Both provocative and poignant, this memoir of a childhood in Jerusalem will amuse, perplex, and sadden.
An elegiac theme runs through the work like a dark thread. The author’s mother committed suicide when he was a teenager, prompting his withdrawal from his father and his entry into the seductive life of the kibbutzim. He even affected a name change after his mother’s death, almost as though by eliminating himself, some sin would be expiated.
His mother was a fey, bright person who played words games with her brilliant only child and encouraged him to write. His father was an intellectual and a writer, but so emotionally closed off that after his wife’s death he never mentioned her name again. The son learned to speak in parables, and did indeed fulfill the destiny his mother had mapped out for him.
From his father, the child learned order and morality. Oz describes how on the eve of the birth of the state of Israel, in a rare moment of tenderness, his father lay beside his eight-year-old boy and told him in a whisper “what some hooligans did to him and his brother David in Odessa and what some Gentile boys did to him at his Polish School on Vilna, and the girls joined in too.” When his Grandfather came to school to complain, the children set upon him, too, subjecting him to the same humiliation “and the girls laughed and made dirty jokes…while the teachers watched and said nothing, or maybe they were laughing too.” From that day forward, Oz’s father promised, his son would not be bullied just because he was a Jew. “From tonight that’s finished here. Forever.”
His mother taught him that “a book would never abandon you…even it was a book you had abandoned and erased from your heart for years and years, it would never disappoint you.” Hardworking but oversensitive, his mother grew dreamier and less associated with reality. Her husband’s family labeled her neurotic and selfish, causing her to retreat even farther. Her lonely husband dared to go out on his own in the evenings, earning the disrespect of her family. Her death is the saddest and final page of this evocative chronicle, the moment the reader longs to understand but never wants to experience, as Oz himself did not.
The book leaps from Jerusalem, pre- and post-statehood, and the final days of World War II; to pre-war Europe and the pogroms; from the Jewish fears of offending the Gentiles to their triumph in establishing a homeland; from a boy’s first successes and romances to his unbearable guilt and anger at the death of his beloved mother; his attempt to flee from the old world of intellectualism to the manly pursuits of the kibbutz, and his redemption through writing.