The genre of autobiography is characterized by the complex relationship between the individual and the collective. In his autobiographic novel, Amos Oz articulates the concurrent tension and fusion between these two poles. By placing A Tale of Love and Darkness in dialogue with earlier Jewish autobiographies by Mary Antin, Ephraim Lisitzky, Rosa Speiser, and Alfred Kazin, one may uncover how Amos Oz navigates the autobiographical tradition of grappling with the personal and communal. Oz constructs an intimate connection between his individual experience and the historical experience of the Jewish people through his journey to investigate and repair the generational breaks that plague his family and his nation. Connecting the loss of his parents to the struggles within the Jewish Zionist narrative, A Tale of Love and Darkness embodies the prolific confluence of the individual and the collective. As our analysis will reveal, the formation of this connection between personal and communal experience is a potent instrument for self-discovery and widespread liberation. In this way, Oz’s work illustrates the pain and the power of generational disconnect, personal loss, and national struggle to kindle a strong identity for the individual and the collective.
A major trope woven throughout A Tale of Love and Darkness is the grave emotional and psychological distance between Amos and his parents. By illustrating his disconnection from his mother and father, Oz represents a generational break that characterizes and shapes his most intimate and interior experiences. Oz’s choice of language in his writing – Hebrew – underlines this break. Both of his parents speak many languages, but they only speak to Amos in Hebrew. His childhood is riddled with his parents’ whispers and secrets in unintelligible, impenetrable languages. Such a communicative detachment from his family embodies Amos’s emotional isolation from his parents. Structurally, Oz locates his mother and father within an oppositional binary. For example, his father Yehuda is enveloped in scholarship, constantly referencing linguistic facts and scholarly connections. In contrast, Amos’s mother Fania tells him dreamy stories of fantasy and fiction. The author demonstrates this generational break in the family by excluding himself from this opposition between his parents, placing himself outside of the binary.
This structure is evident in the parents’ disagreement about Amos’s education. Setting up the two sides of the debate, Oz writes, “There were two primary schools within a half an hour’s walk from a child from our home. One was too socialist, and the other was too religious” (271). Despite the objections to both options, Amos’s mother prefers the socialist school over “the rigorous religious separation of boys or girls” (272). The author muses that perhaps the socialist school, with its “youthful joy,” reminded his mother “in some way of the Tarbuth gymnasium in Rovno” (272). His father, on the other hand, falls at the opposite side of the debate. Although its curriculum is “alien to [his] secular outlook,” the religious school presents the more disciplinarian option, which is better than the “leftist indoctrination and proletarian brainwashing” of the socialist school (273). His parents caught in binary opposition, there is no room for Amos. His father ends up winning the fight, and Amos attends the religious school. But he pursues a true education outside of this binary, external to his parents’ opposition. Instead of acceding to one belief over the other, Amos follows his own distinct pathway of learning from Teacher Zelda, whose “enchanting” and “unexpected” stories and ideas spark Amos’s curiosity and profound understanding of the world (274). In his autobiographic novel, Oz constructs the memories of his parents within a binary opposition, from which he, ever since childhood, is excluded. This structural representation depicts the brokenness of Amos’s family and the generational gap that afflicts the author’s personal life.
Oz achieves a synthesis between the personal and collective by connecting the break between himself and his parents with the break between generations of the Jewish nation. The author dedicates a significant portion of his book to reconstructing the lost worlds of his parents’ pasts in Europe. Readers learn about Fania’s personal history through long monologues by her sister. This lengthy chain of transmission – from Fania’s true experience to her sister’s recollections to Amos’s transcription – illustrates a tangible distance between Amos and his mother’s former world. The stories of the earlier generations of Amos’s family are plagued with fear, violence, and oppression, creating Oz’s impression of Europe as a “wonderful, murderous continent” that weighs heavily on his parents’ consciousness at all times (2). But this fearful presentation of Europe is nuanced by his parents’ notion of high culture and their admiration for European authors and artists. “Europe for them was a forbidden promised land,” Amos writes (2). For so much of his book dedicated to reconstructing his mother and father’s histories in Europe, Amos’s individual interactions with Europe are restricted. Writing about the language gap between himself and his parents, Amos muses, “Maybe they feared that a knowledge of languages would expose me to the blandishments of Europe” (2). The elusive, ever-present Europe belongs to Amos’s parents and the generations before him, and his access to this world is muddled with fantasies and nightmares. In this way, the restoration of his parents’ lost worlds in Europe further underlines the generational break within Amos’s family.
