Remembering Israeli Author And Peace Activist Amos Oz

Jan 4, 2019
Originally published on January 9, 2019 11:58 am
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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. Amos Oz, one of Israel's most widely read and acclaimed writers, and also one of its most prominent peace activists, died last week at the age of 79. He died after a short battle with cancer, according to his daughter. His writing, often about the history of his country and the divisions within it, included more than a dozen novels, as well as collections of short fiction, works of nonfiction and essays. His memoir "A Tale Of Love And Darkness" was first published in Hebrew in 2002 and in 2016, was adapted into a film directed by and starring Natalie Portman.

In 1977, Oz co-founded Peace Now, a group which called for negotiations with the Palestinians and the creation of a Palestinian state. Today we're going to listen back to three of his FRESH AIR interviews, starting with one from 1988, recorded shortly after the release of his novel "Black Box." In "Black Box," Oz explores the fanatic personality - the kind of extremism that divides Israel from within and makes compromise difficult. Terry started by asking Oz to describe two of the novel's characters.

AMOS OZ: Well, on the surface, they could not be more different - conflicting and contradicting each other. Alec is cool, intellectual, masterly, a very domineering tyrant of an intellectual character. Michel Sommo is an oriental Jew, a Sephardi - a religious one - a very warm person, totally insecure and on the surface, a fanatical true believer. Beneath the surface, it's a little more complex. There is a lot of zealotry in liberal, permissive, progressive Alex and a lot of tolerance in Michel Sommo.

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Do you see that as standing for a kind of generalization in the larger scheme of things?

OZ: I was afraid this was coming.

GROSS: (Laughter).

OZ: You know, if Herman Melville would have written "Moby Dick" in South Africa, it would be immediately taken for a fable about whites and blacks. In Latin America, they would read "Moby Dick" as a fable about macho and revolution. Some countries are probably doomed to have their literatures immediately interpreted in a general way. Well, yes, in a sense, all said and done, there is an Israeli dimension to the novel. But it's, first and foremost, a novel about a private relationship between half a dozen people - a love-hate relationship.

GROSS: I know that you don't want to see your fiction as symbolic of the state of Israel. But do you see your fiction as playing a role in the political dialogue of your country, since in much of your writing, you address issues of the country?

OZ: Yes. In a sense, everything that I've written so far is set in Israel. And in the broadest sense, it is political, though not political in a partisan way. You see, Israel is the only country in the world, I suppose, where a daily newspaper would run an editorial - unsigned editorial - picking an issue with a fictitious character in a fiction, which is fun in a sense. I think Israelis are immensely sensitive to their literature. And they are exposed to read, perhaps, more than any other nation under the sun. They are very passionate and emotional about the Israeli literature. And this very novel evokes a lot of political commentary in Israel.

GROSS: What kind of commentary?

OZ: Well, some people misunderstood it for a simple, partisan manifesto, pro or anti the peaceniks or the extremists, which it was not. Most sensible readers realize that much like Israel itself, this is a novel about great dreams, about great expectations, about bigger-than-life visions and, indeed, about the morning after and the sad realization that every dream come true is bound to be flawed by coming true.

GROSS: I want to ask you about "A Perfect Peace" for a moment. That's a previous novel of yours. And it's in - it's set on a kibbutz. And it's, in a way, about two different generations - a father, who has a kind of democratic ideal for the kibbutz, and a son, who is very disillusioned with it and, basically, wants out. He wants more freedom. He wants more independence. And it's also about newcomers to Israel and to the kibbutz.

OZ: Right.

GROSS: Now, how did that play out in your life once you were on the kibbutz?

OZ: Well, I was an outsider myself. I came to the kibbutz, as you have mentioned, at the age of 14 and had an outsider's reception, including its difficulties and harsh niches. But when the book was published, I'm glad and proud to say that the reception in the kibbutz was open and petulant. Some people hated its guts. Some people liked it. The responses in my own kibbutz ranged all the way from, how dare he, to, at long last, someone is telling the truth - very gutsy.

