A pilgrimage to Amos Oz’s grave

Oz came to live in Hulda in his early youth, never abandoned it, and his last wish was to be buried there.

Amos Oz in Germany in 2013 (photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)
Amos Oz in Germany in 2013
(photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)
From the first day of our arrival in Israel, I suggested to my companion that I would not be leaving without visiting the grave of Amos Oz, the great Jewish writer who died in December. I wanted to make a pilgrimage to the resting place of this great man in whose books, in addition to the great aesthetic pleasure, I have always found the constant commitment of a great humanist intellectual who resembles nothing short of Voltaire. If there is a book that by the force of argument and explanation can be compared to Voltaire’s Treatise on Tolerance, it is Oz’s How to Cure a Fanatic.
My companion promised that we would have time to make this pilgrimage, and on the last day of the visit, after leaving Tel Aviv, we took the road to Kibbutz Hulda, where Amos Oz’s house and his grave are located.
Hulda is one of the most popular kibbutzim in Israel, for its painful history as well as being made famous by Oz himself and his novels, especially from his autobiographical book A Confession about Love and Darkness.
Oz came to live in Hulda in his early youth, never abandoned it, and his last wish was to be buried there.
After we left behind the highway connecting the big cities of Israel, we entered some secondary roads that passed through a large field, where the green landscape of the entire surroundings was striking. In the early days of the State of Israel, this great field had been half a desert, and now you have the impression that you are passing through an Italian Mediterranean field.
After 45 minutes we made another turn and found ourselves in front of Hulda. If one did not know it was a kibbutz, one would think it was a tourist village.
Everything there gave you this sensation. Hulda is made up of a number of homes of different sizes – those in the form of small lodges that look like houses of poor people, to the ones that at first glance seem like village villas of wealthy people. The first ones belong to the kibbutz; the latter are private houses of its members. The houses are surrounded by beautiful gardens, which give the place the feeling of a calm oasis. Their yards are open, with no clearly defined boundaries between them. This is certainly done not to allow privacy to overshadow the kibbutz community character.
My companion, who knows the place well, leads us to the home of David and Ruty Kinast, the first neighbors of Amos Oz.
Ruty and David feel very happy when they understand the reason for the visit.
We enter their home and after we cool off with cold water, we begin the tour. David tells us about how he met his wife 40 years ago, right here in Hulda; about the difficult life in the early years; life as parents in a small home that is a bit further away; and the feeling of loneliness that they now have because their two children have moved to the United States.
After we cool off from the heat of the road, David invites us to go see Amos Oz’s home. It is a small, two-story house that gives the impression of a home that they have built without any much thought pertaining to architectural and aesthetic taste. It seems incredible that a writer like Amos Oz, who had reached the highest aesthetic literary aura, spent a great deal of his life in that home. Incredible, but totally true; and there are two reasons that explain it.
First, the house is the property of a kibbutz whose philosophy is the spirit of modest life, somewhat similar to life in the Franciscan religious communities. Second, it matches the former: Amos Oz himself did not like a life of luxury. He believed in modesty, and this is one of the basic reasons for his love for life in kibbutz.
Ruty tells us that we cannot enter the house because now it is occupied by another family. In front of the house there is a rusty iron chair. Ruty tells me that Oz often sat in it. I sit too, in the manner of a pilgrim touching the footprints of his saint.
No more than 100 meters away there was another old lodge, property of the kibbutz as well. One who has no information on the nature of kibbutz and the man who lived in that house would surely think that the house was built by a poor family to have a roof over their heads. The house is divided into two parts, one of which, with the permission of Kibbutz Hulda’s administration, Oz had adapted as his studio when he was writing. They opened a special window overlooking the endless agricultural fields and natural trees of Kibbutz Hulda.
There he wrote some of his most important literary and essayist works. In front of it is the lodge in which David and Ruty had begun their conjugal life as members of kibbutz.
“We met each day with Amos, drank coffee together, and talked about big and small issues,” David tells us, showing the common yard of the two houses. “He returned to his room and continued for hours to write. Now that he is no longer here, anytime I pass by, I feel somewhat sad. The door bearing the inscription Amos is now closed, and all that remains are memories.”
I want to feel the sadness in David’s story of a neighbor he no longer has, and I approach the door of Amos’s room. I pull the handle, but it does not open. Knock once, twice, but no one inside responds.
David, who is a few steps behind me, says: “Amos is not there”!
David’s words cause us to spontaneously laugh, but the laughter does not distract from the sadness of the eternal absence of the resident living within that room. “You should have come earlier, death was faster than you,” David adds.
