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Amos Oz, Remembered By Those Who Knew Him

Amos Oz was enormously influential, a literary giant whose work helped shape his fledgling country, Israel.

But, Jessica Cohen says, he was also kind.

“Even though he was famous, an internationally renowned author and intellectual, when you sat and talked with him in his living room it was just like talking with a nice guy,” Cohen said. A translator who has long worked with Oz’s friend and colleague David Grossman, Cohen translated Oz’s most recent book, “Dear Zealots: Letters from a Divided Land,” which was published this November.

Oz took a liking to Cohen’s daughter, whom she brought to their initial meeting. Only weeks before Oz’s death on December 28, when finished copies of “Dear Zealots” first came in — they made it to Cohen before Oz — she sent him a picture of the girl holding the book. He wrote back immediately, delighted. And even though he told Cohen he wasn’t well, he discussed his plans to travel to Moscow to accept a literary award.

That was Oz: Always moving forward. As news of his passing from cancer at age 79 came in, writers across the globe responded with tributes to his immaculate prose, clarity of moral vision and insistence on progress. The world was grieving. And the people who knew and worked with Oz were remembering a great man.

“He was my hero as a writer, but also as a man of civilization, of, decency, of tolerance,” the British historian and novelist Simon Sebag Montefiore, who sought Oz’s advice on his 2011 book “Jerusalem: the Biography,” wrote in a message to the Forward.

“I always asked myself what would Amos say, not just on Israel but all moral matters. He was a real Israeli patriot proud of his country. But he had a vision of [an] Israel that must behave better than other nations, and he was [not] afraid to criticise Israeli leaders for intolerance and nationalistic chauvinism.”

“I think he cared especially for younger authors,” said the Israeli novelist Maya Arad, most recently author of “The Hebrew Teacher” (2018), who met Oz through her writing. “He wanted to see that Israeli literature was alive and well. I wish I could say it is, but now with him gone, this void is not going to be filled. There will be no more giants like him.”

Cohen, whom the Forward reached by phone, had heard similar messages from a number of authors. After news of Oz’s death arrived, she said, she had reminisced about him with another young Israeli novelist. “She said she feels like she’s lost a literary parent, and is grieving not just personally, but literarily,” Cohen said.

It was not always assurred that Oz, a frequent and vocal critic of the Israeli government — and particularly its discrimination against Palestinians — would become so universally revered a figure in Israel.

“He was a great writer in times that often failed his ideals,” said Andrew Wylie, Oz’s agent for the last years of his career, “truly engaged as a man, and as an artist. This is a significant loss for literature, and for Israel.”

In an Israel where freedom to make politically rebellious works of art has been increasingly restricted by politics, Oz’s unflagging prominence was all the more remarkable. His writing was impossible to discount, no matter how much it inflamed. “‘My Michael’ was the first Amos Oz I read, ‘Judas’ the last,” said Chika Unigwe, a Nigerian-born novelist who served on the panel that shortlisted Oz’s “Judas” for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize. “I tried to read everything of his — including interviews — that I could, often multiple times. There is an Igbo proverb that says that a child’s eyes are drawn to the bush where (s)he first found a snail. ‘My Michael’ was that bush for me and it made me greedy for everything Oz wrote.”

Those works will be Oz’s legacy. Well, part of it. His human impact — on Israeli politics, on the Israeli novelists who followed him, on those across the globe who got to work with him, on those who simply had a chance to meet him — will continue, as well.

“When you sat with him, you had the sense that what he saw was concrete people, always eager to get to know you, the individual sitting there, your experience, your life,” Arad said. “He was a writer, after all.”

Correction, December 31 2018, 12:00 pm: A previous version of this post claimed Maya Arad’s latest novel was “Behind the Mountain” (2016). It in fact is “The Hebrew Teacher” (2018).


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