Amos Oz Mourning Jewish Utopia:
Review of Between Friends

By Ralph Dumain

Amos Oz, Between Friends, translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston. Boston; New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1013. 179 pp. ISBN 978-0-547-98558-9. US $24.

Prize-winning Israeli author Amos Oz, who lived on a kibbutz for decades, has written a book of eight connected stories about a fictional Kibbutz Yehat in the 1950s, Between Friends, published this past September in an elegant English translation rendered by Sondra Silverston.

They comprise a series of remarkable sketches of character and interpersonal relations. The most prominent feature of these stories is the sense of psychological isolation experienced by the inhabitants of the kibbutz, their commitment to a collectivist goal notwithstanding, each one locked up in his or her private mental universe, just as are the rest of us.

Yoav Carni, Kibbutz Yehat’s first baby, now grown, is on night patrol (“At Night”), a post that makes him the beneficiary of others’ confidences. As his rounds begin, he takes over from middle-aged Zvi Provizor (subject of the first story, “The King of Norway”), the perpetual bearer of bad news from around the world.

Yoav left, and when he passed the fountain that Zvi Provizor had installed in the square in front of the dining hall, he thought that a lonely, aging bachelor had a harder time here than he would in other places because kibbutz society offered no remedies for loneliness. In fact, the very idea of a kibbutz denied the concept of loneliness. (p. 105)

Yoav’s wife is unhappy with kibbutz life, but Yoav, while aware of the unfair burdens on women, won’t hear of leaving. Yoav, on duty, is collared by Nina, who can’t bear her husband another minute, and helps her find a place to stay for the night, all the while resisting his attraction to her, and anticipating the gossip to circulate the coming day.

Returning to the first story: Zvi Provizor, the kibbutz gardener, is relentless about repeating bad news from all over the world, all the time, to the exclusion of all other topics. We learn, among other things, that the King of Norway has liver cancer. Zvi is not popular, but Luna Blank, who regularly engages him in conversation, is very sympathetic, thinking Zvi a sensitive man for his addiction to tragedy. They become friendlier and friendlier, but Luna crosses the line when she violates Zvi’s aversion to being touched. Zvi disengages from Luna, and Luna gradually disengages from the kibbutz until she finally leaves.

In between the aforementioned stories are “Two Women,” “Between Friends,” “Father,” “Little Boy.”  Following “At Night” is “Deir Ajloun.”

In “Deir Ajloun” (the name of a decimated and abandoned Arab village) Yotam Kalisch wishes to go to college in Italy, in opposition to the customary rules and practices of the kibbutz. The restrictions and the older generation’s demand for self-sacrifice are stifling to Yotam. The decision to leave, however, is not in Yotam’s hands. He contemplates the more limited alternative he is offered as he hikes to the ghost village of Deir Ajloun.

These are only a few of the characters and relationships to be found in these stories, and very barely outlined at that. I want to discuss one more, the final story in the book, “Esperanto.”

Perhaps because the 20th century was recently concluded, or perhaps because things have not turned out for the best, authors have been turning to the past to resurrect historical characters, revisit the assumptions of past times, write alternate histories, perhaps grasping at lost possibilities. Esperanto and its creator Ludwig Zamenhof have surfaced in Jewish fiction, a not-surprising symbol of utopian aspirations that never materialized. In Oz’s final chapter we find Martin Vandenberg, old and in poor health, but continuing to work in his shoe shop out of a dedication to the principle of labor, fiercely upholding the old ideals of the kibbutz that he fears will vanish with a coming generation. Vandenberg is an anarchist and Esperantist. In his youth he taught Esperanto before leaving Europe, and wanted to teach a course on the kibbutz but it never panned out. Still a picture of Zamenhof hung on his wall. A moral perfectionist, Vandenberg advocates the abolition of possessions, money, the family, and the state. He believes human nature to be good, corrupted only by unjust society.

Osnat (another recurring character in these stories), who looks after Martin, doesn’t buy these ideas, arguing to the contrary that children are naturally cruel and selfish, and that people are not just innocent victims of a bad environment. Yoav visits Martin, insisting that Martin is too infirm to keep on working, and attempts unsuccessfully to negotiate a solution in the face of Martin’s stubbornness. Martin is equally stubborn about his world view. He was even optimistic about the Nazi foot soldiers he had observed during the war.

Martin announces an Esperanto class. Three people sign up, Osnat, Zvi Provizor, and Moshe Yashar, a gentle soul introduced in “Father.” Martin prefaces his lesson with a statement that a common language will prevent war, to which Zvi and Moshe raise counterexamples. At the end of the actual lesson, the students have learned how to say the first verse of Genesis in Esperanto. Martin insists that "imprecise words poison relations between people everywhere, and that's why clear, accurate words can heal those relationships, but only if they are the right words spoken in a language that all people can understand." Moshe doesn’t believe this either.

Due to Martin’s deteriorating health, the second Esperanto lesson is postponed, and Martin is rushed to the hospital. Now on his deathbed, Martin claims that Death, the great equalizer, is himself an anarchist. Martin’s funeral is poignantly recounted in detail. Osnat is the last to leave, trying to think of some final words to say in Esperanto.

This final scene sums up the underlying wistful, melancholic tone of the book. The Esperantist as hopelessly naďve and utopian is a common enough notion, but such portrayal does not universally hold in real life, not even in the case of Zamenhof himself. But Esperanto as a symbol of hope for the future, at least as a past hope, and as a symbol of the highest Jewish values, lives on. Amos Oz is as eloquent as can be hoped for. Sometimes words cannot do justice to life, not even in Esperanto.

9 January 2014

© 2014 Ralph Dumain

Esperanto & Laborista Movado / Esperanto & the Labor Movement

Esperanto & Interlinguistics Study Guide / Retgvidilo pri Esperanto & interlingvistiko

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Uploaded 10 March 2014

©2014 Ralph Dumain