Amos Oz, born Amos Klausner, spent the early years of his childhood in his family home in the Jerusalem suburb of Kerem Avraham. The politics of the Klausner family were strongly tied to the idea of a Jewish state in British-mandated Palestine; within the broad spectrum of Zionism, they identified with the right-wing branch, perhaps even with the Revisionist cause led by Vladimir Jabotinsky. Following his family’s preferences, Oz attended the Orthodox Jewish school Telkemoni in Jerusalem. The dominating influence of Oz’s father, a member of the urban intellectual middle class and a published scholar of comparative literature, almost certainly played a role in the apparent rebelliousness of the adolescent son. Oz described his father’s character in the following terms: “Like every good Zionist he wanted his offspring to be at least two things: Nimrod the Hunter and the saintly Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav.” In other words, his sons should have the force to fight but should also bring honor to his family.
By the time Oz was fourteen (five years after Israel’s independence), he decided to leave his family home, change his surname from Klausner to Oz, and join Kibbutz Hulda, which had been founded as part of the experimental Zionist community in 1940. There he gained a new identity living as part of the local agricultural productive force and sharing communal responsibilities with fellow kibbutz members. Many of the themes for his later writings would be based on this grassroots exposure to idealistic Zionism. Another legacy of this decision to change his lifestyle may be visible in his association with the leftist or labor-oriented political philosophy of the party founded by another famous kibbutznik, David Ben-Gurion.
Oz remained a resident of Kibbutz Hulda through the years, leaving only for three years of obligatory service in the Israeli army, two years of study at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and several writer’s sabbaticals abroad, including a year as a visiting Fellow of St. Cross College, Oxford, and, from 1986 to 1987, in residence at Colorado College in the United States. Within his own community, his skills as a writer served the needs and interests of the kibbutz youth. When he was not assisting with agricultural labors at harvest time, he taught in the English and literature departments of Kibbutz Hulda’s high school.
Oz’s literary work covers a wide field of interests. Stylistically it takes advantage of the relative flexibility of modern Hebrew, which was itself reborn along with the Zionist movement of the late nineteenth century, to produce effects that are more difficult to convey in modern European languages. Oz himself has likened modern Hebrew to “a volcano in action,” very much like the English language of the Elizabethan period. In terms of subject matter Oz’s novels provide portraits primarily of Israeli culture and society in some, but certainly not all, cases woven into a cosmopolitan context.
Oz’s Where the Jackals Howl, and Other Stories was one of his earliest collections of short stories about kibbutz life. Here Oz concentrates on individual character studies. Although there is some attention to the potentially hostile surrounding environment, one is struck, particularly in the short story “Nomad and Viper,” by the humanity of Oz’s (somewhat idealized) view of the Arab inhabitants of the territory that became Israel.
Oz’s highly developed stylistic skills are very visible in Elsewhere, Perhaps, a novel about life on the kibbutz of Metsudet Ram. Here impressions, either of characters or of natural settings, are skillfully encompassed, sometimes into two-page vignettes which stand by themselves. Oz’s Unto Death consists of two novella-length pieces. One of these is historical fiction dealing with Palestine during the eleventh century Crusades, whereas the second, “Late Love,” is a very contemporary autobiographical subject, recounted in the first person.
By the mid-1970’s, particularly in My Michael, the form of Oz’s presentation began to change somewhat. In this case the simple, direct style of the short story is retained in a longer novel that recounts the life of an Israeli couple, Hannah (the wife and narrator) and Michael. This first longer novel did not distract the author from developing his preferred form, the story. The Hill of Evil Counsel is an example of Oz’s expansion of the short story into a medium-length novella. This collection of three stories combines an account of middle-class Jews in their social relations with representatives of the British mandatory regime (1920-1948) with much more impressionistic stories (one told through the eyes of a child) of personalities, families, and neighborhoods interacting (in this case in a setting of underground political resistance) with the same British “enemy.”
By the 1980’s Oz seemed ready to opt for the full-length novel but still did not abandon his preference for experimentation. Whereas A Perfect Peace was an extensive portrayal of a limited number of protagonists in a more or less continuous and standard story context, Black Box provided a new departure: Neither novel nor short story, Black Box is a set of stories-within-a-story about several characters in Israel and abroad whose lives are interconnected.
Oz’s most striking characteristic over two decades of prolific fiction writing is his ability to experiment, not so much with subject matter, as with the literary forms used to present his realistic and convincing protagonists.
Born Amos Klausner, Amos Oz left his Jerusalem home at age fifteen, breaking with the right-wing politics and Eurocentrism of his family, changed his surname to one with biblical overtones—as many settlers in Israel have done—and joined Kibbutz Hulda. Subsequently, he has been a kibbutz agricultural field hand, kibbutz teacher, member of an Israeli army tank crew in the 1967 and 1973 wars, writer, globe-trotting lecturer, visiting professor at Oxford University in England and Colorado Springs College in the United States, and the Agnon Professor of Literature at Ben Gurion University in the Negev.
The varied experiences of Oz’s life are revealed in much of his fiction. The emphasis in the three interlinked novelettes of The Hill of Evil Counsel on a young boy’s growing up in Jerusalem on the eve of Israel’s war of independence in 1948, also paralleled in Oz’s novel Panter ba-martef (1994; Panther in the Basement, 1997), reflects Oz’s own experience. The kibbutz settings of five of the eight stories in Where the Jackals Howl, and Other Stories reflect Oz’s personal knowledge of this way of life; the many soldiers and military characters in his short fiction likewise reflect Oz’s life experiences—indeed, main character Sergei Unger in “Late Love” (Unto Death) acquires a book about Israeli tank warfare. The many intellectuals and ideologues in Oz’s short fiction reflect not only people Oz encountered on the kibbutz but also intellectual European immigrants to Israel, political activists, teachers such as Oz himself, and even some of Oz’s own family, including his father and grandfather.
Amos Oz, born Amos Klausner in 1939, spent his early years in Jerusalem. Until the age of fifteen, he lived at No. 16 Amos Street, a place that plays a prominent part in his memoir A Tale of Love and Darkness. Yehuda Klausner and Fania Mussman, his father and mother, were Zionist immigrants from Eastern Europe. Much of his father’s family was right-wing Zionist. Yehuda, who had studied history and literature in Lithuania, worked as a librarian and writer in Jerusalem. His maternal family emigrated from Poland to Haifa in 1934.
Although Oz’s immediate family was not religious, he attended the community religious school, Tachmoni, instead of the alternative socialistic school because it was antithetical to his family’s political views. He then attended the Hebrew high school in Rehavia. Oz’s mother, who suffered from depression, committed suicide in 1952.
Oz was fourteen years old when he changed his last name from Klausner to Oz (“Oz” means strength and power in Hebrew). He left his father’s home and joined Kibbutz Hulda, where he intended to work as a field laborer and live by the Zionist ideals of labor, equality, and simple living. However, he found himself increasingly drawn to study and writing and took leave from the kibbutz to complete a degree in literature and philosophy at Hebrew University. As time went on, royalties from his writing allowed him to perform less field work. In 1960, Oz married Nily Zuckerman, whose father was the librarian of the kibbutz. Oz completed his service in the Israeli Defense Forces in 1961, but he later fought in the Six Day War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973.
Oz remained on the kibbutz until 1986, when he and his wife moved to the drier climate of southern Israel because of his son’s asthma. In addition to being a prolific writer, Oz has been a professor of Hebrew literature at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Both his life and his writing are deeply rooted in his native land.