No longer the province of an artistic elite, poetry in Israel today is being produced by hundreds of poets of all stripes
As for Taha Muhammad Ali, his “Revenge” should be required reading in schools here and elsewhere. In translation by Cole, Hijazi, and Levin, the poem seems to offer revenge as a fitting response for “the man who killed my father/ and razed our home” but then doubles back with all kinds of conditions that make violent revenge humanly impossible, so that finally:
… if he turned
out to be on his own
cut off like a branch from a tree—
without a mother or father,
with neither a brother nor sister,
wifeless, without a child,
and without kin or neighbors or friends,
colleagues or companions,
then I’d add not a thing to his pain …
Instead I’d be content
to ignore him when I passed him by
on the street—as I
that paying him no attention
in itself was a kind of revenge.
In “Woman of Valor” thirty-something Anat Zecharya, who has one book out, plays on the traditional paean to the Jewish wife and mother recited at Friday evening dinner by observant Jews. She exposes the violent sexism that accompanies militarism in a poem about a real incident, the year-long sexual abuse of a 14-year-old girl by soldiers and employees of an air base:
places your head on his naked lap
and one might think
you weren’t being forced but rather
thanked and your head stroked.
The second slides slowly down your back
the feelings are new
and you can still concentrate.
The third inserts three fingers, says
“Don’t move.” You don’t,
the map of greater Israel
in your eyes.
Almog Behar is also thirty-something and writing on the edge of the national cultures that meet in Israel. He has two books of poetry, one of short stories, and a novel. “My Arabic is Mute” was translated by Jake Marmer:
My Arabic is scared
quietly impersonates Hebrew
whispering to friends
with every knock on her gates:
“Ahalan, ahalan, welcome.”
And in front of every passing policeman
she pulls out her ID card
for every cop on the street
pointing out the protective clause:
“Ana min al-yahud, ana min al-yahud,
I’m a Jew, I’m a Jew.”
And my Hebrew is deaf
Sometimes so very deaf.
A Talmud and religious-studies scholar now teaching in Berlin, who used to be considered a “religious poet,” Admiel Kosman (10 books, plus one in translation, Approaching You in English, translated in 2011 by me with Shlomit Naim-Naor) crosses most of the heavily guarded borders here, as in the title poem, which concludes:
Officially You may refuse. I know. I’m
approaching You in English this once.
But, please, be kind,
be attentive to the heart.
Even if it’s pointless,
tasteless. Please accept an offering
from me this time.
I’m pleading with You,
don’t be offended,
when I approach
I seem to You
to cross myself.
Finally: In Israel there are groups of both middle-aged and younger poets who have established nonprofit organizations in order to teach workshops, print magazines, publish online, and hold festivals. The oldest is Helicon, founded by Amir Or and now co-directed by Agi Mishol and Dror Bernstein, celebrating its 25th year in Tel Aviv. Its workshops have trained dozens of active poets, including some in the almost 10-year-old Jerusalem Ketovet group, operators of Poetry Place.
A thirty-something group including journalist Roy Chicky Arad founded the Maayan literary magazine and a film journal spin-off; they may often be found leading Hyde Park readings at a winter festival in Sde Boker in the Negev, or the Metula Poetry Festival in the north in late May. The leftist journal Mita’am, “a review of literature and radical thought,” edited by poet, fiction writer, and journalist Yitzhak Laor, closed in December after 28 issues in seven years. On the other side of the political map is Mashiv Ha-ru’ach, a journal founded in 1994 by young Orthodox Jewish poets, some of whom live in settlements, as they state on their home page. And this is the place to at least mention the two hardworking Israeli publishing houses, Keshev and Carmel, whose translations bring the best of the world’s poets to those writing here.
I’d like to leave the last word to Lilach Weber, co-editor of the Goddess of Mastik, a Jewish-Arab literary magazine in Haifa (disclosure: She is the niece of my ex-husband. Israel is a very small country). The poem is called “A fictional solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem,” and part of it goes like this:
We’ll learn from the failure of Lebanon
and know that the solution is romantic:
the solution is romantic.
This is how the 19th century shaped us
because individualism is the cradle of solidarity
and the fiction we make
is just an excuse
to stay in bed
and not go out
into the streets.
Clancy Sigal’s 1961 novel, Going Away, is a primer for the Occupy generation about the futility of despair and the inevitability of change