Sunday, May 14, 2017

Our Mother's Day Sunday Corner with Lee Liberman -- A TALE OF LOVE AND DARKNESS: an immigrant story about the birth of a state and the death of a mother

"Jerusalem is a black widow who devours her lovers 
while they are still inside her...." 
...Amos Oz

Written, directed, and starring Natalie Portman (2015), in Hebrew with subtitles, this lovely film, A TALE OF LOVE AND DARKNESS, for the first-time screenwriter/director is based on an autobiographical memoir of same title by Amos Oz (2004), Israel's foremost novelist.

Portman's version, however, leans on the story of Oz's mother's fatal depression rather than offering a balanced telling of the immigrant family's experience. The truth suffers from it, despite the film's poignancy. It is streaming on Netflix but put Oz's memoir (the writer is pictured below) on your Kindle -- you won't be disappointed.

Portraying Oz's mother Fania, Portman's fluency in Hebrew is unexpected until we learn she was born in Israel; there must have been much in the memoir that jibed with her own family origins -- the absorbing stories of his parents, Fania Mussman from Poland (now Ukraine) and Arieh Klausner from Lithuania (played by musician, writer Gilad Kahana), the menacing anti-Semitism that forced both families to escape to Palestine, the U.N. creation of the Jewish state in 1948, the enveloping war by the Arabs to eradicate the new Israel, the comparative poverty and daily minutia of the Klausners in their poor Jerusalem neighborhood, and especially, the sad tale of Oz's mother who died of a drug overdose at age 38, a presumed suicide (see archive photo of the Klausner's below).

While Portman touches on all this material in her film, the reader will be rewarded by reading Oz's absorbing work of the same title; the balance he provides offsets the cloying atmosphere of film-Fania's doting on her only child (Amir Tessler) as she descended into morbid depression, dying when Amos was 12.

Fania's illness lightly hovers over Oz's memoir but it is part of the texture and doesn't consume it. The absorbing origin stories of his parents and close relatives, the Mussmans and the Klausners, the birth of Israel, and Oz's interesting progress toward his own successful adult life offsets the long shadow of Fania's mental illness (the movie's family trio is shown below).

Also, Oz sets down in writing an origin story that I and so many of my fellow Jewish Americans never got from our elders. The schetls were an embarrassment, the Holocaust so horrible -- leave the past in the past. To the extent Oz's family made new lives while bearing old scars and immigrant trials in their hearts, it turns out to be all our stories too, if differing in detail and degree, now being excavated by succeeding generations starved for knowledge of origins.

Both the memoir and the film, however, do draw a parallel between the dashed immigrant dream of a milk-and-honey Israel and Fania's decline. In an interview with David Remnick in The New Yorker, 11/8/04 upon the memoir's publication, Oz, (78 in 2017, Professor of Literature at Ben Gurion University in Beersheba and writer, novelist, journalist) tells Remnick, "European Zionist writing maintained that the moment the Jews set foot on Biblical soil they will be totally born again." The dream died and she died, Oz says, because for her Jerusalem was exile. Her new reality was alien.

It seems probable to me that lovely, literate, beautiful Fania had severe, likely undiagnosed and untreated depression -- neither the memoir nor the film appear to allow for this. Her insomnia and insufferable migraines were treated medically, leading to her overdosing and/or possible fatal mixing of pills. It is true that her mother and mother-in-law were harshly critical, that Amos's father Arieh, published author, brilliant and caring, was not the romantic partner of her fantasies, that daily life in Jerusalem was degrading compared to life as the child of a wealthy mill owner in Provno. But degradation and difficulty was true for them all, just as it is and has been for every immigrant who escapes oppression to start life over in a strange land. My own guess is that Fania's untreated mental illness made her incapable of dealing with adversity and even daily life.

Perhaps the severity of her illness led her husband and son to sense it was particular to her and not their fault, and to dissociate her demise from themselves enough to salvage their own futures. Arieh remarried and had more children though he died around 60 of a heart attack. Amos put his childhood behind at 14, leaving Jerusalem for rural Kibbutz Hulda, changing his name to Oz which means 'courage', where he later married, had 3 children, and began a splendid writing and academic career. He was furious at his mother for not saying goodbye. (Did she really know she was leaving, I wonder?) But he named his eldest daughter 'Fania', and in other ways preserved his loving memories of his mother's caring and her fantastical, imaginative storytelling: "Where she really lived was on the edge of the forest by the huts, the steppes, the meadows, the snow...reality was just a vain attempt to imitate the world of words." (Below an image from Fania's fairy tale about two monks.)

The failure to acknowledge mental illness was pro-forma during Oz's youth, the outcome of the repression of private feelings, bourgeois European manners, and historic Jewish constraints. Behavior was closely supervised. Everything was forbidden, 'not done', or 'impolite', says Oz, perhaps the inherited behavior of a long-degraded minority to avoid giving offense to the ruling class. Simple 'being' was suppressed by the fear of seeming ridiculous.

Then there was the cult of cleanliness, fear of germs (Palestine seemed diseased and unsterile to the Europeans -- too Asiatic, primitive, lacking in minimal hygiene and culture) and the ever-present need to penny-pinch -- reading by the light of 25 watts rather than indulge in a 45 watt bulb. The apartment was crammed full of the sufferings of the human race, says Oz, the thick smells of boiled fish, carrot and pastries mingled with DDT and Lysol.

However family and friends were scholars and Nobel prize winners. Famous Great Uncle Joseph Klausner wrote the notorious "Jesus of Nazareth", describing Jesus as the most Jewish of Jews and consummate Jewish moralist. Klausner also ran for President of Israel, losing to Chaim Weizmann. Then, explains Oz, everyone was a poet or writer or scholar or world reformer -- those who had anticipated and escaped to Palestine before the Nazi's mowed down Europe. The Jews of the world were unwelcome, applying to emigrate and being turned down by many countries. In the end many had no other option than Palestine. (Oz remains pained by the injustice done to the resident Arabs and with wholehearted liberalism, favors a two-state solution.)

Portman captures bits of these immigrant lives and the tumult surrounding the birthing of the Jewish State. Below, a radio is set up and broadcasting to the street the General Assembly vote on the creation of the new State of Israel.

But the overwhelming imagery in Portman's telling is the portrayal of Fania's descent following the 1948 war, after which, Oz says, there was no nirvana, rather a gloomy, damp, mean, petty "morning after" in their world and tiny, dingy, one-bed basement apartment. And her deterioration overwhelmed her husband and son. The care of Fania became a long series of daily duties, demands, and a sense of shame -- they were like three prisoners in a cell, says Oz. In addition to poor Fania's own suffering is the heavy burden on her two men of the mystery of her abandonment of them. If there had been diagnosis and modern treatment, Fania/wife/mother would have lived.

Note One: press here for discussion of Joseph Klausner's "Jesus of Nazareth."

Note Two: press here for link to Gilad Kahana music video incorporating Barack Obama's "You are not alone" speech.

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