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‘My father and I were blessed with a twinning of the heart and intellect’

Eetta Prince-Gibson
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Published: 3 March 2019

Last updated: 4 March 2024

GENTLY POISED IN HER home in northern Israel, Fania Oz-Salzberger, softly reflects on the legacy left by her father, world renowned writer and polemicist Amos Oz, who passed away two months ago at the age of 79.

A professor of history at the University of Haifa, Oz-Salzberger, 58, has held academic positions throughout the world, including at Monash University from 2007 to 2012, where she held the Chair for Modern Israel Studies.  She is also a prolific public intellectual who writes both in the mainstream and social media.

Oz-Salzberger is a natural teacher, speaking in flowing, coherent paragraphs, deviating to respond to a question, and always returning to her central point.  She is diminutive, yet hers is a compelling, confident presence. She bears a striking resemblance to her father; her expression, like his, is wistful yet determined, with a tinge of irony and humour.

Throughout an extensive interview with The Jewish Independent, Mocha, the family’s Springer Spaniel,  sits close to her, alternately comforting her and pawing for petting and attention.  “Mocha usually runs the family,” Oz-Salzberger says with a smile. “But now, she’s very sad, too.”

When she wrote and read the obituary on the day her father was buried, “I realised it was the first thing I had ever written that my father would not be reading, critiquing, praising, and responding to.  From now on, I will write everything without my father’s readership.  I shall miss that readership, and I shall often try to imagine it.”

In response to Oz’s death, she says the family has received “a tsunami of love...letters from literally all over the globe.  We have heard a lot of stories about my father as a human being.  He was a very generous man. We knew that, but little did we know about the scope of his generosity and the way he touched so many hearts and so many lives.  It is a debt of gratitude that we, and so many other people, owe to him.”

In addition to Fania, Oz and his wife, Nili, had two children – Gallia, 55, a children’s author and documentary filmmaker, and Daniel, born in the late 1980s, a poet and a musician. Fania, the oldest, is the one who took on the family mantle and now, she says, grieves for the three “Amos Oz’s” she knew.

“He was my father and we were blessed with a kind of twinning of the heart and intellect. The personal grief is beyond words. I also share in the public grief because I was my father’s reader and co-author and his partner in many of his political statements. And there is also the public grief for Amos Oz the novelist, short-story writer, poet, and the political figure with whom I often agreed, sometimes disagreed, but always cherished.”

Oz has left, she says, both a literary and a political legacy. “His literature touches what I think is the human soul; it is universal. A Tale of Love and Darkness (published in 2002 and translated into nearly 30 languages) was his most personal book, yet in many ways, it was also a political book, dealing with the birth and early years of the state of Israel and the hell of the Holocaust.

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Despite this, readers from all around the world felt that he was talking about them. A woman from Naples, Italy, wrote to him, saying, ‘M. Oz, you have described my childhood and growing up.’  I thought, what the heck is the connection between growing up in Naples and Jerusalem in the 1940s.

“And I realised that telling that story was as if he had been digging in his own back yard, telling a story just for the family, and suddenly, the spade hit some kind of an electric cable, and all the lights in the neighbourhood and the nearby and far cities began to glow.”

Oz didn’t like the word fiction, she says. “He used the term storytelling – and by the way, there is no word in Hebrew for fiction.  His story-telling and poetry will last us a long time and stand us in good stead.  The number of his readers will never diminish, it will only expand.”

Oz was also known, especially in Israel, for his political positions, including his fervent opposition to the current government and strong support for a two-state solution to the Israel-Arab conflict. Yet Oz-Salzberger says that he kept these two streams of his writing very separate.

“My father did not use – I would say, he did not abuse – his literary characters to make them carriers of political slogans. Many of his characters were very political, especially the men, and I wish he would have created more political women, but these characters developed their own opinions and ideas.

“Being a writer lent something to his political voice, but his politics did not inform his art.  With his writer’s eye, he was able to enter into politics with a degree of empathy, even if sometimes with anger. And he was often angry - with the government, with the extreme nationalist Right, with the heads of other nations, with the Palestinians, and with what he called the infantilisation of adult society and the loss of mature words, for which he blamed America and Trump. So he wrote many messages of political reproach, but always with empathy.”

