by Amos Oz
THE LITRARY WORK
A novel set in Jerusalem in the 1950s; first published (as Mikha’el sheli) in 1968, in English in 1972,
A young Israeli woman’s frustrations with her marriage contribute to her psychological breakdown.
Amos Oz (1938–) was born Amos Klausner in Jerusalem to Jewish parents of Eastern European and Central European origins. He lived on a kibbutz and in Jerusalem when it was a divided city, later using both as settings in his stories. Oz earned a Bachelor’s degree in philosophy and literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1963, then earned a Master’s degree from Oxford University in England in 1970. In 1965, he published his first book, Artzot ha-tan (Where the Jackals Howl, 1981), a collection of short stories about life on a kibbutz. He followed this with his first novel, Makom aher (1966; Elsewhere Perhaps), and two years later with the novel that would catapult him to fame—My Michael.Oz’s subsequent novels include La-ga‘at ba-mayim, la-ga‘at ba-ruah (1973; Touch the Water, Touch the Wind, 1974), Kufsah shehorah (1986; Black Box, 1988) and Panter ba-martef (1995; Panther in the Basement, 1997). As a rule, Oz’s novels reach bestseller status in Israel and My Michael, the first of his books to be translated into English, was no exception. The novel uses 1950s Jerusalem as a metaphor for Israel itself, portraying the community as it then was—a mostly besieged enclave in an ever-threatening wilderness. Through its protagonist, the novel suggests the challenges of daily existence to one’s mental and emotional fortitude, especially when these are already compromised by other factors within someone’s life.
The founding of Israel—hopes and fears
The establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine—a long-cherished dream and the objective of Jews active in the Zionist movement—was a process that took many years and encountered numerous obstacles, not the least of which was the bitter opposition of Palestinian Arabs. During the 1920s and 1930s, Great Britain, which had been granted control over the region by the League of Nations, adopted a see-saw policy, first backing the drive for an official Jewish homeland, then, in response to Arab agitation, limiting Jewish immigration to Palestine. The policy satisfied neither the Zionists nor the Arabs. In the 1930s the Arabs expressed their displeasure through a series of demonstrations and revolts aimed at both the British and Jews. The Arabs resented the British for behaving like a colonial ruler, the Jews for threatening to displace them. Though in the 1930s the Palestinian Arabs still outnumbered the Jews by more than two to one, they were well aware both of the rapidly rising Jewish presence and the persistent desire for a Jewish state in the land.
Britain made no significant change to its Palestinian policies during World War II. After 1945, however, the grim truths of the Holocaust—the extermination by Nazi Germany of nearly six million European Jews—became common knowledge, and the idea of a Jewish state took on heightened significance for Jews everywhere. Many believed that the founding of such a state was the only way to prevent this type of devastation from befalling their people again. Meanwhile, Western nations that were formerly opposed to the idea came overwhelmingly to support it, despite the continuing dissent of the Arab world. In 1947 the issue was turned over to the newly formed United Nations, which proposed partitioning the land into separate Jewish and Arab states. Both the Palestinian Arabs and the surrounding Arab states rejected this proposal.
War broke out in Palestine in November 1947. It would be prosecuted in two parts. The first part, which lasted until mid-May 1948, can be characterized as a guerrilla-style struggle between the Arabs and the Jews of Palestine. Arabs attacked Jews in several cities, including Haifa, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem, while anti-Jewish riots raged in Beirut, Aleppo, Damascus, and Baghdad. Initially the Jews fought a defensive war but they switched to an offensive posture by the time this phase of the fighting ended. While the Arab troops achieved some success in the early months of this civil war, Jewish forces gained the ascendancy by April 1948. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arab civilians fled or were driven from their homes to neighboring lands in this part of the war, especially to Transjordan, the Arab state to the east of Israel (presently known as Jordan). The refugees headed for makeshift camps on the west bank of the Jordan River (which formed most of the Palestine-Transjordan border) and for the Gaza Strip (along the Mediterranean coast).
As the British Mandate of Palestine approached its expiration date of May 15, 1948, the Zionists assembled a provisional national council, which elected a 13-member provisional government, to be headed by David Ben-Gurion as prime minister and defense minister. On May 14, 1948, this council gathered in Tel Aviv and proclaimed the establishment of the independent State of Israel, bringing to fruition a dream that had been nearly three-quarters of a century in the making. The very next day the second part of this Arab-Israeli conflict began—a conventional war between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs, now joined by neighboring Arab armies. The armies invaded, in support of the Palestinians and to realize their own territorial ambitions (Sachar, pp. 315–16).
