Thu., March 24, 2005 Adar2 13, 5765
By Nadav Shragai
Reprinted with permission from Haaretz ©
While the voice of the religious right has hardly been heard in modern Hebrew poetry, some younger writers are expressing their deep pain and anger in the face of the approaching disengagement. Literary critics are impressed by the new writing, much of which has appeared in the pages of the poetry journal Meshiv Haruah.
In the office of Avner Shimoni, head of the Gaza Coast Regional Council, hangs a framed document containing several lines written by the national poet Haim Nahman Bialik: "Here in the Land of Israel, in the place that turned life into poetry, poetry will turn to life ... No force in the world will push us from our place in this land, or turn us back."
In other places in Neve Dekalim, the Cultural Forum Sings With Love (Haforum Hatarbuti Sharim Be'ahava) put up ads for a competition to pick the best anthem expressing solidarity with Gush Katif. "Every era has its anthem, and every struggle must have its anthem, too," the ad reads. "Writers, composers and performers are invited to send their works to the council." The auditions will take place at the end of March. The panel of judges will include singer Ariel Zilber, who moved to Elei Sinai a few weeks ago; singer Itamar Eliasi, soloist with the Prison 6 band; singer Etti Levy; Rami Danoch from Sounds of the Oud; and lyricist David Zigman.
Meanwhile, the new, updated rap version of the old Meni Beger song written after the Yamit evacuation is playing frequently: "This was my home/ with a garden and a coop/ tomorrow morning strangers will live there/ and all our memories will disappear/ we've battled so long/ that we forgot about what/ for me this is a war/ for them this is business/ for me this is home/ for them this is just another line on a map/ a long time ago this became more than just land ..." It's not an anthem, but it may well be one of the songs that accompany the upcoming evacuation.
The need for a catchy tune and words that will grab the masses is obvious, but at the same time, in relative silence, another, deeper and more personal and thoughtful sort of poetry is being written, a poetry that is very far from fitting such songwriting demands. A poetry of pain in the face of the anticipated disengagement and evacuation. Most of the writers belong to a group that blossomed in the past decade and consolidated around the Jewish-Israeli poetry journal Meshiv Haruah. Many of the men are yeshiva graduates, some from hesder yeshivas, which combine yeshiva study with military service. Many of the women are graduates of ulpanot, yeshiva high schools for religious girls. Some are the sons and daughters of well-known rabbis.
Poets from the right, the few whose work has crossed over into the mainstream, like Yonadav Kaplun, Admiel Kosman and Hava Pinhas-Cohen, have been actively writing for many years now. But generally, "right-wing poetry" has been identified as poetry with a nationalistic perspective. Prof. Yohai Oppenheimer, who studies political poetry in Israel, wrote in his 2003 book "Hazekhut Lomar Lo" ("The Right to Say No") that a rightist poet ostensibly speaks in the name of the nation while the leftist poet ostensibly speaks in the name of the individual. The writers in Meshiv Haruah seem to shatter this consensus. They deal with a variety of themes, not only political ones. Many succeed, through poetry, personally touching on the elements that make up their lives, fears and faith.
The latest issue of Meshiv Haruah was devoted to the disengagement, but not necessarily to the disengagement plan. The writers addressed different kinds of disengagement. A few supporters of the disengagement plan, such as Yossi Sarid and poet Tal Nitzan, contributed poems, but most of the issue was dedicated to the personal pain that goes with the uprooted and the uprooting.
The opening poem was written by Tami Gilboa from the Morag settlement in Gush Katif. Gilboa's husband is still under house arrest after he and some others demonstrated in front of Israel Defense Forces headquarters in Gush Katif over the lack of a response to the firing of mortar shells. In the poem, entitled "Medabrim Harbeh `Al Sharsheret Enoshit" ("A Lot of Talk about a Human Chain"), Gilboa expresses a longing for normal life, even if she is a "settler": "I want a house without thinking/ I want to live without being .../ I'm just one little settler woman/ afraid of a road that is too long/ on a white donkey/ anointed for war/ and believing/ always believing."
Another personal and painful poem, "Hazmana Lebechi" ("Invitation to Cry"), was written by Eliaz Cohen of Kfar Etzion, who grew up in the northern West Bank. The poem transfers the terror of the coming uprooting from Gush Katif to Eliaz's own home in Kfar Etzion and describes the behavior of the evacuee and the evacuator: "To you the good and loyal soldier who one day when the order comes/ will approach our home/ I will run to you with open arms ... I will run I will embrace you and I will lead you/ at the doorway I will grasp your collar, I will tear it / all the way to the heart ... In silence we will walk one last time among the rooms of the house ..."
The soldier then asks in a whisper: "Have you packed?" and, at the end, the poet writes: "everything is full of symbols you say/ falling on my neck weeping/ my loyal, good soldier, now it is finally all right to cry."