Oz-Salzberger says her father would say that he had two pens on his desk. “A black pen and a red pen – one for fiction and one for politics, with which, in his sweet words, he could tell the government to go to hell, if that was what had to be done. Thousands of people have told me that they will miss his public voice, even if they disagreed with him.”

WATCH FANIA OZ-SALZBERGER'S MESSAGE TO AUSTRALIA

Although they cooperated on numerous projects, father and daughter authored only one book together, Jews and Words, (2014). In this English-language volume, subsequently translated into an expanded version in Hebrew, they explored the secret of Jewish continuity over the millennia and why they believe that Judaism, especially secular Judaism, will continue to thrive.

“Jewish continuity has always hinged on uttered and written words, a maze of interruptions, debates, and disagreements, along with a unique human rapport,” she explains. “In synagogue, at school, and most of all in the home, Judaism has always involved two or three generations deep in conversation and argument - ours is not a bloodline but a text line.

“The Jews were the first civilisation that uniquely lived by a credo and instruction of universal male literacy from an early age. Jewish culture did not pick out its most talented men and boys and send them to some kind of Athens, or monastery, or Forbidden City where they would never again show up at their family table. Talented young men remained at home, in their village, walking with a book under their arm to their rabbi. They came home to their family table, where on Shabbat and on holidays, the food and the texts were laid out.”

Through this tradition, she says, Judaism has provided the world with the gift of reasoned disagreement. But she worries that the importance of words has been distorted in the current political climate. “Words of the wrong kind now matter far too much. Fake news, distorted facts and immense manipulation – these are words, too.”
“I have had to work very hard to establish my own way. It has not been easy being the daughter of Amos Oz. I had to pay a fine – I always had to work harder. But I like the fact that our society makes children of famous people pay a fine, rather than treating them as celebrities.

After receiving hateful comments on Facebook and Twitter following her father’s death, Oz-Salzberger went off social media, but says she’s returning even more strongly and will even amplify her public voice, both out of commitment to her father’s legacy and her need for self-expression.

“I have had to work very hard to establish my own way. It has not been easy being the daughter of Amos Oz. I had to pay a fine – I always had to work harder. But I like the fact that our society makes children of famous people pay a fine, rather than treating them as celebrities. I carry it as a burden of love, of commitment.

“I will do what I can to bring back the old, respectful Jewish discourse. I will engage and argue honourably with anyone, with two exceptions: I will not engage with anyone who holds malice, nor with anyone who says that the value of the life and dignity of a Jew is worth more, or less, than the life of a non-Jew.”

She segues into politics, referring to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to legitimise extremist Jewish parties in the forthcoming elections. “I find it dismally shocking that Netanyahu and the right-wing parties have brought the Arab-hating, Judeo-centric lunatics into the fold.

“Not only has he been pushing the left wing, like myself, like my father, out of the fold – now he has opened the door to the most fanatical Jewish nationalists, the Jewish Ku Klux Klan or even worse, while shutting the door in the face of every Arab citizen of Israel.”

And yet, she maintains, her father’s message, and her own, is one of hope. “I would say that I am hopeful. Hope is not a point of view, it is an action.  When you use hope in your life, you are already doing something – you are actively engaging with the world you want to see.”

This coming Sunday, NIF Australia will hold an event to honour her father’s memory, and Oz-Salzberger has a message for “her beloved Australian friends.  Yours is a territory I love – in part because, I thought, it was never mentioned in the Bible, and so it seemed less complicated, less conflicted.”

She laughs. “But then I met a man in the Red Desert, not far from Uluru, and his name is Isaac, so I guess the Bible is everywhere, even at the Red Rock.

“I could try to fake an accent and say, ‘Keep up the excellent work, mates.’ What I really want to say is that Australian society is a wonderfully inclusive society. We here in Israel have a lot to learn from you, and I hope that together we will continue the Jewish tradition of learning and arguing.”

NIF presents A Tribute to Amos Oz: March 10, 7pm at the Bondi Pavilion Details and tickets

 

 

About the author

Eetta Prince-Gibson

Eetta Prince-Gibson, who lives in Jerusalem, was previously Editor-in-Chief of The Jerusalem Report, is the Israel Editor for Moment Magazine and a regular contributor to Haaretz, The Forward, PRI, and other Israeli and international publications.

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