With the invasion, the conflict grew into a full-blown war of independence. Five surrounding countries—Egypt, Syria, Transjordan, Lebanon, and Iraq—declared war on Israel. Most of the Arab leaders in the campaign refused to recognize the new state’s existence; they resolved to wrest away its land. The Israelis were no less determined to defend their new nation; by mid-July 1948, an Israeli force of 65,000 troops was facing Arab armies that together totaled 40,000 (Morris, p. 217). In the three phases of fighting that followed, the Israeli forces each time extended the territory under their control. “The first phase lasted for about a month and was followed by a short truce. The second … took place between July 8 and July 18 …. A final round of fighting began in October and continued until the following January” (Tessler, p. 264).
A fierce battle for Jerusalem transpired before the first phase, intensifying when Transjordan invaded on May 19. Already the Arabs had attacked the Jewish quarters of the city. Also the Arabs had gained control of all three roads leading to the city and were using this control to besiege Jewish Jerusalem and to ambush relief columns that tried to get there. For an unnerving time, the Jews of Jerusalem faced the imminent danger of being overrun or starved out. “The Arabs controlled every height around the city and within it” (Sachar, p. 324). Finally, on June 9, relief reached the Jews via a newly cut road through the mountains. Although My Michael begins later, its protagonist would likely have lived in besieged Jerusalem since she was native to the city.
As the intermittent struggle proceeded, Israel defeated each of its Arab attackers—the Arabs did not mount a united offensive—and captured several territories that the United Nations had allocated to the Palestinian Arabs for the proposed Palestinian state. The fighting ended in early 1949. By July 1949 Israel had signed a series of armistice agreements with Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Syria.
Even after the armistices were signed, however, many Arab countries remained hostile—all the more so because they felt humiliated and frustrated by their multiple defeats at the hands of the Israeli forces. Israel likewise continued to be wary of its Arab neighbors. At various times following the end of the 1949 war, serious peace overtures were made on both sides, but these usually met with rebuffs from either the Arab leaders or Israel. A continuing atmosphere of tension and mutual suspicion ensued, aggravated by, among other factors, the occurrence of small-scale Palestinian infiltrations—supported by the Arab states—into Israeli territory. While the vast majority of the Palestinian infiltrators during the 1949–56 period came to see their old homes, retrieve property, harvest abandoned crops, or obtain food, some were terrorists. Operating from Arab states such as Jordan or from the refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the terrorists attacked Israelis and sabotaged Israeli targets. Around 200 Israeli civilians were killed in such armed raids. In retaliation, Israel adopted a “shoot on sight” defensive policy that resulted in the deaths of 2,700 to 5,000 mostly unarmed Palestinian infiltrators from 1949 to 1956; in addition, several hundred Palestinians were killed as a result of Israeli retaliatory raids (Morris, p. 274).
Not surprisingly, the raids and other infiltrations kept Israelis on a constant state of alert, preventing the new nation from achieving any sense of peaceful normality or security. This state of psychological tension informs the background of My Michael—set during the 1950s—and comprises a constant atmospheric presence that looms over the narrative, despite being alluded to only sparingly. Palestinian infiltration comes up directly only in passing. The novel refers to newspaper coverage of “gangs of infiltrators in the Negev,” the desert in southern Israel whose arid land Israelis were striving to transform into agricultural fields at the time (Oz, My Michael, p. 102). More central to the novel are the protagonist’s recurrent fantasies about two Arabs, twin boys with whom she grew up in a Jerusalem neighborhood in the late 1930s and early 1940s. In her fantasies she envisions them as grown men, Arab fighters festooned with weapons and dressed in combat fatigues, conducting mysterious guerrilla operations by night.
PALESTINIAN ARAB REFUGEES
I n My Michael, Hannah Gonen is obsessed with two displaced Arab twin brother with whom she played as a young girl Part of a wealthy Arab family who lived nearby in Jerusalem, they have not crossed paths with her since childhood yet she fantasizes about the twins as adults: “I expect they live in a refugee camp now,” she, in passing, tells the reader (My Michael, p. 251).
The Sinai-Suez War of 1956
Between 1949 and 1956 Israel and its Arab neighbors existed in a state of armed truce. Relations between Israel and Egypt, in particular, became increasingly strained during this period. The pattern of Palestinian infiltrations followed by harsh Israeli reprisals continued, and many Israelis came to believe that Egypt supported or at least condoned raids into their territory because of Egypt’s control over the Gaza Strip from which hostile infiltrators launched most of their attacks. On February 28, 1955, Israeli forces retaliated by destroying military targets inside Gaza and ambushing an Egyptian convoy of reinforcements; the attack left 38 Egyptians dead and 62 wounded (Tessler, p. 345). In response, Egypt began to organize and equip squads of Palestinian commandos (fedayeen), which were sent across the border into Israel, where they often attacked civilian targets. A vicious cycle of raids and reprisals ensued, exacerbating Israeli-Egyptian hostilities to the point where open warfare seemed imminent.
