Amos Oz was a cultural ambassador for Israel

Amos Oz
Amos OzPHOTO: NYTIMES

TEL AVIV • Israel, born out of a dream, a yearning and then forced to face what reality brings, found in Amos Oz  a writer who combined the country's essential idealism and ability to see the cracked nature of what had been wrought.

Oz, who died last Friday at 79, was Israel's most significant cultural ambassador for nearly 50 years, always mentioned as a candidate for a Nobel Prize in literature.

But what he most proudly championed was modern Hebrew itself, the form of the language that Zionism revived. He thrilled at the chance to work in a tongue that had deep biblical references embedded in the root of nearly every word, but that also borrowed heavily from Yiddish, Russian, English and Arabic.

This new-old language was the perfect vehicle for the role Oz came to embody, a sort of sociologist and psychologist of the Israeli soul.

"I bring up the evil spirits and record the traumas, the fantasies, the lunacies of Israeli Jews, natives and those from Central Europe," he said in a 1978 interview.

His biography suited him well for this job - he was in many ways the quintessential new Jew that Zionism had hoped to create. As a teenager, he left Jerusalem, changed his last name from Klausner to Oz, which means courage in Hebrew, and moved to a kibbutz, one of the socialist farming communities where Israelis lived out their truest fantasies of cultivating themselves and the land to become robust and hearty.

Inspired by Winesburg, Ohio, Sherwood Anderson's collection of realist stories about small-town life, Oz began writing in his 20s about the characters in his kibbutz.

As a writer, he kept returning to the rural, communal life of the kibbutz in a spare, modernist style that focused on the complexities of interpersonal relations, from his 1973 novel, Elsewhere, Perhaps, to his 2013 story collection, Between Friends.

But his breakthrough, in Israel and internationally, was a far more psychological work - My Michael, a 1972 novel, his first book to be translated into English. It is told from the perspective of a woman misunderstood by, and alienated from, her husband.

Oz's masterpiece is his 2004 memoir, A Tale Of Love And Darkness. It was unlike anything he had ever written, telling the story of his own coming of age in Jerusalem with precision and brutal honesty.

He captured the mystical air of the city, how it was transformed with the birth of the state, his bookish youth and his mother's depression, which led to her suicide.

His politics defined him to the international audience he often dazzled with his metaphors to explain the conflict ("the only solution is turning the house into two smaller apartments"; "I would say that the patient, Israeli and Palestinian, is unhappily ready for surgery, while the doctors are cowards").

He became a critic of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza following the Six-Day War.

In his final essay collection, Dear Zealots, published last year, he wrote that he was "afraid of the fanaticism and the violence, which are becoming increasingly prevalent in Israel".

But this did not get in the way of his love of Israel. "I like being Israeli. I like being a citizen of a country where there are 81/2 million prime ministers, 81/2 million prophets, 81/2 million messiahs. Each of us has our own personal formula for redemption or at least for a solution. Everyone shouts, and few listen. It's never boring here."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 31, 2018, with the headline 'Amos Oz was a cultural ambassador for Israel'. Print Edition | Subscribe