A Tale of Love and Darkness
Yom Ha’atzmaut, Independence Day in Israel, begins at 8:00 p.m. on Monday evening. At dusk this Sunday evening until 8:00 p.m. tomorrow, Yom HaZikaron, Memorial Day, Israel’s national Remembrance Day is observed to commemorate those who fell since 1860 in the cause of establishing and preserving the State of Israel. More formally, the day is called: l’Chalalei Ma’arachot Yisrael ul’Nifge’ei Pe’ulot Ha’eivah…”We Will Fulfill the Last Will of the Fallen – to Defend Our Home in Israel.” 1860 is chosen as the beginning date for counting, for that year marks the first time that Jews were permitted to live outside the ancient walls of Jerusalem since the Second Temple fell. Those fallen include not only those who died in battle, but those who were victims of terrorist attacks. The number 24,000 has been accepted as the approximate total of those who have died for the sake of Israel, but 60 service personnel and 11 civilians were added to that total since Memorial Day in 2016. Many more died in that effort as you will read. This blog is dedicated to them as well.
It should be no surprise that many events preceded these two holidays. I chaired a discussion about the state of contemporary Zionism and Israel in mid-week in which Emanuel Adler depicted the drift in Israel towards illiberalism which, in retrospect, could be interpreted as a nostalgic tribute to Amos Oz, the co-founder of Peace Now. On Saturday morning, our Torah study group focused on the parts of the text that justified Jews living in and possessing the land and the reasons why ancient Israelite leaders who lived and/or died in the diaspora wished to be buried in Israel. Reasons offered were legal, political, security, psychological pushes and sociological pulls. The Saturday morning sermon in synagogue was given by Galit Baram, the Israeli Consul General in Toronto; she was born in Jerusalem in 1969 and studied archeology and English – which she speaks perfectly – at Tel Aviv University. She did her MA in American studies and after graduation became a political assistant in the Foreign Ministry of Israel. Before coming to Canada, she was Director of the Department for Palestinian Affairs and Regional Cooperation.
I may write about one or more of the above topics over the next few days. However, today, to commemorate the beginning of Yom HaZikaron this evening, I will review the film Natalie Portman directed and in which she starred as the mother of Amos Oz, A Tale of Love and Darkness, which we saw, almost coincidentally on Netflix last evening. I gather the film received mixed reviews when it showed at Cannes and at TIFF, where I missed it, and then when it had a general release. I thank God for Netflix. Though the reviews of the film were positive generally, most were tepidly positive. In contrast, I loved the film and think Natalie Portman was very courageous as well as creative in directing a film with as much of a literary ear as a cinematic eye in full respect to the writings of Amos Oz.
In one very positive review that I did read following its TIFF showing, published on 14 September 2016 in Esquire, Stephen Marche called the movie “urgently relevant and unlike anything else.” Though I agree that the film is unlike most other movies, Marche argued that what made it relevant was the debate over the Iran nuclear deal that developed a schism between Americans – at least Democrats – and Israel and between American Jews and the remainder of the American public. Though I belong to the Jewish minority who favoured the deal, A Tale of Love and Darkness was not suddenly relevant because of the deal. Otherwise, it would be irrelevant today. And it is not.
Although Marche’s review expressed an extraordinary admiration for the film, Marche was wrong, not only about the relevance issue, but in his take on the film. The movie remains highly relevant even when the Iran nuclear deal has slipped into the background in both Israel and the U.S. as most have accepted that, whatever other dangers the deal may have helped facilitate in the tensions between Iran and both Israel and the U.S., the situation in North Korea reminds us how beneficial the Iran nuclear deal was and remains. Marche argued that, “The film is a study of the moment when Jews changed from being a people in the diaspora to a people with a country. The birth of Israel is so much more than a setting here—it is the existential reality that shapes the characters.”
That is not true. The film offers no such study. Further, people shaped Israel in turn. History is not simply in the background scattered through the film as incidental events to mark time and determine character. Nor is it an issue of either a politically relevant film in the background or Marche’s contention that, “ultimately life is about your fucked-up family. That’s the insight at the heart of A Tale of Love and Darkness.” The emphasis on the personal and the intimate is not the insight. And the choice is the very reverse of either/or, of background and foreground, of cause and effect. For Amos Oz, and for Natalie Portman in the way she directed the film, it is a matter of both/and. The political and the personal are dialectically intertwined and ultimately inseparable, each throwing light upon the other.
A Tale of Love and Darkness is not simply remarkable because it veers away from the sentimentality of the shtetl, as in Fiddler on the Roof, or the redemptive theme of films like Schindler’s List. It is extraordinary as a movie that tries to give a cinematic expression to a literary vision. Certainly, the movie is neither sentimental nor heroic. It is both and so much more. But the heroism is of a dear friend of Amos Oz’s mother hanging up a sheet on a clothesline and then shot and killed as a sniper bullet cuts through the laundry. It is the heroism of a small boy playing in the dirt who was also shot and killed by a sniper. The film is true to Oz’s 2002 memoir. The emotions are raw. The wounds are gaping. No bandage can fix them like the bloody finger Amos Oz’s father suffered after another of his clumsy mishaps. And no lecture or intellectual argument can fill the gap of our incomprehension. There are no sermons in the movie.
