Home Politics Amos Oz and the Politics of the Hebrew Language – The New Yorker

Amos Oz and the Politics of the Hebrew Language – The New Yorker

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“A few days ago I was walking in Jerusalem, and in one alley . . . I sensed, there was, the smell of wet fabrics after an ironing,” the Israeli novelist Amos Oz once said in an interview. It was “a mixture of the smells of singed cloth, and steam, and a warm dampness; and a bit of the smell of the material, and it’s also a very domestic smell. And I now need so many words to falteringly relate to you this thing, with which you would be familiar instantly.” Oz, who died in December of last year, and who was one of the most prominent writers of modern Hebrew, was preoccupied throughout his life by the limitations of language: its slipperiness, its inability to fully convey meaning. The written word, he often argued, could only ever be a low-fidelity reproduction of the fullness of being; any text was ultimately humbled by the reality that it sought to represent.

After Oz’s death, the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation, known as Kan, released a number of radio interviews with him from its archives. The earliest, conducted from his room in Kibbutz Hulda, in 1964, took place not long before the publication of his first book, “Where the Jackals Howl”; the last is from the months before his death. It is uncanny how much the twenty-five-year-old Oz sounds like the seventy-nine-year-old Oz: as articulate and as resolute, almost oracular, in his tone. When you listen to the interviews in sequence, your initial awe at his easy eloquence wears off a bit with the repetition, sometimes word-for-word, of some of his insights. Words, he said in 1975, and again, in 1978, are esek bish, a mess—a cluttered affair that fogs up meaning even as it tries to get it across. But the repetitions also point to his fixation, verging on obsession, with the impossibility of capturing in writing what it was that he wanted to communicate.

For Oz, stories were an attempt to impose order on a world that has none—not so different, he thought, from Paleolithic cave paintings, in which prehistoric artists stilled wild beasts, giving themselves an illusion of control over nature. Still, Oz argued, the most primal human experiences transcend words: “Humans come into the world crying, make love moaning, die sighing,” he said in the 1978 interview. “When you need to communicate these things with words, it’s hard. . . . Some things get lost. You need to trust the reader, to some extent, to produce from the words that which is beyond words.” In her essay collection “Upstream,” the poet Mary Oliver observed that “Writing is neither vibrant life nor docile artifact but a text that would put all its money on the hope of suggestion.” A bet, as Oz put it, that different people will find beauty in the same contours.

Oz was as interested in the particularities of Hebrew as he was in the general problem of language. By his late twenties, after publishing his first three books (a collection of short stories and two novels), he was already one of the best-known literary practitioners of a language that had emerged from its cryogenic state just a few decades earlier. Hebrew newspapers and the first Hebrew novel appeared early in the nineteenth century, but the language was stilted and biblical. Within a century, Hebrew had become a supple, living language, first in literature and then in speech—a compelling and mercurial medium, rapidly adapting to the needs of modernity (imagine Latin repurposed to portray iPhones, third-wave feminism and Billie Eilish). “The Hebrew of my childhood,” Oz told David Remnick for a 2004 Profile in this magazine, “was a language making its first steps in the open, like a creature bred and created in a laboratory or in a zoo and set free.”

In “Jews and Words,” an essay that Oz wrote with his daughter Fania Oz-Salzberger, the two proposed an understanding of Jewish historical continuity as “primarily textual,” with Jewish lineage transmitted through words rather than blood. In that telling, the reëmergence of Hebrew as a spoken language was not only a rebirth but a rupture. Oz’s life traced the aftermath of this rupture. Born in 1939, in Jerusalem, Oz was the son of two recent Eastern European émigrés to Mandatory Palestine. His father was a librarian who read in sixteen or seventeen languages; his mother read in seven or eight. As part of their commitment to forging a new life—to leaving behind not only forced statelessness but also diasporic cosmopolitanism—Oz grew up only with Hebrew. “Maybe they feared that a knowledge of languages would expose me to the blandishments of Europe,” he wrote in his memoir, “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” “that wonderful, murderous continent.”

To Oz, writing in Hebrew was like sculpting in solid rock and crusted sand at the same time. With one foot in the Hebrew of the Bible and the other in the mélange of linguistic influences that made up the vernacular in a young country of immigrants, the language could make a speaker prone to making missteps of word choice: “you don’t want to bring in Isaiah and Psalms and Mount Sinai” to describe an argument over pocket change, Oz told the Paris Review in 1996. Modern Hebrew drew not only from earlier forms of the language but from Polish, Yiddish, Russian, and various dialects of Arabic. If the slow evolution of most languages allowed words to “resonate with an entire cellar of meanings and associations and lullabies and old wives’ tales,” then, for much of the twentieth century, readers and writers of Hebrew had to create their own harmonies.