GROSS: You had mentioned before that when you went to live on the kibbutz, that your father was very, very upset with you. Did you ever reconcile that?

OZ: Yes. After I've published a couple of books, which happened shortly before he died, he sort of realized that I was not entirely wasting my life on his terms. So we did compromise in the end. And compromise is the key word. It's not that he'd gotten to like the way I live or that I have gotten to join his set of values. But we did compromise.

GROSS: To respect each other and accept you...

OZ: To respect and accept the differences between the two of us.

GROSS: (Laughter) I hate to stretch us into a metaphor. But I guess that's, in a way, what your stand is on Israel in general - I mean, on Israeli politics - more acceptance.

OZ: Yes. I am a great believer in compromising. I think the only alternative to compromising is fight to the death on any front, on any level.

GROSS: You know, I think a question that has obsessed you personally and in your fiction is why Israel didn't develop into the most egalitarian, creative society in the world...

OZ: Right.

GROSS: ...Which is what the original vision was. What are some of the reasons that come to your mind?

OZ: First of all, I don't believe in magnanimous dreams coming true. Every fulfillment of a dream or of an ambition is bound, destined, to be partial, especially because Israel was founded on such a shaky coalition of conflicting and contradicting dreams, master plans and visions. There was no way they all could come true. The other reason, of course, is that since its creation and even since earlier, Israel has been stuck with a nasty, violent conflict with its Arab neighbors. And I don't think an atmosphere of a constant, violent, hateful conflict is the right atmosphere to create the most egalitarian and just society in the world.

GROSS: Israeli novelist Amos Oz is my guest. You are one of the founders of the group Peace Now. Yes?

OZ: Yes, I'm guilty of that. Yes.

GROSS: You've pointed out that Israeli doves aren't pacifists. And, in fact, you've fought in two wars yourself in '67 and in '73. Was it a hard decision for you to fight being a dove yourself?

OZ: It was a harsh experience but not a hard decision. And I'd fight again and again if it would be a matter of life and death for the nation. I would not fight, though, for any other cause. I would not fight for resources. I'd not fight for interests. When it comes to life and death, I have always believed that there is one thing in this world which is more ugly, more sordid, than using violence. And this thing is giving in to violence. In this respect, I am a peacenik not a pacifist. And the Israeli Peace Now movement is clearly not a Make Love Not War movement - not one of those.

GROSS: How were you changed personally by the Six-Day War?

OZ: In '67, the very first hours of the actual fighting, my men and I had some mortar fire shot at us from a nearby hill by Egyptian soldiers. My immediate first gutsy response was, call the police. Those people are crazy. They can see that we are on this hill, and they are still shooting at us. I still believe that this immediate instinct, call the police - the civilian response to violence - was the genuine and healthy one. But a couple of hours later, I felt very differently. I felt it was me or them. And in this respect, having fought a war, you will never be the same human being. Having shot at people, having been shot at by total strangers, you will never be the same again.

GROSS: I guess what I'm wondering, too - I mean, you're someone who's really spoken out for reconciliation with the Arabs. And once you fight in a war against a group of people, it's - you really see them as the enemy. And I should think it would be harder after a war experience to think about reconciliation.

OZ: You know, if you mean by reconciliation some Dostoyevsky end scene of long-lost brothers...

GROSS: (Laughter).

OZ: ...Hugging each other, saying, oh, brother, how could I do a terrible thing to - such a terrible thing to you. Would you ever forgive me? - then you are right. To me, reconciliation means a political settlement. If I had to entitle my vision vis a vis the Arabs in general and the Palestinians in particular, I would say make peace not love.

The name of the game for Israelis and for Palestinians, as I see it, is a fair and decent and painful divorce rather than a honeymoon bed together. I think Israelis and Palestinians should separate land and assets, divide the land between the two nations and live in peace like two ex people rather than try to reconcile in the way of living together. The conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians is not a family dispute. It's a dispute between two families.

