Movie Depicts Amos Oz — Israel's Premier Writer

Thursday, 08 May 2014 08:20 AM

By Myron Fenster

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I have just learned that Natalie Portman is making her directorial debut with a movie based on Amos Oz’s magnum opus, "A Tale of Love and Darkness." It is quite an undertaking many people are looking forward to seeing what she does with it.

Meanwhile, I have just finished reading that blockbuster book, which is one of the most gripping that I have ever read. It is autobiographical, the story of one of Israel’s premier writers.

In the book, Amos Oz is a wunderkind only child living with his parents in Jerusalem and growing up in the 1940s, that is to say the pre-state period before the rise of Israel.

He recalls the fantasies and the realities of the people, what it was like to be encircled by the Jordanian army, the hunger and the absence of creative comforts in a very vivid and graphic way. The heart of the book is his growing up and the varying influences upon him.

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There are visits from his grandparents, who are European-born and are attempting now to transfer their mannerisms and culture into his life and the nascent state.

In the meantime, his grandmother refers to Palestine as “the Levantine.” Grandma Shlomit is obsessed with Old World gentility, and everywhere sees germs, bacteria and bugs of the kind found bathrooms and kitchens, and on people themselves.

At one point, Oz describes with humor being rubbed and scrubbed, and then rubbed and scrubbed again as a youngster when she has been put in charge. Once his mother died, she appears with two cleaning women and a whole arsenal of cleaning pails and disinfectants, and proceeds to mop up with her entourage for three days.

In the book there are lengthy and oft-time absorbing descriptions, such as when Oz goes to a rally at which Menachem Begin is speaking in his typically hypnotic style. Because Begin’s Hebrew is not as plastic as it should be, the author at one point begins to laugh hysterically and cannot stop. It causes his family immense embarrassment and is a further dramatic symbol of the difference between the European generation and the culture of the Sabras.

The most moving part of the book deals with the death of Oz’s mother when he is 12. She was always somewhat dreamy and of a different style than his father, who may have been a bit of a womanizer. Oz describes her as having committed suicide, but you have to read the story for yourself to come to whatever conclusion you come to as for how she died.

In any case, after she dies, he decides to leave Jerusalem and his father in Rechavia, to give up his name and head for Kibbutz Hulda, where he remains for the next 30 years. His surname had been Klausner and he was related to the famous scholar Joseph Klausner, with many detailed descriptions of visits to his house and an intimate portrait of a totally absorbed but slightly egomaniacal scholar.

The saddest part of all is that young Amos believes that if he had known, he could have stopped his mother in time. Her last day took place in Tel Aviv, in her sister’s home. And yet, you’re not sure whether the overdose of pills was because she was dealing with a long-term depression or she willed the end of her life. But it is in the writing where Oz shines brightly and grabs you with his heart-rending story. It is difficult to picture how this will be portrayed on the screen.

The redeeming part of the tale is that in the kibbutz he meets a young lady, Nily, the daughter of the kibbutz librarian. As an omnivorous reader and city slicker, the children of the kibbutz not only don’t accept him, but mock him. Apparently, though, Nily didn’t.

Later, he marries her and has a family and she becomes his first reader. He writes of his family that they all have sharp eyes and a good ear. When they are finished with whatever he has written “I call in the readers, and after them the literary experts, then the scholars, then the critics, and then come the firing squads.”

What came to me from this book is something that I needed to read on a personal level. It was, first of all, another iteration of somebody who came back from the dungeons of hell. But more than that, a literary star who realizes after he reads Sherwood Anderson that the ordinary daily acts of kindness, love and lust, of aspiration and defeat, are really what can make up a literary life and can be written about with force and communicated with empathy.

Oz realizes that his time in Jerusalem was less than stellar, fairly prosaic before the big events from which the State emerged. His father was a librarian, his mother a part-time homemaker, and he a dreamy kid who read everything in sight. And yet, from all of this, he creates a world that is communicable and fascinating.

He found out that it could be done. Some of us are still trying to figure out how to do that. We await with anticipation the appearance of this film and Portman’s directorial debut.

Rabbi Myron M. Fenster is the rabbi emeritus of the Shelter Rock Jewish Center in Roslyn, N.Y. A graduate of Yeshiva of Flatbush, Yeshiva College, and the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Fenster also studied in the graduate school at Columbia University for a degree in philosophy. He was the first American rabbi sponsored by the Rabbinical Assembly to an Israeli congregation. He has written for several publications, including Newsday, the Jerusalem Post and Hadassah Magazine.
Read more of Rabbi Fenster's reports — Go Here Now.

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