Special: Natalie Portman writes to Amos Oz

Amos, I’m here with a fist of tears in my throat and a knot of panic in my heart. I’m not sure what we’re supposed to do now.

You wrote heart-stoppingly beautiful books. You, separately, made brave and thoughtful pleas for peace. You were overwhelmingly generous of heart, wisdom and imagination. Your humanity was expansive and generous and leaked out of you and into all of us lucky enough to be close by.

The first time I met you, I had already fallen in love with your words. I had always loved your writing, but when I read A Tale of Love and Darkness, I saw images for a film in my mind. I came to Tel Aviv ask you for the right to adapt and direct your memoir. I was maybe 26 or 27 at the time. After dinner with you and Nily, you turned to Nily and said, as if I wasn’t there, (but now I think that you meant for me to hear, right?): “she’s so young. But so was my mother.”

I was asking you, at that point a stranger to me, to take an enormous act of faith in me—to allow a first-time director, one only half-steeped in Israeli culture, the privilege of portraying your coming of age, as well as playing your mother, Fania, who took her own life when you were only twelve years old.

עמוס עוז, 18 בדצמבר 2015 (תומר ניוברג / פלאש90)

Of Fania’s suicide you wrote, “I was angry with her for leaving without saying good-bye, without a hug, without a word of explanation: after all, my mother had been incapable of parting even from a total stranger, a delivery man or a pedlar at the door, without offering him a glass of water, without a smile, without a little apology and two or three pleasant words…Is that the way to leave, rudely, in the middle of a sentence?”

You gave me two simple commandments for creation that will forever be in my ear: Use your own voice. Allow for complication.

Your writing about your mother combined the fragility of an abandoned child with the compassion and forgiveness of the man you had become, looking back at a woman who was young enough to be your daughter. Incredibly, you allowed me to tell your story and play your mother. I still don’t know why.

You only made two requests. The first was perhaps the most generous demand anyone has ever made of me professionally: “Make your own work. The book exists, make a film that is your own creation.” The second, you asked, was not to try to explain in any simple way why your mother committed suicide. There was no one answer, and trying to understand why was part of your life’s work. The practice of telling her story, of trying to understand your mother’s mind, in many ways turned you into the monumental writer you became. You gave me two simple commandments for creation that will forever be in my ear: Use your own voice. Allow for complication.

סיפור על אהבה וחושך (קרדיט: באדיבות סרטי יונייטד קינג)

As I prepared to make the film, (I was 31 and a mother by then, myself), you talked me through your family photo albums. You welcomed me into your family, and you took my children into your heart as well. “I have no doubt we’ll hear much more about you,” you said to my son, as he bounced on your couch, echoing the words S.Y. Agnon prophetically had said to you when you were a child.

You walked me and my film crew through the streets of your old neighborhood in Jerusalem, speaking, almost verbatim, words from your book, describing the night the state of Israel was declared by a United Nations vote. You explained how all of his neighborhood stood breathlessly and soundlessly in the street, listening to the radio until the vote was announced for the creation of the state and suddenly, “a cataclysmic shout, a shout that could shift rocks, that could freeze your blood, as though all the dead who had ever died here and all those still to die had received a brief window to shout.”

Deep Belief in Language

I have to admit that I was, at first, bothered that you were speaking exactly what you had written, as if I was not experiencing spontaneous beauty from my hero, but rather, a practiced script. But I quickly realized this was not the inauthenticity of recitation, but the choice of a human who so deeply believed in language and in the specificity of words. You cared so profoundly about words that you would not use them unless they had been painstakingly sculpted to make the listener feel exactly what you wanted them to reveal.

סיפור על אהבה וחושך (קרדיט: באדיבות סרטי יונייטד קינג)

You reveled in the Hebrew language, and found its revival to be a monumental achievement. The poetry of connections humans made between biblical words—a ray of light in the bible as the source for the word for “screen,” for example—electrified you, and by extension, us. What would we call a shirt if the academics hadn’t invented a new word? Would we have to say we put on our coat of many colors? Could we feel frustration if there wasn’t yet a word for it?

The potential to create the language as you were writing, made you and all writers of modern Hebrew, past and present, not only writers, but language-creators, word-coiners, and gave you a very particular place in world literary history—you all were resuscitating a dead language and painting life with colors you invented. You said to me once, and also wrote, that Hebrew became a modern language the first time a man and woman used it to exchange the words: I love you.

A Love Mixed with Optimism

You were above all a lover. You loved a rugged Kibbutznik Zionism that you recognized as mythology, but for which you still held great affection. You loved desert walks early in the morning. Above all, you loved your wife, and your three children fiercely. You spoke of love as only a connoisseur could: “By the time I discovered love, I knew that there were different menus. I knew that there was a motorway and a scenic route, and also unfrequented byways where the foot of man had barely trodden. There were permitted things that were almost forbidden and forbidden things that were almost permitted. There were so many different ways.”

You mixed your love and encouragement with consistent wonder and optimism. You continued speaking loudly for peace, even when it was not popular, even when others had been hardened by too many disappointments. You wrote me in an email a couple of years ago when I was pregnant with my second child: “Who would have thought, 100 years after the Kaiser and the militarist Prussian Junkers, 75 years after Hitler, that a German Chancellor, a woman German Chancellor, becomes Leader Of The Free World? Nothing is unthinkable. Not even Peace between Israel and Palestine. Not even the emergence of a better, updated and more sophisticated version of Democracy, at least in some countries. Enough. When is the baby due?”

When we would meet at later events, you would introduce me to friends as your mother, or I would introduce you as my son, and we would laugh at our own silly, practiced ritual.

When I finished the film, I’ll confess that I was terrified to show it to you. To have to watch actors portray yourself and your family, particularly such personal, traumatic events, must have been nothing less than excruciating. You watched at home with Nily and your family. And even in that discomfort you found space to be generous and encouraging to me. You wrote me: “the film is both overwhelming and wonderfully subtle. It keeps coming back to me in my dreams. Your physical semblance to my mother and the super natural fact that you have revived some of her typical gestures, even body language, is no less than a miracle.” When the film was released you wrote again: “As we could have predicted, some people love the film, some don’t, some even resist it. This is no different than what happened when the book was first published. As for me, I am still amazed, even owed, by the Fania you have given us. I almost say: by the Fania you have brought back to me.”

סיפור על אהבה וחושך (קרדיט: באדיבות סרטי יונייטד קינג)

Your generosity to me continued even with the difficulty of appraising a version of your great opus, of your life story. How large an act of love that is, I still can’t completely grasp. You were my hero, my inspiration, my friend, and truly, my family. When we would meet at later events, you would introduce me to friends as your mother, or I would introduce you as my son, and we would laugh at our own silly, practiced ritual.

Amos, I don’t have enough words. I don’t have the right ones. I want you back to invent them.

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