Notebook in hand, renowned author and onetime kibbutznik Amos Oz traveled throughout his homeland to talk with people—workers, soldiers, religious zealots, aging pioneers, desperate Arabs, visionaries—asking them questions about Israel’s past, present, and future. Observant or secular, rich or poor, native-born or new immigrant, they shared their points of view, memories, hopes, and fears, and Oz recorded them.
What emerges is a distinctive portrait of a changing nation and a complex society, supplemented by Oz’s own observations and reflections, that reflects an insider’s view of a country still forming its own identity. In the Land of Israel is “an exemplary instance of a writer using his craft to come to grips with what is happening politically and to illuminate certain aspects of Israeli society that have generally been concealed by polemical formulas” (The New York Times).
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About the Author
Date of Birth:May 4, 1939
Date of Death:December 28, 2018
Place of Birth:Jerusalem
Place of Death:Tel Aviv, Israel
Read an Excerpt
Thank God for His Daily Blessings
IN THE GEULAH QUARTER of Jerusalem, on Rabbi Meir Street, imprinted on one of the metal sewer covers is the English inscription "City of Westminster" — a reminder of the British Mandate in Palestine. The grocery store that was here forty years ago is still here. A new man sits there and studies Scriptures. It is after the High Holy Days: in Geulah, in Achvah, in Kerem Avraham, and in Mekor Baruch, the tatters of the flimsy booths built for the Feast of Tabernacles are still visible in the yards. Their greenery has faded and turned gray. There is a chill in the air. From porch to porch, the entire width of the alleyways, stretch laundry lines with white and colored clothes: these are the eternal morning blossoms of the neighborhood in which I grew up. The Kings of Israel Street, which was once Geulah Street, throbs with pious Jews in black garb, bearded, bespectacled, chattering in Yiddish, tumultuous, in a hurry, scented with the heavy aroma of Eastern European Ashkenazi cooking. An ultraorthodox woman, young, very pretty, pushes a twin baby carriage full of plastic-net shopping bags with bread, vegetables, canned goods, fish wrapped in newspaper, bottles of wine, cooking oil, soft drinks. Her hair is modestly covered but her fingers are richly adorned with rings. She stops to chat with another woman in one of the courtyards in a mixture of Yiddish, Hebrew, and English.
"Er iz a meshuggener — he's crazy. He came back here from Brussels mit di gantze mishpocheh — with his whole family. Poor Esther." A Brooklyn accent in a figure from Lodz or Krakow. The other woman, behind the fence, answers in English, "It's a shame."
New people, but the alleys and the courtyards arevirtually unchanged. During my childhood, Eastern European intellectuals and educated refugees from Germany and Austria used to live here side by side with the ultraorthodox. There were artisans here, and scholars, trade-union functionaries, National Religious Party hacks and dedicated Revisionists, clerks in the Mandatory government and workers in the Jewish Agency, members of the Haganah and the Irgun, youth from Betar and the United Socialist Movement and the Bnai Akiva, the religious youth movement, noted scholars, village fools, madmen burning with prophetic light, world reformers who would compose and dedicate to one another fiery brochures about the brutal realities of Zionism, or about how the Palestinian Arabs originated from the ancient Hebrews, or about the blessings of organic vegetarianism. Almost every man was a kind of messiah, eager to crucify his opponents and willing to be crucified for his own faith in turn.
All of them have gone. Or changed their minds. Or pulled up their roots from here and gone to more moderate places. But they left behind them a vibrant Jewish shtetl. The potted plants so carefully nurtured by enthusiastic would-be fanners have long since died. The gardens and pigeon coops have gone to rubble. In the courtyards stand sheds of tin and plywood and piles of junk. Yeshiva students, Hasidim, petty merchants have overflowed into this place from the Meah Shearim and the Sanhedria quarters, or bunched up here from Toronto, from New York, and from Belgium. They have many children. Most of the children, even the littlest ones, wear glasses. Yiddish is the language of the street. Zionism was here once and was repelled. Were it not for the stone, and the olive trees and the pines, were it not for that particular quality of light in Jerusalem, you might think you are standing in some Eastern European Jewish shtetl before Hitler. Eastern European with perhaps a tinge of America, and a slight, remote echo from neighboring Israel.
