ENGLISH WRITING IN ISRAEL
Israel has always had writers who continued to write in the language of their origins. But until recently, their language barrier was a source of isolation, alienation, and even shame. The need to establish Hebrew as a living vital language necessitated the strong discouragement of other literatures, even Yiddish.
For non-Hebrew writers, there were none of the numerous national prizes for literature, no press coverage, and no recognition. For the English writer this situation was slightly modified. The writers in English. having immigrated to Israel out of choice and not necessity, had the advantage of being able to remain in contact with their audiences in English-speaking countries. This "open-border" situation was also a disadvantage, however, for the literate, English-speaking Israel citizen could also turn to the linguistic homeland for literature and did not feel the need to promote the writers of the Anglo community. The numerous foreign-language newspapers which published weekly literary supplements had no parallel in Israeli-English culture: The Jerusalem Post, until recently the only English newspaper in Israel, eschewed local talent almost entirely, and the large audiences for poetry readings in Russian and Arabic simply do not exist in English.
Nevertheless, numerous writers in English persisted in composing poetry and prose in Israel, sometimes being translated into Hebrew, sometimes publishing abroad, and sometimes even gaining local recognition for their work in English. In Jerusalem, the association with the University and the local intellectual community of poets such as Robert Friend and Shirley Kaufman provided the writers with some audiences, some support, and connection to Hebrew writers and intellectuals.
At the beginning of the 1980's, a group of local poets in Tel Aviv joined together. Reading together and supporting each others' work in the extremely appreciative atmosphere of Tel Aviv, they were encouraged by Israeli writers' associations to form a national organization parallel to other language writers' associations then being formed under the aegis of the Federation of Writers' Associations of Israel.
While this organizational move provided legitimacy, a national prize (the Arie Dulchin award, cancelled by the Misrad Haklita in 1996), and a literary outlet (the annual literary journal arc), it failed to unite the writers socially or politically, and the situation of the English writer in Israel remains different for each individual. For this reason I have decided to concentrate on certain of these individuals, none of them representative of anything except the strange variety of English writers in English.
In 1997 four English writers passed away: Olga Kirsch, Thomas Ungar, Zyggy Frankel, and Robert Friend. They were of different ages, different origins, different degrees of popularity, and wrote in very different areas and styles. They lived in different places in Israel, and most of them were unacquainted with each other. Olga Kirsch was South African and converted very late to English from the adopted Afrikaans in which she became known. Thomas Ungar was Czech and wrote poetry in Czech and German as well as English. Robert Friend was known in the United States as a poet before he came to Israel in 1950. And despite the numerous awards Zyggy Frankel won for his writing, he always apologized for his thick Polish accent.
Robert Friend was probably the best known of the four, in part because of the four volumes of his elegant and varied translations of well-known Israeli poets. His great love of poetry brought him to these translations even though his command of Hebrew was never sufficient for him to consider writing in it. To a small group of admirers Friend was the doyen of English poetry in Israel. A fine formalist craftsman, Friend had published his work in such prestigious periodicals as the New Yorker and Poetry. He managed to maintain a connection with poets in the United States, but the distance and the difference in experiences had the effect of isolating him. Moreover, Friend's formalist style did not adjust to the styles and times. Yet this formalism and isolation had the effect of helping him to develop a unique and intimate style that could probably not have been constructed elsewhere, allowing him to deal with sensitive, painful, and taboo subjects.
From the great number of good poems, I have chosen two. The first, "Sex Maniac," from Somewhere Lower Down (Meynard, 1980), was not included in his later collections, Selected Poems (Seahorse, 1975) and The Next Room (Meynard, 1996). Yet when I read it, soon after the Yom Kippur war, I recognized the daring of the anonymous poet who has nothing to lose. In a situation in which world-shattering events affect the personal life of the poet while his responses have no direct effect upon the society, a kind of mad freedom is created:
When he reads in the papers,
Man Killed in Car Crash,
he thinks in sorrow:
one beautiful cock,
two beautiful balls,
And when he hears on the radio,
Five Slaughtered in Ambush,
he thinks in anguish:
five beautiful cocks,
ten beautiful balls,
food for worms.