GROSS: You know, just as the state of Israel is young, so, of course, is Israeli literature. And I would imagine that there's something very exciting about writing literature that's so new, if you know what I mean. And, I mean, it's not only the state of Israel but this body of literature in Hebrew because in English what we're reading is translations which you've worked on with a translator. But is that an exciting thing to be part of a new literature?

OZ: To call it exciting is an understatement, especially as the literature is not exactly new. It's new in one sense. And it's a renewal of one of the most ancient literatures in the whole of civilization on the other hand. We are using Hebrew for musical instruments, and this musical instrument is both ancient and brand new. To some extent, you could compare contemporary Hebrew to Elizabethan English. It's a volcanic eruption.

A writer or a poet of modern Hebrew can still legislate into the language, create new words and new forms. By calling Modern Hebrew Elizabethan, I'm not implying, of course, that each and every one of us Israeli novelists is a William Shakespeare. Of those, we don't have more than half a dozen in Tel Aviv presently. But the fascination of creating in a melting lava is all there. And, indeed, there is a tremendously exciting literary scene in Israel right there.

GROSS: One thing that I can imagine would be frustrating is that a lot of a lot of Jews around the world like to read Israeli novelists. And writing in Hebrew, most Jews outside of Israel don't speak Hebrew, so they wouldn't be reading the novel in the language it was written in. Is that frustrating for you?

OZ: No. It should be frustrating for them.

GROSS: Well put, right (laughter).

OZ: You know, I may not be much of a chauvinist for the nation as such or for the territory, but I am terribly adamant and keen on the language. I will not part from it. Even if I had 20 writers (ph) all over the world in the original, I'll still write in it.

DAVIES: Terry Gross with Israeli author and activist Amos Oz, recorded in 1988. Oz died last week at the age of 79. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AVISHAI COHEN'S "GBEDE TEMIN")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're listening back to Terry's interviews with Israeli writer and activist Amos Oz, who died last week at age 79. Now we're going to hear an excerpt from an interview recorded in January 1991, during the first Gulf War, which followed Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.

Just days after active fighting began, Iraq launched a Scud missile attack against Tel Aviv. Israelis feared the incoming missiles carried chemical or biological weapons. Subsequent reporting revealed those missiles carried conventional explosives, not chemical or biological warheads.

Terry Gross spoke to Oz from his home in the Negev Desert in southern Israel to get his thoughts on the war. Like all Israelis, he had a room in his house sealed off, his gas mask within reach. She asked him about the psychological effect of that on him and his family.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

OZ: We have been through many wars in our life. We have been through fighting. I've been on the battlefield myself. This combination of gas and Jewish state certainly hits a chord and touches a nerve. And what's moreover, a German-manufactured gas aimed at Jews in the Jewish state is something which touches a very deep emotion in all of us.

GROSS: Have you been able to write or work during the last week?

OZ: Very little. I try to keep some working routine, but I do a part-time job for the army as a traveling lecturer. And it's very difficult to concentrate.

GROSS: What do you do as a traveling lecturer for the army?

OZ: I just talk about current events to groups of reservists.

GROSS: What have you been talking about for the past few days?

OZ: Trying to explain the historical perspective of the conflicts. How did we get to this point? And what might follow once this is resolved? And what is the actual connection between the Israeli-Arab conflict and the Gulf War? And who is Saddam Hussein? And what is Syria all about - and just the basic facts of the present situation.

GROSS: Are there subjects or opinions that the military asks you to stay away from?

OZ: No, definitely not. The only thing I am restricted - or I restrict myself from is party politics. But they all know that I'm a leading dove and one of the leaders of the Peace Now movement. This is no secret. I'm known around the nation and very controversial. They all know exactly what I believe in and what I maintain about the future of the territories and the prospects for peace with the Palestinians, compromise with the Palestinians.

And time and again, I mentioned to our soldiers, to our reservists that there is no point in hating every Arab for being an Arab, that many of them are as much victims of this fanaticism and ruthlessness as we are or perhaps more so because they suffer more, and they will suffer more.

GROSS: When you're talking with the troops about that, what kind of dialogue gets going? What kind of response do you get?