His parents weighed down by their foreign pasts in Europe, Amos’s childhood progresses parallel to the birth of the Jewish state. In this way, the author transcribes his family’s generational break onto the Jewish collective, divided between the generation of European immigrants who fled the “forbidden promised land” to their only option, Palestine, and the generation of children like Amos, who grow together with the new state of Israel. The canon of Jewish autobiography features many moments of transcendence from the personal break between generations to the collective break between generations. Mary Antin and Alfred Kazin’s autobiographies are two prime examples. Like the reconstruction of Oz’s parents’ histories in A Tale of Love and Darkness, the first section of Antin’s autobiography details the recollections of her parents and community in Russia, which lay outside of her own personal memories. In doing so, Antin represents her personal experience of immigration from Russia to America as a collective experience—from the backwards Pale of Settlement to the Land of the Free. She corroborates her personal journey as the representation of all Jewish immigrants and, ultimately, as the prototype of the American dream. Antin spells this out in the beginning of her book: “Although I have written a genuine personal memoir, I believe that its chief interest lies in the fact that it is illustrative of scores of unwritten lives” (2). Antin’s parents were never able to fully assimilate, to wholly shed their Jewishness and their selfhood from the Pale. Only through Mary, the symbol of true Americanized success, did her parents achieve some semblance of the American dream. She writes of her father’s interaction with her public school teacher, “By the simple act of delivering our school certificates to her he took possession of America” (162). Her parents remain a symbol of the Jewish Pale of Settlement, an emblem of the Russian history, while Mary, a symbol of the younger generation, differentiates from her parents as a true American. Antin constructs a separate world of earlier generations, filled with religious persecution and backwardness, and positions herself in a widespread generational break from the old to the new. In this way, she presents her personal narrative as a collective narrative. Oz follows a similar formula – he recreates the former lives of his mother and father as the paradigms of the old world for the Jewish people, in opposition to the younger generation that is of the new state of Israel.
Alfred Kazin’s work A Walker in the City offers another instance of generational break as both personal and collective in the Jewish autobiography. Kazin, too, erects a separate world to which only his parents, the older generation, have complete access:
“Often, those Friday evenings, they spoke of der heym, ‘Home,’ and then it was hard for me. Heym was a terrible word. I saw millions of Jews lying dead under the Polish eagle with knives in their throats. I was afraid I associated with that old European life only pain, mud, and hopelessness, but I was of it still, through her… In many ways der heym was entirely dim and abstract, nothing to do with me at all” (59).
Like Antin and Oz, Kazin depicts a lost, violent, oppressive world of his parents’ earlier histories, which creates a distinct generational gap within his family. While his parents fully belong to der heym, Kazin fully belongs to Brunzville–his kitchen, his street, and “the block: my block” (83). The author elevates his personal narrative of generational gap to characterize a collective Jewish experience. By emphasizing the violence and oppression of der heym (and even fabricating reports of certain pogroms), Kazin situates his family’s generational disconnect within the larger Jewish nation. Kazin constructs a direct link between the personal and collective through his reflection on the Holocaust:
“The last time I saw our kitchen this clearly was one afternoon in London at the end of the war…A radio was playing in the street, and standing there I heard a broadcast of the first Sabbath service from Belson Concentration Camp. When the liberated Jewish prisoners recited the Hear O Israel, the Lord Our God, the Lord is One, I felt myself carried back to the Friday evenings at home, when with the Sabbath at sundown a healing quietness would come over Brownsville” (51-52).
