“A Tale of Love and Darkness,” a memoir by Amos Oz (Harcourt, 2003; translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange) is among the most gorgeous books I have ever read.
Oz is a master of words and in this book he crafts them to create the story of his boyhood in Jerusalem in the years before and just after the 1948 War of Independence. Descriptions of his family, its Eastern European roots and migration to Palestine, his mother’s suicide when he was 12, and his move from Jerusalem to Kibbutz Hulda, are all at the heart of Oz’s story. Friends, neighbors and Jerusalem’s vibrant intellectual community populate the narrative.
Oz spent his youth in a difficult world but he lived among exceptional people, including many of the luminaries of that era. The richness of his writing evokes the ordinary in life, hardship and struggle, and the extraordinary as well. Enjoy, for example, his acerbic comparison between a tortoise living in his yard, nodding its head as it ate lettuce and cucumbers, and “…a certain bald professor from Rehavia, who also used to nod enthusiastically until you had finished talking, but then turned his approval to mockery, as he continued to nod at you while he tore your views to shreds” (p. 373).
The young Oz and the people he knew comprise one pillar upon which the book stands. The other pillar is Jerusalem, which Oz depicts with uncommon vision and an unsurpassed richness of imagery. The Jerusalem of an era gone by, Jerusalem bound to its past, in the midst of change and uncertain of its future, that Jerusalem is Oz’s city.
I am, by training and passion, an archaeologist, a traveler into the past. Amos Oz’s Jerusalem is a place I would have liked to visit — and it is a place I can still go, because “A Tale of Love and Darkness” makes it so beautifully alive.
Beth Alpert Nakhai is an associate professor and acting director of the Arizona Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Arizona.