OZ: Mixed, of course. Some people are angry not only with Saddam Hussein, some people are angry with the entire outside world. Why are they always so harsh on the Jews? Why are they only sympathetic with Israel when Israel is actually hit? Why is the Jew popular only when he is actually on the cross, and the moment he gets off the cross and punch back the teeth of his enemies, he's immediately condemned and portrayed as a monster? Why are there such expectations that Israel be the Jesus Christ of the nations in terms of turning the other cheek? So I hear these arguments from many people, not from all of them - not from the majority, but from many.

GROSS: And then what do you say?

OZ: Well, I say, look, this goes beyond emotions. And Israel should take it as a compliment that, say, public opinion makers in several countries have much higher moral expectations from Israel than they have from nasty tyrants. We should take it as a compliment. We should take it as a tribute. The fact that, say, American public opinion expects Israel and assumes that Israel should display higher moral norms in, say, in dealing with its enemies is not an insult. It's a compliment.

GROSS: Do you think that the war is uniting or dividing Israel now? Is it having a unifying or divisive effect?

OZ: This war is uniting Israel. There is no disagreement over the viciousness of Saddam Hussein. There is no disagreement over the type of desired solution. And the Palestinian question, which has been the main divider - the main point of disagreement between doubts and hopes in Israel, is at the moment moved to the background, to the backstage.

But let me add right away, by the same token, I think the Palestinian problem is not resolved. And even though the PLO have been stupid and wicked enough to endorse Saddam Hussein and probably will be made to pay for it, the Palestinian problem will not go away. And once this Gulf War is resolved, we Israelis will have to face the Palestinian problem and deal with it.

GROSS: Tell me what your plans are for the rest of the day. Are you going to go outside today?

OZ: No. I'm going to spend the rest of the evening with some friends, watch television religiously and, if there is a siren - and there might be a siren - just go spend part of the night or most of the night in the sealed room. This is 6:30 p.m. local time. And in the past few nights, this is about the time when we had the missile alarm. And so we are emotionally prepared. This happens any second now. It might even happen in the middle of our conversation. I mean, nobody knows.

In a way, you know, this has been the condition of Israel for 40 years now. Not so extreme, not so dramatic, but we have always lived under a constant threat. Ever since the creation of this nation, we've never had a single day of a full-scale peace. We have always lived on edge. So the way we live this evening is only a symbolic intensification of the Israeli experience in general.

DAVIES: Terry Gross spoke with Israeli author and activist Amos Oz from his home in the Negev Desert during the Gulf War in 1991. Oz died last week at the age of 79. When we come back, we'll hear Terry's 2004 interview with Oz, recorded after his memoir, "A Tale of Love and Darkness" was translated into English. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're listening back to Terry's interviews with acclaimed Israeli writer and activist Amos Oz, who died last week at the age of 79. Now we're going to listen to an interview Terry recorded in 2004 after Oz's memoir, "A Tale of Love and Darkness," was translated into English from the original Hebrew.

Although it's subtitled a memoir, Oz says some of the stories about his parents' and grandparents' lives are based not just on fact and memory but on considerable speculation. The book, one of the biggest-selling literary works in Israeli history, is about growing up in Jerusalem in the 1940s and '50s in the shadow of the Holocaust and in fear of an Arab attack. His parents had fled eastern Europe in the early '30s.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: Why did your parents move to Israel in 1933?

OZ: Well, presenting the question this way suggests that they went to a travel agency and looked for a country where to live.

GROSS: (Laughter).

OZ: They were virtually kicked out of Europe by violent anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe and the rising of Nazism in Central Europe. No other country wanted them at that time. There was no kind of list of choices. It's not that they should have opted for the French Riviera, and by mistake they opted for Jerusalem.

They were kicked out of Europe. And Jerusalem, in this time - the land of Israel, at that time, was the only available life raft when no other country wanted them. They did try. Some members of my family tried to apply for a French, an American, a Scandinavian, a British, even a German citizenship. And they were turned down by everybody.