Fusing the collective Holocaust memory with his own memories of Brunzville, Kazin’s autobiography transcends the personal. When representing the trauma that spills over from his parent’s former lives, he speaks as a representative of his generation in Jewish America. Kazin attains this transcendence by depicting the gap between himself and his parents as a symbol of Jewish generational break with the immigration to America. Echoing Mary Antin’s portrait of her parents, Kazin writes,
“My father and mother worked in a rage to put us above their level; they had married to make us possible. We were the only conceivable end to all their striving; we were their America… They did not consider themselves free. They were awed by us, as they were awed by their own imagined unworthiness, and looked on themselves only as instruments toward the ideal ‘America’ future that would be lived by their children” (56).
Like Antin, Kazin could grasp the American dream, but his parents could not. The parents of Antin, Kazin, and Oz are characterized by their distance, their belonging to a foreign, lost, old world. The children, though, are of the place, whether that be America or Israel. This disconnect on the familial level rises above the personal to the collective experience, as Oz and the other authors buttress their individual experiences as emblems for all immigrant children, for all the younger generation of Jews who are both haunted by and isolated from the older generations’ past.
The only moment in A Tale of Love and Darkness when Amos and his parents are wholly united is at the birth of the Jewish state. At this time, the opposition between his mother and father fades away, and the child finally feels in sync with his parents. Once again, this moment of unity transcends the personal and reaches the heights of the Jewish collective throughout Palestine. The author describes this union,
“And I was surprised to see my mother’s hand stroking [my father’s] wet head and the back of his neck, and then I felt her hand on my head and my back too, because I might unawares have been helping my father shout, and my mother’s hand stroked the two of us over and over again, perhaps to soothe us or perhaps not, perhaps out of the depths she was also trying to share with him and me in our shout and with the whole street, the whole neighborhood, the whole city, and the whole country, my sad mother was trying to participate this time—no, definitely not the whole city, but only the Jewish areas” (343).
With the announcement of the Jewish state, the generational break between Amos and his parents, between the older Jewish immigrants and the younger Jewish natives, dissipates. Oz’s familial intimacy symbolizes the spark of unity that spreads throughout the Jewish nation at the moment of Israel’s birth. But the author warns us that this unity is not sustainable; it comes with a high price of violence, displacement, conflict, and moral dilemma. Immediately following this poetic description of familial and national euphoria and inclusion, Oz describes the fear, anger, and pending displacement of the Arabs in the land. Personal disappointment and collective conflict persist from the generational break, disrupting the unity of this exalted moment.
First, the personal—both of Amos’s parents, at either end of their oppositional binary, bring him suffering and disappointment. The pain from his mother’s suicide drives the whole narrative. Her depression and illness were so powerful and damaging that her mother-child relationship with Amos is reversed. He becomes her parent: “[My mother] was soaked and frozen like a drenched bird that would never fly again. I got her to the bathroom and fetched her some dry clothes from her closet and I told her like a grown-up and I gave her instructions…she did everything I told her to do” (392). Amos’s father also brings suffering and pain to the author, who catches his father cheating on Fania, holding hands with a young woman at a café. In addition to his pain from the loss of his mother, Oz’s disappointment in his father continues to burn within him. We read of Amos’s reaction to the sight of his father and the strange woman in Sichel’s Café, “And I ran away from there, I ran away from Lolik, and I haven’t quite stopped running since” (391). The personal pain and disappointment from his parents transfers onto the collective narrative, as Amos renders his mother and father as symbols of the older generation, maintaining the same binary opposition structure. The author writes,
“Both my parents had come to Jerusalem straight from the nineteenth century. My father had grown up on a concentrated diet of operatic, nationalistic, battle-thirsty romanticism… My mother, on the other hand, lived by the other Romantic canon, the introspective, melancholy menu of loneliness in a minor key” (240).
