When Dad Gets Written Up

January 23, 2009

Whenever Israel goes to war,  at least one Jewish friend or acquaintance seeks me out and tries bring me over to the other side. In the greater scheme of things my opinion makes absolutely no difference, but each time I find myself standing as a symbol for what you might call the European Left view of the matter. It’s a tribute, perhaps, to the eternal incitement to debate within the Jewish tradition. In practical terms, however, it never works. Over time I’ve only become more radical, despite the Israeli savings bonds that my grandparents left me.
Amos Oz

Amos Oz

To seek shelter from it all, to find a human voice somewhere in all the smoke of war, I’ve been reading many things, but so far the greatest find has been a book by Amos Oz, A Tale of Love and Darkness. He’s on the very long list of names I’ve been thinking about reading for years, and now the Gaza war has finally gotten me there.

And of course once you’re in the world of a text, the reasons that brought you there tend to recede like the view of land from the deck of an ocean liner.

Which brings me to the subject of this post: how authors write about their fathers.

Writing about anyone is almost a demonic act, so great is the presumption of knowledge. But writing of someone as significant as a parent? How would I “write up” my dad for posterity, let alone anyone else? How would my son sum up my life in a few sentences?

Here’s how Oz does it:

My father had a degree in literature from the University of Vilna (now Vilnius), and a second degree from the university at Mount Scopus, but he had no prospect of securing a teaching position in the Hebrew University at a time when the number of qualified experts in literature in Jerusalem far exceeded that of the students. To make matters worse, many of the lecturers had real degrees, gleaming diplomas from famous German universities, not like my father’s shabby Polish-Jerusalemite qualification. He therefore settled for the post of librarian in the National Library on Mount Scopus, and sat up late at night writing his book about the Hebrew novella or the concise history of world literature. My father was a cultivated, well-mannered librarian, severe yet also rather shy, who wore a tie, round glasses, and a somewhat threadbare jacket. He bowed before his superiors, leaped to open doors for ladies, insisted firmly on his few rights, enthusiastically cited lines of poetry in ten languages, endeavored always to be pleasant and amusing, and endlessly repeated the same repertoire of jokes.

Better to be remembered like this than to be unremembered. Oz’s father was a failure, more or less, at least from the point of view of his chosen career. And he repeated his jokes, like my dad does despite all my cringing.

I could list many other of my father’s foibles, many more than Oz does. He could probably return the favor, but he probably won’t write them up. Which makes me think, if I ever do, I need to be very, very careful.

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