Amos Oz in conversation with Shira Hadad
shira hadad: I want to ask you about your family name, which you changed from Klausner to Oz when you left your father’s house to go to a kibbutz at the age of fourteen and a half. You write about that only very briefly in A Tale of Love and Darkness. How did you choose Oz, a name that means courage or strength?
amos oz: I don’t remember exactly, but maybe when I felt I was going to leave home to go to a kibbutz, courage and strength were what I lacked the most. It was like jumping off a diving board at night without knowing whether there’s water in the pool. So that name, Oz, was a bit of wishful thinking. Besides, maybe – and I’m not quite sure about what I’m about to tell you, because really, it’s been more than sixty years – maybe because there was a slight similarity between the middle letters of Klausner and the word oz. Maybe, but I’m not sure. It’s the name a fourteen-year-old boy chose, like whistling in the dark. Today, I would never choose such a resounding name for myself.
hadad: What name would you choose today?
oz: A much quieter one, even a bit more common: Oren. Gal. Evin.
hadad: Amos Oren. Amos Gal. Maybe you would be a different man and a different writer if that was your name. Was it clear to you that you were going to change your name?
oz: Yes, absolutely. When I decided to cut all ties and leave home, I didn’t want to belong to them. Not to the famous, esteemed professor and not to the one who craved to be a professor. I didn’t want to belong to them. The only person I felt bad about was my grandfather Alexander: I didn’t want to cause him pain.
hadad: In 1970, you wrote, ‘I abandoned the Klausner name only because I thought that a young man who is beginning to write well, to walk on his own feet, should not be borne into literature on broad shoulders.’ Meaning that you connected the name change to writing, to the need to make a place for yourself as a young writer. And today your explanation is a little different, maybe deeper. Do you remember how your father and your great-uncle reacted?
oz: My father took it very badly. He suffered a great deal. He said, ‘Amos Klausner, that’s not a name you just throw away. You’re an only son.’ At the time, I was an only son. My cousin Daniel was murdered by the Nazis, my great-uncle Josef had no children and my uncle Bezalel had already changed his name to Elizedek, so who was left? ‘Only you,’ he told me. It wasn’t easy. Not for me either. It hurt me, what he said: that no one was left to bear the name Klausner. Later, my father remarried and my sister Marganita and my brother David were born, but I changed my name even before that.
hadad: Were you ever sorry for that?
oz: No. But I think that while I was writing A Tale of Love and Darkness, I made up for it because anyone can find out what came before Oz. Half made up for it. But no, I never regretted it. When I went to the kibbutz, I said that was my name, and two days after my sixteenth birthday, I went to the Interior Ministry office in Ramla and changed it on my identity card, because according to the law, you can’t legally change your name until you’re sixteen.
hadad: But on the kibbutz, they called you Oz even before you did that.
hadad: You just told them that was your name?
oz: Yes. I think even the kibbutz didn’t know. Except for the school principal, Ozer Huldai, who had the documents. I asked him not to tell the other boys, and they didn’t know my real name. But somehow, I have no idea how, they found out that I was from a right-wing Revisionist family, and Revisionism was the ideological enemy of the labor Zionists who founded the kibbutz movement. So some of them suspected I was a kind of fifth column, maybe I’d come to spy. It really wasn’t fair, because I was the most left-wing person in Kibbutz Hulda. I can tell you another secret: in Hulda, at elections, the entire kibbutz always voted for the center-left Mapai Party, and they were very proud that Mapai received one hundred percent of the votes. In the evening, right after the votes had been counted, they would post a note on the bulletin board: ‘This time too, Mapai received one hundred percent of our votes.’ That’s how it was until the 1960 elections, when there was a huge scandal in Hulda. As the votes were being counted, they suddenly found one vote for the left-wing party, Mapam. The entire kibbutz moved heaven and Earth to find out who the traitor was. But they never did. They suspected Elyosha, suspected Honzo, but it was me. That was the first time I had the right to vote, and I simply betrayed them and voted for Mapam, and I didn’t tell anyone. I was that kind of fifth column. Today they’re gone, that older generation in Hulda. If they had known about it, they would have killed me. I never voted for Mapai in my life. Ever. Shimon Peres and I were friends for almost forty years, but I never voted for him or his party. And he knew it.
hadad: When you moved to the kibbutz as a teenager, you also decided to stop writing stories.
