In my last few days in Jerusalem I had one of those dangerous freetime windows on Ben Yehuda street. It’s the busiest pedestrian street in downtown West Jerusalem and idle hands quickly found diversion. Down a little side street marked with the graffiti of a Hasid changing into a punk rocker, I ducked into the used English bookstore. Feeling broke but dangerously committed now that I was inside, I asked the nice lady behind the counter if she could recommend a book by an Israeli author. She informed me that her boss threatened fire any staff who didn’t read A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz.
She said she liked it, and I loved it. Oz is one of Israel’s most respected authors and part of what made this memoir so amazing was how much of modern Israeli history Oz has experienced firsthand. Besides being born shortly before the end of the British Mandate and witnessing the creation of the State of Israel, Oz’s family were connected with many of the important historical figures that shaped the new country. (Yet the nation building he describes seems almost like a village meeting) His descriptions of his family and the strange people in his childhood are both touching and very sad. He places his present perspective in the narrative and often looks back on his idealistic and difficult childhood with profound insight into the worldwide importance of that time. The valiant Jewish victories he imagines with matchsticks and cutlery as a child are mournfully reflected in glimpses of Israel in 2000.
One of the most amazing passages is when he describes the walk he, his mother and his father took every Sabbath to the home of his famous Uncle Klausner in Talpiot. I spent most of my time in Jerusalem in Talpiot, now a quiet residential neighborhood on the way to Bethlehem that before 1948 was home to intellectuals and authors. He talks about walking to the edge of Jerusalem and looking out across the “wild frontier” beyond, where between British barracks and “Arab villas” lay Talpiot. Just past that, the romanticized Kibbutzniks were “carving out a new nation.” He gives such amazing details of the sights and sounds of a journey that now breezes past in a 20 minute bus ride from Ben Yahuda. When they finally reach Talpiot, it is remarkable how much is still recognizable. He even mentions that after his uncle’s death a street was named after him, the street I passed while walking to the bus. When the buses started again on Saturday evening after the Sabbath in the 1940’s, the family would take the number 7 bus back to the city center. The number 7 bus still follows that route.
While this living history may seem inconsequential compared to the ancient stories that make up Israel and Palestine, I am so moved by a person who can so eloquently share their place on that continuum.