I write this because I was sure that I had read Oz’s book – after all it was the largest selling literary work in the history of Israel – but when I watched the film, I could not remember anything. Perhaps that is because I read enough about it to come to the imaginary conclusion that I read Amos Oz’s memoir. Perhaps there were other Freudian reasons for my belief or my forgetfulness. About three decades ago, Oz and I were having a shabat breakfast at the home of a mutual friend in Jerusalem. We got into an hour long silly debate about fashion and his contention that the fashion industry controlled what we wear. I was attending the fashion show in Israel the following week and he thought it preposterous that I, as a philosopher, loved fashion shows. I contended that fashion then – it continues today – is more a reflection of popular culture than a determinant of it. There was no resolution to that debate because we were not listening acutely to one another.
And Oz is an acute observer who listens to his heart. The best scene in the movie based on the memoir is one of the few without Natalie Portman who plays his mother (Fania) and is the central figure in the memoir and the movie other than Amos himself. Oz (Amir Tessler) is a young boy prior to the War of Independence in post WWII Palestine who is sent to play in the garden of an Arab official when his caregivers, friends of his parents, attended a party there. In the garden was a beautiful Arab girl on a swing who spoke Hebrew fluently and had the ambition of becoming a poet. Oz was entranced and clearly infatuated. As we watch her young baby brother playing in the dirt and then Oz climb a tree and act out playing Tarzan, whose solitary life with animals and personal strength and daring mesmerized him, in the audience we wait with “bated breath” as the cliché goes to see whether Oz will fall and even fall on the small boy as he has already fallen for the beautiful Arab girl.
A weak link in the chain breaks and a small but significant disaster follows. For Oz, disasters are the results of an accumulation of minutiae and usually unforeseen events rather than a cataclysmic sudden shift in history which is a product rather than a cause. This is true in the history of a nation and in one’s personal history. The result was, as Oz wrote, that “everything was silent all around you in an instant as though you had been shut up inside an iceberg.” For violence is as much about a failure of communication as it is about intractable differences. Between and among Jews as well as between Israel and her enemies.
Early in the film, we see Amos Oz’s father being connected by phone. The timing of the call must be arranged. The technical details have to be put in place. Communication is obviously very difficult. Who is Arieh calling in America or Europe? It turned out he was calling Tel Aviv and the call is quickly aborted to be arranged at another day and time to be confirmed by post. The film is as much about the failure in communication, the failure to connect and the gaps, the abysses, that result.
The film, based on the memoir, is a juxtaposition of opposites and their interplay, love (mother) and darkness (father), romantic Zionism and realpolitik, Jewish idealism and the harsh reality of Jabotinsky’s vision imprinted in his father but largely omitted from the film, the romance of Rovno in Poland/Ukraine where Amos Oz’s mother lived with servants and chandeliers and then the darkness of exile and the Holocaust, fantasy and reality in our minds, Jewish Polish (sweet) versus Jewish Russian (somewhat sour) borscht in the minutiae of Jewish cooking culture, generosity versus truth – Oz’s mother advises that it is better to be generous and have a sensitive heart than to be honest, between idyllic scenery and a barren landscape of narrow and claustrophobic alleys in the so-called City of Peace that is Jerusalem destroyed over and over again by successive invaders, movie versus memoir, word play (Adam, Adom, Adon and Dom) which non-Hebrew speakers mostly miss in a film which has many such moments of insight, metaphors such as gates which open and the abyss which we face, a world in which a cauliflower can hold up the sky and a world portrayed where the sky was literally falling in post-WW II Palestine and newly independent Israel, between paradise and hell, between compassion and prudence, between intellectuals and bullies, between the pale faces of poets and the deep tans of a sabra on a kibbutz, between intellectuals and heroic soldiers, but also between hapless dreamers and bullies, some of whom could be seduced with words and stories, between the rebirth of an Israel based on a two millennial dream and the loss of passion and idealism with the emergence of the state according to Oz and when Oz’s mother stopped telling stories, between the eternal innocence Oz’s mother saw in her son’s soul and the deep guilt ever present in the writing of Amos Oz, between an open and a closed world, between blinding whiteness and equally blinding blackness when blackbirds or crows cover the sun and the sky, between children whom you love more than anything and children who outlive you, outgrow you and who in some parts of their being must reject you. “Every mother ends up crying alone.”
