First person

Remembering the wise, gracious Amos Oz, and his cat snoring softly on my lap

The celebrated writer turned the tables on me during a 2016 interview

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Amos Oz and his cat, in his Tel Aviv living room in September 2016 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Amos Oz and his cat, in his Tel Aviv living room in September 2016 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

I’d spent a good amount of time in my career trying to interview Amos Oz, one of Israel’s most prolific and famed writers, who died Friday, at age 79, after a short illness.

So when I finally snagged a sit-down interview with him after the publication of “Judas,” his 2016 novel, I was understandably nervous.

I reached his Tel Aviv street early, reviewed my questions, made sure I had enough pens. I made it up to his apartment, knocked on the door, and after Oz answered, we sat in his living room, getting ourselves settled. (A glass of water for him, a glass of iced tea for me.)

And then I met his cat. It was an enormous tabby, a cat who clearly had pride of place in the Oz home.

I’m fairly allergic to cats. I can’t stand having them swish by me or sit next to me, and I often start sneezing if I even sit on furniture they’ve sat on. But I didn’t feel like I could say anything, as this was, after all, Amos Oz’s cat, in Amos Oz’s home. I simply prayed I wouldn’t start sneezing.

As we made small talk, the cat first sidled up to me, and then jumped into my lap. I sat, rigidly, but trying not to be too rigid, while conducting the conversation.

“Are you okay with cats?” asked Oz kindly.

“Oh, sure, I love cats,” I assured him.

I can’t say why I didn’t simply tell him that I don’t like cats, or that I’m allergic to them. When interviewing someone, you want to click with them, to establish a sense of kinship and common ground.

And I wanted Amos Oz to like me, although I knew that I was just another interviewer, one of hundreds, even thousands of reporters who was asking him his thoughts and opinions, yearning to hear about his writing experience.

I certainly didn’t want him to think that I had a problem with his cat.

And so the tabby remained in my lap, snoring softly for the better part of an hour as we discussed the writing of “Judas,” the characters he created in the novel, and its depiction of Jerusalem, that resonated heavily from Oz’s own childhood and early adulthood.

Amos Oz, at home in Tel Aviv, discussing ‘Judas,’ his latest novel, released in English in September 2016. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

The book was Oz’s first in a decade, and one he’d wrestled with for decades, he said. “I have been writing this novel for years and I despaired twice and came back to it with clenched teeth,” he vouchsafed. “I thought it was too big for me.”

“Judas” is a treatise on Judas Iscariot — the infamous disciple who, according to the New Testament, betrayed Jesus, but whom Oz grew to believe was not a traitor and unintentionally became one.

Oz places his entire hypothesis about Judas in the hands of a character named Shmuel Ash, a young academic who answers an ad for a paid live-in companion of a lonely, aged man. It is 1959, a strange time in Jerusalem, and Ash ends up living in a dark, forbidding home, drinking “gallons of tea” and talking all the time with the two other characters who form the traditional triumvirate of Oz novels.

It was surprising to Oz, he said, that the book became an international bestseller, translated into dozens of languages.

“There is no violence, no Mossad agents, no Holocaust, no Palestinians, no settlements, no Russian tycoons,” the author noted. “There is some sex, but you have to wait for it. Three people sit in a room and talk all the time, and somehow in the course of the novel, three different generations and three totally different views of the world become very loose with each other, which is a kind of secular miracle to me.”

Our conversation moved on to a more general discussion of his writing — his novels and his articles — and how neither became easier over time.

“I keep on essentially writing the same article for 55 years,” he said, self-deprecatingly. “I don’t know of any way of measuring if I even moved a single grain of sand, but I do it. People expect writers to hold the torch and light the way through different patches of history. Will they succeed? Are they good guides or terrible guides? There’s no blanket answer.”

By this point, I was far more relaxed, even with the cat on my lap. I hadn’t sneezed even once.

Apropos the Jerusalem of “Judas” and the Jerusalem of his own youth, I mentioned that I’ve lived in Jerusalem for much of my adult life.

“You do?” Oz asked. “Where do you live?”

Arnona, I told him, not far from S.Y. Agnon’s home in the next-door neighborhood of Talpiot.

We spoke about how Jerusalem has changed over the years; it had become a little foreign to Oz in recent years, he said, since he’d visited only infrequently.

He wanted to know if I liked living in the city; I said yes, although I occasionally need to escape to Tel Aviv.

We had been speaking in English, a language in which he was completely comfortable, and he asked me where I had immigrated from and what had brought me to Israel. I hesitated, not because I didn’t want to answer, but because I was surprised that he was interested.

I told him my family history, about my father’s 1948 Zionism, and his aborted trip to pre-state Palestine — that ended with two months in a Lebanese prison camp and his eventual return to New York, where he decided to become a rabbi.

I mentioned that it took my father another 45 years to live in Israel, and that my father’s brand of Zionism was of a different stripe to Oz’s. He said my father was probably a man of his time and place, which was true. My father had studied at Yeshiva University, and was a disciple of Ze’ev Jabotinsky; Oz had different heroes.

But as he’d said earlier in the interview, referring to his own theoretical disagreements with Jesus’s ideas, Israelis tend to disagree with one another, and that’s okay, too.

With that, our interview was over. I got up, and the tabby cat jumped off my lap.

Oz was about to shut the door behind me, when he asked, “Do you really like cats?”

“Not so much,” I answered.

He nodded, rather as though he’d known all along, but didn’t say anything. I waved goodbye.

Read: There are no traitors, says Amos Oz, only those unafraid of change

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