By Amos Oz
Translator Sondra Silverston
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 192 pages, $24
As historian Derek Penslar has remarked, the kibbutz is “one of the hallmarks of the Zionist project, and although it appears to have reached its end as a generative and innovative force within Israeli society, the kibbutz’s historical grandeur and significance remain unquestionable.” Given that magnitude, it’s hardly surprising that the kibbutz’s potency as a creative impetus shows little sign of waning, inspiring many Israeli filmmakers and writers to grapple with the complexity of what they left behind.
Now, Amos Oz seems to be looking back on his years at Kibbutz Hulda that proved such a balm for his life and an enduring catalyst for his art. As is well known by devotees of the author, a few years after his mother’s suicide, Oz, who was born in 1939, fled his dogmatic father’s Jerusalem home for a kibbutz where he raised a family, only leaving after many years to alleviate his son’s asthma. He relocated to the desert town of Arad.
Oz’s earlier stories and novels stand the test of time for their moral seriousness and psychological depth, weighing the gains and losses of the most genuinely revolutionary endeavor in modern Jewish history. In the intricately interwoven skein of eight new stories that comprise “Between Friends,” first published in Hebrew in 2012, he revisits the foibles of collective life on display in the fictional Kibbutz Yekhat. Resolutely refusing to idealize kibbutz society as immune to the surrounding society’s xenophobic or misogynist strains, “Between Friends” exposes the disappointing reality behind the myth of gender equality. Oz writes of a man of deep convictions who “knows in his heart that kibbutz life was fundamentally unjust to women, forcing them almost without exception into service jobs like cooking, cleaning, taking care of children, doing laundry.”
Compassionately attuned to the plight of other marginalized identities, Oz renders an empathic portrait of a 16-year-old Mizrahi boarder in “Father,” where Moshe Yashar struggles against ethnocentric condescension. His patronizing teacher seems to speak for all: “On the whole, I have a very optimistic view of the Sephardim. We’ll have to invest a great deal in them, but… in another generation or two, they’ll be just like us.” All the while, Moshe quietly shores up his own independent value system. Politely disregarding socialist certainties, he gravitates instead to the pages of Dostoevsky, Camus and Kafka.
After an unsatisfying journey to his ailing father, a pious man who cannot bear the heresies of kibbutz life, Moshe feels adrift between worlds, unable to join his peers in their casual flirtations on the kibbutz lawn as they sing “nostalgic songs” of an intoxicating past he can never claim.
So much for the fate of “outsiders.” Yet the painfully revelatory “Little Boy” reveals that even the kibbutz’s native-born sometimes endure traumatic estrangement. Five-year-old Oded’s mother accepts the urgings of kibbutz pedagogues responding to the boy’s bedwetting and tears: “The Committee for Preschoolers instructed Leah… to be firm… in order to wean him off this self-indulgent behavior.” Embracing the gospel of collectivist orthodoxy, she “didn’t like unnecessary touching and talking…. She adhered to all the kibbutz tenets with a zealot’s fervor.” Thus, during Oded’s wrenchingly brief visits, she “saw to it that… if he cried, she punished him for being a crybaby. She was against hugging… the children of our new society had to be strong and resilient.”