My Michel: The Box, the Garbage, the Jew

קופסה_שחורה_ספרBlack Box

by Amos Oz

Keter, 1986

Published in Maariv July 17 1987 (in Hebrew)

by Ofra Yeshua-Lyth

In the fall of 1985 I closely followed a stormy West German cultural-literary debate which concentrated on anti-Semitism as expressed in the works of a major German author. For months intellectuals have argued over the way The Jew was characterized in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s play The Garbage, the City and Death (Der Müll, die Stadt und der Tod). Left-liberal intellectual Jews (and non-Jews) found it most uneasy to join the chorus of outraged outcries raised by the typically middle class merchants and constructors running the German Jewish communities against the cultural icon who passed away three years earlier. One needed to read the actual play to be fully convinced that there was nothing ambiguous about the play’s message. In his main character Fassbinder had created a Jewish archetype that carried all the negative adjectives that traditional Anti-Semitic texts associated with Jews from day one: greedy, a lascivious chaser of “Aryan” females, ambitiously unscrupulous, usurper of the poor and generally a destructive influence. Fassbinder did not invent this out of thin air. The “Reiche Jude” (Rich Jew) is a well recognized mythical figure in German as well as European culture at large.

If one holds the view that every cultural construct coming from this particular part of the world is a desirable model in our Asiatic region should be pleased with Amos Oz’s recent novel “Black Box.” Oz, a writer whose prominence in Israel is nothing short of Fassbinder’s in West Germany stunningly produced a work that dons literary legitimacy to the racist anti-Mizrahi myth so prevalent across wide sections of the Israeli population that has Eastern European origins.

Some literary critics already defined “Black Box” as possibly the worst novel Amos Oz published so far. Similarly, many in Germany considered “The Garbage” the weakest amongst Fassbinder’s plays and scripts (personally I am not so sure). With due respect to artistic evaluations:  The “Fassbinder Affaire” exceeded far beyond the realm of literary criticism, touching on the most existential core issues of the new German society. In the same way, the racist credo that transpires from Oz’s book forces some deeper scrutiny – also at the target audiences of this work.

  1. The Image of a North African Jew

If there were (and there were) grounds for the foul cries against “The Garbage” celebration in Germany, if one is allowed to condemn abusive characterizations of white writers concerning blacks or male writers demeaning women, it is not possible to ignore the unequivocal mass of derogative and humiliating ethnic descriptions even though it is within the box of one of the much beloved darlings of modern Hebrew literature.

Black Box is supposed to be heralding, as phrased by Hedda Boshes in Haaretz, the “death of “secular Zionism and the ascent of a different and other social sector.” The Other sector in this Israeli novel is no less gruesome than that of the Jewish portrait in classic Anti-Semitic literature, or by Fassbinder. The Ashkenazi[1] mythological prototype, juxtaposed against presumed vulgar subculture of the Arab-originated Israelis, threatening the future of the so-called “beautiful Israel” is by no means different from the German mythological prototype conceived in the nineteenth century against the background of angst generated by the penetration of the Christian society by emancipated Jews. (Ironically once the “Jewish Question” became topical those Jews where asked – among other things- to get rid of their disturbing “oriental indicators” [2]).

It was only by coincidence, due to the topical link, that the “Box” was checked against “The Garbage”. Still a not-so-meticulous comparison reveals a surprising number of similarities. Amos Oz’s reprehensible north-African Jew Michel Sumo is indeed a mirror image of Fassbinder’s Reicher Jude. The likeness begins with the writers themselves. Both Fassbinder and Oz have always been identified with the “left” wing of the political maps in their respective countries and therefore by definition immune to any accusation of simple primitive “racism”. Both chose stereotype ethnic, almost caricature protagonists, but at the same time equipped them with some “human” attributes, and dropped at least one typical characteristic usually attributed to their kind. The soft-spoken Michel Sumo is the opposite of the ubiquitous violent “Morocco-knife”. The Reiche Jude is a survivor of  the concentration camps, that is a victim by definition, exuding Weltschmerz and even financially charitable.