This was also what made writing in Hebrew hugely tempting (like working “on an active volcano,” he said in both the 1978 radio interview and in the Paris Review). Oz compared the language to Elizabethan English, “when a writer and poet could still make new laws about language.” (In this, he echoes the literary critic George Steiner, who wrote that “Marlowe, Bacon, Shakespeare use words as if they were new, as if no previous touch had clouded their shimmer or muted their resonance. . . . The great treasure of it lies before them, suddenly unlocked, and they ransack it with a sense of infinite resource.”) Along with other novelists and poets of his generation, Oz revelled in the sense of possibility that modern Hebrew afforded, in the unique timbre of strings stretched between such temporally distant worlds.

In his interviews, Oz revealed his delight in Hebrew’s expanding resonances, but he was also alive to the ways in which language can be abused. “Every destruction begins with the destruction of language,” he said, “when you call things by names which are not their own.” Oz, who wrote columns and essays for the Israeli press (he famously used different-colored pens for politics and for prose), framed his role as a public intellectual through his relation to language, and much of his political writing began at that point. In the first column he wrote after the Six-Day War, in which Israel took the Gaza Strip from Egypt and the West Bank from Jordan, he rejected the new practice of referring to the military captures as “liberated territories.” This was, in his view, a “contamination of language”: territory could never be “freed,” and liberation only held meaning in a human context. About the 1982 Lebanon War, which was initially dubbed Operation Peace for Galilee, he said, “War is not peace. Call it war.”

Despite these misgivings about the use and misuse of language, Hebrew remained, to Oz, Zionism’s greatest achievement. Certainly, it was the one he was least ambivalent about. “I have said many times that I’m a chauvinist only in respect of the language,” he told the Paris Review. “I feel for the language everything that perhaps I don’t always feel for the country.” Modern Hebrew literature—its beats and its tenor, its themes and its subjects—was a source of pride, as broad in range as it was particular. Oz identified its central topic as the “troubles of the Jews,” but this seemingly narrow focus did not preclude it rising to a more universal, humanistic plane. “The troubles of the Jews, in the broadest strokes, are not so different from the troubles of humanity,” he said in 1978. “Jews search for something they cannot find; find something they didn’t want; find something they wanted, but it’s not quite right. Other humans are like this, too… Jews are also like other humans, when they try hard.”

Throughout, Oz tied the boundaries of language to the boundaries of ideology. People with too much faith in a specific program, who prescribe too eagerly to an all-encompassing gospel of change, can inevitably become fanatics when the world does not fit neatly into their formulas, he argued. Just as reality cannot be fully expressed in language, it also resists confinement to a single belief system: “We live in a world full of contradictions. . . . and ideology cannot stand contradictions.” Rather, Oz advises perplexion—that we all be driven by our confusion to constantly examine and re-arrange our attic of ideas. His final essay collection, “Dear Zealots,” opens with a broad exploration of fanatics and fanaticism (single-mindedness, humorlessness) and concludes by analyzing the pathologies of those perpetuating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Given this outspoken aversion to dogma and intellectual rigidity, it is perhaps ironic how consistent his own views remained over the decades. Secular, liberal Zionism, of which Oz was one of the clearest articulators, has its own set of prescriptions for the world’s problems, its own utopian streak, its own easy solutions to the intractable conflict in the Middle East. Oz subscribed to these aspirations, though he was usually clear-eyed about the obstacles to bringing them about.

There’s an old Zionist hymn that begins with the line “Here in the land our forefathers ached for, all of our hopes will be fulfilled.” The tune is borrowed from an older Yiddish song titled “Goles Marsh,” or “Exile March,” and the Hebrew rendition subverts the original lachrymose lyrics, promising to replace the tears of the diaspora with a life of freedom and farming (and, of course, Hebrew). “Not two or three hopes, all of our hopes,” Oz noted cynically about the song’s opening refrain and the early Zionists who sang it. No dream too small. “Even when they were already here they would sing ‘there,’ ” he added. Always in a state of flux, never quite arriving (other humans are like this, too). Still, when his kids were young, it was one of the songs that Oz would sing to them every night before they went to sleep, half bemused and half believing. It was the last song sung before the crowd dispersed at his funeral, as he was laid to rest in the kibbutz graveyard.

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