In addition to sponsoring fedayeen raids, Egypt imposed a blockade upon the Gulf of Aqaba, sealing the straits of Tiran and preventing ships from entering or leaving Israel’s port of Eilat. Egypt also began to increase its military might by making arms agreements with Communist bloc countries. Then, on July 26, 1956, Egypt angered not only Israel but also Britain and France when Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal Company. (France had planned the building of the canal and Britain controlled it; it was scheduled to be turned over to Egypt, in whose territory it sat and whose people had labored mightily to construct it, in 1968.) British Prime Minister Anthony Eden wrote to President Eisenhower of the United States:
The canal is an international asset and facility, which is vital to the free world. The maritime powers cannot afford to allow Egypt to expropriate it and to exploit it by using the revenues for her own internal purposes irrespective of the canal and the canal users …. My colleagues and I are convinced that we must be ready, in the last resort, to use force to bring Nasser to his senses.
(Eden in Tessler, pp. 348–49)
In August 1956 the British and French began planning for an invasion of Egypt, even as they engaged in diplomatic efforts to find a nonviolent solution to the problem. In October, Britain and France agreed to combine forces with Israel, which had been denied access to the Suez Canal since Nasser’s nationalization of the company. Representatives of all three nations met in Sevres, France, to finalize their plans for an armed attack on Egypt. Additional factors motivated their strategy. A charismatic figure, Nasser was trying to achieve a pan-Arab unity. Also he supported Algeria’s rebels in their fight against French rule, and, in defiance of the Western powers, he was receiving arms from the Soviets. All of this was perceived as a serious threat.
On October 29, 1956, Israeli forces entered the Sinai Peninsula and attacked positions of the Egyptian army; by November 5, Israel had occupied the Gaza Strip and captured several strategic locations throughout the Peninsula, including Sharm al-Sheikh. Meanwhile, France and Britain moved to occupy the canal zone, between the Sinai Peninsula and the rest of Egypt, and took control of Port Said, Egypt. With so much of its territory occupied by foreign troops, Egypt was forced to admit defeat and a cease-fire went into effect.
Facing strong condemnation from the U.N. Security Council, France and Britain agreed to withdraw their troops from the Canal Zone; evacuation of their forces was completed on December 22, 1956. Israel, however, maintained troops in Sharm al-Sheikh and the Gaza Strip, demanding an end to fedayeen raids and removal of all restrictions on Israel’s use of the Suez Canal and the Gulf of Aqaba in exchange for its withdrawal from the region. The United Nations was not inclined to address those issues at the time and a stalemate ensued, broken by intervention from the United States, whose diplomats persuaded Israel to remove its forces without a guarantee of the conditions upon which it had earlier insisted. Israeli troops withdrew from Sinai in March 1957.
The Sinai-Suez War plays a pivotal role in My Michael; Michael Gonen—husband of Hannah, the protagonist—is called into military service for several weeks during the initial campaign in the Sinai Peninsula. Oz does not focus upon the events of the campaign itself, but rather upon the effect it has upon Israeli civilians. While Michael accepts the war and his part in it (as a wireless operator) with characteristic stoicism, the emotional Hannah broods—sometimes missing her husband, sometimes resenting him, and at other times taking refuge in various fantasies to escape from the mingled tension and tedium of her daily life. At one point during Michael’s absence, she reflects upon the nature of their marriage and their fundamental differences by recalling his reaction to the Sinai Campaign:
You knew in advance that you were being called up for a war, not for maneuvers. That the war would be in Egypt and not in the east. That the war would be a short one. All this you deduced with the aid of a well-balanced inner mechanism by means of which you continually produce thoroughly reasoned ideas. I have to present you with an equation on whose solution I depend in the way that a man standing on the edge of a precipice depends on the strength of the railing.
(My Michael pp. 219–20)
Jerusalem—the divided city
Arab-Israeli tensions in the 1950s were especially marked in Jerusalem, where the novel’s Hannah Gonen grew up and still lives. Jerusalem was the British administrative capital throughout the Mandate period (1922–48). In a spiritual sense, the city was the site of the ancient Temple around which the religion was centered, and after its destruction and the dispersal of the Jews outside Palestine, remained the focal point of their longing for return. As the new Israeli government recognized, Jerusalem was Israel’s heart and its branches moved their offices there at the beginning of 1950, declaring it to be the capital of the new state. Yet things were far from simple, for the city’s experience has been (and remains) one of deep division. Because it contains leading religious sites for Jews, Christians, and Muslims, the ancient city of Jerusalem has been among the thorniest issues in Arab-Israeli negotiations. Its symbolic importance for people of all three faiths makes it perhaps the most revered and at the same time the most contested piece of real estate in the world.