Next to "Photo Geulah, Especially for the Ultra-orthodox," there is a notice board: "Performance tonight in the Convention Center by Mordecai Ben David Werdiger and the Diaspora Yeshiva Band. Tickets at the Bookshop, Beer Books. Special discounts for groups. Proceeds to be donated for Torah education in Jerusalem." Someone has defaced the notice with tar and scrawled the words "Criminals of Israel," painting, for added emphasis, a fat swastika. The explanation apparently lies in another notice, on a stone wall nearby: Rabbi Yisrael Yaakov Kravesky proclaims, "A clarion call to shun ugliness and anything resembling it, with regard to community singing, men and women together, in the guise of holiness and piety, which leads to the pitfalls of levity and immodesty, heaven forbid. Even if it were guaranteed to be arranged in a kosher way, they still err, for now that the Temple is destroyed, because of our many transgressions, it is forbidden to sing, especially in gatherings with musical instruments. Rather, one may find joy only in those commandments prescribed by the Lord, Blessed be He, without the jesting and riotousness which are poison to the spirit in the garb of piety. May he who cares for his soul keep his distance."
In medieval prayer-book Hebrew, ancient hatreds simmer and bubble, controversies in the name of God entangled, as in days gone by, in enmities born from lust for authority and dominion: Mitnagdim versus Hasidim, the followers of one rebbe versus the followers of another, sect against sect, thundering wrath or sour cruelty draped with the robes of scholarship, keen and pious. The Orthodox Eastern European Jewish world continues as though nothing had happened, but the fathers of modern Hebrew literature, Mendele and Berdyczewsky, Bialik and Brenner and the others, would have banished this reality from the world around them and from within their souls. In an eruption of rebellion and loathing, they portrayed this world as a swamp, a heap of dead words and extinguished souls. They reviled it and at the same time immortalized it in their books. However, you cannot afford to loathe this reality, because between then and now it was choked and burned, exterminated by Hitler. Nor can you even afford yourself a measure of secret admiration for the incredible vitality of this Judaism, for as it grows and swells, it threatens your own spiritual existence and eats away at the roots of your own world, prepared to inherit it all when you and your kind have gone.
Through a ground-floor window an old man can be seen, swaying in his chair before an open book. Jerusalem's autumn light is kept outside: his room is dim. He turns his head, looks at you without seeing you — wanting, perhaps, not to see you. An old woman fills his glass with tea from a sooty kettle and disappears into the darkness. You do not permit yourself to hate them but you cannot avoid detesting them. Bialik's poem "As I Come Back" begins, "Again this worn old man / shriveled wrinkled face / dry straw shadow, a leaf which bobs apace / weaving, bobbing over his books," and continues, "As ever stretched in darkness / spider webs are molten / full of flies, full of death / are swollen" and ends, "Eternally unchanged / aged, old, forever stagnant / I come, my brothers, one with you / and stinking souls, let's rot to fragments."
I turn to escape, almost like a claustrophobic. Here in northwestern Jerusalem everything remains almost as it was. Enlightenment and assimilation, the return to Zion, the murder of Europe's Jews, and the establishment of the State of Israel seem swallowed up, covered over by the growth of this Judaism, fierce and tropical, like some primeval jungle. Only by careful inspection can one detect here some of the trappings of the present: an Arab boy sweeping the sidewalk; Schweppes and Fanta signs on a kiosk; a stout soldier in a filthy army uniform transferring crates from a truck to a small greengrocery. Apart from these, and apart from the light and the stone, there is nothing new. Standing in Tachkemoni Street, I copy what is written on the signs hanging from the rusty bars of the courtyard gates: "Yeshiva for the Outstanding, the Abode of Chaya Sarah, donated by her husband, Eliyahu Nissan Star." "The Great Seminary, founded by the saintly rebbe of Zhidachov, of blessed memory." "Ateret Zvi Charitable Society." And one sign that brings a smile to my lips: "Fount of Wisdom Yeshiva — Eating Room."
Here, too, in Mekor Baruch, one finds the same slogan that screams in red paint from the walls of Achvah and Meah Shearim, "Touch not My anointed ones" (a quotation from the Psalms, meaning, apparently, Do not despoil the innocent children of Israel), and next to it a black swastika. And "Power to Begin, the gallows for Peres"— erased — and then, in anger, "Death to Zionist Hitlerites." And "Chief Constable Komfort is a Nazi," "To hell with Teddy Hitler Kollek." And finally, in relative mildness, "Burg the Apostate — may his name be wiped off the face of the earth," and "There is no kingdom but the kingdom of the Messiah."
