By – December 23, 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.

Ira J. Wise, R.J.E. is a Jew­ish Edu­ca­tor serv­ing Con­gre­ga­tion B’nai Israel in Bridge­port, CT. He con­sults with con­gre­ga­tion­al and day schools on a vari­ety of top­ics includ­ing adapt­ing tech­nol­o­gy into the learn­ing process. He has writ­ten sev­er­al books for reli­gious schools and edu­ca­tors and blogs on Jew­ish edu­ca­tion at http://​nextlevel​jew​ishe​d​u​ca​tion​.blogspot​.com/.

Discussion Questions

  • 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?

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

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

  • 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?

  • 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?

  • What is the role of gos­sip on the kibbutz?

  • 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”?

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

  • 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?

  • 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?

  • 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?

  • 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?

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