Paradoxically, Jerusalem was considered a cultural backwater at the time of the novel. Indeed, during the first half of the twentieth century, Zionists neglected Jerusalem because it represented staid religious tradition and the home of the old Yishuv, or Jewish community in Palestine; instead, Zionists concentrated upon Tel Aviv, which was established as the first modern, Hebrew-speaking city in the region. Even after the founding of modern Israel, Jerusalem was marked by a provincial isolation that often put it outside the mainstream of Israeli life. Much of this isolation came simply from the city’s physical location. Israel’s other major cities (Haifa and Tel Aviv) lie along the Mediterranean coast, along with minor cities. Removed from these busy, vibrant ports, Jerusalem lies in the interior. In the 1950s, it was furthermore bordered to the north, south, and east by stretches of no-man’s land and by Jordan, with its Palestinian Arab refugees. Only to the west was Jewish Jerusalem joined to the rest of Israel. It was, from the western coastal perspective, little more than an outpost at the end of an insecure territorial corridor that gave the otherwise closed-off town a pathway to the sea. During the 1948 war, Arab fighters had temporarily blocked the main road of this corridor, besieging Jewish Jerusalem for several months. Even with the corridor open, to some the otherwise hemmed-in town no doubt felt constricting.
Most of the plans for partitioning Palestine proposed by the United Nations during the Mandate period had included the establishment of Jerusalem as an international zone under a neutral (non-Arab, non-Zionist) administration. After the 1948 war, the international community continued to call for such an agreement. So, while recognizing Israel, other nations at first refused to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Instead, they established their embassies in the modern, Jewish-populated city of Tel Aviv, on the coast. However, both Israel and Jordan—the two states that ended up controlling Jerusalem—refused to turn the city over to international rule. Throughout the time of the novel, the city was effectively partitioned, reflecting the territories that Jews and Arabs had respectively come to occupy during the 1948 war. While Jordan administered Arab East Jerusalem, Israel controlled Jewish West Jerusalem, from which Palestinians had fled or been exiled during the war. Both parts of the divided city grew during the 1950s, with East Jerusalem increasing to 70,000 while West Jerusalem grew to 195,000 by 1966 (Gilbert, p. xi). In the novel, Hannah Gonen comments on the city’s rapid growth after the 1948 war, although she remains deeply ambivalent about Jerusalem, still seeing it as a changeless backwater that imprisons its inhabitants.
Jerusalem is spreading and developing. Roads. Modern sewers. Public buildings. There are even some spots which convey for an instant an impression of an ordinary city: straight, paved avenues punctuated with public benches. But the impression is fleeting. If you turn your head you can see in the midst of all the frantic building a rocky field. Olive trees. A barren wilderness …. And all around, the hills. The ruins. The wind in the pine trees. The inhabitants.
(My Michael pp. 269–70)
Life in West Jerusalem in the 1950s
Although many Palestinian Arabs had lived in the western part of Jerusalem before the emergence of Israel, most of them fled or were expelled during the war of independence; their abandoned dwellings were razed to the ground or were occupied by Jews. Consequently, there were few Arabs in West Jerusalem and likewise virtually no Jews in East Jerusalem during the 19 years that the city was divided (1948–67). Both the Palestinian Arabs and the Israeli Jews generally abided by the cease-fire line, but daily life grated on the nerves. On the Israeli side, residents lived under the perpetual threat of sniper fire. Hardly a month went by that “somebody was not killed or wounded on the frontier, or at least struck by a stone thrown from the wall” (Kollek in Gilbert, p. 268). Sniper fire took the lives of nine people in 1954 and wounded 54 more. In 1956 a Jordanian soldier opened fire on 199 civilians at an Israeli archaeological conference and killed four. The next day a Jordanian army patrol shot into a group of Israeli women olive pickers and killed one, and so on.
Meanwhile, the division of the city was patently visible. Where a street had previously run through both sides, there loomed a 15–to–20 foot concrete wall. Barbed wire fences, mines, and stretches of no-man’s land divided the city into two as well. There was only one crossing point, the Mandelbaum Gate; not really a gate, the crossing was named after a Mr. Mandelbaum, who once owned a nearby house.