Both the Jude and the North African do not set out to directly challenge and destroy the veteran society they penetrate, they merely thrive and grow thanks to its own decadent demise. Oz laments the good old Eretz Israel. Fassbinder wax a lyrical eulogy to good old Frankfurt-am Mein. The “outsiders” in both cases are there as a powerful parable, their stunning success highlights the inevitable deterioration of the real lead characters. Oz’s presentable Algerian, just like the Eternal Jew, possess a  magnetic pulling power over the wealth and the female members of the upper social crust it arrives to inherit, and enjoys an all-encompassing clout over the power centers of the society it enters.

The literary devices used are equally alike. In the epistolary novel,  just as in the play, the author is well camouflaged behind the voices of the characters. There is, however, ample supply of “objective factual” evidence to fathom the “real” characterizations of the  figures described in both works.

  1. What they look like

Fassbinder, in 1960’s Germany, need not volunteer too many physical descriptions for his Reicher Jude. Its mythical image is well engraved in his readers/viewers collective memory. “He is a Jew. A fat and ugly Jew… Just a Jew” the prostitute enlightens the pimp.

Amos Oz is far more generous with descriptive adjectives. “Master Sumo starts (just like the rest of us) on the floor, but then he abruptly comes to an end after some 160 centimeters… clad in gabardine trousers, checkered jacket a size a bit too large, frizzy, shaved to distraction, thoroughly dipped in some radioactive aftershave, wears thin golden rimmed spectacles, golden watch on a golden chain and a red-green tie held by a golden catch and on his head – to avoid any misunderstandings – a small yarmulke.[3]”

Ironically again, the traditional Yid of the European anti-Semitic mythology, just like the ugly Moroccan of the new Israeli mythology, is identified as dark skinned and curly hair, often tastelessly and vulgarly clad, loaded with gold and sometimes wearing a yarmulke. Amos Oz’s Michel Sumo was spared the curved nose and abundant obesity, which are not typically “North African”. As recompense he was rewarded with another  major physical anomaly: his tiny measurements, compulsively referred to over a dozen times in the novel. His “hairy body” and even the description of his small daughter as a “black little monkey” complete the “baboonish” image once offered by another Israeli writer[4].

  1. Their sexual performance

A central theme in all genres of racial literature is a discussion of sexual performance by the men belonging to the “inferior” group. Their libido, as well as potency, would normally be well above those of the racial group that feel menaced by them. This was always the case with blacks in the US and with Jews in Germany. Oz and Fassbinder chose a similar cautious track for their dealings with the sexuality of their protagonists. They do not abstain from the myth of the impressive potency, but immediately break it in favor of a parallel more “emotional” pattern, where the unavoidable defeat generates an aggressive vengeance.

Fassbinder leaves open the question, of whether the Reicher Jude is after the body or the soul of the whore. Prior to the encounter his servant explains that the Jew needs a woman with “large fat breasts”. Following it the pimp gets from the whore impressive report about the enormous virility of the Jew as well as his physical dimensions. But there is room for doubt and the impression is that she is lying, and that the truth is that the Jew, sad spirited, is mainly after some tender liaison with the shiksa.

Ilana Gideon-Sumo, too, offers hyperbolic and poetic descriptions of Michel’s potency as well as his sexual sensuality, but gradually comes out with a more accurate version. Apparently the sensitive Michel needed his Ashkenazi wife to teach him about sex, in the same way that other Ashkenazi instructed him how to wear suits and speak some Yiddish. In the world of “The Box” as in the world of “The Garbage” the very audacity of a tear-2 man to sleep with a “white” woman is scandalous. Ilana’s son Boaz, in his “bad” incarnation, asks his mother upon his first meeting with Michel: “you allow this thing to screw you every night?” For Zackheim the advocate the  only way to reconcile the fact that Ilana shares her bed with Michel is to assert that she is a “worn out divorcee.”