oz: I started writing when I was a child. Even before I was taught how to write, I would make up stories and tell them, because that was the only thing I had to offer: I wasn’t tall, or athletic, or a good student, and I didn’t know how to dance or make people laugh. The only way I could impress girls was to tell them stories. I used to make up stories and tell them in installments. The children – even the girls – would gather to hear my stories because I put a lot of suspense, action and violence in them. And even sometimes, a bit of romance. So as a child in Jerusalem, I would stand in Pnina’s kindergarten during recess and tell suspenseful stories in installments to the other children, boys and girls. Later, in the Tachkemoni religious elementary school, during every recess a circle of boys would gather around me, even those who, before or after the stories, used to hit me. Maybe because I expressed myself well and that annoyed them.
Later on, in Kibbutz Hulda, I started to write in the back room of the kibbutz culture hall. That distressed me very much because, after all, I had left my home in Jerusalem in order to cut all ties with the entire world of books and writing. When I left my father’s house, I was done with writing. I didn’t want to be a writer, didn’t want to write stories, I wanted to be a tall, suntanned tractor driver. What I wanted most of all was to be very suntanned and very, very tall. So girls would finally pay attention to me too.
hadad: And you failed at that. I don’t mean at being suntanned or tall, but at not writing stories.
oz: In the end, I did manage to get a bit tanned, but I failed miserably at being tall. And writing stories – that urge was stronger than I. Stronger than the shame. I would walk over to the back room at night, the reading room in the culture hall at the far end of the kibbutz. The boys were out playing basketball or chasing girls, and since I had no chance at either, I sat there alone in that back room of the culture hall and wrote poems. I was fifteen or sixteen, and so ashamed. As ashamed as I was when I masturbated. What are you doing? What on Earth are you doing? What the hell are you doing? Are you crazy? Just a minute ago you promised yourself you were done with it, that you’d never do it again, so what’s all this now? Again? When will you ever stop? But I couldn’t stop. In fact, in that back room I stopped writing poems and began to try prose. Sherwood Anderson freed my writing hand, but I think I’ve already written about that in A Tale of Love and Darkness.
When I was in the army, I started publishing stories in the very prestigious literary magazine Keshet, edited by Aharon Amir. I think I sent him one story, which he rejected. Then I sent another one, and he wrote me a postcard with five words on it: ‘Well done! It’s being printed.’
One of my first stories published in Keshet was ‘The Way the Wind Blows’, a story about a paratrooper who lands on live electric wires. It was partially based on a disaster that happened in the fields of Kibbutz Hulda during a parachuting show on Independence Day. Maybe three or four years after that story was published, it was suddenly added to the Ministry of Education’s required reading list for the literature matriculation exam. I took my matriculation exams while I was doing my compulsory army service. If I had done it a few years later, I most likely would have been tested on that story. And I probably would have failed.
I wrote a story, then another story, then another one. And I received two or three letters that were some help to me in overcoming my dread that maybe I wasn’t any good at all. Although I didn’t know her, the poet Dahlia Ravikovitch wrote one of her heartwarming Dahlia-esque letters that began with the words, ‘I hear you’re an extraordinarily young person.’ I fell a little bit in love with her because of her poems and that letter, and that was even before I met her. But I remember cutting her picture out of the newspaper literary supplement and putting it between the pages of her book, The Love of an Orange. (In my mind, I always called Dahlia Ravikovitch ‘golden apple’, the original Hebrew term for orange.) But I never told her I was a little bit in love with her, and I never told her she was a golden apple.
More than fifty years ago, when my first book, Where the Jackals Howl, came out, I went to the kibbutz secretariat and asked for one day a week to write. A heated argument broke out, but not between good and bad people, or enlightened and ignorant people. Those who were against my request had two reasons: first, anyone can say he’s an artist. And who will milk the cows? One will want to be a photographer, one a dancer, one a sculptor and one a movie maker. So who will milk the cows?
