Lives on the Ground
Six decades since the birth of Israel and the demise of Palestine, fifteen years after Oslo, seven past the start of the second intifada, just months beyond Annapolis, and the mere mention of Holy Land politics will, more likely than not, cause even the sharpest of eyes to glaze over. The arguments for and against this particular peace plan or that interim solution have by now become so predictable that a macabre kind of repetition compulsion has set in, with all the parties behaving a bit like Karen, the doomed heroine of Hans Christian Andersen's "Red Shoes," who finds she can't take off her weirdly possessed slippers and so dances herself to death.
Which isn't to say that one should stop caring or paying attention. And here I speak not as an observer from afar but as someone who lives in Jerusalem and who continues--with a Karen-like helplessness I can't deny--to start each day with a blast of bad news from the local newspaper and the tired rhetoric that inevitably attends the discussion of crumbling Knesset coalitions and Gaza power plays. The stories of individual people who live and breathe the sweeping political choices made by prime ministers and presidents are, however, another matter, especially when such eyewitnesses reflect on their lives in print. Memoirs of this sort offer readers the chance not to escape politics but to grasp the flesh-and-blood implications of all those generalizing gestures made on high.
Read side by side, two of the most celebrated recent autobiographical books from this beleaguered patch of land emphasize just how distinct two adjoining Middle Eastern microcosms can be. A Tale of Love and Darkness, by Israeli novelist Amos Oz, and Once Upon a Country, by Palestinian philosophy professor and Al-Quds University president Sari Nusseibeh (with Anthony David), offer drastically different views of Israel/Palestine and more specifically of the Jerusalem where both men grew up.
Since his third book, the darkly psychosexual and historically charged My Michael, appeared in 1968, Oz has filled the role of one of Israel's most respected and "representative" novelists. Over the years, though, his high-profile public persona--ruggedly handsome, casually dressed, calmly articulate moral spokesman for the Ashkenazi center-left (he was one of the founders of Peace Now and has remained an unwavering advocate of a two-state solution)--has, in a sense, overshadowed his fiction writing. His allies and enemies alike tend to know his craggy visage and political positions better than the contents of his recent novels, and it is only half in jest that he is often called the chief rabbi of the state's secular liberals. That said, Oz's twenty-third title, an account of his humble beginnings in the Jewish Jerusalem of the 1940s, has become something else altogether--a "cult book," as it has been described, snatched up by more than 100,000 Israelis during just the first two years following its publication in 2002. (Nicholas de Lange's lucid English translation appeared in 2004.) It is one of Israel's bestselling books of all time. Clearly, many identify deeply with both the personal and national story Oz tells; Israeli critics have compared his epic to those by Proust and Mann, and some local readers have even labeled it a kind of contemporary Israeli bible.
Hardly holy writ, A Tale of Love and Darkness is, in fact, an intimate exfoliation of the life of the author's immigrant family--at the center of which rests the awful fact of his mother's suicide when he was 12 years old. The book succeeds powerfully as an affectionate depiction of the hothouse atmosphere of this particular home and the wider (though still ingrown) community of prestate Jerusalem's Jewish oddballs, nudniks and voracious readers. These were European refugees who embodied at the same time the most cosmopolitan sort of learning and the most profound sort of provincialism. Oz's librarian father, Arieh Klausner, was a frustrated scholar who "could read sixteen or seventeen languages and could speak eleven (all with a Russian accent)." He was also a man who, together with his dreamy wife, Fania, and precocious son, Amos, would spend months making arrangements and preparing mentally for the most solemn ritual of walking five minutes to the local pharmacy to telephone relatives in far-off Tel Aviv.
The peculiarly truncated sense of scale that Oz conveys--in which the entire known universe appears to exist within a few bedraggled blocks--is a perfect encapsulation of both a coddled child's perspective and the true Jerusalem syndrome, familiar from those medieval maps that turned the town into the omphalos, the hub around which the rest of creation revolves. Libraries loom large in this cramped cityscape--so much so that Oz announces at one point, "When I was little, my ambition was to grow up to be a book." The line is amusing, though Oz's aspiration to bookishness is also an indication of what ails his memoir, which despite its various charms is often oppressively literary.
A kind of horror vacui dominates, with Oz pumping his pages full of superfluous descriptions, similes, metaphors and words, words, words; his favorite mode is the rambling list. The book is too long by at least 200 pages, and the author repeats himself shamelessly. Every time borscht is served, for instance, there is an "iceberg of sour cream floating in it," so that the epithet comes to seem downright Homeric. The same jokes are trotted out several times, as are the same grim anecdotes about European anti-Semitism. On one page, as part of a 101-word sentence (102 in Hebrew, a language known for its compaction), he describes the
opposite Jerusalem, the Jerusalem I hardly knew, the Abyssinian, Arab, pilgrim, Ottoman, missionary, German, Greek, brooding, Armenian, American, monastic, Italian, Russian Jerusalem, thick with pine trees, menacing yet fascinating...
Then, less than twenty pages later, and without any apparent self-awareness or memory of the lexical glut he has so recently unleashed, Oz sets out to account for the
other Jerusalem...the alien, aloof, shrouded Jerusalem, the Abyssinian, Muslim, pilgrim, Ottoman city, the strange missionary city of crusaders and Templars, the Greek, Armenian, Italian, brooding, Anglican...
He drones on this time for a full 134 words.
Oz's tendency toward verbal excess--why use two words when twelve will do?--reflects self-indulgence of a fundamental sort. A deep-seated narcissism runs through the heart of this ultimately rather preening book, and it all too often blocks Oz's view of the rich human scene he sets out to portray. More than a tribute to the lost world of Jerusalem's refugee intellectuals, A Tale of Love and Darkness is really the author's song--or opera--of himself. Which is not to say that larger political or social concerns are absent from the book. If anything, they're inextricably bound to Oz's sense of himself as shining representative of the Jewish state and its put-upon Eastern European founders.
To judge from the book's runaway commercial and critical success, this is precisely the role that many readers want him to play: chief rabbi indeed--and maybe also poster boy for a kind of noble victimhood that many twenty-first-century Israelis cling to as a frantic form of self-justification. As Oz made explicit in various interviews published at the time of the book's publication, he feels his parents' class of impecunious, decidedly non-elite Ashkenazim, together with the entire Zionist project, has gotten a bum rap in recent years; his memoir is his attempt to set the record straight--and perhaps to assure his devoted local audience that they are not the bad guys, they are not to blame. The 1948 war was one "the Arabs started," he writes. His parents and their neighbors were good but desperate people, with threadbare clothes and no other refuge from Hitler's Europe but Palestine. A few days after the UN partition plan was announced, "hundreds of armed Arabs came out of the Old City, singing bloodthirsty songs, roaring verses from the Qur'an, howling 'idbah al-Yahud' (butcher the Jews), and firing volleys in the air." Pity me, pity us--Oz cries out: we suffered too. Like so many tales told in this part of the world, it is all about me and we. They still barely exist.