Israel isn’t a country of celebrity worship, but there's an aura that surrounds Amos Oz.
No other living Israeli author is as well known around the world as Oz. His bestselling autobiography, A Tale of Love and Darkness, has been translated into some 50 editions in 30 countries. Even though Oz hasn’t yet won the Nobel Prize for Literature, each year he’s rumored to be on the shortlist.
Oz is 74, is of modest height, and carries a pen and a fine-toothed comb in his breast pocket.
He has lived a tumultuous life. When he was 10, Oz witnessed the founding of the Jewish state. When he was 12, his mother committed suicide. When he was 15, he joined a kibbutz, a collective farm.
He left the kibbutz later in life, but in his newest book of short stories, Between Friends, Oz returns to the early years of the kibbutz movement, when the collective farms were still a wild Israeli ideological experiment.
Reporter Daniel Estrin spoke with author Amos Oz in his apartment in Tel Aviv.
ESTRIN: I’m wondering if you get a lot of correspondence from your readers, from people around the world.
OZ: 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.
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: 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. 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: 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…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: 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.
OZ: 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.
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.
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.
An extended version of Daniel Estrin’s conversation with writer Amos Oz can be heard on Vox Tablet, the podcast of Tablet Magazine.