Besides, that kibbutz committee said, and justifiably so, that they weren’t qualified to decide who’s an artist and who isn’t. ‘If we give Amos time to write, we’ll have to give time to everyone else who asks for it. After all, we have no way of ranking self-proclaimed artists.’ That was a solid argument. I had no answer for it. I couldn’t stand there like a gorilla pounding its chest and say, ‘No, but I’m special. I’m not like anyone else.’ There was an old man sitting there – when I say old, I mean forty, forty-five, because we all called the founders old, even they called themselves old. His name was David Ofer, and he said – I’ll never forget it – ‘Young Amos might be a new Tolstoy. But at the age of twenty-two, what does he know about life? Nothing. He knows nothing. Let him work in the fields with us for another twenty, twenty-five years, and then he can write War and Peace for us.’ That was a weighty reason. To this day I’m not entirely convinced there wasn’t something in what he said.
There were discussions, there were arguments, votes and appeals, and in the end, it reached the kibbutz general meeting, where I was granted one day a week, provided that on the other days I worked twice as hard. And so I was given one day a week to write and on the other days, I worked in the fields. Later on, I taught in the local high school, known on the kibbutz as ‘advanced education’.
I used to go into the bathroom to write My Michael. At the time, we lived in a one-and-a-half-room apartment and the bathroom was the size of an airplane toilet. And I didn’t sleep half the night. I would write in the bathroom and smoke until midnight, or one o’clock, for as long as I could hold out. I would sit on the toilet seat cover, a Van Gogh album we’d received as a wedding gift on my lap, a pad of letter paper on the album, a ballpoint pen in one hand, a lit cigarette in the other. That’s how I wrote My Michael. At least most of it.
Often, when people tell me they’re traveling somewhere to find inspiration for a book, a place of mountains or lakes or forests or the ocean shore, I recall that tiny bathroom of ours in Hulda.
When My Michael was published, I summoned the courage, went to the secretariat again and said, ‘I’d like one more day a week for writing.’ Again a long debate, again an argument. People said, ‘It’s a dangerous precedent.’ Some said, ‘Others will want the same thing.’ But since there was already some money coming in, the members of the secretariat agreed. ‘Let’s say we’re adding another small branch to our economy.’ And now I had two days a week to write. Then I published another book and another one, increasing the kibbutz income, and in the end I was given three days to write, which was the maximum. It was a creeping annexation, not of territory, but of time: three days of writing and three days of high-school teaching, plus the regular shifts all kibbutz members had to do, night-guard duty, helping with fruit harvesting and weeding the cotton fields, and on vacations, I either drove the tractor in the fields or worked in the orchards.
hadad: And you still wrote on the toilet?
oz: No. Sometime around 1975, when I was already thirty-six, the secretariat of Kibbutz Hulda gave me a small place to work in. A few weeks earlier, one of the founders, a kibbutz member named Giza who had lived alone, died. She came from Poland, actually from Galicia, had never married and never had children. Giza was an elegant, self-possessed woman with cropped, well-groomed gray hair and sharp, perceptive eyes behind her glasses. The housing committee gave me Giza’s spartan furniture for my new place. Giza loved me very much. She was devoted to my Wednesday-evening literary sessions. She even knitted me a sweater once and gave me a small, original painting as a gift, a melancholy watercolor by some romantic Polish painter. She also told me some of her secrets on the condition that I swore not to tell them to anyone or write about them, and if I did eventually decide to write about them, then I had to swear I’d change all the names and details so no one would know that the story was about her. The truth is that she really hoped I would write her story one day. But camouflaged. Because on the one hand, she would be so ashamed if anyone knew that twice she’d had ‘something’ with a married man, and on the other, she was frightened that, in another few years, there would be no trace of her life left, no one in the world would know that she’d lived once, had suffered and loved, and had even had dreams. She was totally alone, and I, in fact, was her heir, even though the kibbutz forbade its members to leave anything to their heirs.
All my life, solitary old ladies have been very fond of me. I used to do readings one evening a week in Hulda, for example. I’d read from Agnon’s Only Yesterday and discuss it, read and explain, and the old ladies would come. Giza was the most enthusiastic of them because the book was about Galicia, her home, and it brought back memories and emotions. Giza once told me, ‘I’d agree to be your mother, and maybe I’d even agree to be your girlfriend. By that I mean in the nice sense of the word, not in the bad sense, you know what I mean.’ I understood, but I didn’t completely believe the last part of what she said.