His mother and he are caught between fire and the water from which Oz as a boy in a dreamlike story traversing the landscape dressed as a monk alongside his mother, also dressed as a monk. Both were pledged to silence, but his mother succumbed and he survived. On the journey, the young Oz dreams of rescuing a drowning maiden versus the reality of fire, the reality of the fantastical story, told to him by his mother, of a gentile woman in Rovno who burned herself alive when rejected by her child and called a whore after she fled her abusive husband into the arms of a lover,
In spite of it all, the love of Jerusalem versus the ironic darkness of Tel Aviv where Oz’s mother eventually takes an overdose of her anti-depression medication in January 1952 and dies in the home of a sister, either Sonya or Chaya, I was not clear which. The two sisters had chosen the new life of Tel Aviv versus the dark passages of the history of Jerusalem. The suicide takes place against the background of a debate over whether to reject German reparations – the position of the idealists, primarily from the right – and the pragmatic view that the money was needed to resettle refugees.
The film does have a historical line. Though the movie begins in post WWII Palestine, there are flashbacks and references to Rovno, now Rivne in Ukraine, where 25,000 Jews once lived in pre-war Poland. The film refers to 23,000 Jews who were marched into the Sosenski Forest and murdered, though the number represents the total killed since 2-3,000 were killed prior to that fateful two-day march and another 2-3,000 were killed afterwards when the ghetto was destroyed. But the flashbacks and references precede that period of darkness when Fania Mussman enjoyed the comforts of an upper middle class life that was such a contrast with the hardships she endured in a small cold apartment in Jerusalem.
Someday I will catch the short documentary made prior to Natalie Portman’s movie by the daughter of Amos Oz, Fania Oz-Salzberger, named after his mother, Fania Oz-Salzberger is an Israeli scholar and historian who wrote one book with her father, jews and words (not capitalized), in which the two declared that “ours is not a bloodline, but a text line.” Amos inherited the word play and love of words from his father. The documentary traced Fania Mussman’s travels with her mother to Palestine with her two sisters, Amos Oz’s aunts, Sonya and Chaya, for the three sisters were ardent Zionists educated at the famous Tarbut School in Poland.
It was Zionism that saved the family from the Holocaust and saved Amos Oz for the world. However, the mother of Fania, Sonya and Chaya, instead of offering blessings for her salvation because of her daughters’ Zionist idealism, never forgot or let anyone else forget the wonderful life they had left behind in what was once Poland in a region in which Jews once consisted of 25% of the population. Amos Oz’s memoir is full of Rovno, but it exists only as very shaded background in Natalie Portman’s film.
The movie, A Tale of Love and Darkness, really begins with curfews and attacks from Arabs and then all-out warfare after the UN Resolution on partition was passed in November 1947 and Arab countries invaded the nascent Jewish state when independence was declared on 15 May 1948. The siege of Jerusalem and famine followed. Oz’s father, Yehuda Klausner (Gilad Kahana) called Arieh, a pedant about words, a librarian and an author who resisted writing books with any popular appeal, incompetently planted greens in their small garden as Oz collected empty bottles to make Molotov cocktails and sand for sandbags. Short sighted, with two left feet, Arieh had used words to win the hand of beautiful Fania, only to gradually lose her to her dreams and eventual depression.
Finally, the 1949 Armistice Agreement arrived and the determination of the line, called, without any sense of the irony, the Green Line that would prove to be anything but temporary in the world mental landscape or a source of new growth. But the semi-final act of the film occurs several years later with the Tel Aviv floods of 1951-2, of which we were reminded in 2013 and 2016, and Amos could not save his mother from drowning in her depression. According to Oz, dreams should never be fulfilled, the messiah should never come, because that will only bring the onset of disaster, the very opposite message of Independence Day that will begin to be celebrated tomorrow. Amos Oz tried to act out the romantic vision of his mother and, as depicted in the movie, left his father to live as a farmer on a kibbutz. But when his father came to visit him on the kibbutz in the film, and Amos sits upon a tractor, Amos Oz could not hide from either others or himself that he had the pale soul of a writer rather than the dark tan of a sabra, bronzed Jews who could swim as Amos Oz dubbed them. His mother chose deep sadness in place of ordinary pretense and the grandiloquent fantasies of the stories she told her son but could not sustain. Amos Oz chose to write – and live.
Taken to its logical conclusion, or, at least, back to its fundamental premise articulated in the depressive state of Amos Oz’s mother, romantic utopianism leads to the reverse, deep depression. “I know nothing about anybody; we all know nothing; better to die not knowing.” Truth be told, we only live in a balancing act, balancing on a tight rope between messianic perfection and cosmological ignorance. But that is not a truth with which the romantics who sacrificed their lives for the dream of Israel could accept. Oz never gave up his dream but has always accepted reality sufficient to survive. He wrote brilliant books with wry humour, the one element of his writing largely sidelined in Natalie Portman’s magnificent movie; she does capture some of his incisive irony. But Amos never forgot to cry for his dead mother.
With the help of Alex Zisman