But when he hears the announcement,
5,000 Slain in Battle,
he can only say
5,000 cocks, 10,000 balls
5,000 cocks, 10,000 balls
over and over.
This assertion of the apolitical nature of his grief, of the intimate individuality that is forgotten in battle statistics, is the statement of the outsider, who can see only the waste of human beings in battle and does not consider ideology. That this concentration on the carnal is neither exaggerated nor perverted is clear to those Israeli citizens who lived through the Yom Kippur war and heard stories of genital mutilation perpetrated on Israeli soldiers by Syrian soldiers.
Friend wrote on many subjects, but it is possible to divide his books and his poems into two kinds -- the intimate/ erotic and the intimate/public. One of Friend's last poems reveals the intimacy with the self that emerges from a life of poetic exile:
Body, you and I must part.
Our short affair is over.
I knew, I knew from the start
you would prove a faithless lover.
I took as a matter of course,
though I did not dwell on it,
our love would end in divorce.
So I was not surprised a bit
by the first signs of neglect:
suspicious colds in the head,
a sudden chill in bed.
But it took your breathing hard
at a voice on the telephone,
to make me doubt your heart
skipped beats for me alone.
At last I caught you out,
and you, so hard to please,
brought at a single stroke
trembling to your knees.
And now at fever pitch,
and begging for your whore! --
as if I were keeping you!
Well, what are you waiting for?
Go! and don't come back!
It's time already. Go!
And you'll soon be in the sack --
As I only too well know.
(Jerusalem Review II, 20)
The kind of intimacy and daring Friend exhibited is, I maintain, unique to his anonymous situation. It is the intimacy of one who has long spoken primarily to himself, in a secret language, in a public world.
Because of the lack of English publications in Israel, I had heard of Robert Friend long before I actually found his poetry. But Olga Kirsch was far more remote; she became known to me primarily through visitors from South Africa. In Israel since 1948, she was known as one of the major poets of South Africa. "Ah, yes," said an engineer who had come to Israel for two days on business, "You have one of our poets here. I just saw a film about her on television back home." The film he saw was never shown in Israel, although much of it, I am told, was filmed in Kirsch's Rehovot neighborhood. And Kirsch never mentioned her success in South Africa, just as she modestly refrained from promoting herself in Israel.
In part, her anonymity in Israel was linked to the political/national decision she had made in the late Forties to write in Afrikaans. She pubeight volumes and, in 1994, a volume of selected poems (Human and Rousseau, Capetown). Her first English volume of poems, The Book of Sitrya (1990), was published in Israel; it was motivated by the death of her granddaughter, an experience she could only cope with in her native tongue.
After that she continued to write in English and became active in the Israel Association of Writers in English. In 1996 she began to seek wider publication in English. She wanted to publish not in South Africa, where she was so well known, but in the United States or England. Months after her death, I was contacted by an editor in England, who had received her submission the year before and wished to publish five poems. The pathos of her posthumous validation is matched by the intimacy of the poems she wished to publish. Here is one of them:
Love out of books and films,
most pleasures intellectual;
days without laughter,
silence like a strangler's hands.
Time, once fought for,
an enemy to be fought off.
The easy rich companionship that needed
nothing and nobody, gone.
Hand to mouth days and nights,
forgotten or remembered
by those whose households are whole.
No axis, no anchor,
Nothing she'd have recognized
Kirsch seemed to see English as the escape valve from the Israeli experience, from the public experience. It was her family and feelings that occupied her poetry.
