Friday, January 10, 2014

Between Friends by Amos Oz

According to the Jewish Virtual Library, the kibbutz (Hebrew for "communal settlement") movement  began in 1909 with the establishment of Degania on land acquired by the Jewish National Fund. Located on Lake Kinneret, its founders were young idealists from Eastern Europe. They came to begin what they deemed a utopian life and to resettle the land of their ancestors.

Between Friends is a wonderful collection of inter-connected short stories that take place on a fictional kibbutz in the 1950s. Surrounded by forest, it is based on Kibbutz Hulda in central Israel, the home of the author for over 30 years.

The structure of this book is particularly well-suited to the life it depicts. Kibbutz lives intermingle;  the behavior of one individual impacts others as lives are shared with little privacy. Thus, Roni Shinlin, "the comedian," appears in many stories as a gossip. Yet the reader comes to know him more fully in the story, "Little Boy."The man who is the center of attention as he mocks others is trapped in a loveless marriage with a wife who has no affection for him or his needy son.

Similarly, in "At Night," Yoav, on guard patrol, must repress his passion for an old flame when she leaves her husband in the middle of the night and asks him for somewhere to sleep. Again we see a troubled marriage and the suppression of individual needs for a larger entity. Like "Little Boy," "At Night" deals with a marriage that has lost its ardor yet whose partners stay none-the-less.

This is not the case in "Two Women." As the story opens, Osnat is seen walking to the kibbutz laundry before dawn. She passes the apartment of her former husband, Boaz, and his lover, Ariella. The irony in this story, however, is that she never stops loving her unfaithful mate and writes Ariella letters concerning his health. Ariella answers her several days later:

I often ask myself, what did we do? He suppresses his feelings and mine keep changing.  He tolerates my dog but can't stand the cat...I ask myself what it was about him that attracted me and sometimes still does, but I have no clear answer...Not a day goes by when I don't think about you, Osnat, and despise myself and wonder if there can be any forgiveness for what I did to you. (pp. 26-27)

Osnat later appears in the final story, "Esperanto," in which she is seen caring for an elderly and sick kibbutnik, Martin Vandenberg.  Now a shoemaker, he is a Holocaust survivor whose small room is "filled with books in six languages on philosophy and academic research." (p. 159)  In the last stages of emphyzema, he  never misses a day of work in the shoe repair shed--despite the fact that the odors of leather, polish, and glue worsen his condition. Alone, with Osnat as his only true friend, he clings to the concept of man's essential goodness. Osnat "(thinks) there was much more cruelty in the world than compassion" (p. 170) but refrains from upsetting the little happiness Martin's beliefs afford him. Ultimately, she is one of three people who signs up for his Esperanto course--a language Martin thinks will rid the world of its differences and misunderstandings.

A common thread in all of these stories is the basic humanity of its characters. Oz draws them with all their strengths and weaknesses. In spite of the fact that they live in each the company of others, they suffer the pain of isolation and loneliness. Everyone has had his/her tragedies and each lives with secret longings.

In an interview for Vox Tablet Magazine's weekly podcast (September 23, 2013), Oz explains:

The idea of everlasting happiness is alien to me. I don't believe in it. I believe in moments of joy. Yes, I write many times about repressed characters, about characters who have made great sacrifices in order to establish the kibbutz. The founding fathers and mothers of the kibbutz community believed that they can change human nature in one blow. If only everyone does the same work, lives in the same quarters, dresses the same clothes, shares everything, eats the same food-- then pettiness and selfishness and jealousy and gossip and envy will go away and disappear. This was naive, it was unrealistic. Human nature is almost unchangeable, certainly it cannot be changed in one blow, and in one generation. They wanted to change human nature immediately and at one blow. This had a certain cost, and this cost meant certain self-sacrifice and certain repression. (

Between Friends is a beautifully written and intimate look at kibbutz life as it existed in another era. The characters Oz creates could live in any time and in any place. They represent universal themes of disillusionment and hope, love and disdain. Indeed, the kibbutz is no more and no less than a microcosm of the world at large.

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