Since the death of the poet (and critic, writer, and translator) Natan Zach last November, five weeks before his 90th birthday, I’ve been asking myself how I can write a eulogy for him. His poems taught me what poetry was, how to study poetry, and how to write about it.
Modern Hebrew poetry still exists in the shadow of Natan Zach’s work. This means I am writing in the double shadow of his presence and his absence. And while I was busy thinking about him, the poet and writer Aharon Almog died a few weeks ago, turning the text into a kind of double eulogy, to two distinct figures whose biographies overlapped surprisingly often yet remained very different, and to their poetry.
Natan Zach was born Harry Zeitelbach in Berlin in December 1930. His father Nach (Norbert) was Jewish; his mother, Clementina Kablatzi, was an Italian Catholic (after her death he wrote the memoir Death of my Mother, composed in short prose sections and quite a personal text compared to the rest of his work). His family emigrated to Palestine in 1936, while he was still a child, settling in Haifa before moving to Tel Aviv. Zach served as an officer in the War of 1948. After his discharge from the army he moved to Jerusalem, where the “Likrat” (“Towards”) literary group—which in due course would change the face of Hebrew poetry—was consolidating. Among its members were Yehuda Amichai, Benjamin Hrushovski, Aryeh Sivan, Moshe Dor, and others. A few years after completing his studies, Zach returned to Tel Aviv. After the Six-Day War he moved to England. He remained there for a decade, where he wrote his doctorate at the University of Essex. In the nineteen eighties he returned to Tel Aviv; he was subsequently appointed Professor of Literature at Haifa University, wrote frequently in the Israeli press, became a literary editor and publicist, and was a mainstay of Israel’s literary community for many years.
One of the most interesting aspects of Zach’s biography is how little attention it actually receives from scholars of his poetry. He is described as an Israeli and as a Jew from birth, even though his mother was an Italian Catholic; The loneliness in his poetry is perceived as existential, even though he was an only child and lived alone until the last years of his life, without a family and children (in his last decades he did have a partner, Sara Avital). This attitude is especially noteworthy in light of the obverse treatment given to many other poets, whose poetry is frequently interpreted in light of their biographies, especially women poets, such as Rachel Bluwstein, Leah Goldberg, Tirza Atar, Dahlia Ravikovitch, Yona Wallach etc.
Aharon Almog (Mevorat) was born in Palestine in September 1931, in Tel Aviv, to a family that was among the founders of Kerem HaTeimanim, one of the first Jewish settlements in the area that would become Tel Aviv. His grandfather, Rabbi Haim Mevorat, emigrated to Palestine from Yemen towards the end of the nineteenth century. Almog fought with the Palmach during the War of 1948; afterwards he joined Kibbutz Tel Gezer, before returning to Tel Aviv in 1950, where he worked as a laborer and a clerk. He studied literature at Tel Aviv University, and was a high school teacher for many years. Almog was married to the writer and critic Ruth Almog. According to his daughter, the writer Eliana Almog, he “wasn’t the first Yemenite from the Mevorat family who was a poet. His grandfather’s younger brother, Said el Mevorat, was a poet in the court of the Imam of Yemen.”
Aside from their overlapping life stories—they were born nine months apart, they were both nearly 90 when they died and died six months apart, and they both spent their youth in Tel Aviv—they also both published their debut books in close proximity to one another: Zach’s debut, First Poems, was published in 1955, and Almog’s Sad Spring in Judah (Aviv A’tzevet Be-Yehuda) in 1956.
The focus of this essay is on these two poets and their poems, and the reception of their poetry. However, it is important to emphasize that the dichotomy between them reflects wider issues in Israeli society. In 2010, Zach was roundly condemned after saying in a television interview: “The idea of taking people who have nothing in common arose. The one lot comes from the highest culture there is – Western European culture – and the other lot comes from the caves.” These racist comments, referring to Mizrahi culture as inferior, led to criticism and even protests (Zach later apologized but without acknowledging the deeper societal problems). To complicate the picture even further, Zach and Almog knew one another and can perhaps be described as friends on a certain level, with Almog even mentioning Zach in a few of his poems (one of them contains the line, “If he was a Yemenite …” referring to Zach).
The “One Moment” and “The Silence”
There are poets who are discovered belatedly and retrospectively, i.e., a new poem creates interest in their earlier work. Sometimes, the poet slowly emerges from many poems. With Natan Zach, one can point to a single moment that marks the raising of the curtain: the start of his second book, commonly seen as his poetic declaration.
One moment, silence, please. If you please. I
would like to say something. He walked
right past me. I could have touched the hem
of his gown. I did not touch it. Who could have
known what then I didn’t know.
Sand clung to his garments. Twigs
were entangled in his beard. Apparently he’d
spent the night in a haystack. Who could have known
that the following night he’d be hollow as a cave, hard as stone.
I could not have known. I do not blame
him. Sometimes I feel him rise in his slumber, moonstruck like the sea, saying
to me, Son.
My son, I never knew you were, this much, with me.
