A walk through time

Amos Oz's 'A Tale of Love and Darkness' is an allegorical and literal guidebook through the Kerem Avraham neighborhood

amos oz injer88 (photo credit: )
amos oz injer88
(photo credit: )
In writing A Tale of Love and Darkness (translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange and published in London by Chatto and Windus in 2004) Amos Oz has created a lavish, intricate, panoramic memoir that is part autobiography, part the epic story of the establishment of the State of Israel. Brilliantly and sensitively, with tempered irony and forgiving humor, Oz tells both the intimate story of his own family and the collective story of European Jews' search for refuge and safety. Ne Klausner, Amos Oz was born and grew up in Kerem Avraham, just off Mea She'arim. As in so many of Oz's writings, most of the book takes place in this small area, less than one square kilometer in size. Oz has written that he doesn't like to come back here now, calling himself "a stranger in a very strange city." Yet, throughout its many layers, A Tale of Love and Darkness is also an allegorical and literal guidebook through Kerem Avraham and Jerusalem. With his precise and evocative prose, Oz takes the reader through the dark streets and grimy alleyways of his childhood. A Tale of Love and Darkness is thus especially suited to an increasingly popular pastime in Jerusalem and throughout Israel - walking tours of neighborhoods according to literature. The novels of Haim Be'er, Dan Benaya Seri, Eli Amir and A.B. Yehoshua and the poetry of Haim Guri and Yehuda Amihai provide poignant insights into Jerusalem's past history and current reality. Organizations such as Yad Ben-Zvi, as well as private guides and entrepreneurs, combine social history and political geography with literature, fact and fantasy, especially in Jerusalem, to produce tours that are both informative and lucrative. ehama Shafran, a Jerusalem tour guide, particularly enjoys walking through Kerem Avraham according to A Tale of Love and Darkness. Revealing that she has read it nearly a dozen times, Shafran says, "Oz records the past for the generation that grew up with the establishment of the state. The experiences he writes about were their experiences, too. He describes them beautifully, with a sensitivity that makes them feel he understands their lives, too. And touring the neighborhood according to this magnificent book gives younger people an opportunity for nostalgia, and to see what we have gained and what we have lost." She continues, "Jerusalem is an unknown city, even to those who live here." IN OZ'S novel-memoir, time does not progress linearly. Time in Kerem Avraham in Jerusalem is not linear, either. Following the routes that Oz took as a child, it sometimes seems that time has collapsed and that the narrow alleyways and dark streets look now as they did then. At other times, it seems as if time has expanded and all has changed. SOME OF the landscape has changed. Amos Klausner could see the monument of Nebi Samuel, the Shomron and radio Ramallah, far in the distance. Now, viewed from the rooftops of the taller buildings, Nebi Samuel is closer, approachable, connected by Route 443 and the bypass roads that lead to New Givon and beyond. Then, the Tel Arza area to the north was open space and dense groves, where the geeky, bookish Amos tried to keep up with his more precocious and savvy friends. But the groves have been replaced by the densely-built haredi neighborhoods that author Haim Be'er calls the "Cholent Belt." And the horizon is dominated by the imposing, fantastical Belz building, reminiscent, perhaps, of a Hassid's imaginative view of the Third Temple. IN AN exciting passage, Oz describes November 29, 1947, when he, his family, and the entire Yishuv listened to the UN vote on partition. "Then there was dancing and weeping in Amos Street, in the whole of Kerem Avraham and in all the Jewish neighborhoods; flags appeared and slogans written on strips of cloth, car horns blared... Mr. Auster suddenly opened his shop and all the kiosks... opened and the bars opened up all over the city and handed out soft drinks and snacks and even wine passed from hand to hand and from mouth to mouth, strangers hugged each other in the streets and kissed each other with tears..." INDEED, A Tale of Love of Darkness can also been seen as an argument, even a polemic, against post-Zionism and those who would condemn the Zionist movement as a colonialist enterprise. But the polemic is lost on today's residents of Kerem Avraham, and signs of Israeli sovereignty are few and far between. Plastered on billboards and walls, pashkavillim (broadsheets) admonishing passersby not to vote in the "wicked elections" are still visible. EVEN AS a