When Giza died, she didn’t leave a will, but it was clear that I could use her furniture. By the way, that furniture came with me to Arad and was in my study for more than thirty years, until I left Arad. Giza’s furniture: her couch and two armchairs. Furniture from austerity days. From the fifties. With ministry of rationing and supply printed on the bottom of each piece. And so I already had a room where I could write.
hadad: And with time, your books began to bring money into the kibbutz coffers.
oz: The kibbutz financial manager, Oded Ofer, once came to see me (he was the son of David Ofer, who had said in the secretariat meeting that I might be the new Tolstoy when I was forty, but in the meantime, I was still too young to be a writer). Oded Ofer said that he’d seen the accounts, and my books were bringing in a very nice income. He asked tactfully whether my productivity would increase if he gave me two pensioners, too old for physical work, to help me out – he didn’t know exactly how this production worked. I told him, ‘Look, Oded, I’m still young and healthy, maybe you should have three pensioners do the writing and send me out to the fields?’
When we left Hulda, the kibbutz said, ‘Amos and Nily will not receive the severance money we usually give to people who leave because Amos is taking an entire branch of our economy with him.’ We went to arbitration, and the secretariat of Kibbutz Hulda claimed, ‘We nurtured him, we gave him time to write, we sent him to university, we invested in him, and now he’s leaving – okay, fine, we have no complaints, but they have to give up the severance money.’ After thirty years of membership on the kibbutz, we would have received a substantial sum, which we really needed because we didn’t have a penny. Nothing. We were both almost fifty. I said no. Because, though I had received many things from Hulda, including time for writing and a room in which to do it, and I was grateful for everything, I had not received my writing ability from Kibbutz Hulda. Besides, that branch of the economy in no way resembled other kibbutz branches because during high-pressure times, people were mobilized, members would volunteer to work overtime picking fruit, or thinning cotton, or gathering cotton, but no one was ever mobilized to my particular branch. When I was sick, no one replaced me, and when I worked overtime, no one recorded the extra hours. What’s more, if writing books is a branch of the kibbutz economy, then I’m definitely prepared to spend two months showing the ropes to the person the kibbutz appoints to take my place. In the end, the arbitrator proposed a compromise: Nily would receive her money, because how was she to blame? But I would have to relinquish mine. We left Kibbutz Hulda with no bad blood. There was no argument, no discord and no legal proceedings. We left with a compromise. But on the kibbutz, there was the whole issue of artists – I know there were similar problems with sculptors and painters who practiced their art on the kibbutz. There was the concrete problem of intellectual property. I’m not sure they’ve solved that problem to this day. Who owns the intellectual property when the artist is a kibbutz member?
hadad: The rights to the books you wrote there are yours?
oz: They’re mine, yes. Naturally, I could have said that I donate all the royalties to Kibbutz Hulda, but that didn’t seem just to me.
hadad: Why did you actually leave?
oz: Because our son Daniel choked, literally choked, on the kibbutz. We had to get out of there because of what the olives and the fertilizers did to his asthma. Later, in Arad, where we moved for the mountain-desert air he needed for his recovery, Daniel adopted a cat. When we went to see the allergist there, he was horrified when he heard we had a cat in the house and it slept in bed with Daniel. Daniel was seven and that doctor thought he didn’t understand English, so he said, ‘You have to choose, keep the cat or the little boy.’ There was silence in the room, until Daniel said, in English: ‘Keep the cat.’
hadad: That must have been frightening, leaving with almost nothing.
oz: It was, Shira, like jumping into a pool at night without knowing whether there’s water in it.
hadad: Interesting, that’s the same image you used to describe leaving your father’s house at the age of fourteen.
oz: Shira, if we had to give this piece a subtitle, we could call it ‘The Story of a Serial Jumper into Empty Pools’. We took out a mortgage and loans and moved into that house in Arad, which was not an expensive city to live in, and for the first few years I worked four jobs to make money. We began at forty-seven what young people usually begin in their twenties. We were a bit like a couple of refugees from North Korea: at the age of forty-seven, I wrote a check for the first time, and was amazed when I could take real money from a wall with the help of a credit card.
hadad: What were these four jobs?
oz: It was like this: I was a non-faculty teacher in Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba and at Sapir College, and I wrote a weekly column, sometimes two, for the newspaper Davar, and in addition, I traveled to various places in the country three nights a week to give lectures and readings. One month a year, I traveled to America to give lectures, which paid well. We had a few difficult and frightening years, living on the verge of poverty. But I was only forty-seven, I was strong, and gradually we paid off the mortgage on our house in Arad. Later, without my asking, Ben-Gurion University sent me a letter, out of the blue saying that from then on I was a full professor, no longer a non-faculty teacher.