I light a cigarette, and for a few minutes I sit on a large stone that lies beneath the shade of trees, between the writer’s house and that of David. Over the course of many years, sitting on that stone, the two friends had tasted the morning and evening coffees during their many and long discussions. This part of David’s account reminded me of the observation that Oz makes about the social life evolving at Kibbutz Hulda in the years when he came here:
“In Hulda I realized that even the embodiment of a farmer read books at night and discussed them all day. As they harvested olives, they debate on Tolstoy, Plekhanov and Bakunin, the permanent revolution versus revolution in one country, Gustav Landauer’s Social Democracy, and the eternal tension between the values of equality and freedom, and between these two, the search for the brotherhood of humankind. As they arranged the eggs in the cottage, they discussed how to revive old Jewish festivals for celebration in a village setting. As they pruned rows of vines, they clashed about modern art.”
This spirit still continues in Hulda, and as an example we have David’s son: he grew up working in kibbutz fields, and has now gone to the US to complete a dissertation on nuclear physics.
Jews coming from European cultural elites founded not only Hulda, but also other kibbutzim throughout Israel. They merged the dream for the ancient homeland of the ancestors with their Western worldview, and this union resulted in Israeli democracy, which in fact is today the only real democracy in the Middle East.
We leave the courtyard of the great writer and led by David, we go to the building that serves as Hulda’s administrative center, but also as a museum of its history. David tells us the whole story: how Hulda was founded, what were the initial difficulties, the hostility of the Arab tribes around Hulda, the attack that was carried out on Hulda by those tribes in 1929, and where,
consequently, the commander who organized the protection of the kibbutz fell, then the reaction of the British who controlled the entire area and the difficult years after the establishment of the State of Israel.
Ruty stands with us all the time and occasionally intervenes to fill in David’s account with any forgotten details. David realizes that the heat is defeating us, so he suggests that we go to the nearby market for refreshments. After we do this we go back to his house, take the cars, and head toward Hulda’s cemetery.
Many of its citizens resting there died at various times and under various circumstances, including those killed in the struggle for the independence of Israel. The youngest grave there is the grave of Amos Oz: a plain concrete slab, a plain table showing the man resting there, and some vases of flowers which the sun has dried up. David says the grave will not be left in this state, though it perfectly matches the demands of Amos Oz’s humble modesty. The great writer, who spent his entire life in material modesty, would certainly not want to have a grave that reflects the opposite of that life.
David tells us that in Jewish tradition, it is best to place a stone on the grave one visits. I respect this tradition, and for a few minutes I remain silent in pilgrimage near the grave. There lies a man who, with his stories and ideas, has greatly influenced how I see the world, and today I came to thank him for that. I ask my friends who are with me not to spoil my moment of meditation. They are scattered along the graveyard, while Ruty runs to open the water source that is there and starts watering the grass over the graves of Israel’s martyrs.
At the end of my meditation I leave the cemetery to take in the surrounding view. On the eastern side lies Hulda’s large field, planted with grape vines, while on the western side is the wine production factory. The road passes through the middle of the vineyard, on both sides of which there are tall palm trees. Ruty tells us that the street is called “Washington Street,” because there are many Hollywood movie scenes shot there. Among prominent actors and producers, Natalie Portman was there while working on the film A Confession of Love and Darkness, based on the autobiography of Amos Oz with the same title.
Further beyond the field of vines lies the Theodor Herzl Forest, founder of the Zionist movement and of the idea of establishing the State of Israel. An excellent scholar of dramatic developments in Europe, Herzl foresaw that Jews could no longer exist without having their own national state. He worked for many years on the idea of returning the Jews to their ancient homeland, forcibly evicted by the Romans 2,000 years ago.
Herzl died in 1904 without seeing his dream come true, but many friends and associates gathered funds to buy the land where the forest is today, which now bears his name. There is also the museum house of Herzl, and some monuments in memory of the people who lost their lives in the war to make his dream come true.
When others mocked the plans he was formulating, Herzl said, “Dreams and deeds are not as different as many people think. All deeds are dreams at first and dreams come to an end.”
Such is Israel today: a dream come true that inspires the dreams of people all over the world. Such was also Amos Oz, a writer who rarely managed to find and live the harmony between love for his country and the universal ethical call to respect the dignity of the other. I look at his grave one last time and go back to greet and thank Ruty and David, who with their hospitality gave meaning to my intellectual pilgrimage to Oz’s grave.
Dr. Blerim Latifi is professor of philosophy in Kosovo