April 12, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Two Stories From the Life of Amos Oz

Amos Oz (1939-2018) was a famous secular Israeli writer. He was the author of 40 books and was a winner of the Israel Prize.

I would like to present two stories from the Jerusalem of his childhood from his autobiography, “Sippur Al Ahavah Ve-Choshech” (2003), translated into English as “A Tale of Love and Darkness.” (The second story I present was quoted in Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “To Heal a Fractured World,” 2005.)

The first story is about what it was like in the post WWII years and early years of the State when people like his parents went into a store and had to do the simple act of buying cheese. Oz writes (p. 18):

“We had an iron rule that one should never buy anything imported… Still when we went to Mr. Auster’s grocery shop…we had to choose between kibbutz cheese, made by the Jewish cooperative Tnuva, and Arab cheese: did Arab cheese from the nearby village, Lifta, count as homemade or imported produce?… True, the Arab cheese was just a little cheaper. But if you bought Arab cheese, weren’t you being a traitor to Zionism? Somewhere, in some kibbutz or moshav… an overworked pioneer girl was sitting, with tears in her eyes perhaps, packing this Hebrew cheese for us; how could we turn our backs on her and buy alien cheese? … On the other hand, if we boycotted the produce of our Arab neighbors, we would be deepening and perpetuating the hatred between our two peoples. And we would be partly responsible for any blood that was shed, heaven forbid… Could we be so heartless as to turn our backs on [the] rustic cheese [of the humble Arab fellah]? Could we be so cruel as to punish him? What for? Because the deceitful British and the corrupt effendis had set him against us? No, this time we would definitely buy the cheese from the Arab village, which incidentally really did taste better than the Tnuva cheese, and cost a little less…

“A little argument used to break out among the customers… On the one hand, ‘charity begins at home, ‘so it was our duty to buy Tnuva cheese only; on the other hand, ‘one law shall there be for you and for the stranger in your midst,’ so we should sometimes buy the cheese of our Arab neighbors, ‘for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.’ And anyway, imagine the contempt with which Tolstoy would regard anyone who would buy one kind of cheese and not another simply because of a difference of religion, nationality, or race! What of universal values? Humanism? The brotherhood of man? And yet, how pathetic, how weak, how petty-minded, to buy Arab cheese simply because it cost a couple of mils less, instead of cheese made by the pioneers, who worked their backs off for our benefit!”

Shopping for us here in the U.S. usually does not raise such existential issues! (I guess one solution for them was to switch off. The above passage implies that was done somewhat.)

***

Oz’s father came to Israel in 1933 from Vilna. He could read 16 languages and had a degree in literature from the University of Vilna. But because there was only one university in Israel at the time, and many academics with degrees from famous German universities, his father never rose above the job of being a librarian at the Hebrew University. A disappointed man, he dedicated his spare time to writing a book, “The Novella in Hebrew Literature.” When his book was finally published, he invited his closest friends, including the novelist Israel Zarchi, who lived nearby, to celebrate. Oz continues the story (p. 133):

“[My father] now rushed every day to Achiasaf’s bookshop in King George V Avenue, where three copies of “The Novella” were displayed for sale. The next day the same three copies were there… And the same the next day and the day after that… And then suddenly, a couple of days later, on Friday evening, he came home beaming happily… ‘They’re sold! They’ve all been sold! All in one day!… Achiasaf is going to order some more copies from Chachik in Tel Aviv!…”

His father and mother went out to celebrate, leaving young Amos in the care of Zarchi, the novelist downstairs.

Oz continues: “Mr. Zarchi sat me down on the sofa and talked to me for a bit, I don’t remember what about, but I shall never forget how I suddenly noticed on the little coffee table by the sofa no fewer than four identical copies of [my father’s book]…one copy that I knew Father had given to Mr. Zarchi with an inscription, and three more that I just couldn’t understand, and it was on the tip of my tongue to ask Mr. Zarchi, but at the last moment I remembered three copies that had just been bought today, at long last, in Achiasaf’s bookshop, and I felt a rush of gratitude inside me that almost brought tears to my eyes. Mr. Zarchi…shot me a side-long glance through half-closed eyes, as though he were silently accepting me into his band of conspirators, and…picked up three of the four copies on the coffee table and secreted them in a drawer of his desk. I too held my peace…I did not tell a soul until after Zarchi died in his prime and after my father’s death…”

“I count two or three writers among my best friends…yet I am not certain that I could do for one of them what Israel Zarchi did for my father. Who can say if such a generous ruse would have even occurred to me. After all, he, like everyone else in those days, lived a hand-to-mouth existence, and the three copies of [the book] must have cost him at least the price of some much-needed clothes.”

Rabbi Sacks comments that the story “so beautifully illustrates a concept that ought to exist in ethics but doesn’t: original virtue. Sin is rarely original, but a good deed sometimes is… Just as every life has a task, so every day brings an opportunity. If we are where we are because God wanted us to be, then there must be, in every situation, something He wants us to do, some act of redemption He wants us to perform… I used to hope that people would praise my work; then I realized that what I was here to do was to praise the work of others…”

***

There is a famous statement attributed to R. Israel Salanter: “When I was young, I wanted to change the world. I tried but the world did not change. Then I tried to change my town, but the town did not change. Then I tried to change my family, but my family did not change. Then I knew: first, I must change myself.” Rabbi Sacks, “To Heal a Fractured World,” p. 250, found something similar in Tolstoy, Gandhi and Confucius. Tolstoy: “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” Gandhi: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” Confucius: “To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must put the family in order; to put the family in order, we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right.” Rabbi Sacks concludes: “Arnold Glasow said it most pithily: Improvement begins with I.”


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. He is always improving (OK, not himself, but at least his columns!).

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