hadad: You say you left, actually fled, because you had to. But still, were you glad to leave?
oz: Nily was glad, I less so. She and the children weren’t happy on the kibbutz. I was all right, I had a few friends there and I found it interesting. I also believed in the kibbutz ideology. Today I know the children’s houses were terrible, and the truth is that I knew it then too, but suppressed the thought. If I could do it all over again, I would have left the kibbutz much sooner, even before Daniel’s asthma. I would have left because my daughters were unhappy in the children’s house. And also because Nily wasn’t happy.
hadad: Without getting into your children’s private lives, can you say something else about that?
oz: There’s one story in my book Between Friends that describes it better than anything I could tell you. The story is called ‘Little Boy’. The communal children’s house was a Darwinistic place. The kibbutz founders, both men and women, thought, like Rousseau, that a person is born good and it’s only circumstances that corrupt him. They believed, as did the Christian Church, that innocent children are actually small angels who have not yet tasted sin, and that the kibbutz children’s house was a Garden of Eden filled with affection, friendship and kindness. What did they know, those founders of the kibbutz? They’d never seen children in their lives. They themselves were children. What did they know about what happens when you leave children unsupervised? It’s enough to stand at the fence of a kindergarten to know once and for all that it should not be done. They developed entire theories: that if the children saw only each other, it would prevent them from imitating the negative aspects of their parents’ behavior. But at night, after the adults said goodnight and left, the children’s house sometimes turned into the desert island from Lord of the Flies. Heaven help the weak. Heaven help the sensitive. Heaven help the misfits. It was a cruel place.
I’m ashamed that I let my children, Fania and Galia, grow up in the kibbutz children’s houses. Daniel was six when we left the kibbutz, and actually, when he was two, the system was reformed and all the children in Hulda moved in with their parents. And even more, I regret and am ashamed that when my daughters were bullied, I didn’t have the courage to intervene and go to war to protect them. I believed that such things were not done on the kibbutz. Besides, I was terribly insecure because I had been a ‘boarding child’, not born and raised there. I always had to behave better than everyone.
hadad: Even then.
oz: Yes, I knew very well what happened in the children’s houses to children who were a little weaker or a little unusual. I knew from my own experience. I can’t hide behind the excuse that I didn’t know what was going on because I went through all of it. Maybe for me it was even worse than for my daughters. As a ‘boarding child’, I was beaten every day. They beat me for being white when they were tanned, for not playing basketball, for writing poems, for speaking well, for not knowing how to dance, and also I was the victim of what they call in the Israel Defense Forces a ‘preemptive counter-attack’, because they knew I would leave the kibbutz one day. My two roommates, who both left the kibbutz twenty-five years before me, supplied preemptive beatings because it was absolutely clear that I wouldn’t stay on the kibbutz.
hadad: That’s terrible.
oz: I can’t look into my daughters’ eyes and say I didn’t know how horrible it was for them. Because I did know. If I could turn back the clock, I would have left the kibbutz many years earlier. Even though I was drawn to the kibbutz ideology, its people and – I’ve already spoken about this – what the kibbutz is for a writer: perhaps the best university in which to study human nature. But it was selfish of me to stay there. Truthfully, I was also very frightened of leaving because we had nothing, not a penny. Not from my parents, not from Nily’s parents, and in fact, I had no profession: I was a high-school teacher without a teaching license because I had never studied education. What could I have done? Perhaps Nily could have found a job as a librarian and I could have been a schoolteacher in some remote place where they might have employed me even without a teaching certificate. We were terrified. What could I do? I didn’t know then that the day would come when I would earn money from writing books. I didn’t know that then. I didn’t even dream of it. I was afraid I would never be able to support a family. Today I think that I should have dared to leave the kibbutz much sooner.
hadad: Yet there must have been some middle ground, some course of action you could have taken between the extremes of leaving and non-intervention?
oz: I intervened sometimes, but it didn’t help very much. And I wasn’t courageous enough. I was afraid of arguments and altercations with the other parents.
hadad: And that wasn’t done then. Parents did not intervene.