רגע אחד שקט בבקשה
רֶגַע אֶחָד שֶׁקֶט בְּבַקָּשָׁה. אָנָּא. אֲנִי
רוֹצֶה לוֹמַר דְּבַר מָה. הוּא הָלַךְ
וְעָבַר עַל פָּנַי. יָכֹלְתִּי לָגַעַת בְּשׁוּלֵי
אַדַּרְתּוֹ. לֹא נָגַעְתִּי. מִי יָכוֹל הָיָה
לָדַעַת מַה שֶּׁלֹּא יָדַעְתִּי.
הַחוֹל דָּבַק בִּבְגָדָיו. בִּזְקָנוֹ
הִסְתַּבְּכוּ זְרָדִים. כַּנִּרְאֶה לָן
לַיְלָה קֹדֶם בַּתֶּבֶן. מִי יָכוֹל הָיָה
לָדַעַת שֶׁבְּעוֹד לַיְלָה יִהְיֶה
רֵיק כְּמוֹ צִפּוֹר, קָשֶׁה כְּמוֹ אֶבֶן.
לֹא יָכֹלְתִּי לָדַעַת. אֵינֶנִּי מַאֲשִׁים
אוֹתוֹ. לִפְעָמִים אֲנִי מַרְגִּישׁ אוֹתוֹ קָם
בִּשְׁנָתוֹ, סַהֲרוּרִי כְּמוֹ יָם, חוֹלֵף לְיָדִי, אוֹמֵר
בְּנִי. לֹא יָדַעְתִּי שֶׁאַתָּה, בְּמִדָּה כָּזֹאת, אִתִּי.
This is the first poem in the collection Different Poems (Shirim Shonim, published in 1960). Much has been written about this beautiful and important poem, which is a kind of poetic manifesto for its time. The plea to speak and the plea for the silence to make this possible is seen as a poetic reversal: a plea for new attention and for a different rhythm, and, at least ostensibly, a distancing from the march and the drums of war.
The poem has been identified as a revolutionary declaration. The free verse of Zach and Yehuda Amichai (and other members of “Likrat”) was in clear contrast to the rhyming, metered poetry common during the period, like the works of Leah Goldberg and Natan Alterman. Of course, over the years there were critical readings of this plea, of the silence and the demand for others to be silent so that the speaker (seemingly every person, but in fact the “he” that the mythical figure addresses with the words “my son”) will be able to say something. However, it’s worth lingering on this poem awhile, not simply because of this justified criticism. It’s worth lingering on the plea for silence and the longing to “say something”; on the musicality and the light rhythm in unexpected places (“I knew” and “I touched”, in the original Hebrew); on the repetition of the ‘not knowing’, and the strange story that unfolds within the poem. the Hamlet-esque dream combined with allusions to the story of Elisha and the mantle of Elijah the Prophet. (Similarly, Elisha called “my father my father” with Elijah’s ascent to heaven, and this is indeed the necessary reply to “Son. My son” in the poem). This is also a kind of story about the passing of the (male) generations, the father figure and the son figure (“My son…”), about the embarrassment and inability to touch and to know. But in the end, knowledge emerges like something out of a dream—he was with him, despite the two not touching and not knowing; at the end of the day, it becomes clear, but only after what seems like death (“hollow as a cave, hard as stone”). This is the defining moment for a subject who pleads to speak and to be heard; who asks not to have to shout, asks to say something that isn’t exactly unambiguous or decisive, but rather something awkward.
The history of Israeli literature confirms that this petition worked, and that Zach was provided with the silence in order to say “something.”
The longing for silence and quiet repeats itself again and again in Israeli poetry. Take, for example, the famous poem “Send me Quiet” by Yona Wallach, where the longing for quiet is also related to something that isn’t found in the narrator’s vicinity, but is meant to arrive from a “far off land.” From this, it’s possible to infer that the implied absence of silence is characteristic of the place. In Zach’s poem too, the feeling arises that there is a fundamental lack of quiet, and that for the narrator’s words to be heard, one has to plead for and create the silence. This is also done onomatopoeically, from the resonance of the word for silence in Hebrew (sheket), and from the musicality of the first line, particularly its end: “One moment silence, please. If you please,” where the word “please” (bevakasha) even includes the sound of silence, “sh,” followed by a short pause and finally the soft word “if you please” (ana), and also a continued sequence of “a” sounds: va-ka-sha-a-na-a.
Aharon Almog’s book When You See a Succah Flying includes one of his most famous poems, which also deals with silence, and with not being heard.
Yemenites from the transit camp came to my grandfather’s house
sat and kept silent
while one sang the other waited
so I was raised between howling
now they’ve installed a telephone for my father and he sits
waiting for a ring
for 80 years he was silent and his ancestors kept silent
now he wants someone to hear what he says
על שתיקתם של התימנים
אֶל בֵּית סָבִי בָּאוּ תֵּימָנִים מִמַּחֲנֵה יוֹסֵף
כְּשֶׁאֶחָד שָׁר הַשֵּׁנִי חִכָּה
כָּךְ גָּדַלְתִּי בֵּין נְהָמָה
עַכְשָׁו הִתְקִינוּ לְאָבִי טֵלֵפוֹן והוא יושב
שְׁמוֹנִים שָׁנָה שתק שָׁתַקו אבותיו
עַכְשָׁו הוּא רוֹצֶה שֶׁיַּקְשִׁיבוּ לִדְבָרָיו
The father-son relationship is also at the center of this poem. It is the son who relates to his father (and grandfather) in the first-person “me,” describing a patriarchal dynasty. Silence is also the theme of this poem, but unlike Zach’s poem, the silence is not something to be aspired to, but rather the basic condition of where he lives. This silence isn’t caused by the absence of human presence but by the opposite. Its source is the silence of those who are present, with the narrator describing himself as someone who was raised “between howling and silence.”