GROSS: I think, you know, a lot of Jewish people who grew up in, say, the 1950s and whose grandparents immigrated closer to the turn of the century - immigrated to America from Eastern Europe, you know, fleeing the pogroms - these grandparents often didn't want to talk about the, quote, "old country." They were - for whatever reasons, whether it was painful memories or the pain of having to leave home and leave family behind, a lot of grandparents just wouldn't talk about it. Now, your parents loved the Europe they left behind - not loved the persecution but missed that Europe. Did they talk to you much about it?

OZ: Never. They censored it the same way people censor an unrequited love from their children. You don't discuss with someone who dumped you when you were younger - someone whom you loved and dumped you. And that's exactly how they felt about Europe. The house was full of syndromes and signs and clues for their heartbroken love for Europe. But they never talked about it except very indirectly.

My father used to say from time to time that one day - not in his lifetime maybe in my lifetime - our Jerusalem will evolve and develop into a real city. I couldn't understand what he was talking about. For me, Jerusalem was the only real city in the world. Even Tel Aviv was a myth. Over the years, I learned that when my father expressed the word - pronounced the words a real city, he meant a city with a river in the middle, bridges across the river and dense forests roundabout - Europe, the promised land from the promised land.

GROSS: How did your parents describe the meaning of Israel to you when you were growing up?

OZ: Well, in the 1940s, Israel was still a dream, a vision and a blueprint. They talked about the impending creation of a Jewish state in messianic terms. This state, which is about to be born, will be pure, angelic, idyllic. It will hold world records in high job morality, gold medal in good behavior, in treating minorities, in social justice. It will be both biblical and modern, both very Jewish and very secular and very democratic and very socialistic. It will be more everything than anyone. But this, of course, was a dream, a fantasy, a vision. And then came the morning after.

GROSS: And?

OZ: Well, the morning after is a disappointment by definition. I maintain that the only way to keep a dream - not only a Zionist dream, any dream, a sexual dream, a sexual fantasy. The only way to keep any dream or fantasy intact and rosy and perfect and flawless is never to try to live it out. Israel is a dream come true. As such, it is destined to be a disappointment to some extent. And I accept it philosophically.

GROSS: Can you talk a little bit about your parents' sense of what it meant to them to be Jewish?

OZ: Well, both of them were secular. None of them was a synagogue goer. Even my grandparents were very secular. I am a third - at least a third generation of secularized Jews for whom being Jewish is first and foremost a sense of cultural belonging, not a synagogue belonging.

Judaism to me is a culture - first and foremost, the Hebrew language, which I think is the crux of the heritage, a long line of books, creations, certain sensibilities which I identify as Jewish sensibilities, although they are not exclusively Jewish, humor and skepticism, certain anarchism, certain lack of confidence in any regime or government whatsoever, certain utopian ambitions about world reforming. All of these, I identify - this and more, I identify as Jewish heritage, Jewish sensibilities. And all of those are alive and kicking - sometimes kicking too hard - outside the realm of synagogue.

GROSS: Now, you describe the Hebrew language as being at the crux of the Israeli heritage or the Jewish heritage. What language did your - what languages did your parents speak to each other and to you in?

OZ: Now, here's a comedy. They would speak between them Russian and Polish for me not to understand. Ninety-five percent of the time, they wanted me not to understand what they were speaking about because they were talking either about the mass murder of their relatives in Europe by the Nazis or about the disaster, the calamity, the mass murder which may happen in Jerusalem once the British pull out, and the Arab nations will smash us.

So this was not for the kid. This was Polish and Russian. They read books in German, French and English for culture. I believe they dreamt their dreams in Yiddish. But to me, they taught Hebrew and only Hebrew as a precaution. They feared that if I had one European language, I would eventually be seduced by the deadly charms of Europe. I'll go to Europe and catch my death. So they did not want me to know any European language for my own safety.

GROSS: Did your parents know Hebrew before they moved to Israel?

OZ: Oh, yes, they both had a Hebrew - Hebraic upbringing in secular Zionist schools in Ukraine and Lithuania respectively, yes.