oz: Parents didn’t intervene. Look, some did. There were people more resolute than Nily and me who did intervene and voiced their complaints loudly to the women working in the children’s houses and to the education committee: What’s going on here, They did this to my children, They did that to my children, It can’t go on like this. I didn’t do that. I should have, but I didn’t.
hadad: From our conversation, I’m getting a pretty gloomy picture of kibbutz ideology, especially the way it was implemented.
oz: Several kibbutz genes have remained in the DNA of Israeliness, genes I consider good. Do you remember Stanley Fischer, who was once the governor of the Bank of Israel? On one occasion he told a story about flying to Cyprus with his wife Rhoda. At two thirty in the morning, a very tired Stanley and Rhoda Fischer were standing at the conveyor belt in Limassol waiting for their luggage. An Israeli passenger came over to them and asked politely, ‘Excuse me, sir, are you the governor of the Bank of Israel?’ He said yes. ‘Where’s the best place to change money? Here in the airport or in the bank tomorrow?’ Shira, I love that so much. They ask me what I love about Israel. That. He didn’t insult Stanley Fischer, he wasn’t rude, but he knew that Stanley Fischer worked for him. That would never have happened in, let’s say, France, or to the president of the bank of Germany. That’s the gene the kibbutzim left for Israeli society, and I love it. The anarchism, the directness, the chutzpah, the argumentativeness, the absence of hierarchy. ‘No one’s going to tell me what to do.’ That’s the gift from the kibbutz of that period, the time of the first waves of immigration to Israel. I know, of course, that this is a time for slaughtering sacred cows. When I wrote Where the Jackals Howl and came out against Ben-Gurion in the Lavon Affair, I was filled with the joy that comes with slaughtering sacred cows: the kibbutz ethos, the myth of the ‘Father of the Nation’ and all that. Today, when I see a swarm of slaughterers eagerly attacking one old sacred cow, the kibbutz, I suddenly feel that I’ve moved slightly to the side of the cow. Not because I worship it; I remember very well how it kicked and how it stank. But at least it gave milk that wasn’t half bad.
hadad: Over the last few years, kibbutzim have fallen apart or been privatized. Do you think that the kibbutz is about to disappear?
oz: No. Today, there are at least one hundred cooperative kibbutzim that have not been privatized or become garden communities. Most of them continue to maintain joint ownership of the means of production, and that has always been the core of the social democratic vision.
It could be that the kibbutz will have a sort of comeback sometime. They won’t dance the hora in the dining hall and they won’t make love on the threshing floor at night. That’s finished. But there might be a more mature version of what those people tried to do in a childish way. Not out in the countryside, maybe not even in Israel. Perhaps in the future there will be more urban communes that will try to establish something similar to the extended family, with security in old age, with greater mutual responsibility in raising children. Actually, they already exist today: a few of my grandchildren are members of fascinating urban communes. I don’t know about you, but what I see here, and saw in Arad as well, is a huge number of people working beyond their capacity in order to make more money than they actually need, to buy things they really don’t need, to impress people they don’t even like. Some are fed up with that. Not the majority. The majority will remain competitive, that’s human nature. But there will be some who search for an alternative. And those people might draw from the original ideas of the kibbutz the good concept of some sort of extended family, without changing human nature, without perfect equality, without peering into other people’s rooms to see who has an electric kettle and who doesn’t.
In any case, that was the society that succeeded in conquering the hills of social injustice only to discover on the other side of those hills were the steep precipices of existential injustice. What do I mean? In a society that eliminates the gap between a rich young woman and a poor young woman, the gap between an attractive and unattractive one becomes more prominent. What will the unattractive young woman do? Go to the equality committee and say, ‘I deserve it too’? I said young woman, but I could just as easily have said young man. There is no way to resolve such things. And I hope that someday, in our next incarnation, the idea of the kibbutz returns, implemented by grown-ups and not adolescent boys and girls who don’t have a clue. People who understand that if they try to change the basic elements of human nature, it won’t end well. Most people will never want it, but it might be possible to offer slightly different rules of the game to a minority.
hadad: Apart from leaving the kibbutz, what else would you do differently if you could live a second time?
