do you ever go back to visit old friends at the kibbutz?
OZ: Quite often, yes. I have many dear friends in Hulda and my wife and I go there from time to time.
ESTRIN: Could you imagine yourself ever living there again?
OZ: I think it’s too late in life to go back to the kibbutz, and it’s a different kibbutz today, but if I had to choose between life in the kibbutz of the 1950s and life in today’s kibbutz, which is much softer, much milder, much more tolerant, I would prefer today’s kibbutz to the kibbutz of the 1950s.
ESTRIN: Amos Oz, in your career you’ve come to be known not just for your fiction writing, but for political writing, too. You’ve been very critical of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. How optimistic are you about seeing peace in your lifetime?
OZ: I don’t know if I’m optimistic about my own life expectancy. I don’t know how much I still have to live. But I believe that peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians is unavoidable. How soon it will happen, I don’t know. It’s difficult to be a prophet in the land of the prophets. It’s too much competition in the prophecy business around here. But it’s unavoidable, and it will come.
ESTRIN: Speaking of prophets, you are among a small handful of writers in Israel who some people call prophets. I’ve heard that expression here and there. When you write an Op-Ed article, it’s on the front page of the newspaper. What does that role mean to you?
OZ: I never regarded myself as a prophet; I can’t read the future and I don’t have any particular wisdom which other people don’t have. I have imagination and I use it in my political thinking. I ask myself, from time to time, how would I feel if I were a Palestinian under Israeli occupation. I ask myself, from time to time, how would I feel if I were an Orthodox Jew. I ask myself, from time to time, how would I feel if I were an Oriental Sepharadi Jew in a developing town and I use my imagination in my political manifestations. But no, I never regarded myself as a prophet.
ESTRIN: Do people argue with you in the taxi, in the street, about your views?
OZ: And how! In Arad I used to sit myself in a street café and pick up an argument with strangers who recognized me because I’m on television from time to time, and I like to arguments very much. I like to be involved in a passionate argument with total strangers.
ESTRIN: You never get sick of that here?
OZ: No, it fascinates me, it intrigues me.
ESTRIN: Your autobiographical novel A Tale of Love and Darkness was translated into Arabic, as you were showing me on your bookshelf behind you here. The translation was paid for by a Palestinian whose father and son were both killed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He said Arabs needed to read your book to, in a way, understand Israel’s soul. And I want to ask you what books do you think Israelis, or anyone, should read to understand the Palestinian soul.
OZ: They should read Palestinian literature period. Poetry, especially poetry, but also Palestinian prose. They should read Arabic prose, they should read Lebanese and Syrian and Egyptian prose. They should read as much as they can read, and unfortunately we don’t have enough in Hebrew translation.
ESTRIN: Any writer you want to point out especially?
OZ: Well, obviously the greatest Arab writer of the 20th century is the late Naguib Mahfouz and I was a great admirer of Naguib Mahfouz. I have even been in direct contact with him before the establishment of peace between Israel and Egypt, but we never met.
ESTRIN: Wow, what was that contact like, if you can talk about it.
OZ: That was an American journalist who interviewed me, and interviewed him, and then exchanged messages or passed on messages from Mahfouz to me, and from me to Mahfouz.
ESTRIN: A little bit more celebrity gossip. I understand that the actress Natalie Portman is going to be writing the screen adaptation of A Tale of Love and Darkness, which she plans to direct and star in. What’s your involvement in that project?
OZ: Very little. I read the script, which Natalie Portman wrote for A Tale of Love and Darkness. I liked it, but that doesn’t mean much, because reading a film script is like reading musical notes; if you are not a musician, you don’t really know what the music is going to be like.
ESTRIN: Was it important for you to sign off, to make sure you’d be comfortable with the adaptation before she moved on?
OZ: No, it’s going to be her movie, not my movie, and I give her perfect freedom to adapt and to change and to abbreviate. It’s her field not mine. It’s based on my novel, but it’s going to be her field.
ESTRIN: Amos Oz, thanks so much.
OZ: Thank you for having me.
SARA IVRY, HOST: That was reporter Daniel Estrin speaking with Israeli wrier Amos Oz in Oz’s apartment in Tel Aviv. Amos Oz’s new book is called Between Friends. It’s out now from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. I recommend it; get a copy.
Vox Tablet is produced by Julie Subrin. I’m your host, Sara Ivry. Thank you so much for joining us, please join us again next time.
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