West Jerusalem, the Israeli side, continued as little more than a sleepy border town in the 1950s. To the north, totally cut off from the town but still held by the Jews, was an enclave on Mount Scopus, former site of the now hauntingly empty Hebrew University and Hadassah Hospital. Improvising, the university moved its center of operation to Jewish or New Jerusalem, for the time being, setting up shop in a one-time Christian site, the Franciscan Terra Sancta College, where the novel’s Hannah meets her future husband, Michael.
Life in the Jewish sector was subdued. There were no sidewalk cafes and there was little nightlife. The downtown shopping center was a mixture of the old and the new: “Arab-looking men riding donkeys down the street; bearded men with long earlocks and large felt hats, driving horses and wagons filled with kerosene; women shoppers with string bags … bicycles, motorcycles, cars, horses, … beggars squatting on comers” (Clawson in Gilbert, p. 251). Shabbiness abounded. A hodgepodge of residential styles emerged. Large new housing projects, featuring boxlike blocks of apartments, sprung up around former Arab and Christian quarters that were transformed into Jewish living spaces. Many Jews from Arab lands resided in immigrant camps, or maabarot.The largest, Talpiot, housed close to 8,000 people in 1954. It had one water tap for every 20 families and no toilets, just walled off holes in the ground that emitted a nauseating smell. Sanity was a common casualty of camp life, reports Dr. Fanny Ribnowitz, who in three months treated five new cases of insanity at Talpiot alone (Gilbert, p. 260). These breakdowns bring to mind My MichaeVs Hannah, victim to just some of the same stresses, since she is not a newcomer living in a camp.
Jerusalem in the 1950s had better residential districts too, with gardens and trees. But even in these districts, residents suffered daily uncertainties—about safety, food, money. Workers’ salaries were invariably late and one never knew exactly how late. Most people could not afford a telephone. For years after the 1948 war, daily staples—coffee, eggs, meat, and the like—were rationed, and there was the persistent pressure of living in a contested city. “Half the time you drove down a road or a side street, you ran into a sign reading “Stop! Danger! Frontier Ahead!” (Gilbert, p. 268). These are the everyday stresses with which people in general had to contend in 1950s Jerusalem, along with their more personal problems.
My Michael is the private journal of 30-year-old Hannah Gonen, a Jerusalem housewife, mother, and part-time kindergarten teacher. Hannah opens the narrative with a declaration of a sense of disillusionment, and of the danger therein: “I am writing this because people I loved have died. I am writing this because when I was young I was full of the power of loving, and now that power of loving is dying. I do not want to die” (My Michael, p. 3).
Through her private journal, the older Hannah introduces readers to her 20-year-old self, a bright, imaginative student of literature at the Hebrew University in 1950. At the university Hannah meets Michael Gonen, the man she will soon marry. Describing him as “a geologist, a good-natured man” but “not a witty man,” she recalls their first date (My Michael, pp. 3, 6). Michael talks about his father, Yehezkel Gonen, a widower whose own father had been a respected scientist in Poland before immigrating to Israel. Yehezkel Gonen has put most of his modest salary from his job at a municipal water department into Michael’s education, cherishing the idea that Michael will carry on the family tradition of science. Hannah, in turn, tells Michael about her family. Her father, a quietly intellectual man who owned a small electronics shop, died in 1943. Since then, her mother, who knits and reads novels in her native Russian, has lived with Hannah’s brother, Emanuel, and his family on a kibbutz.
The young Hannah abandons a possible profession in academia to marry the quiet, even-tempered Michael, who is in many respects her polar opposite. But she retains her love for literature—especially for the stories of Jules Verne—the source of some of her fantasies:
When I was small I read and reread my brother’s copy of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand LeaguesUnder the Sea.There are some rich nights when I discover a secret way through the watery depths and the darkness among green and clammy sea-creatures until 1 beat at the door of the warm cavern. That is my home. There a shadowy captain waits for me surrounded by books and pipes and charts. His beard is black, his eyes hold a hungry gleam. Like a savage he seizes me, and I soothe his raging hatred.
(My Michael p. 22)
Hannah and Michael move into an old two-room apartment in a somewhat shoddy neighborhood. Three months after the wedding, she becomes pregnant and suffers a host of physical and psychological ailments, including “a permanent headache” and “tormented” dreams, from which she “would wake up screaming” (My Michael, p. 65). Their son, Yair, is born early the following year, in 1951. Owing to unspecified complications, the doctors keep Hannah in the hospital for ten days after she gives birth. When released, she is told “to stay in bed and avoid any form of strain” (My Michael, p. 84). Hannah remains ill all summer, and Michael cares for the baby while pursuing his studies in geology.