Once again, Amos portrays his parents in an oppositional binary, from which he is excluded. In this case, the author elevates this binary to one of nationalistic proportions; his parents act as representatives of two oppositional modes of nineteenth century Diasporic Judaism, both of which lead to political conflict and moral suffering for the young generation of the new state of Israel. Echoing the binary opposition between Amos’s parents, these two strains of Jewish nineteenth century Romanticism exclude the young generation in Israel and fail to solve the deep political and emotional struggles of the Zionist project. Just as Amos pursued a new and different pathway for education, outside of his parents’ binary, the younger generation of Israel must pursue something new.
Oz kindles the close relationship between generational break and the need to create a new identity, a new individual and national selfhood. Readers find this connection in the author’s symbolic discussion of the book Over the Ruins by Tsvi Liebermann-Livne:
“So in Over the Ruins the whole generation of the wilderness has evaporated, leaving behind happy, light-footed orphans, as free as a flock of birds in the clear blue sky. There is no one left to nag them in a Diaspora accent, to speechify, to enforce musty manners, to spoil life with all kinds of depressions, traumas, imperatives, and ambitions. Not one of them has survived to moralize all day long—this is permitted, that is forbidden, that is disgusting. Just us. Alone in the world. The death of all the grown-ups concealed a mysterious, powerful spell. And so at the age of fourteen and a half, a couple of years after my mother’s death, I killed my father and the whole of Jerusalem, changed my name, and went on my own to Kibbutz Hulda to live there over the ruins” (445).
Here, the author draws a direct correlation between the “light-footed orphans” of Israel’s younger generation and his individual isolation from his parents. Just as the youth in Israel must be freed from the older “generation of the wilderness,” so too must Oz break from his parents to pursue his own unique path. Symbolically reinventing himself, Amos bestows himself with a new name, leaving his parents so that he is “alone in the world.” In this way, the struggle and loss of generational break is a necessary step toward self-creation, both for the individual and the nation.
In his autobiography, Ephraim Lisitzky also grounds his understanding of personal and collective self-making in generational break. After immigrating from Slutzk to Boston, Lisitzky is torn between the observant, scholarly, and traditional Judaism of Eastern Europe and the acculturated, modernist, Hebrew culture in America. Like Oz and the other Jewish authors discussed, Lisitzky imagines himself as a representative of the larger Jewish collective of his generation, claiming that his story transcends beyond the individual and “is applicable to the Jewish personality in general” (287). With the loss of his mother and his isolation from his father, Lisitzky’s disconnection from his parents echoes our discussion of Oz’s personal break from the older generation. Like Amos’s continued struggles of identity as he grapples with his place in scholarship, Judaism, Zionism, and romance, Lisitzky’s conception of himself is one rife with complex contradictions. He writes,
“My mind was broken up into too many separate sovereignties, mutually contradictory and at odd with one another, each claiming exclusive obedience. This multiplicity of sovereignty prevailed also in my conception of Judaism. As a result, my Jewish outlook, too, became subject to conflicts and contradictions” (296).
Generational break, for Lisitzky and for Oz, lays the foundation of a personal struggle for selfhood. Both authors elevate this struggle to the collective domain—a young generation, broken from its elders, must blaze a new trail of Jewishness. Lisitzky applies this idea to the position of American Jews, who embody “the nature of pioneering” in their struggle “to preserve something of its own character in the midst of this new existence” (300). These conflicts and contradictions not only separate one generation from the other but also fuel the creation of a new collective identity. Lisitzky claims,
“American soil is one vast battleground. A new life is being forged on it, out of a clash of elements violently torn from their context and matrix and wretched from their ordered categories and equations, so that they might be recreated in a new organic form” (299).
Portraying his story as the story of the collective, Lisitzky illustrates the productive quality of generational break and its difficult ramifications. From Lisitzky, readers learn that the process for self-creation is one filled with struggle and conflict and may only be achieved through generational break and the pioneering of something new. In connection to A Tale of Love and Darkness, these claims demonstrate the high stakes of Oz’s depiction of generational break on personal and collective levels. By constructing the separation between generations within the family and the nation, Oz shows the need for the formation of a new individual and collective selfhood.
