Critical Context

Oz’s thematic concerns are quite different from the kind of celebration of Jewish culture often associated with Israeli writers. These better-known themes are reflected, for example, in the work of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Israel’s most revered modern writer, who is spiritually attuned to and respectful of the “old ways” and writes expressly to preserve a tradition for later generations. Oz, though writing in Hebrew, is less interested in preserving than in challenging the social and religious mores of modern Israel. For this reason, My Michael, his first novel, written when was he was twenty-eight years old, was an immediate cause celebre in Israel. In a society whose Hebrew-reading public numbers less than a million, My Michael sold a remarkable forty thousand copies. Following Israel’s wild success in the Six Day War, the novel was widely read as an attack on Israel’s new arrogance; Hannah Gonen’s deliberate, undisguised ambivalence toward what Oz conceives as the political imperialism of his countrymen shocked and disturbed many readers.

Oz belongs to the post-independence generation of novelists, whose outlook was significantly shaped by the fact that, unlike their families, they were part of a country they could call their own. Distanced from his parents’ “longing for a return home,” Oz is thus unchained from a borrowed past that might limit or dictate his narrative themes and strategies. Regarding himself as a “secular Zionist” who is not particularly religious, he still embues his characters and settings with the age-old piety of this “holy land.”

This religious temperament resonates in My Michael not only because Oz writes in Hebrew but also because he knows that, no matter how secularized Israel becomes, the ancient religion of the Jews—with all of its ambiguities and tribulations—still haunts the modern Israeli landscape. Oz’s narrative style and focus has helped displace the nostalgia of pre-independence fiction with a problematic, self-questioning mode of writing and has energized political soul-searching in Israel, earning for him a prominent place in international letters as one of Israel’s leading novelists and social critics.