As Yair grows into a toddler and then a young boy, Michael establishes a positive, if somewhat wooden, relationship with him. Michael enjoys Yair’s curiosity and his interest in clocks and other mechanical objects. To convey the importance of not interrupting, Michael teaches the boy to say “I have finished” when he is done speaking (My Michael, p. 116). Hannah, in contrast, finds her son mildly repugnant and intolerably insolent. She sometimes beats Yair. By the age of four or five, he has grown into “a strong, silent child,” intelligent but with “a tendency towards extraordinary violence” (My Michael, p. 117).
Although Hannah’s physical health seems to improve, she continues to have disturbing, violent dreams and fantasies. Many of them involve two Arab boys, twins named Halil and Aziz, with whom she played as a girl. In her dreams they “practice throwing hand grenades before dawn among the ravines of the Judean Desert,” with “submachine guns on their shoulders” in “worn commando uniforms stained with grease” (My Michael, p. 105). She also fantasizes about a strong man of action named Michael Strogoff (taken from a novel of the same name by Jules Verne) and about vague military campaigns involving a British naval destroyer called H.M.S. Dragon.In many of her dreams and fantasies she is a warrior princess commanding armies and planning military strategy.
In the summer of 1955 the family spends a week with Michael’s father, Yehezkel Gonen, now a retired municipal worker, staying at Yehezkel’s apartment in Holon, near Tel Aviv. Yair and Grandpa Yehezkel become fast friends. Yehezkels explanations of the town’s water, power, and transportation systems fascinate Yair, as do the old man’s accounts of guerrilla battles between Arabs and Zionists in the days before independence. Four days after the family returns to Jerusalem, they are saddened to receive word that Yehezkel has died suddenly, collapsing at a bus stop near his apartment. Shortly afterward, Hannah’s impulsive spending—in a decade of austerity in Jerusalem and Israel at large—force the still grieving Michael to ask some friends for a loan.
That fall, rumors of impending war with the Arabs sweep through the city. “Housewives in
In Oz’s novel, Hannah fantasizes about the strong, mysterious hero of Jules Verne’s Michael Strogoff: A Courier of the Czar, a novel published in Hebrew in 1940 that took its new readership by storm. Set in late-nineteenth-century Russia, Verne’s novel features a handsome, solidly built, courageous hero, a man far more exciting and romantic than Hannah portrays her husband to be in My Michael Verne’s protagonist sets out on a 3,000-mile journey to warn the brother of the tsar about a rebellion in the Siberian provinces, Wounded, temporarily blinded, snared by his enemies, the resolute Michael Strogoff presses on through every obstacle to reach his goal.
the shops said that the Arab Legion was installing gun batteries around Jerusalem. Canned food, candles, and paraffin lamps vanished from the shops” (My Michael, p. 193). Soldiers, armed with machine guns, become a common sight on the city’s streets as Israel responds to troop buildups in the surrounding Arab countries. One chilly morning Hannah comes down with a serious fever that leads to a state of near psychological collapse. She has barely begun recovering when Michael is called up for military service as Israeli tanks invade and occupy the Sinai Peninsula. He assures Hannah that he will be in no danger, since he is only a radio officer. Several weeks later Michael returns home, weakened and stricken with a digestive illness.
In the following months, small changes enter into their lives. Yair starts school, and several older acquaintances pass away. Hannah complains, as she has earlier to the reader, about “a sameness of the days and a sameness in me” (My Michael, p. 254). In an attempt to relieve her ennui, Hannah brings a revived enthusiasm to the couple’s sex life. She finds the contact to be merely physical, however, and thinks that in arousing her husband sexually, she is only deceiving him “with his own body” (My Michael, p. 259). In the spring of 1959, Hannah takes a new job, and Michael finally completes his doctoral thesis. Anticipating his success in the academic world, they have already planned to move into a larger apartment in a new suburb of the city. Hannah is pregnant again. The pregnancy leaves her drained, and in her exhaustion she begins to suspect Michael of harboring an
THE MENTAL COST OF WAR
Hannah’s most serious mental collapse comes just when the country is gearing up for war, as Michael is called up to serve in Israel’s invasion of the Sinai Peninsula. This draroatic climax, the Israeli critic Gershon Shaked has observed, “corresponds to the [factual] Sinai Campaign, which was perceived as discharging tensions that had built up from years of living on the edge”’ (Shaked, p. 190).
attraction to the pretty typist who is helping him with his thesis. But she finds herself not caring much one way or the other, or so she says in her diary. More real to her are her fantasies about the Arab twins Halil and Aziz. Ultimately Hannah acknowledges the end of her marriage with indifference and retreats into her fantasy world, dispatching the twins on a terrorist mission to destroy the water tower in Jerusalem, her city of birth but one in which she has never felt at home and has come to hate for “haunting” her (My Michael, p. 282). It is late at night when Hannah imagines sending the twins off on this final commando mission; lost in fantasy, she awaits their return as “quiet cold calm” heralds the pale light of dawn over Jerusalem (My Michael, p. 287).