Hitler and the Messiah. The two dominate the walls here, dominate the souls here. Everything else is transitory, bound to be covered by the lush, hungry undergrowth until it is as if it had never been, everything except those two whispering in the depths of agony and rage: Hitler and the Messiah. Because of Hitler you have no right to quarrel with this sort of Judaism. Because of the awaited Messiah this Jewry enchain you and threaten to reconquer what you have wrested from their hands.
I need a cigarette and go into a small grocery store, into the smells of smoked fish and freshly baked bread. The shopkeeper, a clean-shaven Sephardi, quiet and mournful, wearing a skullcap, does not notice me. He is being lectured by a Hasid, tall, good- looking, about thirty years old, with a rich blond beard and broad shoulders. The conversation seems to be about health. The Hasid says, "Finally, the evening before the holy day, he went to the cemetery. He was fed up with all the doctors and their injections and treatments. He lay across the grave of the sainted tzaddik and when he came back he was as good as new. No ulcers, no high blood pressure, no backaches."
The shopkeeper considers this and finally dares to ask, humbly polite, "All this from prayers? Did your rebbe give him a special blessing or talisman or something?"
"He was armed with trust, that's what!" answers the Hasid with knowing superiority. "Armed with trust and nothing else, he came back completely cured. It's all a matter of trust."
"There are those," ventures the shopkeeper a bit obscurely, "who are not afraid of anything, not of sickness, not of troubles, not of the world to come. They're only afraid of rumors — scared of what the neighbors will say." At this point he notices me. "And what can I do for you, sir?"
I buy my cigarettes and leave. The meaning of the word "trust" here is, of course, the opposite of its meaning for us: not trust in an army or in power. Nor in doctors and their solutions. The Lord's salvation will be as a bolt of lightning. The righteous man lives by his faith. (It was the writer Shulamit Hareven who made me aware of this complete reversal of meaning for the Hebrew word bitachon.)
In a conversation twenty years ago, my teacher Dov Sadan said that Zionism was nothing more than a passing episode, a temporary mundane phenomenon of history and politics, but that Orthodox Judaism would re-emerge, would swallow Zionism and digest it. At the time, those who heard him thought that Sadan was engaging in intellectual pyrotechnics, as was his way. This morning in the neighborhoods of Geulah, Achvah, and Mekor Baruch, I was reminded of Sadan's verdict. Although I still do not agree with his prognosis, I cannot dismiss it as intellectual acrobatics. In these neighborhoods, where I was born and raised, the battle has been decided: Zionism has been repulsed, as if it had never been. Or if not repulsed, then banished to the cellar, a sort of Shabbes goy doing for Orthodox Jewry all the dirty work — collecting the garbage and maintaining the sewer system (done by Mahmoud and Yussuf from East Jerusalem). And providing a good standard of living (courtesy of the American taxpayer). Such are the functions of Zionism in these neighborhoods.
I walk into my old grammar school, Tachkemoni, which is not called Tachkemoni any more. In my day it was a nationalist-traditionalist boys' school along the lines of the National Religious Party, where we were served a mixed educational menu of Yiddishkeit — old-style traditional Judaism — flavored with self-satisfaction and a pinch of Revisionism. Here we learned about the adventures of Joshua son of Nun and Samson the Mighty ("Kill the gentiles, even the best among them," explained the teacher as he interpreted the sages), the writings of the prophets ("Lo, how the faithful city has become a whore!"— in other words, how the Princess, daughter of Zion, has come down in the world, to become a wretched woman of the marketplace, selling her wares), the sayings of the wise ("Do not tarry in conversation with a woman," "Let your friend's fortune be as dear to you as your own"), and, alongside this petit-bourgeois Judaism, several crumbs of goyish wisdom: an English children's song, an educationally uplifting story translated from the Russian, and "The Heart" by Edmondo de Amicis ("Describe in your own words the poet's yearning for his boyhood school"), the heroism of the Maccabees, Bar Kokhba, Trumpeldor, the music of Chopin on a hand-cranked gramophone, physical education "to prepare you for the defense of the land and its inhabitants."
