I’ve always been intrigued by the conflict of setting – where we find ourselves versus where we feel we truly belong. Perhaps it’s because I grew up at a crossroads: the daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants in New Jersey, in a family of passionate Zionists who had somehow gotten off the boat at the wrong stop.
As a child and teenager, I struggled with the understanding that I belonged everywhere and nowhere. At home I heard nostalgic songs about the blossoming chestnut trees of Kiev; on the street I played in the shade of American oak trees; and in my yeshiva day schools, I was taught to dream of the cedars of Jerusalem. Three languages, three sets of literature, three codes of etiquette and humor. While my parents had supposedly left the icy depths of galuth life behind, I wondered whether I was even more of a rootless Diaspora Jew than my predecessors had been.
It was probably this inner turmoil – the tug of Diaspora and Promised Land, the ghosts of Jewish history and the hint of a different future – that drew me to the books of Amos Oz.
Born in Jerusalem a decade before the birth of the State of Israel, Oz is decidedly modern, emphatically Israeli. His narratives take place in the streets of Jerusalem, in the hills of the desert, in the fields of the kibbutz. Oz became a symbol of the new and redeemed Jew: blonde-haired, blue-eyed, penning poetry after a long day in the kibbutz field.
Yet, however “Israeli” his writing may be, his crisp Hebrew prose is inescapably haunted by the lyricism of another language and culture: that of the forests of Russia and of the European cities of his parents’ past. Oz had grown up in a home in which Europe “was a forbidden promised land.” In his memoir, “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” Oz describes his parents as yearning for a “landscape of belfries and squares paved with ancient flagstones, of trams and bridges and church spires, remote villages, spa towns, forests and snow-covered meadows.”
I was fascinated by the duality of nostalgia and belonging in Oz’s writing, both in his memoir as well as in his other novels, to the point where I realized I simply had to write my undergraduate thesis on this subject. Working under the direction of Dr. Linda Shires, who heads Stern College’s English department, I began sketching the outline for a research project on the immigrant narrative of early Israel and mapped out a work schedule.
Thank goodness, my research and summer plans melded perfectly. I was offered a position as a counselor for Counterpoint Israel – Yeshiva University’s annual summer service learning initiative that sends delegations of students from the university to the Negev to run summer camps for teenagers from low socioeconomic backgrounds – and by coincidence, or not, I found myself in the group headed for Arad, hometown of Amos Oz himself.
Perhaps, I thought hopefully, I’ll see him. Bump into him in the corner grocery as he’s picking up a carton of milk. Or I’ll wake up at dawn and walk casually by his house, where he’ll no doubt be sitting writing alongside a cup of tea.
I set off for Israel this past June, a few weeks early, so as to embark on my own personal study of Oz and his works. By the time my friends arrived, I had already read his books in both Hebrew and English, studied the analytic papers written on the myriad themes and images and allusions that appear in them, and even met with professors of modern Hebrew literature.
And while I continued to toy with the idea of speaking to the writer himself, to get authoritative answers to some of my questions, I was sure the world-renowned author wouldn’t have time for an overeager undergraduate student. I mentioned the idea to Gila Rockman, Counterpoint Israel’s director, hoping she would say just the right thing to finally dissuade me of the notion. To my surprise, she agreed to take on the challenge immediately. Still, nothing could have prepared me for the hot Negev afternoon in which my camp supervisor approached me, cellphone in hand, saying, “Avital, Amos Oz is waiting for your call.”
An hour later, I was on the phone with the prolific writer, cultural ambassador of Israel and my own literary role model. The interview that then followed, and the experience of speaking to the writer whose writing I’ve emulated for years, was everything I could have hoped for, and then some.
“I think many Israeli writers are either immigrants or children of immigrants,” he explained. “And they still share this ambivalence, this love-hate relationship with the Old Country.”
We discussed history, religion, personal stories, literature, immigration and all of its painful implications. I asked him all the questions that had arisen as I read his books, the paradoxes I had wondered about, the subjects I could not find in any previously published interview with him. Mr. Oz answered each question patiently, eloquently.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t meet with you personally,” he added at the end, explaining that he was unwell at the moment. “Please give me a ring next time you are in the country. I’d love to have you for a cup of coffee.”
I happily agreed and quickly began calculating when I could make my next trip to Israel.
“Avital, I hope you make aliyah some day,” he said, and I could hear the smile in his voice. “And soon, you, too, will develop this love-hate relationship.”