Exotic dreams, mundane realities
Perhaps the most striking aspect of My Michael is Oz’s choice of protagonist; the main character and narrator is not the “Michael” of the title but Michael’s troubled wife, Hannah. Intriguingly, Oz himself was reluctant to tackle her perspective, as he revealed in an interview about the novel’s development:
[Hannah] said to me; “Look, I am here, I will not let you go. You will write what I am telling you [to write], or you will have no peace.” And I argued back, I excused myself; I told her: “Look, I cannot [do it], go to somebody else. Go to some woman author; I am not a woman; I cannot write you in the first person; leave me alone.” But no, she did not give up.
(Oz in Cohen, p. 143)
Whatever Oz’s initial reservations, Hannah proves to be a memorable, if not always reliable, narrator. When the novel begins, she has already reached her current age of 30 and—the reader discovers—her current mental dissolution, which subtly undermines the accuracy of her recollections.
Significantly, most of Hannah’s fantasies involve triumph over or escape from a humdrum or unsatisfying reality. As her marriage to Michael disintegrates under the strains of her ill health, their mutual incompatibility, and the daily stresses of life in 1950s Jerusalem, Hannah becomes ever more entangled in her fantasy world. Continually bemoaning “the dreary sameness of the days,” she imagines herself in different incarnations: as Yvonne Azulai, an exotic Sephardic woman in search of adventure and sexual thrills, as a warrior princess of Danzig, and as the commander/lover of the now-grown Arab twins, whom she sends on missions involving espionage and sabotage (My Michael, p. 176). At one point, delirious with fever, Hannah suffers what appears to be a complete break with reality, all of her identities, yearnings, and fantasies merging in a confused, sexually charged, kaleidoscopic vision:
Silently the twins clasped my arms to tie them behind my back …. Hands pressed my body. Kneaded. Pounded. Probed. I laughed and screamed with all my strength. Soundlessly. The soldiers thronged and closed round me in their mottled battle dress. A furious masculine smell exuded from them in waves. I was all theirs. I was Yvonne Azulai. Yvonne Azulai, the opposite of Hannah Gonen …. I am made of ice, my city is made of ice, and my subjects too shall be of ice. Every one. The Princess has spoken.
(My Michael, pp. 197–98)
Many readers of My Michael have speculated on the cause of Hannah’s descent into madness—whether it is attributable to her unsatisfactory marriage to a man whom she tries but fails to dominate, to her secret but deep-rooted hatred of Jerusalem, or to the stresses of daily life in Israel during its war-torn early years. Perhaps Hannah’s breakdown could most reasonably be tied to a combination of causes rather than any one cause. It is, however, worth noting that the fantasies in which she seeks oblivion are as exciting and exotic as her real-life existence as a suburban housewife in 1950s Jerusalem is both mundane to the point of tedium and fraught with periods of unbearable tension and anxiety.
In the novel, a mentally unstable fictional character is continually confronted by a discrepancy between the ideal and the real. This same discrepancy confronted real-life Israeli society in her day. For half a century, Zionists had been driven by ideals. The founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl, set the tone at the start of the twentieth century with his Altneuland (Old-New Land), an inspirational novel that envisioned Palestine’s Jewish community developing into a consort of successful farmers, business leaders, and industrialists within 20 years. Women would enjoy equal rights with men, jobs would abound, and Arabs and Jews would coexist peacefully. Next came the ideal of labor Zionism, trumpeted by Aaron David Gordon (1856–1922), who touted redemption by labor in the Holy Land and who himself tilled the soil, working shoulder-to-shoulder with other pioneers to realize his ideals until the end of his dedicated life. Another inspirational idealist, Joseph Trumpeldor (1880–1920) championed a Jewish labor battalion, advocating austerity and the collective, resolving to sow seeds “a handful at a time” and tackle every task from road-building to swamp drainage “until we conquer the Land of Israel” (Trumpeldor in Sachar, p. 145). Heeding the call, newcomers streamed in to join old-timers, bringing more ideals, such as the notion of collective farming so integral to the kibbutz.