GROSS: Now, you talked about how your parents spoke in the languages of their countries to protect you from the subjects that they were talking about when they were talking about the pogroms in Europe or the Holocaust in Germany. What were some of the fears that you grew up with living in Israel during the Holocaust?

OZ: In the 1940s, I grew up in the shadow of an unpronounced horror. And the horror was that which was happening to the Jews in Europe, mass murder by the Nazis, is going to repeat itself in Jerusalem either because the Nazi Panzers' armed columns will conquer Palestine and put all the Jews in gas chambers or else because the British will eventually pull out and leave the small Jewish community in the land of Israel to the mercy of the entire merciless Arab world. So we feared a mass murder of our own community the same way it happened to the Jewish communities all over Europe in the '40s.

GROSS: Did you live in a state of fear? Did you have a lot of nightmares?

OZ: That was a subterranean fear. You have to imagine a city under siege. You have to imagine a town where British curfew used to be imposed at 7 pm almost every night. You have to imagine a city where the Jewish underground terrorist groups blew up British military installations almost every night. You have to imagine a Jewish Jerusalem surrounded by Arabs towns and villages, most of them very hostile. You have to imagine the insecurity of the days and the nights.

And you have to bear in mind that everyone was a refugee from some infernal or another - not only from Europe. There were those who were kicked out of the Arab and Islamic countries. Those who survived by the skin of their teeth the Arab and Islamic hatred for Jews - and they also came to the land of Israel. So as I often say, Israel is essentially a refugee camp. So is Palestine, which is what makes this conflict so tragic. It's a conflict - tragic conflict between two victims, between two refugee camps.

GROSS: What was it like for you watching Holocaust survivors come to Israel and seeing the state that they were in and just sensing what they had lived through, what they had narrowly survived?

OZ: What I am ashamed to tell - but I detail this in "A Tale Of Love And Darkness," so I have to repeat it in this interview. We looked down at those survivors. We thought of them as sissy, weak people, while we Israeli Jews fought back, repelled the enemies, practiced with submachine guns even in times of the British mandate as part of an illicit defense force. They went, quote, unquote, "like sheep to the slaughter."

It took me years to understand what an idiot I was in looking down at those Holocaust survivors for not fighting back. How could they fight back? Who on earth could fight back the Nazi machine when you have no country, no allies, no weapons, no chance in hell to defend yourself? So yes, I am ashamed to confess that we were patronizing the Holocaust survivors. And we were saying to them, we native Israelis - we were saying to them, wait, we will teach you how to be proud, how to be strong, how to fight back, how to get something.

GROSS: Was that the general attitude?

OZ: Quite widespread, quite widespread. But then it's not unusual for Israelis to look down at each other from different angles.

DAVIES: Israeli writer and activist Amos Oz speaking with Terry Gross recorded in 2004. Oz died last week. He was 79. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GILAD HEKSELMAN'S "DO RE MI FA SOL")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're listening back to Terry's interviews with Israeli writer and activist Amos Oz, who died last week at age 79.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: What are your memories of Israel's Independence Day? You write that your father told you to take it all in because this is something you'd be talking about to your children, to your grandchildren.

OZ: Yes. This was a euphoric night for me. I was about a 9-year-old when the General Assembly of the United Nations, then in Lake Success, resolved by a two-thirds vote to divide Palestine into two sovereign states - Palestinian Arab states and Israeli Jewish states. This, in brackets, is going to be the bottom line of several decades of conflict. In the end, Israelis and Palestinians will come back to a two-state solution, closed brackets.

Now, for me that night is a memory which I will carry for the rest of my life. Never in my life, either before or after, have I seen such a burst of public euphoria - euphoria combined with fear of the future. No one was certain of the results. No one was certain whether we are going to survive the impending battle with the Arab world. But this euphoria that the Jews will become an independent nation for the first time in 19 centuries since the eradication of ancient Israel by the Roman armies - by the Roman Empire - that once again, there will be a Jewish regime, a Jewish government and the Jewish law, a Jewish sovereignty.

