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Micah Reader in March 2019 by Brenda Levenson
The English translation of Amos Oz’s memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, was published in 2004 and our group discussed it in 2006. Oz’s recent death prompted us to re-read what is among his best books.
A Tale of Love and Darkness is a family history sprinkled with colorful characters, such as Oz’s paternal grandmother Shlomit Klausner, but it is his mother Fania whose presence dominates the pages of the book. Along with her two sisters, Fania grew up in a rich family in Poland, surrounded by servants. She was sent to the University of Prague where she studied philosophy and history. Oz’s father Arieh was fully qualified to be a professor, as was his uncle whose support he needed to secure that position, but who declined his assistance for fear of being accused of nepotism, and so Arieh ended up being a librarian at the Hebrew University. He transferred his professional bitterness in constant quotations from philosophers, literary figures and others in the more than five languages he spoke. But it is the fantastic tales that Fania told her son, Amos, that paved the way for him becoming a writer.
Amos’s two families immigrated to Palestine in the early 1920s. The couple’s social circle consisted of European intellectuals who had come from sophisticated cities such as Odessa. Settling in Jerusalem, a desolate small town at the time, must have been a cultural shock. There is a great deal of sadness in the book, but there is also dark humor in many of the pages, as well as much that is moving. One of the family therapists in our group declared that she would “loved to have Amos as one of [her[ patients.” A missed opportunity.
An afternoon party at the house of an upper-class Arab family opens a window on an aspect of Arab life unfamiliar to many. Young people in tennis clothes circulate among the servants carrying drinks and elegant nibbles. One of the many hilarious parts of the book is in their garden where Amos meets Aisha, the teenage daughter of the host who takes piano lessons from her Jewish teacher in Rehavia, an affluent part of Jerusalem and home to immigrants from Germany.
As in all good memoirs, Oz weaves his family’s history with the history of Palestine. His description of the evening on which crowds stood in the streets, waiting for the result of the resolution that would determine the fate of Israel is among the most emotional. Many of us are old enough to remember that extraordinary moment, even if we were only teenagers at the time. Oz does not exclude from his book the fate of the Palestinian refugees, to which he apposes that of the Jews who had lived in the Old City of Jerusalem for generations and were driven out of their homes now in the hands of Transjordan after Arab countries declared war on Israel simultaneously with the declaration of its statehood. Nor does Oz forget about “the hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees who had been driven out of the Arab countries” that had been home for centuries.
Oz’s mother lived long enough to see the birth of Israel, the one time when his parents hugged each other, but she committed suicide at the age of 38 when he was 12 years old. Little is said about her death until nearing the end of the book, when Amos Oz details his mother’s trip to Tel Aviv where she stays with one of her two sisters, the long walks she takes in the rain, and finally how she dies there. Shortly after her death, and now a teenager, Amos Oz leaves home to move into the kibbutz in which he will spend most of life, changing his family name. His unexpected invitation to Ben Gurion’s house provides more humorous pages that one of our readers recreated for us amidst laughter. The meeting echoes Isaiah Berlin’s “cruel observation that [ben Gurion] was a visionary peasant”.
The constant presence of Fania, the author’s beautiful and talented mother, gives the feeling that A Tale of Love and Darkness was written as a therapeutic exercise, a way to come to terms with her death, when she did not say goodbye.