oz: Perhaps I would invest more work in political activity. Under no circumstances would I ever run for the Knesset, although left-wing grops – Moked, Sheli, Meretz – have asked me two or three times to be a candidate. But I wouldn’t have gone to the Knesset. Maybe I would have engaged in more political activity during the times I still thought the scales could be tipped, maybe if I knew everything I know today. I’m not sure it would have changed anything, probably not. Here and there are things I’m sorry I said publicly. I wouldn’t say them today, or I might say them in a totally different way. I won’t tell you other things I’m sorry about.
hadad: Are you prepared to talk about those things you said publicly?
oz: Yes. I can give you an example. Several times I wrote and said that when it comes to the occupation, peace and the future of the occupied territories, the Israeli right wing thinks with its gut and the left thinks with its head. I regret that statement. It’s a simplistic thought and it’s wrong. Now it seems to me that both the left and the right think with their heads and also their gut, and sometimes they think about the territories and about peace with their heads and their gut at one and the same time.
hadad: Somehow, from the funny story about your writing room, this is where we’ve ended up.
oz: Yes, on the day they gave me a room of my own and I was surrounded by furniture I inherited from Giza, the world changed for me. Because until then, I had to hide in all sorts of places to write what I wrote. In the reading room behind the culture hall, at night when no one was there, or in the bathroom of our one-and-a-half- room apartment. Now I suddenly had a place where I knew I could close the door and have the space of a few hours. The world changed. Everything was different. I felt as if I had won a million dollars in the lottery. I never believed in muses, in inspiration or anything like that, but the moment I had a table and a chair and a door I could close, it was different. For example, as soon as I could take a break to write for a few hours, leave the papers on the table to wait for me and not fold them and shove them quickly into some cardboard file so no one would see them, my life changed. Completely. Perhaps poets can write in cafes, compose a poem in a kind of trance, then make changes. But prose? Writing a novel is like building all of Paris from matchsticks and glue. You can’t do it in a few hours of leisure time, or in an ongoing trance. There are so many days when I sit down here at this desk before five in the morning, I sit and sit, and nothing happens.
hadad: Do you feel guilty on days like that?
oz: Today I know it’s part of the game, but I felt guilty for many years. When the kibbutz gave me two days and then three to write, I used to get up at five, go to the room they gave me, sit there until noon, write four or five sentences, erase two. There were days when I wrote four sentences and erased six, two from the previous day. Then, at noon, I would go to the dining hall to eat lunch and I was filled with shame because sitting on my left was someone in work clothes who had already plowed five acres of land on the tractor that morning, and on my right sat another who had already milked thirty cows, and there I sat between them thanking God that no one knew I’d spent the entire morning writing six lines and erasing three of them. What right did I have to eat lunch here? I felt terribly guilty. Then gradually, I developed a mantra for myself. ‘Amos,’ I said, ‘what you are doing is similar to what a clerk does. You go to work every morning, open the grocery store, then sit and wait for customers. If they come, it’s a good day. If not, you’ve still done your job by sitting and waiting.’ You have no idea how much that mantra calmed me down.
hadad: With your permission, I’m going to adopt that mantra for myself.
oz: I don’t read the papers when I’m supposed to be writing, I don’t play solitaire or do anything else. No chats, no tweets, no emails, no porn films – I just sit there and wait. Sometimes I listen to music. That mantra did calm me down. I don’t have to tell you that guilt is a Jewish invention. Our forefathers invented it here in Israel. Then the Christians came and marketed it with colossal success throughout the world. But the patent is ours. As a Jew, I have terrible guilt feelings about our having invented guilt feelings. But at the same time, if a day goes by and I don’t have guilt feelings, I feel guilty at night because an entire day has passed and I haven’t had any guilt feelings. We’re different from the Christians, who also have an abundance of guilt, because we Jews are apparently world champions in suffering from guilt feeling without enjoying the pleasures of the sin in the first place. I know that line should be Woody Allen’s, but I just happen to be the one who said it. Sometimes guilt can be a driving force. A person who has guilt feelings suffers, but someone who doesn’t have them is a monster.
hadad: Maybe the Buddhists succeeded in ridding themselves of guilt. I don’t know.
oz: If they did, I’m terribly jealous, but only momentarily. A minute later, I’m not jealous, but almost pity them. Guilt feelings are a little like a good spice for almost everything: creativity, sex, parenting, relationships. A little bit of spice. But if we’re served a plateful – help!
Photograph of Amos Oz and Shira Hadad in conversation at Amos’s home, Tel Aviv, 2018, courtesy of Amir Hadad