The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Amos Oz, Israeli novelist who wrote of striving and struggle, dies at 79

Amos Oz, shown in 2015, was hailed as one of Israel’s most distinguished writers, with a body of work that spanned novels and nonfiction.
Amos Oz, shown in 2015, was hailed as one of Israel’s most distinguished writers, with a body of work that spanned novels and nonfiction. (Dan Balilty/AP)

Amos Oz, one of Israel’s most distinguished writers, whose fiction, memoirs and essays portrayed the private ambitions and public contradictions of a country struggling to find its footing while surrounded by conflict, died Dec. 28. He was 79.

The cause was cancer, his family said in a statement. Other details were not immediately available.

Mr. Oz was a sabra, or native-born Israeli who grew up in Jerusalem when it was under British control. He lived through Israel’s fight to become an independent country in the late 1940s and later served in the Israeli military during two wars in the 1960s and 1970s.

He spent many years on a kibbutz, or a collective farm in the countryside, and later became one of Israel’s most robust liberal voices, condemning the country’s settlement of territory once held by Palestinian Arabs.

“I love Israel, but I don’t like it very much,” he told Britain’s Guardian newspaper in 2016. “I love it because of the argumentativeness, because every staircase in Israel is full of memories and stories and conflicting ideas.”

The things that troubled him, he said, were “the politics, the occupation, the oppression of the Palestinian people and the deterioration in civil rights standards.”

All of these varied experiences helped Mr. Oz create a vivid and ambivalent portrait of his homeland in more than 30 books. From his first novel, “Elsewhere, Perhaps” (published in 1966), to his most recent, “Judas” (2014), Mr. Oz depicted the emergence of Israel as a vibrant, if imperfect, society reflected through the lens of flawed, often conflicted characters.

Mr. Oz wrote in Hebrew, the only language he learned as a child. As Jewish people from different backgrounds settled in Israel to seek a new life, the ancient, seemingly dying liturgical language became a common cultural bond. Mr. Oz considered his role in bringing a newfound vitality and literary élan to the Hebrew language to be one of his most important achievements.

“So this is the big story of my life,” he said in 2004, “more even than creating a state or drying the swamps or winning some victories on the battlefield.” (Many of his books were translated into English by Nicholas de Lange.)

Mr. Oz’s monumental “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” published in Hebrew in 2002 and in English two years later, was a deeply felt memoir that became one of the best-selling books in Israel’s history.

In that book, Mr. Oz intertwined his family’s idealistic hopes and disappointments with the optimism and damaged dreams of Israel itself. He also addressed, for the first time in print, his mother’s suicide when Mr. Oz — an only child — was 12. “A Tale of Love and Darkness” was adapted as a film starring Natalie Portman in 2015.

“It is impossible to give a full account of this book’s riches,” author Alberto Manguel wrote in The Washington Post in 2004. “Oz has proven himself one of our essential writers, laying out for our observation, in ever-increasing breadth and profundity, the mad landscape of our time and his place — always enlarging the scope of his questions while avoiding the temptation of dogmatic answers.”

One of Mr. Oz’s most enduring works was his 1968 novel “My Michael,” which told the story of a woman in Jerusalem who, in the manner of Madame Bovary, loses her grip on sanity while in a deteriorating marriage.

In “Judas,” his most recent novel, Mr. Oz examined the story of Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Jesus, through the life of a Jewish biblical scholar in the 1950s. The scholar becomes the caretaker of an aging Zionist leader who has doubts about the establishment of a Jewish nation-state without accommodating the Palestinians who already called the region their home.

That viewpoint carried over into Mr. Oz’s everyday life, journalism and nonfiction books. He was an outspoken critic of his country’s conservative policies and was a longtime advocate of a so-called two-state solution, with separate homelands for Jewish and Arab peoples.

He captured the country’s contentious ideologies in a 1983 nonfiction book, “In the Land of Israel,” interviewing both Jewish and Palestinian residents in an effort to understand the irreconcilable differences of his homeland. Mr. Oz wrote for several Israeli magazines and newspapers and was one of his country’s most respected liberal voices, often at odds with the country’s leadership.

“I think the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as opposed to the Israeli-Libyan or Israeli-Iraqi conflict, is a tragedy in the exact sense of the word,” he said in a 1994 speech. “It is a clash between one very powerful claim and another no less powerful.”

The best solution he could hope for, he said, was the kind of tragedy described in the stories of writer Anton Chekhov.

“At the end of a Shakespearean tragedy,” Mr. Oz said, “the stage is strewn with dead bodies and maybe there’s a measure of justice hovering high above. A Chekhovian tragedy, on the other hand, ends with everybody disillusioned, embittered, heartbroken, disappointed — indeed, absolutely shattered, but still alive.”

Amos Klausner was born May 4, 1939, in Jerusalem. His grandparents on both sides were Zionists who had moved from Eastern Europe to what was then the British Mandate of Palestine.

His father, a literary scholar and librarian born in Lithuania, spoke 11 languages and read 17. His mother died of an overdose of pills in 1952.

“From the day of my mother’s death to the day of my father’s death, 20 years later,” Mr. Oz wrote in “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” “we did not talk about her once. Not a word. As if she had never lived.”

Two years after his mother’s suicide, young Amos left home and moved to a kibbutz, changing his name to Oz, a Hebrew word meaning “strength.” (He had never heard of “The Wizard of Oz” at that point in his life.)

While working in the fields and driving trucks, he wrote poetry.

“I sat up smoking all night, sitting there with the toilet seat down, and a pad of paper and a book on my knees, writing,” he told the New Yorker in 2004. “I wanted to become a simple, dumb tractor driver. But I began to write secretly. I couldn’t resist it.”

He graduated from Jerusalem’s Hebrew University in 1963 and continued to live on the kibbutz, teaching in a school and doing manual labor.

With each new book, he was given more time to write, in return for contributing his earnings to the kibbutz’s common fund. He finally left the kibbutz in 1986, settling first in Arad, Israel, and later in Tel Aviv.

Mr. Oz fought with the Israeli army in the Six-Day War in 1967 and in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, but he never wrote about that time of his life.

“It is difficult for me, either in an interview or in a book, to talk about the experience of fighting,” he told the New Yorker. “I could write about sex, I could write about the kibbutz, about envy, about sunsets, about howling jackals. Not this.”

In his later years, Mr. Oz taught at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and often had teaching fellowships and speaking engagements in the United States, Britain and other countries.

Survivors include his wife of 58 years, the former Nily Zuckerman; three children; and four grandchildren.

From long experience on the kibbutz, Mr. Oz rose early in the morning, took a walk, read the newspapers — “a religious duty of sorts for most Israelis,” he said — then sat down to write.

“I sit myself by my desk, and I start imagining, ‘What if I was him? What if I was her?’ ” he said in 2009. “That’s how I make a living: by imagining the other. I imagine the other.”

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