Tag Archives: Jerusalem

Jew of the Week: Amos Oz

Israel’s Greatest Writer

Amos Oz (Credit: Michiel Hendryckx)

Amos Klausner (1939-2018) was born in Jerusalem, the only child of Lithuanian- and Polish-Jewish parents. Although his family was entirely secular, Amos was sent to a religious school because the only other option was a socialist school that his parents vehemently opposed. At 14, he decided to go off on his own, changed his last name to “Oz”, and joined a kibbutz. He wasn’t fit for kibbutz work, and was made fun of constantly. Oz found solace in writing, and was eventually given permission by the kibbutz to have one day off a week to do so. After three years of military service, the kibbutz sent him to study literature and philosophy at the Hebrew University. He graduated in 1963, returning to the kibbutz to work as a teacher, and continuing to write once a week. Two years later, he published his first book, a collection of short stories. It was his third publication, the novel My Michael, that became a bestseller and thrust him into fame. (Even after this, his kibbutz only allowed three days a week to write!) Oz would follow that up with 13 more popular novels, four more collections of prized short stories, and another twelve of essays on various topics, along with two children’s books. The most famous of these is his 2002 memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, which was adapted into a film by Natalie Portman. All in all, he produced some 40 books and 450 essays, with his work translated into nearly 50 languages – more than any other Israeli writer. Oz served in both the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War. In 1987, he came a professor of Hebrew literature at Ben-Gurion University, a post he held until 2014. While often seen as the face of the Israeli left, Oz defended Israel in its military campaigns, explaining their necessity and never failing to point out the evils of the terrorist enemy. He was one of the first to speak of a two-state solution (penning an essay immediately after the Six-Day War) and was opposed to Israeli settlements, but supported the West Bank barrier wall. He admitted that Israelis have always been willing to work for peace while Arabs not so much, and said that it takes “two hands to clap”. He remained a staunch Zionist his entire life and vocally opposed non-Zionists. In these ways, he mitigated the Israeli left, trying to keep them from falling into extremes, and from getting into the habit of blaming Israel for everything. Oz worked tirelessly for peace, and some of his actions in doing so were severely criticized (like the recent letter he sent to imprisoned Palestinian activist/terrorist Marwan Barghouti). Among his long list of awards is the Israel Prize, the French Legion of Honour, the Spanish Order of Civil Merit, and the South Korean Park Kyong-ni Prize for Literature. Sadly, Oz passed away last week. The man who has been called Israel’s greatest writer was laid to rest in the kibbutz that was his home for over three decades.

Words of the Week

The story of modern Israel, as many have noted, is a miracle unlike any… It is a robust and inclusive democracy, and is at the leading edge of science and technology… What hypocrites demand of Israelis and the scrutiny Israel is subjected to by them, they would not dare make of any other nation.
– Salim Mansur

Jews of the Week: Idelsohn and Nathanson

Hava Nagila

Abraham Tzvi Idelsohn (1882-1938) was born in Latvia to a religious Jewish family. He studied to be a synagogue cantor. At 27, he made aliyah to Israel and worked as a musician and composer. In 1919, he opened a Jewish music school. A few years later, he left for Ohio where he served as professor of Jewish music at Hebrew Union College, the major seminary of Reform Judaism. Between 1914 and 1932 he published his ten-volume magnum opus, Thesaurus of Hebrew Oriental Melodies. Many consider him “the father of Jewish musicology”. His most famous melody is undoubtedly ‘Hava Nagila’. In December of 1917, British army general Edmund Allenby defeated the Ottomans and conquered the Holy Land for Great Britain. The Jews of Israel were elated, and celebrated the general’s arrival in Jerusalem. They asked Idelsohn to compose a song for the special occasion. Idelsohn remembered an old happy tune he had adapted from a Hasidic niggun. The song was a hit. A few years later, he asked his music class to write words for the song.

A young Moshe Nathanson (1899-1981) was in that class, and wrote a couple of simple lines based on Scriptural verses from Psalm 118. The rest is history. Nathanson was born in Jerusalem, the son of a rabbi. In 1922 he moved to Canada and double-majored in law and music at McGill University. He ended up studying at what is now the prestigious Julliard School of Music in New York. From there, he was hired to be the cantor of the first Reconstructionist Synagogue, and served in that role for the next 48 years. He wrote an important four-volume tome of liturgical songs. Nathanson also spent 10 years broadcasting Jewish music on American airwaves (“Voice of Jerusalem”) and dedicated much of his life to promoting Jewish folk music. Today, Nathanson’s and Idelsohn’s ‘Hava Nagila’ is the most recognizable Jewish/Hebrew song in the world, and a staple of every bar mitzvah and wedding. There is even a full-length documentary about it, called Hava Nagila (The Movie). This past year marked the song’s centennial anniversary.

Three Reasons to be Religious

Words of the Week

One who cannot survive bad times cannot see good times.
– Hasidic proverb

General Allenby’s December 1917 proclamation to the people of Jerusalem.