Then came statehood—the realization of these long-held ideals—and the dreamers were left with just the hardships. Rapid progress had to be made, and indeed the achievements were remarkable. By the end of the 1950s, only 6 percent of the Jewish households in Israel lacked running water; only 19 percent had no access to electricity; almost all the maabarot, or immigrants’ camps, had been dismantled. From Europe and the Arab Middle East, Jewish immigrants meanwhile poured into a country unprepared but determined to receive them. The swift progress and re-population exacted an emotional price. Hannah’s collapse no doubt struck a chord in many an exhausted life. A fictional character, with her own peculiar problems, she nevertheless reflects a sense of disillusionment that was widespread in the 1950s:
For several years, the influx of hundreds of thousands of semimendicants threatened to extinguish the idealism even of Israel’s veteran European population …. The selfless and spontaneous emotional commitment of the pre-1948 era appeared increasingly out of date. The old idealism, then, was the most lamented casualty of Israel’s postwar independence era.
(Sachar, pp. 427–28)
Sources and literary context
Amos Oz’s own experiences growing up in Jerusalem during the 1940s and part of the 1950s provided the most important overall source for the novel. “The Jerusalem of my youth was a city of sleepwalkers, awash with contradictory dreams,” explains Oz (Oz in Balaban, p. 79). The image brings to mind My Michael’s Hannah and her penchant for losing herself in reverie. Like other Jewish boys, Oz attended “a Hebrew elementary school with strong religious and national tendencies, where they taught us to long for the glory of the ancient kingdoms of Israel and to aspire to restore them in blood and fire” (Oz in Balaban, p. 79). This same wording appears in My Michael in a Zionist slogan that fascinates Hannah: “Judaea fell in blood and fire, in blood and fire will Judaea rise,” a refrain that echoes over and over in her mind (My Michael, p. 119).
Oz has suggested that during the 1950s, when My Michael takes place, many Jerusalem!tes felt a deep nostalgia for the city as it had existed under the British Mandate (before 1948). Some critics have seen the novel’s evocative descriptions of the changes in Jerusalem in the 1950s as a reflection of this longing for the earlier period.
A similar sense of disquiet about national changes was expressed by various Israeli writers of Oz’s generation after 1956. Gershon Shaked saw the Sinai Campaign as a turning point in how these younger writers viewed Zionism and its attendant mythology:
For those born in the 1930s, the Sinai Campaign of 1956 was the experience that changed their relation to the Zionist metaplot [or master narrative]. Unlike the war of 1948, this seemed more a war of choice than a matter of survival …. The ambivalence engendered by the war brought about changes in the form as well as the content of the fiction …. Writers produced anti-establishment allegories that to some degree veiled their intentions.
(Shaked, p. 189)
Shaked characterizes My Michael as one of several “anti-establishment” stories that spoke in veiled terms around this time. Others include Aharon Megged’s Fortunes of a Fool, published in Hebrew in 1959, and A. B. Yehoshua’s allegory “The Last Commander,” published in Hebrew (in The Death of an Old Man) in 1962.
My Michael was completed on the eve of the 1967 Six-Day War, before the struggle itself was prosecuted and won. As one might expect, given the triumphant exuberance that characterized Israeli public life after the Six-Day War, the novel evoked a storm of controversy when published in 1968. An immediate bestseller, it roused both bitter condemnation and enthusiastic approval among Israelis. Hostile critics focused their attention on Hannah Gonen’s sexual fantasies, accusing her of being “anti-Zionist” and an “Arab-lover” (Balaban, p. 175). Others praised the novel’s penetrating treatment of the deep but often unacknowledged psychological connections between Israeli Jews and their Arab neighbors.
American reviewers took up this last theme after the English translation appeared in 1972. Writing in The New York Times Book Review, Paul Zweig noted that My Michael was “extremely disturbing to Israelis” when first released.
At a time when their country had asserted control over its destiny as never before, Oz spoke of an interior life which Israel had not had time for, which it had paid no heed to, an interior life that contained a secret bond to the Asiatic world beyond its border.
(Zweig, p. 5)
From the American critics, the novel received high praise for its literary strengths, especially the rich detail and suggestive imagery by which it traces Hannah’s slow mental erosion.
—Colin Wells and Pamela S. Loy
Asali, KJ. Jerusalem in History. New York: Olive Branch Press, 2000.
Balaban, Avraham. Between God and Beast: An Examination of Amos Oz’s Prose. University Park, Penn.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993.
Cohen, Joseph. Voices of Israel. Albany: SUNY Press, 1990.
Gilbert, Martin. Jerusalem in the Twentieth Century. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1996.
Morris, Benny. Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881–2001.New York: Vintage, 2001.
Oz, Amos. My Michael. New York: Knopf, 1972.
Sachar, Howard M. A History of Israel. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.
Shaked, Gershon. Modern Hebrew Fiction. Trans. Yael Lotan. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000.
Tessler, Mark. A History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.
Zweig, Paul. Review of My Michael. The New York Times Book Review, 21 May 1972, 5.