  1. The Frog’s complex

The heart of the “North African” and the Jew is equally set on “white women”. With Fassbinder it is the German hooker, with Oz the professor’s ex-wife of Oz. The women are part of the social sector that rejects the two. Being loved by them holds the promise of integration and climbing up the class ladder, as according to the principle of the Frog and the Princess. The princesses, having been dumped by their true princes, initially show an interest in the new promise. Still their real and submissive loyalty is reserved to their former males, who are presently immersed in a process of a physical and social deterioration. Notwithstanding the  considerable wealth and might of the suitors from the upstart “New” and “Other” sector, who are constantly on the rise, they eventually turn their back on them.

The rejected lovers react with a banal avengement. The Jew strangles the whore (as she requested him to do) with his tie, and lays the guilt on the poor Franz B. Michel declares Ilana “rebellious woman[5]”, following her decision to united with her former husband during the months tha he lays dying. He tears her child from her arms, repeats Psalms chapters piousely as he continues to pump money out of the professor.

  1. Money and guilt

Money had always been the central theme of anti-Semitic literature. Fassbinder took it one step forward. His Jew, having returned penniless from the death camps, takes advantage of the deep German guilt feelings go usurp widows and orphans, destroy the beautiful old buildings of the city in favor of soulless high rises.

Michel Sumo, starting as an amiable pauper, displays colossal appetite and gift for a fast takeover of the Israeli aristocracy’s wealth in the Zichron Yaakov colony. He very soon builds his own impressive home as well as the homeland using the funds funneled generously and nonchalantly by the first husband of his beloved wife. How would Amos Oz have reacted to a German writer’s story about a small-sized, monkey-like haired Jew extorting money from an Aryan “aristocratic” professor as “recompense for the sufferings of Jews during the Holocaust?” Or would he have been more disturbed if a writer from Kyriat Arba might have produced a character of a sleek-tongued Arab cashing the guilt feelings of a Binyamina sick, rich Jew into many thousands of dollars?

  1. Perfectly well-connected

What they lose in love the “untermentchen” compensate with wealth and influence. Michel, Just like the Reicher Jude, develops into a diabolic figure. Increasing daily his power over the society he inhabits as a parasite, making a fortune of speculating in lands belonging to another people. Michel Sumo “has all kinds of powerful relatives… strategically positioned in the city, the police, in his own party and even in the tax authority.” In fact there is hardly a problem in the life of this small sized religious teacher that cannot find a perfect solution thanks to his “contacts”. Michel at the end of “The Box” is a highly regarded citizen, olive-oil exuding land redeemer, a patron of the Knesset’s cafeteria, perfectly poised to take over the assets of the dollar-loaded secular Zionism.

The idea that in 1976 Israel this immigrant from Algeria is better connected in the different corridors of power compared to the representatives of the “secular Zionism” could easily be amusing had this perception not been an integral part of the intrinsic narrator’s clear credo. Amos Oz gives a clear voice to angst of Israeli Ashkenazi elite from a scenario of Mizrahi Jews expressing their real electoral power in the presumably open democratic process: “… You will be seeing this Sumo sitting in the Knesset, shooting long and lethal patriotic salvos on the bleeding hearted, like you and me,” warns the concerned Zackheim. Oz’s  epistolary novel by no accident takes place during the year before the “Makeover”[6] that indeed robbed the rule of the land from the  Labor party Ashkenazi Israelis. Most of them are convinced to this very day that they fell victim to a demographic catastrophe.