child, he writes, Oz knew that his surroundings were drab and grim. Yet, in its own way, the neighborhood was somehow cosmopolitan, varied and tolerant, made up, Oz writes, of merchants and craftspeople, intellectuals and civil servants, who held to various degrees of religious observance and non-observance, Holocaust survivors, ideologically driven immigrants, people who had come out of religious conviction - sometimes all three. And that small neighborhood fostered a certain intellectual climate, unique to Jerusalem, that produced some of Israel's most noted intellectuals and philosophers: in addition to Oz, authors A.B. Yehoshua and Haim Be'er and professors of philosophy Menachem Brinker, Avishai Margalit and Adi Zemach, for example, were all born within less than a kilometer of each other, although may not all have known each other then. Kerem Avraham is no longer varied and today fosters a very different intellectual climate. Nearly completely haredi, Kerem Avraham is filled with small heders (schools) and batei midrash (study halls), some in multi-story buildings with impressive facades, others crammed into apartments and even storage rooms. The tolerance is gone, too, and the community is insular, unwelcoming to outsiders. "Gehn in drerd," a woman hisses in Yiddish. THEN, AS now, Kerem Avraham was a complex interplay of social marginalities and centralities. Oz describes the lives of a community that is seldom discussed or described in Israeli literature - the Revisionist Zionists who settled in Palestine in the 1930s. They were not the Laborites who dominated Israeli politics until 1977; they were petty merchants, professionals, and academics with too much education and yet strikingly provincial; hapless, disappointed and displaced people who lived there because every other country they tried to enter - including Germany - refused to allow them in. "I UNDERSTOOD where I had come from... where unhappy bookbinders invented formulas for universal salvation... where piano teachers, kindergarten teachers and housewives tossed and turned tearfully at night from stifled yearning for an emotion-laden artistic life... where cashiers at the cinema or the cooperative shop composed poems and pamphlets at night... "And in the 1950s, even my family's Revisionist background had a dimension of outsiderness to it. We were outcasts to some degree. We who weren't from the mainstream." Of himself, Oz has written elsewhere that he had been, "A poetic and dreamy boy whose language was too fancy for a time when the call was for athletes and pioneers and tractor drivers also contained an element of being alien and foreign and unwanted... The ones who are unwanted by the unwanted - the Jews' Jews." But Oz loathed his position. Soon after his mother's suicide, he uprooted himself, ran away to be a "true" Sabra on Kibbutz Hulda, repudiating his parents' ideology, lifestyle, and world view as he had been rejected by the mainstream. The community that lives here now has chosen to reject the mainstream. Their marginality is deliberate, self-assured and assertive. AND YET there are changes here, too. Young girls with heavy braids and waisted dresses reminiscent of Shalom Aleichem mix with girls modestly, but more fashionably, dressed in jeans skirts and suits. A new store sells women's fashions, "Sheinkeit" - Shein (beautiful) but also, although perhaps not deliberately, Sheinkin, the Tel Aviv hotspot. The municipality has decided to renovate the neighborhood, and some of the streets will soon become comfortable pedestrian malls. Oz describes the sounds of the stone masons who worked in the streets, a sound replaced now by the grind of bulldozers and jackhammers. THE HOUSE on 18 Rehov Amos, where Oz grew up, still exists and still looks much as he describes it. I was born and bred in a tiny, low-ceilinged ground-floor flat…It was actually a basement flat, as the ground floor of the building had been hollowed out of the rocky hillside. This hill was our next-door neighbor, a heavy-introverted, silent neighbor, an old, sad hill with the regular habits of a bachelor, a drowsy, wintry hill that never scraped the furniture or entertained guests, never made a noise or disturbed us, but through the party walls there seeped constantly towards us, like a faint yet persistent musty smell, the cold, dark silence and dampness of this melancholy neighbor of ours. Consequently right through the summer there was always a hint of winter in our house. THE HOUSE is still surrounded by the same harsh, hard Jerusalem dirt where Oz and his father cleared away the weeds and thistles and tried, unsuccessfully, to grow a vegetable garden. The walkway is still paved with the painted stone tiles. And like eternal sentries, next to the