That kind of vindication of people who have always been an oppressed and loathed minority wherever - everywhere except, perhaps, in the United States of America - but everywhere else, the feeling that at last, we are going to have a home; it may be very small; it may be a home the size of a handkerchief or a postal stamp on the map of the world. But nonetheless, it's going to be our home. This euphoria of that night - the singing, the dancing in the street, the hugging between total strangers, the tears, the vows - this I'll never forget, just as I will not forget the deep, sad silence which dawned on the Arab neighborhoods.

Our joy was their catastrophe. Their fear and trembling and despair and anger and bewilderment - I will never forget how while half Jerusalem celebrated with fireworks and singing and dancing, the other parts of Jerusalem were erupting darkness, silence and sadness.

GROSS: This is the first time you've written about your mother's suicide. She was, I think, 38. When she died, you were about 12 1/2. You say she'd never really taken to life in Israel. Why not?

OZ: I think her years in Jerusalem felt like exile for her. She didn't like the climate. She didn't like the atmosphere. She didn't like the company. And she was forever grieving for her hometown in the Ukraine, which she had to leave because anti-Semitism became unbearable. But many of her Jewish and non-Jewish friends were left there behind - in fact, most of them. And the non-Jewish friends were involved in killing the Jewish friends once the Nazis conquered this township of Rivne, where 25,000 Jews were shot dead in two days.

You know, 25,000 Jews is more than the overall number of Jews who died in 100 years of conflict with the Arabs. Twenty-five thousand people - the whole town in two days. For my mother, this was an everlasting trauma. Add to this the dreariness of a rather pedestrian marriage. Add to this unfulfilled artistic ambitions or yearnings. Add to this a certain intellectual and emotional finesse for which Jerusalem of the '40s was just the wrong place. And you end up with sadness, loneliness, despair, desolation and longing.

GROSS: There is an element of mystery here. I mean, you print a letter that you got later from one of your mother's friends. And the letter said, if you only knew how much your mother wanted to be an artist, to be a creative person from her childhood. If only she could see you now. And why didn't she manage it? Maybe in a personal conversation I could be more daring and tell you things that I don't dare put in writing. What do you think that was?

OZ: Well, I think it was her deep disappointment from the fading away of life. She grew up with an intensely romantic manual. In this manual, she was supposed to grow up into a pianist or maybe a poet. She was supposed - she was expecting to grow (inaudible) in a peaceful country, in a civilized society, in a Central European-cultured atmosphere. She found herself housewifing (ph), trapped in poverty - lower middle class - insecurity in sun-scorched, hot, dusty, fanatic Jerusalem.

I know this now because as I wrote "A Tale Of Love And Darkness," I actually invited all those dead people to my home for a cup of coffee and a cake. I said to my mother and my father and my grandparents and half the neighborhood, all of those who are dead now - I said, sit down. Have a coffee. Have a cake. Let us talk. We have never talked when you were alive - not on things that mattered, not on emotions, certainly not about sensuality and sexuality, not about shattered dreams, not about your unrequited love for Europe. Let's talk now. And I talked to the dead.

And after talking, I said, I want to introduce you to my wife and children. They have never met you. You have never met them. It's just as well that you meet. And then after this session, I said to the dead, now go away. You are not going to live in my house. You may drop by from time to time for coffee. That's the mode in which I wrote "A Tale Of Love And Darkness" not to score my accounts with them, not to punish them, not to get back at them, not to show to the world that the fact that I'm imperfect is to be blamed on my unhappy childhood or my terrible parents - not at all.

GROSS: Is...

OZ: It's a book for compassion and forgiveness.

GROSS: Amos Oz, thank you so much for talking with us.

OZ: Thank you for having me.

DAVIES: Israeli writer and activist Amos Oz speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 2004. Oz died last week. He was 79. Coming up, John Powers reviews the new thriller "Destroyer" starring Nicole Kidman. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHIL KEAGGY AND HOLT VAUGHN'S "BITTER SUITE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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