The reason for the silence is unknown, although the poem’s title seemingly indicates that an explanation will be forthcoming, as sometimes happens in texts with titles like “On X.” The narrator, as opposed to the narrator in Zach’s poem, doesn’t relate to himself in terms of speech, instead describing the atmosphere in which he grew up, and the Yemenites who came to his grandfather from Machane Yosef, which today is found in the heart of Tel Aviv. He doesn’t declare his desire to speak but his father’s; a desire that seemingly stems from the technological change—the arrival of the telephone—which also symbolizes the passage of time.
In contrast to the mythical and even biblical atmosphere in Zach’s poem (references to the gown and the haystack), Almog’s poem has an approximate geographical and temporal setting: not far from the Machane Yosef neighborhood; not in the distant past, as the presence of a telephone implies. The telephone also adds a touch of humor to the poem, with traditions seemingly about to change, all on account of the new device. And yet, the father still waits for the telephone to ring.
The narrator of Zach’s poem needs quiet in order to speak, thus revealing the tumult, the verbal-human speaking and noise not allowing him “to say something”; in Almog’s poem, it is the silence which makes speaking and expression difficult, not the noise. The condition Almog describes is that which Zach hopes for: “While one sang the other waited.”
Zach’s poem isn’t, however, simply a poem about changing poetic norms. It is also a story of loss and failure, a story about misunderstanding and lack of communication between two men, about someone who didn’t understand when there was still time and therefore didn’t touch the other. Seemingly, the end testifies that, despite this, the son of the father figure (or the prophet figure) did actually know what his father’s feelings were, but in any case, the narrator lost the opportunity to touch him and open his heart.
Against this stands Almog’s poem, indicating clearly the desires of the father, who does know what he wants, and the reason he is waiting: for the telephone to ring, for them to hear what he says. And in actuality, in Almog’s poem both the father and his son, the narrator, know. Against Zach’s “I didn’t know,” and the “Who could have known what then I didn’t know,” in Almog’s poem there is the knowledge and the understanding. And maybe even the connection.
The two poets both wrote about the desire to be listened to, but the critical reception of the two poets was quite different: they were not listened to in the same way. Zach won the Israel Prize in 1995; both won the Bialik Prize, but many years apart: Zach in 1982 and Almog in 1999. Every Israeli has heard of Natan Zach, but few have heard of Aharon Almog. His widow Ruth Almog even noted the influence of this belated and underwhelming reception: “I think he deserved the Israel Prize. I think it broke him that he didn’t receive the prize.” And she explained why: “He didn’t get it because he didn’t know how to do PR for himself, and because he wasn’t pushy and because he was Mizrahi, and as is known, the Mizrahim don’t get the prize. I’ve been mourning for years, because he didn’t receive the recognition he deserved..” The author Eliana Almog, his daughter, added: “My father is, without doubt, a black coral [in Hebrew: Almog Shachor]. A coral who couldn’t escape his blackness. His color. From his identity as a descendant of the Mevorat family, one of whose orphans came on foot all the way from distant Yemen. He is a black coral who returns all the time in his poetry to the blackness that is in his identity. To the Yemenites. He is a black coral who makes prayer beads…because all my father’s poems are prayers, and every bead in them is a prayer bead.” The story of the different receptions which the two poets received, together with their overlapping biographies, is at once a parable and a reflection of Israeli society, and of the barriers preventing the advancement of minorities, and of the institutional racism which is still alive and kicking.
And yet, it seems that the phone did sometimes ring, although not remotely enough. It rings in another important poem by Almog, “When You See a Succah Flying.” It is full of the humor that characterizes his poetry, and also touches, like many of his poems, on his father’s life and their relationship. This poem, which opens the collection of his poems, also echoes with the revulsion caused by waiting that we saw in the poem “On the Silence of the Yemenites.” Here, it is his father’s Succah which is “fed up,” and it is flying. In a Facebook post on the influence and the poetic connections between Almog and Zach, Ayana Erdal , poet and teacher and researcher of Almog’s poetry, showed how the presence of Zach and his appearance in the poem is that which creates and accelerates Almog’s writing process. And specifically, regarding the telephone ringing, the poem concludes as follows, with writing, and “saying something”:
Zach called from Haifa, another one who flew
From Reines Street to the city of roses in the Galilee
He asked why I don’t write to the festival
And here I am writing
About the Succah where he himself sat in 1960
I said that I wouldn’t write and here I am writing.