Between Friends

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt  2013

 

Amos Oz returns to his roots: the kibbutz of Israel’s second decade. It was a time when Israel struggled to build a state and to merge socialist ideals with the realities of daily living with real people; the Jewish nature of the Jewish state and the challenges of borders and populations lie decades in the future. Oz presents us with eight short stories—any one of which could stand alone—which are intricately interconnected.

Oz introduces us to Yoav Carni, who had been the kibbutz’s first baby and grew up to become the first secretary of the kibbutz to have been born there. Like every member of the community, he takes a turn serving guard duty at night. Oz describes how he enjoys the peacefulness of that role in contrast with the politics of his day job. He encounters a woman who is leaving her husband in the middle of the night, and their interaction goes beyond the simple solving of a family problem, painting broad-stroke images of the life of the community and its struggles through the lens of two people.

We see the life of individual kibbutznikim, their joys and sorrows, their triumphs and failures. We feel the pain of a father who leaves things unsaid and the frustration of a utopian idealist who wants to teach everyone to speak Esperanto. Together they become interwoven strands of a tapestry that beautifully portrays a snapshot of a fascinating period in our people’s history. This may not be the most important book Amos Oz has written, but it is among the richest in terms of character and imagery, and one of the most enjoyable.

Discussion Questions

JBC Book Clubs Questions

  1. What did you think of Oz's use of "we" as the narrator? What was the purpose of that narrative tool? Did it make you feel more or less engaged in the stories or in the life of the kibbutz? Do you think who the "we" referred to changed between stories?

  2. Were there characters who you felt more or less sympathy for? Did your perspective change as you read more?

  3. If you've read any of Oz's previous works, did reading this book change your view of his past novels or non-fiction? 

  4. What do you think about the role of the women in this book? On page 107, Yoav "knows in his heart that kibbutz life was fundamentally unjust to women," that despite being supposedly total equals, the women were only treated as such if they "acted and looked like men" avoiding all makeup and signs of femininity. What do you think about this in the context of the ideal of the kibbutz? Did you notice instances of this attitude in the book? Separate from how they were treated on the kibbutz, did you feel that the women were written equally to the men?

  5. On page 69, Moshe, the boy who is taken in by the kibbutz, when asked what town has that the kibbutz doesn't, thinks about answering "strangers". Is that meant as a negative or a positive?

  6. What is the role of gossip on the kibbutz?

  7. Who was the most idealistic character about kibbutz life? Who was the most stereotypical? Did the cast of characters feel realistic to you or a composite of "kibbutzniks"?

  8. What is the role of Zvi Provizor in the book and on the kibbutz?

  9. What did you admire most about the Kibbutz Yekhat community? Did reading this book change your thoughts about kibbutzim? What did you find hardest to accept? Of those things that you admired or disliked, were those attitudes or actions more reflective of the time period or of the kibbutz?

  10. On p. 143 Nina Sirota tells Yoav Carni that the original kibbutzniks traded one religion (Orthodox Judaism) for another (Marxism and the kibbutz ideal), that they "haven't stopped being true believers; they've simply exchanged one belief system for another". What do you think of this assessment of the secular kibbutz? Nina predicts that in ten or twenty years, the strictness of the kibbutz will lessen. How does this reflect on the current situation of kibbutzim in Israel?

  11. Do you think a kibbutz society, one that places the collective good over the personal, makes people happier or more content than private life where, for better or worse, one makes one's own decision and lives life more in isolation? Are the trials, sorrows, concerns (and joys) of the kibbutz members the same as they would be living outside of the kibbutz?

  12. Discuss the title. What do you think it refers to? Who are the friends? What tone does it set for the book? Do you think it was meant sincerely?

  13. Do you think Oz wrote this book with nostalgia or with a critical eye? Is his portrait endearing or disapproving?



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