Amos Oz's 'A Tale of Love and Darkness' returns to Jerusalem

Seeing A Tale of Love and Darkness and understanding it in the context of the Jerusalem-centered SidraTarbut sheds a new light on the city.

 ACTOR PETER KNOLLER gets into the character of a young Amos Oz. (photo credit: YINON FOX)
ACTOR PETER KNOLLER gets into the character of a young Amos Oz.
(photo credit: YINON FOX)

Since its publication in 2002, Amos Oz’s novel A Tale of Love and Darkness has entered into the canon of modern Israeli literature, becoming a well-known classic.

In the early 2010s, a production company owned by Israeli-born American actress Natalie Portman acquired the rights to the story. In 2015, Portman made her debut as a film writer and director, starring in the film adaptation of the novel as Oz’s mother. Four years later, Israeli writer and director Aya Kaplan brought the novel to the stage at Jerusalem’s Khan Theater.

Unfortunately, the show’s run was cut short by the pandemic. Luckily for those of us in Jerusalem in 2022, the Jerusalem Foundation and the Mandel Foundation teamed up to create the SidraTarbut for the second summer in a row, adding A Tale of Love and Darkness to their roster of Jerusalem-based cultural events throughout the summer. As darkness sets in earlier each evening this autumn, the tale is relevant as ever.

“At SidraTarbut Festival, we celebrate arts and culture that emerge from the city’s ever-changing here and now,” says Ruth Diskin, director of projects, culture and arts at the Jerusalem Foundation. “For two months at the height of summer, SidraTarbut invites Jerusalem to reflect upon itself – and Jerusalemites to celebrate themselves – through a rich series of events and artistic offerings that span the entire city and present the best and most contemporary creative works. Free of charge, in the open air and in the city’s well-known institutions, in all the languages and idioms that comprise the Jerusalem dialect, for families of all types and classes, this is our gift to the city that never ceases to activate us, intrigue us and excite the entire world.”

“For two months at the height of summer, SidraTarbut invites Jerusalem to reflect upon itself – and Jerusalemites to celebrate themselves – through a rich series of events and artistic offerings that span the entire city and present the best and most contemporary creative works. Free of charge, in the open air and in the city’s well-known institutions, in all the languages and idioms that comprise the Jerusalem dialect, for families of all types and classes, this is our gift to the city that never ceases to activate us, intrigue us and excite the entire world.”

Ruth Diskin
 JERUSALEM FOUNDATION culture and arts director Ruth Diskin, a longtime member of the Khan Theater’s board of directors, speaks before the show.  (credit: YINON FOX) JERUSALEM FOUNDATION culture and arts director Ruth Diskin, a longtime member of the Khan Theater’s board of directors, speaks before the show. (credit: YINON FOX)

Diskin worked closely with Ronen Yitzhaki as co-artistic directors for the SidraTarbut summer of programming.

An emotional memoir of life in Jerusalem

A Tale of Love and Darkness is Oz’s memoir, focusing primarily on his childhood in Jerusalem in the years leading up to and immediately after the State of Israel’s establishment in 1948. His parents and grandparents escaped World War II to come to Israel and carried a significant amount of trauma with them. They refused to speak about the Holocaust or any sensitive topics with young Amos. The story centers around Oz’s attempt to grapple as an adult with his mother’s mental health issues during his childhood and her suicide in 1952 when he was 12 years old.

Diskin is also on the Khan Theater’s board of directors and described her excitement to be seeing the theater put on shows again after more than two years of the pandemic.

“The theater, like so many other institutions, struggled during COVID to keep the place, the wonderful ensemble and the artistic and professional teams,” she explains. “While doing so, they were very creative and found new ways to reach out to audiences and keep on performing despite the restrictions.

“I will point out only two examples: the site specific play A Wedding in Times of Plague, directed by Aya Kaplan, which took place at Hansen House. This play had more than 40 sold-out runs during the summer of 2020.

“Another sold-out, beautiful play that was especially produced during COVID was Tehila, based on Shai Agnon’s masterful story. It took place in the small alleys of the Yemin Moshe neighborhood.”

Before the performance of A Tale of Love and Darkness, scholar and executive director of the Jerusalem Philanthropic Initiatives, Chaya Gilboa, gave an introduction.

She spoke about the difference between Jerusalem’s big places – the Western Wall, the Tower of David, the shuk – and its small places. Big places have inherent importance that anyone can feel when they visit. Small places derive their magic from the people who make memories there. The example given was that a woman who accepted a marriage proposal on a certain bench in Nahlaot will feel butterflies when she sees that bench, but to everyone else it is just a bench.

The show itself was lovely, although I fear it might fall a bit flat on those not familiar with the story. This is not necessarily an inherent drawback – not all art is meant to be beheld in a vacuum.

Having read A Tale of Love and Darkness, I can say that the stage adaptation was true to its spirit. The book is meant to feel like peering into someone’s distant memories, with some details omitted and others embellished.

During the first several scenes of the play, the set is primarily a wall of black construction paper, with sparse furniture taken in and out as needed. With each new setting, a section of the paper is torn away to reveal another small part of the set. At the end of the first act, all the paper is torn away to reveal Oz’s childhood home, full of bookshelves filled to the brim with books.

Additionally, the narrative framework of the play often breaks with the fourth wall performance convention, with the adult Amos Oz (actor) periodically stopping the action and asking questions of his family members, playing out his memories.

Touches like these, which evoke the ethos of a memoir, as well as the moments in the show that directly quote the book, were extremely powerful. The main reason I recommend reading the novel before seeing the play is so that viewers can fully appreciate these subtleties, which enhance the experience.

Diskin says that her favorite scene is “when the Klausner family and their neighbors are standing on Jaffa Road, surrounded by thousands of anxious Jews, listening breathlessly to the radio when the members of the UN are voting for or against the establishment of the Jewish state. And as soon as the vote is done and the majority votes in favor of the new state, the burst of the spontaneous joy, tears, hugs and dance, which is shattered so quickly when the War of Independence starts.”

She explains that “being a daughter of a Holocaust survivor mom and a Sephardi Jew who was born in the Old City, this moment will always be so meaningful and moving for me, no matter how many times I’ll read about it or see it in a play or movie. I remember crying, sobbing wet, while reading it.”

If you are familiar with the story and have a chance to do so, I do recommend seeing the stage adaptation of A Tale of Love and Darkness. Beyond that, I can also recommend keeping an eye on what is coming up at the Khan Theater.

Seeing A Tale of Love and Darkness and understanding it in the context of the Jerusalem-centered SidraTarbut sheds a new light on the city.

If you are coming to Jerusalem, consider taking in some local art in addition to the normal tourist destinations. Jerusalem has more to offer than just the big places. ❖