Off the Shelf: Oz and Singer discuss writing and life

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

When considering major Jewish literary figures of the past 100 years, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Amos Oz certainly qualify, even though they represent two different traditions. Singer has been called a master of Yiddish literature (something with which the Nobel Prize Committee agreed) while Oz was definitely a major figure in Israeli literature (and, although he never did win the Nobel, has received numerous other awards). Their lives and works were controversial: many Yiddish writers felt other authors were more deserving of the Nobel, while Oz’ opinions about Israeli politics were often said to be too radical. Readers wanting to learn their thoughts on writing and life will be interested in two recently published works: “What Makes an Apple? Six Conversations about Writing, Love, Guilt, and Other Pleasures” by Oz with Shira Hadad (translated into English by Jessica Cohen” and “Old Truths and New Clichés” by Singer (edited by David Stromberg). (Both works were published by Princeton University Press.) 

“What Makes an Apple?” is a collection of taped conversations between Oz and Hadad. Their discussions are wide-ranging: they don’t just focus on Oz’ writings, but offer thought-provoking ideas about popular culture. The initial questions explore how Oz came to be a writer. His answer explains the title of the book: “Take an apple. What makes an apple? Water, earth, sun, an apple tree, and a bit of fertilizer. But it doesn’t look like any of those things. It’s made of them but it is not like them. That’s how a story is: it certainly is made up of the sum of encounters and experiences and listening.” His natural curiosity helped: his parents promised him the rare treat of an ice cream if he sat quietly while they talked to their friends in the cafes they visited. Oz began to observe the other customers and, when writing, took bits and pieces of what he saw to create a completely different character.

Hadad asked Oz why he never wrote about war, even though he had fought in two: the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War. Oz interestingly noted that he believes it’s impossible to capture that experience in print or on screen: “One of the reasons is that my sharpest memory from the battlefield is the smells. The smell never gets through... The terrible stench doesn’t come through. And without the smell it just isn’t right.” The one exception was in his memoir “A Tale of Love and Darkness” that does speak about the siege of Jerusalem and the smell of unwashed civilian bodies gathered in a shelter that he experienced as a child. 

Oz talked about the development of his work, noting that each book he writes really has three versions: “the one you are reading; the one I wrote, which has to be different from the one you’re reading; the one I would have written if I’d had the strength. If I had wings. That book, the third one, is the best of the three. But in all the world there is no one other than me who grieves for it.” He noted he’s started more works than he’s finished: he was willing to abandon books with which he felt unsatisfied, even one that he’d worked on for two years. Those manuscripts were all destroyed so that no one else would attempt to publish them or be able to read them.

The work includes a fascinating discussion on the nature of sexuality and the differences between men and women. Readers may find themselves wishing they could interject their own thoughts to learn how Oz would counter their opinions. Also included are his ideas about feminism and what he has learned over time about women. This section needs to be read as a whole in order to truly understand his thoughts. Learning how his opinions changed and developed over time gives insight into how a generation of men interpreted the world. 

One need not be a fan of Oz or familiar with his writings in order to enjoy “What Makes an Apple?” These intelligent conversations have much to offer in their own right.

While Oz and Hadad’s work is a transcription of their conversations, “Old Truths and New Clichés” is a collection of Singer’s writings, some of which have originally appeared in this form and others that are variations of published works or speeches. Stromberg notes that Singer was a prolific writer who frequently wrote nonfiction essays for the Yiddish press – in fact, he wrote so many for some issues of a newspaper that a number of them were published under a pseudonym. Many of these essays focus on his thoughts about writing, particularly what writers are and aren’t meant to accomplish. 

Singer noted that literary artists “cannot solve social problems or try to reform society. They are not teachers but tellers of tales. They have power, but it is a force without a vector. Terrible as these words may sound, writers are entertainers in the highest sense of the word.” He railed against novelists who try to write like journalists and noted that the worst thing a writer can do is bore his readers. These essays, which were written in the 1960s-70s, speak to particular literary forms that were being developed at that time, although Singer’s opinions are still of interest today. His ideas about writers also related to critics. While people might not think of Singer as a humorist, one of the best essays is a very funny one: “The Ten Commandments and Modern Critics.” In it, he offers what different contemporary critics – including a communist, a psychologist, a cultural historian, an antisemite and more – would say if the 10 Commandments were published today. 

Singer wrote about “The Spirit of Judaism,” which is an interesting, although a bit controversial, essay about Jewish extremists who reject any attempt to modernize their religion. His articles about Yiddish – “Yiddish, the Language of Exile,” “Yiddish Theater Lives” and “Yiddish and Jewishness” – not only show his love of the language, but what he believes it still has to offer. Singer’s essays include stories of his life as a child and how he used ideas from Kabbalah he learned then in his writing, particularly its notions of sin and pleasure. He saw God as a creator, like a writer: “I quote to myself that passage from the Midrash which says that God created and destroyed many worlds before creating this one. Like my [writer] brother and myself, God threw his unsuccessful works into the waste basket. The flood, the destruction of Sodom, the wandering of the Jews in the desert, the wars of Joshua – these are all the episodes in a divine novel full of suspense and adventure. Yes, God was a creator, and that which he created had a passion to create.” 

Singer did mention his critics, those who viewed his work as “food for antisemites” because of its sometimes unpleasant portrayal of Jewish behavior. However, he noted that his writing came directly from his heritage: “I was myself steeped in all the neuroses which I described. There was a sort of divine hysteria in our family. All of us were possessed by dybbuks.” These sections will make the most sense to readers of his novels. However, the majority of this work can be enjoyed by anyone interested in the dynamics of writing or how Jewish and Yiddish culture developed during Singer’s lifetime.