Posted on March 16th, 2016

How Amos Oz Got Me To Read

It is no surprise to anyone who knows me that Hebrew and reading are two of my greatest passions. I have been speaking Hebrew fluently since I was 17, and once I mastered the spoken language I have devoted the intervening years to mastering the written version.Michael-Sheli-by-Amos-Oz_large

As a Hebrew major in college, I was introduced to classic Hebrew literature from Bialik, to Agnon. While on my junior year abroad, (yes, it used to be a year abroad, not just a semester) I took a class with Amos Oz and it changed my reading life. Under Oz’s tutelage, I read My Michael, my first Hebrew novel and I was hooked. The language helped to serve as an entrée into Israeli culture and inspired me intellectually.

I did not have a great English education. My public high school was “groovy” and “experimental” and by the time my parents recognized the failings of that system and sent me to a wonderful Catholic high school, it was really too late. I have tried to fill in the gaps left by my less-than-adequate educational experience by reading everything that I can. This has included world literature, most particularly the great contemporary Hebrew novels.

In the summer of 2014, Lesley Litman and I were navigating sirens and feeling bereft. One afternoon, Lesley snuck off to Steinmatsky’s where she purchased copies of The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem by Sarit Yishai Levi, the book all of my Israeli friends were reading. We committed to breaking it into bite-sized bits and discussing it together. Full disclosure: she finished, I didn’t. I made it through the first 7 chapters when the book was “borrowed,” never to be returned. Even though I failed with this book, I have succeeded with many, many others and the sense of accomplishment and connection is like a great piece of dark chocolate at the end of a hard day. I can’t explain it any better. The last full-length Hebrew novel I completed was Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness. I won’t kid you, it was daunting, but it was one of the greatest reads of my life.

The 17-year-old me never believed I would ever get to the stage where I could read Oz, or Grossman or even Keret and Kashua in Hebrew, but the 50-something me, the wiser me, is grateful to have found such joy in the writings of the great Hebrew writers of today. Hebrew literature is, for me, one of the gateways into Israeli culture and I would not be who I am without it.

Lori Sagarin, RJE, is the Director of Congregational Learning at Temple Beth Israel in Skokie, Illinois.