There is no Tachkemoni now. In its place stands an institution known as the School of Traditional Scriptures, a rabbinical high school donated by Joseph and Faye Tanenbaum of Toronto, and owned by the Telshe-Stone Organization, Inc. The buildings are old, dating from the Ottoman Turks, with large recessed windows and thick stone walls. Mayor Teddy Kollek's Arab workers are fixing the roof tiles — emissaries sent by the Zionist authorities to make repairs for the winter. Behind the building stand, half dead now, some of the pine trees we planted on Tu Bi-Shevat — Jewish Arbor Day — back in 1947.
One of the teachers tells me that the School of Traditional Scriptures provides an education that "is not Zionist or anti-Zionist, but just Jewish," yet the institution is recognized by the Ministry of Education and Culture and enjoys its financial support. The children of the Telshe-Stone institution are brought here every morning from all parts of the city ("even as far away as Bayit Va Can") in the yellow school buses subsidized by the municipality and the government. Maintenance and the hot lunch served to the children are also subsidized by the "authorities." The children study here until four o'clock in the afternoon, although secular schools close at one, and the older children, twelve-, thirteen-, and fourteen-year-olds, study until six in the evening. Those pupils found worthy go on to study at the Telshe-Stone Yeshiva, located just outside Jerusalem. The less talented "go out to make a living — but if possible, we register them in the yeshiva so the army won't take them."
And what do they study here?
"The Five Books of Moses. The Commentaries. And, from fourth grade on, the Talmud." The language of instruction is Hebrew, "because we are not Hasidim. The Hasidim teach everything in Yiddish. Even the Five Books of Moses."
And secular studies?
"Of course: arithmetic, geography, and even penmanship."
And natural sciences?
"We don't have that. Our sages have written, Don't bite off more than you can chew.'"
Do they teach vocational subjects here?
The instructor points to the Arabs repairing the roof under the auspices of Mayor Teddy Kollek and answers with a question: "And for what purpose did the Lord, Blessed be He, create them? Why was Ishmael the goy called Ishmael, which means 'He shall hear the Lord'? Do you know? No? I'll tell you. He was called Ishmael so that he would hear what Isaac, his brother and master, ordered him to do. And why was Isaac the Jew called Isaac, 'He shall laugh'? So that he would laugh at the sight — because the labor of righteous men is done by others."
And do they teach history here?
"Well, before every holiday they explain the meaning of the holiday to the children: the exodus from Egypt, the giving of the Torah, Purim, Lag b'Omer. That way the children learn about history, and they know that the salvation of the Lord will be as a bolt of lightning."
And general history?
"God forbid. Let the goyim study goyiahkeit. 'Lo, the people shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations.' We won't mingle or interfere. What do we have to do with their impurity? Murder and robbery and abomination you want us to teach our children?"
And do they celebrate Israel Independence Day here?
Excerpted from "In the Land of Israel"
Copyright © 1983 Amos Oz and Am Oved Publishers Ltd.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Author's Note to the Original Edition,
Author's Note to the Harvest Edition,
Thank God for His Daily Blessings,
The Insult and the Fury,
The Finger of God?,
Just a Peace,
The Tender Among You, and Very Delicate,
An Argument on Life and Death (A),
An Argument on Life and Death (B),
On Light and Shade and Love,
A Cosmic Jew,
At the End of That Autumn: A Midwinter Epilogue,
Some Reactions to In the Land of Israel,
A Postscript Ten Years Later: The Middle East Between Shakespeare and Chekhov,
About the Author,
Connect with HMH,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
To my mind this is Oz's best book , though lovers of his fiction will say I am not in my right mind.Here there is a far greater chunk of true Israel than in his other works.He knows how to speak to people, and more importantly how to listen to them.His conversations with those who oppose his views are especially good.In Beit Shean the book comes alive as the resentment of development town Sephardim is openly expressed to the the author,the representative of the Ashkenazi elite.But their warmth and humor give the conversation a great deal of life. Wherever Oz goes he encounters contradicting voices, and the whole presentation taken together makes Israel seem, what it truly is, a vibrant dynamic society . Oz's poetic prose and his great talent for description are also here , and add to the pleasure of the reader.