In Friday’s English-language edition of Haaretz Op-Ed columnist Nehemia Shtrasler takes Amos Oz to task for his recollections of Israel’s first thirty years. “I didn’t know that Israel was once a paradise,” he writes, and offers facts and figures to prove it:
* In order to work during those happy years, you had to have a red membership book from the Histadrut labor federation.And Oz’s egalitarian society distributed beautiful apartments at half price only to “those who are close to us” while in the low-income neighborhoods people wallowed in terrible conditions.
* 250,000 people did not have health insurance because they did not pay dues to the Histadrut.
But Amos Oz is a novelist, not an economist. He was talking about values rather than statistics, about the consequences of shifting from a tightly knit, mutually supportive society to one that favors individual initiative. His book Scenes from Village Life, just out in the UK in English and due for publication in America in October, evokes those changes with extraordinary emotional power.
In one story a former Knesset member named Pesach Kedem at first seems bitter, but he is a romantic when he recalls the old days. (His name is an explicit reference to the liturgical phrase חדש ימנו כקדם–Chadesh yameinu k’kedem, “Renew our days as of old.”) Reflecting on his past and his old enemies in internecine left-wing political battles, he tells his daughter, in Nicholas de Lange’s superb translation, “We dreamed of improving ourselves, the whole world. We loved the hills and valleys. How did we get here? A long time ago some people liked each other a bit. Now all the hearts are dead.”
Another story in the book makes a similar point through music. A group of villagers meets for a community sing-along and begin with pioneer tunes and songs from the Palmach and the War of Independence like “The Song of Friendship.” By evening’s end they are singing “Why did you lie to me, faraway lights,” and “Can you hear my voice, distant one?” The sense of solidarity, friendship, and shared destiny has been replaced by a distancing individualism.
Shtrasler is of course right in saying that the standard of living in Israel is far better for most people now than it was thirty years ago, but he is wrong when he says Oz has made a “mistake.” Amos Oz sees the improvements but mourns what has been lost in getting them. The great writer is less interested in material gains than in the price paid by the soul.
Bob Goldfarb, the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity in Los Angeles and Jerusalem, also reviews books for Jewish Book World, published by the Jewish Book Council.
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