A Tale of Love and Darkness follows in the tradition of Jewish autobiography, as the act of writing the autobiography becomes a method to create a new personal and communal identity. By crafting this autobiographic novel, Oz fashions his selfhood by reconciling with the irreparable loss of his mother and his broken relationship with his father. Investigating his memories, interrogating his aunt about Europe, and revisiting his childhood neighborhood, Oz seeks to understand his parents, find answers for his mother’s suicide, and sympathize with his father. Shaped and defined by the generational break in his family, Oz’s autobiography brings solace and reconciliation to his sustained sense of loss and struggle. The act of writing autobiography as a mode of reconciliation with loss and generational break is also employed by Rosa Speiser. Rosa, who wants to pursue modern Polish education, is distanced from her father, who insists upon traditional Jewish learning. In response to this generational break, Rosa pursues her own distinct path, attending two schools at once. Soon, she set out “alone in the world” like Amos (445). “At seventeen years of age, I set out on my journey all alone,” she writes, leaving behind her father and the traditional Jewish life he represented in order to shape a new form of modern Jewishness (335). In this way, generational break in her family works as a necessary catalyst to her identity creation. Speiser, similarly to Lisitzky, feels a contradictory range of allegiances—to socialism, to Jewish tradition, to modern Yiddish literature, to Polish intellectual culture. When Rosa’s father dies, she must reconcile these different sovereignties with her loss. She achieves this reconciliation through the actual act of autobiography, which provides her with an outlet to understand and forgive her father, effectively repairing the generational break that plagued her childhood. In writing her autobiography, she successfully synthesizes her socialism, her Judaism, her modernity, and her mourning for her father, forming and producing a new sense of self. Speiser explains the power of autobiography:
“At last! I would write candidly. It would be an interesting experiment, solely for myself… Now I’d be able to speak freely, without any obligation to comply with specific requirements. It would be an account of my own life, in the light of my own feelings and thoughts” (342).
This quote is perfectly suited for Oz’s book—it fits his description of Over the Ruins so appropriately. Just as Rosa writes her autobiography to reconcile with her loss and build a new distinct identity, so too does Oz repair the generational break in his family through the creation of his personal selfhood in his writing.
The most remarkable achievement of A Tale of Love and Darkness, and likely the reason for its tremendous popularity throughout Israel, is its capacity to harness the power of communal loss and collective generational break. Oz creates a vehicle of national reconciliation and self-creation through autobiography. At a time of extreme suffering and loss during the intifada, Oz’s autobiography novel gave voice to the trauma, pain, and contradictory sovereignties that plagued his generation in the new Jewish state. By connecting his personal narrative of generational break to a larger generational fracture in Jewish society, Oz demonstrates the need for creating a new Jewish Israeli selfhood, a process which, as the book illustrates, requires suffering and loss. In producing an autobiographic novel, Oz permits his generation to “speak freely,” as Rosa puts it, reconciling their families’ painful histories, their moral conflicts, and their deep losses. Connecting himself to his nation, Oz’s autobiography lays generational break and irreparable loss as the foundation for national liberation, empowering the young Israeli nation to fly “as free as a flock of birds in the clear blue sky” over the ruins (445).
By Lucille Marshall. Written for Jewish Life Writing from the Renaissance until Today with Professor David Roskies
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Kazin, Alfred. A Walker in the City. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1951. Print.
Lisitzky, Ephraim E. In the Grip of Cross-Currents. Trans. Moshe Kahn and Jacob Sloan. New York City: Bloch Pub., 2001. Print.
Oz, Amos. A Tale of Love and Darkness. Trans. Nicholas De Lange. Orlando: Harcourt, 2004. Print.
Speiser, Rosa. “Esther.” Awakening Lives: Autobiographies of Jewish Youth in Poland before the Holocaust. Ed. Jeffrey Shandler. New Haven: Yale UP, 2002. 321-43. Print.