windows, are the same little manikins: "The little men who hold the shutters open during the day, those little metal figures: when you wanted to close the shutters, you swiveled them round so that all night long they hung head down." They remind Oz of the way they hanged Mussolini, after The War. SHAFRAN leads the tour over to the pharmacy on Rehov Zfania. An unremarkable structure, it is still a pharmacy today, more modern of course, yet still a bit old-fashioned, not a chain-store or a "super-" of any kind. In Oz's time, the neighborhood pharmacy was also the site of the neighborhood phone. It is the scene of one of Oz's most memorable descriptions, told with precise prose and ironic sensitivity. "I don't remember whether we put on our best clothes for the expedition to the chemist's , for the phone call to Tel Aviv, but it wouldn't surprise me if we did. It was a solemn undertaking…. …Then all of a sudden the phone would ring there in the chemist's, and it was always such an exciting sound, such a magical moment, and the conversation went something like this: Hallo, Tsvi? Speaking. It's Arieh here, in Jerusalem. Yes, Arieh, hallo, it's Tsvi here, how are you? Everything is fine here. We're speaking from the chemist's. So are we. What's new? Nothing new here. How about at your end, Tsvi? Tell us how it's going. Everything is OK. Nothing special to report. We're all well. No news is good news. There's no news here, either. We're all fine. How about you? We're fine, too. That's good. Now Fania wants to speak to you. And then the same think all over again... and that was the whole conversation. But it was no joke: our lives hung by a thread. I realize now that they were not at all sure they would really talk again, this might be the last time, who knew what would happen, there could be riots, a pogrom, a bloodbath, the Arabs might rise up and slaughter the lot of us, there might be a war, a terrible disaster, after all, Hitler's tanks had almost reached our doorstep from two direction… This empty conversation was not really empty, it was just awkward." "WHAT ARE you doing here?" a teenage girl in a school uniform demands in American-accented Hebrew. Shown a copy of A Tale of Love and Darkness in Hebrew, she looks away. Shown a copy in English, she feigns slight interest. "Oh, so you're touring our neighborhood?" she asks, a bit nastily. "Should we sell tickets? Or do you just want to stare at us. This isn't a zoo, you know." And she turns and walks away. A WALK through Kerem Avraham with Shafran leads to other surprises, too. The neighborhood, (literally, Abraham's Vineyard) was named for the large, mid-19th century home of James Finn, the British consul in Jerusalem. Finn and his wife, Elizabeth, established a farm here, employing up to 200 religious Jews, with the goal of teaching them productive skills. Finn's expansive compound has been purchased by the Karlin-Stolin hassidic group which has renovated it carefully and tastefully. Unlike most of their neighbors, the Karlin-Stolin are openly Zionist, flying the Israeli flag and even preserving rich archeological finds, in coordination with the Antiquities Authority. THE IMPOSING Schneller Compound, on Rehov Malhei Yisrael, figures prominently in Oz's book, since he had to pass it every day as he walked to school: From sandbagged positions on top of the walls, nervous, Jew-hating, or simply drunken British soldiers sometimes fired on passersby in the street below. Once they opened fire with a machine gun and killed the milkman's donkey because they were afraid that the milk churns were full of explosives.... But the Schneller Compound has its own history, too. The land was purchased in 1865 by German missionaries, part of the Christian exodus from the Old City which took place parallel to the Jewish exodus. It was built as the then ultra-modern school to train orphans from Syria (now Lebanon) in the hi-tech skills of the time. Abandoned over the years, the British took over the compound during the Mandate. Since the establishment of the state it has served as an IDF base. A few soldiers, male and female, stand about, seemingly aimlessly, making almost no contact with the haredi men and women who bustle by. The army base inside is being dismantled. The Schneller Compound is slated for development as a luxury housing project. Across the street, rows of low buildings once housed the teachers at the orphanage. Above each doorway, the original residents had chiseled the names of their home towns in central Germany. Over a century and a half later, the current residents have chiseled off or painted out these foreign, unholy names. But as A Tale of Love and Darkness shows, history is never obliterated that easily. Especially not in Jerusalem.