  1. Die Juden Sind Unser Unglück

The Garbage, the City and Death is an economical piece of work, shredded with cynic irony, while not without some macabre “kitsch”. Professor Saul Friedlander frequently used examples from Fassbinder’s works as references in his REFLECTIONS OF NAZISM: An Essay on Kitsch and Death.  It is not pleasant to discover how many of the aspects Friedlander highlights in “Kitsch and Death” are to be found in Amos Oz’s novel. Reviewers who regard his work favorably speak of the “pathos typical to Oz“. With a less admiring eye one might spot the “crude romantic inspiration, esthetics lacking… power and regeneration”, that Friedlander discusses as reflected in the descriptions of “fairyland like nature, primeval and mystical[7].”

Oz’s long requiem is a tale about the beautiful land of Israel and its people who used to be beautiful long ago, before fate and their own sins forced them to make room for the dark forces that arrived from the Maghreb lands to inherit them. His “beautiful Israelis” are designed as mythological figures that have somehow landed in the Middle East directly out of Walhalla equipped with “Dallas” superstars purchasing power. Alec, Ilana and their son Boaz are a “typical” blue eyed Israeli aristocracy that dwells in a symbolic crumbling family castle. The son, an Ashkenazi response to “Gush Emunim[8]”, is an “enormous Viking” walking around “day and night barefoot and naked except for a worn out loincloth. The edges of his dim-gold hair fall on his shoulders, his soft blond beard… all these make him look like a Scandinavian icon of Christ.”

Who would this Boaz be, other than the ubiquitous rebel against the industrial society, out to build the “archaic utopia” in the best of fascist-idealistic tradition, this “pure fulfillment facing a limp world, degenerated by modernity,” as Friedlander puts it? Together with a herd of imported blond women and a few Arab boys he is destined to rebuild the collapsed Israeli society from its ruins, in a castle that have seen Russian servants and silver candelabra (surely so typical of the second Zionist immigration before the first world war…). Amos Oz’s grotesque protagonists would have done well in a Chanoch Levine style satire, but “Black Box” takes itself – and is taken – so deadly seriously, that one cannot even have a good lough.

Personally I am not amused, for example, by Oz’s perception of women, although here, too, the righteousness is hilarious. On page 142 Ilana demonstrates true feminist liberalism, expressing deep scorn to the “way his ethnic group and his family treat their poor women” (referring to Sumo of course). But in the next page she is already melting for her Alec with a “primordial female adulation, archaic servility… the fawning of a Neanderthal female”, while exalting to the memory “of your indifferent masterly manners” and so on and so forth.

To sum up, the collection of the sentimental, erotic, whimpering and “kitschy” prattle in “Black Box” exposes a complex of Israeli-Eastern European megalomania not unfamiliar in the social and political environment of 39 years of Zionist state, but relatively rare in literary works. Fortunately it is no longer fashionable to research poetic “intentions”. We are therefore free from the need to speculate what was it that pushed Reiner Werner Fassbinder to compose an anti-Semitic play (and choose Jews as the major negative characters in almost every work he wrote after “The Garbage); or why Amos Oz decided to bequeath the Israeli literature  with the “symbolic” figure of one Michel Sumo. At the time, however, we were not above guessing what made young educated Germans to so identify with Fassbinder. Now all we can do is try and understand why Israeli readers are so attracted to Oz’s Black Box.


[1] The hegemonic section of Israeli Jews, ethnically originated from Eastern Europe.

[2]Henry Wasserman, “The Intimate culture of German Jews” in German Nationality Crisis situations in the 19th and 20th century, ed. Moshe Zimerman (Magnes 1983, Heb.)

[3] Free translations by this writer from the Hebrew (Oz) and the German (Fassbinder)

[4] In 1984 journalist and novelist Amnon Dankner caused a stir with a vitriolic article in Haaretz  that characterized  Mizrahi Jews as primitive baboon-like non-democratic mob.

[5]  Legal term in Jewish litigation in matters of personal status.

[6]  The 1977 elections for the first time toppled 29 year hegemony of the Israeli Labor party in favor of a national-religious coalition.

[7] Friedlander’s quotes translated back from the Hebrew translation.

[8]  The Jewish-Israeli national-religious settlers movement.

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