For Thomas Ungar, a Czech mathematician and physicist enamored of Shakespeare and Rilke, English was an entrance into another culture that allowed an artistic and esthetic perspective. Publication having little or no significance to him, Ungar found total freedom in his poetic creations in foreign languages. His first book, which appeared in Czech in Prague in 1997, has been much celebrated although through no effort of his own. Because of his belief in the anonymity of his writings, his Czech poetry appears under the name Chen, and it was his wish that his English book appear under the name TU. In his writings he developed elaborate personae, including a were-bear and a rooster. The following sonnet, written during his bout with cancer in his fiftieth year, was part of a projected sequence that was never written:
The man in the moon of my mind
looks down at the nightscape of my pain
where rivers their silver rewind
through hours simple and plain
The cock on the roof of my heart
drags the bright rainbow of its tail
so vain so childish so smart
and rusty as old broken nail
The bear on the hills of my will
plods through autumn rain
thinking of berries or is it real
the rain slowly changes into the snow
still melting in disdain
yet making the movements of the bear so slow
It is difficult to predict the future of Ungar's poetry had he been able to continue, but it is certain that sources as international, profound and varied as his are not to be found easily in today's world.
Zygmunt Frankel was born in Poland; he was deported to Siberia during World War II, then moved to England before settling in Israel in time to participate in the Sinai, Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars. Perhaps because his earlier languages had betrayed him, and the connotations of Polish and Russian would always be those of war and loss, Frankel wrote in English. Even his extensive autobiographical works set in Europe, such as Siberian Journals, or his first-person novel of a young Polish housewife during World War II, The Diary of a Deliciously Plump Woman (written during the Gulf War in Tel Aviv), were originally written in English.
Frequently his subject matter was Israel, and it is for his accurate and slightly cynical depiction of life here that he was best known. Short War, Short Lives (New York: Abelard-Schuman) described the effects of the enforced military atmosphere of Israel in the Sixties, and in numerous published stories and poems he depicted many different aspects of life in Israel. A collection of his short stories appeared in Hebrew translation, and The Octopus, an award-winning short novel about the Kfar Kassem massacre of Arab villagers, was published in Arabic. Yet it was in his succinct poems that I think he best achieved the originality and accuracy for which he was loved by reading audiences in Israel.
It is with a few of these poems that I would like to close my discussion of these exemplary writers.
There are no cockerels crowing at dawn in Tel Aviv
(and if there were, they would believe it is their crowing that makes the sun rise).
And no bells on the synagogues either;
we go to our weddings
to Mendelssohn's march, and to our graves
to the intonation of the Kaddish.
There are only alarm clocks,
ambulance and police sirens, drivers honking their horns,
and people calling each other idiots.
And, at night, the screeching of lovemaking cats;
(perhaps small loves, like those of cats, are loud,
and great ones, like mine for you, silent).
And afterwards an abandoned kitten,
wailing throughout the evening and the night,
finally giving out in the small hours.
There are no nightingales in Israel.
I know it's been there for the past four thousand years
but it still looks temporary to me.
A transit camp, with tribes that do not mix
like sacred oil and holy water,
on their way to some other place,
preferably with a beach and a port.
(They used to build of Jerusalem stone because it was to hand,
and keep on building of it because of municipal rules
to preserve the appearance).
Perhaps one should come to Jerusalem a virgin,
I already had behind me
my first girl
my first war
and my first continent
by the time I saw my first
scorpion under a Jerusalem stone.
Frankel was always forced to include this last one in every poetry reading, because audiences, always shouted it out.
WITH ALL THE
With all the
why is the bus so crowded?
That I have concentrated upon dead writers might seem to indicate that the phenomenon of foreign-language writers in Israel is a disappearing one. While this is true of writers using languages such as Polish and Hungarian (whose average age in the Writers' Associations is well over 50), among the English writers there is a constant influx of new talent.
Most of them are not new immigrants but write more clearly and freely in English. Their anonymity allows them technical and thematic freedoms, but sometimes they suffer from not belonging to a clear, developing, and supportive literary tradition. I think that if we could set up a more comprehensive and supportive system there would be much better poets. The raw material is definitely here - and will continue to be here.