Off the shelf | Oz stories build small, tense universe around the kibbutz

As his career nears the half-century mark, Amos Oz continues to earn his status as one of Israel’s most compelling authors. His newly released book “Between Friends” consists of eight interlinking short stories set on fictional Kibbutz Yekhat in the late 1950s. These intimate character studies, rendered in restrained prose, focus largely on the kibbutzniks’ melancholy, loneliness and unfulfilled dreams.

Processing the book in my mind over the past few days, I’ve been asking myself to what degree Kibbutz Yekhat is simply a stage on which the book’s frequently sad scenarios are enacted, and to what degree the kibbutz model itself is being implicated in fostering unhappiness.

A clue, lost in translation, is embedded in the title. “Between Friends” is, in fact, a literal translation of the original Hebrew title, “Bein Chaverim.” But the Hebrew word “chaver,” meaning “friend,” has acquired additional meanings in the modern era: Among leftists, it carries the sense of “comrade”; in a usage specific to kibbutzim, the word denotes a full-fledged member of a kibbutz cooperative.

These multiple meanings signal some of the tensions in the book. Despite being “chaverim,” the kibbutzniks here experience great difficulty realizing successful relationships or communicating effectively with each other. And there is constant conflict between the collective aspirations of the kibbutz and the desire of its members for individual fulfillment through love, travel, education or parenthood.

Such conflict is particularly painful in two unflinching stories that focus on children. In one, a young boy is bullied viciously by the other kids (who all live together, apart from their parents, in the communal children’s home). Oz presents the pain twofold — through the victimized boy, and through his doting father, who struggles with the limitations the kibbutz (including his own ideologically rigid wife) places on his involvement.

In another tale, a boy who has come to the kibbutz under tragic circumstances wishes to visit his father, an invalid, at a hospital. The kibbutz begrudgingly permits the visit, but its leaders, who had torn themselves years earlier from their homes in Eastern Europe, expect to wean the youth from his attachment to his biological family outside the kibbutz.

I am perhaps making the book sound drearier than it is. Oz lived and worked on Kibbutz Hulda for more than 30 years, and his admiration for the kibbutzniks’ hard work and commitment to ideals is palpable even in the book’s economical style, as is his appreciation of the kibbutz’s physical environment. The writing is particularly methodical and fine, and the translation by Sondra Silverston — an initial source of concern for me, as nearly all of the English translations of Oz’s fiction for the last 40 years have been the work of British rabbi and Cambridge professor Nicholas de Lange — is excellent.

Oz wrote in his autobiographical masterpiece “A Tale of Love and Darkness” that it was reading Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 book “Winesburg, Ohio” that gave him the inspiration and confidence to write seriously. The form Oz employs in “Between Friends” (and in his previous book, “Scenes from Village Life”) is nearly identical to Anderson’s, with its separate stories forming a small universe. And Oz uses it to great effect — when early characters and episodes are presented from different angles in later stories, we are encouraged to revisit what we think we know.

Oz is one of few Israeli writers whose works are rendered into English as a matter of course — the majority of Israeli authors have never been translated. We are fortunate that Syracuse University Press has just released the first English-language collection of short stories by David Ehrlich, who is known in Israel both as a fiction writer and as the force behind Tmol Shilshom, Jerusalem’s preeminent literary bookstore and café.

Composed of 21 very short stories that take place throughout the country, “Who Will Die Last: Stories of Life in Israel” is far less disturbing than the title suggests (or, at least, its sadness is balanced by a good deal of humor).

Some of Ehrlich’s most interesting stories deal with gay life. As I was reading one particularly short piece about a closeted gay man fabricating stories for marketplace vendors in order to conceal his homosexuality, I was reminded of Oz’s kibbutz, where fear of the probing eyes of an insular community can have a deep impact on one’s actions.

And, indeed, Israel is often a place where people are in each other’s business to a degree that would make most Californians bristle. But if the above example shows how this trait can be suffocating, some of Ehrlich’s stories — such as the tale of patrons of a café brokering the rehiring of a fired server — assert the power of being interconnected.

 

 “Between Friends”

by Amos Oz (192 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24)

 

“Who Will Die Last: Stories of Life in Israel” by David Ehrlich

 

(152 pages, Syracuse University Press, $19.99)

 

David Ehrlich will appear at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 14 (www.gtu.edu/events) and the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco at 7 p.m. Oct. 15 (www.jewishcommunitylibrary.org).

 

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in this column may be borrowed from the library.

 

Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.