Throughout his career—in fact from his very first book, Where the Jackals Howl (1965)—the renowned Israeli writer Amos Oz has set much of his fiction on the kibbutz, collective communities he portrays as bastions of social cohesion and stultifying conformity in equal measure. In his latest book, which like Where the Jackals Howl is a collection of eight short stories, the scales feel tipped toward the latter: to judge from Between Friends, if you set out to create a society plagued by gossip and spite, you could hardly do better than to establish a kibbutz.
Most of the protagonists of these linked stories about the fictitious, roughly 1950s-era Kibbutz Yekhat are in one way or another victims of peer pressure or ideological rigidity: Zvi and Luna, quiet, middle-aged platonic friends, are the subject of leering talk in the dining hall; Moshe, 16, a kind of foster member of the kibbutz, is treated harshly for wanting to visit his father, who is hospitalized off site; Martin, a shoemaker with emphysema, is pressured by the kibbutz leadership to quit his job because of his poor health. Nina, another character plagued by rumors (she has recently left her husband), explains the community’s intolerance this way:
In ten or twenty years. . . . the kibbutz will be a much more relaxed place. Now, all the springs are tightly coiled and the entire machine is still shaking from the strain. The old-timers are actually religious people who left their old religion for a new one that’s just as full of sins and transgressions, prohibitions and strict rules. They haven’t stopped being true believers; they’ve simply exchanged one belief system for another. Marx is their Talmud. The general meeting is the synagogue and David Dagan is their rabbi.
Dagan, about 50, a history teacher at the kibbutz school and one of the community’s founders, figures as a villain of sorts throughout the book, most pointedly in the title story. The fiercest of the Marxists, he is also self-serving and a notorious womanizer. In “Between Friends” he is living with a former student, 17-year-old Edna, daughter of one of his oldest acquaintances. He acts not the slightest bit concerned about how this situation is affecting his old “friend.”
As the irony of that word suggests, Oz appears to be arguing that, whatever communal spirit a kibbutz fosters, it is usually unlikely ever to privilege emotional connections over societal ones. One character reflects: “[M]ost people seem to need more warmth and affection than others are capable of giving, and none of the kibbutz committees will ever be able to cover that deficit between supply and demand.”
Within these strictures, Oz’s characters live “lives of quiet desperation” (to borrow Thoreau’s memorable formulation). The stories frequently end on notes of irresolution, paralysis, or failure, with protagonists hesitating on the verge of accepting, without further complaint, their own inability to improve their circumstances. Nowhere is this truer than in “At Night,” the most understated and emotionally powerful of the stories, in which Yoav, the kibbutz secretary, nurses an inexpressible passion for Nina. Alone before dawn and on guard duty, Yoav contemplates a bleak future, “feeling that something was almost becoming clear to him, but what that something was, he didn’t know.”
Accordingly, the book’s style, like that of another of Oz’s linked collections, Scenes from Village Life (2011), is extremely spare, at times approaching the simplicity and clarity of Chekhov. At other times, this spareness can seem more an oversight than a deliberate effect, undercutting a story’s strength. But these weaker moments are rare.
The story that most richly depicts the conflict between kibbutz life and individual freedom is “Deir Ajloun.” Yotam and his widowed mother, Henia, are awaiting a vote by the kibbutz leadership on Yotam’s wish to travel to Italy, ostensibly to start college early, although Yotam himself wants mainly to escape the suffocation he feels in the kibbutz. Early in the story, after a run-in over the upcoming vote with a jealous coworker in the kibbutz kitchen, Henia thinks:
People don’t love each other anymore. At first, when the kibbutz was founded, we were all a family. True, even then there were rifts, but we were close. Every evening we’d get together and sing rousing songs and nostalgic ballads till the small hours. Afterward, we went to sleep in tents, and if anyone talked in their sleep, we all heard them. These days, everyone lives in a separate apartment and we’re at each other’s throats. On the kibbutz today, if you’re standing on your feet, everyone is just waiting for you to fall, and if you fall . . . they all rush to help you up.
There is something both chilling and heartening about that final clause, suggesting as it does both hypocrisy and a modicum of compassion. Oz doesn’t hint at whether he intends it as blame or praise; of course, it’s both.