Just off Jerusalem’s Yoel Moshe Salomon Street pedestrian mall, in a courtyard and atop a staircase’s summit, is the local-favorite restaurant and arts space Tmol Shilshom (“yesteryear”), ringed with Jerusalem stone walls and arches and book-lined shelves. When you open the menu, you find a quotation: “In Jerusalem there is one holy place for which one need not spill blood: Tmol Shilshom” (my translation). That quote is from Amos Oz.
Oz’s crystallized gem of venue tribute and social commentary circulates there daily, though only to Hebrew readers; the menu’s English half severely diminishes the quotation’s insight (“Tmol Shilshom is the one holy place in Jerusalem that stands above the fray”).
In the early aftermath of Oz’s recent death, initial commemorations focused on his life’s most well-known elements: his fiction’s eminence and his ardent support for a two-state solution.
But further reflection reveals that one of the most significant sets of values of Oz’s life is slipping out of his canonized story: the values not only of fiction writing, nor only of speaking out politically, but of Oz’s distinctively combining the two – and Israel’s according him this role on a national scale.
These values comprise looking and listening with open eyes and ears; absorbing divergent stories and complexities; writing, speaking and acting based on what one has thus learned – and heeding someone who does so.
Today, amid surging political knee-jerkism and demonization, the values Oz epitomized are unsurpassedly timely.
It was through open eyes that Oz first began creating stories, as early as childhood. Oz illustrates this genesis in his memoir and magnum opus, A Tale of Love and Darkness (2002), recounting how as an only child, while his parents and their friends would talk in cafés, “I would look at the strangers in the café and try to guess... who they all were [and]... I made up complicated but exciting life stories for them.”
This mode of living is a prime wellspring of fiction. Central to Oz’s particular genius is that he turned these same open eyes to politics.
One of Oz’s earliest demonstrations of such openness was that, even while a proud Israeli Jew, Oz supported Palestinian aspirations to statehood, and criticized Israel’s rule by occupation and settlement-building in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
In Tale, Oz portrays a key incident in the development of that conviction: a 1950s kibbutz night watch with a fellow kibbutz member, Ephraim. When Oz condemns Arab terrorists, Ephraim directs Oz’s gaze to an Arab’s perspective (“From their point of view, we are aliens from outer space who have landed and trespassed on their land”) – not to negate, but to be synthesized with their own perspectives as Jews (“Where is the Jewish people’s land if not here?”).
CORRESPONDINGLY, OZ, even while a staunch liberal, showed an openness and sensitivity to Israel’s security concerns.
Amid the Hamas-Israel war of 2014, interviewed by Germany’s Deutsche Welle, Oz said: “What would you do if your neighbor... puts his little boy on his lap and starts shooting machine gun fire into your nursery?” Through a mini-story, Oz showed international audiences Israel’s predicament. And for Oz, this dilemma, again, did not negate, but was to be synthesized with the “excessive” degree to which Israel used force in response.
When Oz spoke, Israelis agreed, disagreed, lionized, reviled – but they listened. Oz’s national audience launched him into the world, and the world listened, too.
Oz’s public-intellectual role arose from the valued status and embrace that Israel has given literature and writers generally. David Grossman and A.B. Yehoshua have held similar positions. From the country’s Hebrew Book Week, featuring nationwide outdoor book fairs, to the poets on its currency, to the menus at Tmol Shilshom, modern Israel has inherited Jewish tradition’s enshrining of text, and made it a pillar of the country’s national culture.
Oz’s legacy issues clarion calls. First, we must listen when fiction writers confront us with complexities and realities that challenge our preconceptions. Opportunities arise, for example, in the work of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who splits time between America and Nigeria and who penned 2014’s We Should All Be Feminists; and Gen X Israeli writer Etgar Keret, who has inherited Oz’s dual fiction-politics mantle. Imagine the message America would send if it put Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes and others on its bills.
Regarding Israel, Oz’s life speaks with two simultaneous voices: not to respond to the very real dangers Israel faces with delegitimization and closed ears; and not to delegitimize Israel either, because Israelis too have the right to be heard.
Finally, Oz has bequeathed to us all a duty, regardless of political views, to live in a way more like his. An Oz lives inside each of us, able to see a café-goer and to imagine her story. We can train this inner fiction writer to see and to listen to each person, including those of different backgrounds, politics and needs from our own. And we can act based on what we see and hear.
Our times make the dangers of the alternative – as Oz said, “loathing begets hatred and violence” – all too clear.
The writer is a legal scholar and a student at New York City’s Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School. He previously worked for Israel’s Supreme Court and for the UN.
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