Literary expert and cultural critic Dr. Ariel Hirschfeld says of the collection of disengagement poetry in Meshiv Haruah, "There are some good and interesting things there that have honesty in them. It's nice that they didn't claim the concept of disengagement for themselves and didn't close themselves within their political philosophy. To this writing about the disengagement, they added people who are totally unaffiliated with them, who talk about disengagement in general.
"This is an interesting openness, since they clearly understand that disengagement is a universal thing that occurs not only in concrete places, but also in other dimensions, in the psyche, in the process of maturing and in the consciousness. On the other hand, they also touched in a very convincing and tasteful way on the painful political side of it.
"In general," says Hirschfeld, "the people of Gush Emunim and Yesha haven't managed to create a convincing cultural mode of speaking over the years, one that could break out of their closed circles. The Meshiv Haruah group, especially with the disengagement poems, is doing so, also because it is including voices from outside its circle, and because in their writing, they're expressing recognition of some universal aspect of themselves. The disengagement is not being presented solely as their own personal story."
Meshiv Haruah was founded in 1994 by Shmuel Klein, Eliaz Cohen, Yoram Nissinovich, Nahum Pachnik (son of Rabbi Shalom Pachnik of the Beit El yeshiva) and Na'ama Shaked, with the aim of establishing a platform for Hebrew poetry. "The sense was that the cultural map in Israel didn't include anything that could give expression to the wide range of the Israeli experience in connection with the Jewish experience and tradition," says Shmuel Klein. "One thing we wanted to do was to create a medium for an unmediated encounter between religious and secular."
The journal has been banned at several yeshivas, on the rabbis' instructions. It has been accused of "dealing in impurity and pornography." But other religious-Zionist rabbis and intellectuals see it as an artistic-spiritual enterprise that encourages the individual to give expression to his inner world. Besides the 16 issues of the journal that have appeared so far, the group has also sponsored literary and cultural events that have included artists from the fields of music, theater and the plastic arts.
One regular program is the annual poetry festival called Yemei Ahava Leshira (Days of Love for Poetry), which has been held for the past eight years in Jerusalem during the Sukkot holiday. Meshiv Haruah has no central office and no one on the production, editing and writing staff receives a salary. The journal relies on a budget from the Education Ministry's Art and Culture Administration and on contributions from various foundations.Devouring Palestinians for dinner
Prof. Uzi Shavit, a scholar of literature and poetry and the CEO of the Hakibbutz Hameuhad publishing house, says of Meshiv Haruah: "It's a refreshing and important phenomenon, since from the very beginning, religious Judaism has hardly taken part in the new Hebrew poetry, which has been around for over 200 years now. The new Hebrew poetry was primarily secular poetry. In the past decades, there have been religious poets such as Zelda, Yonadav Kaplun, Admiel Kosman and Hava Pinhas-Cohen, but each of them worked in isolation. This is the first time that a group of young people has arisen and is writing modern poetry that fits into the mainstream of modern Israeli poetry.
"These are religious people who have a free outlook and don't see themselves as subject to the censorship of any rabbi; young people who have spent most of their lives in Judea and Samaria, and some who were born there. It's the only reality they know, and at the same time, they are totally free in their positions. They don't belong to any clique, they're not just mouthing slogans, and they're displaying professionalism in the most positive sense of the word - and I'm not only referring to the poetry on the topic of the disengagement. The Yamit evacuation didn't spawn a similar phenomenon. The Oslo period and the disengagement have done something. It's a sociological phenomenon.
"From a certain perspective, they remind me of Albert Camus, the Algerian-born French writer. This is their homeland. They grew up there. These aren't people who are saying: We came here on a mission for the nation. These aren't people who chose to live there. These are people, most of them young people, who were born there, or at least grew up there from the time they were very young. Therefore they are not political in the regular sense of the world, but more spiritual-literary. Something new is emerging here, and we'll have to watch and see where it leads."Banned in the yeshiva
Eliaz Cohen was 7 years old when his family moved from Petah Tikva to Elkana in western Samaria. He later studied at the Or Etzion hesder yeshiva under Rabbi Haim Druckman. For nine years, he has been leading creative writing workshops in Gush Etzion and for the past four years has also been working as a social worker in various institutions. His first books of poetry caused an uproar. "Mehumashim" ("Pentagons"), published by Tammuz, was essentially constructed as an encounter between his personal biography and the weekly Torah portions.
His second book, "Negi'ot Rishonot" ("First Touches"), contained an erotic tension that some of the religious public found difficult to digest, while his most recent book, "Shema Adonai - Poems from the Events of 5761-5764," has been interpreted in part as an alternative prayer to the traditional prayers. For example, Cohen offers a version of the familiar "Travelers' Prayer" written in the singular instead of the plural. In this book, Cohen also holds a kind of dialogue with God, a dialogue that contains a broad spectrum of emotions, including, at times, defiance and anger. After the book was published, Cohen lost his job as a social worker in one of the well-known ultra-Orthodox boarding schools in Jerusalem's Geula neighborhood.
From the start, Eliaz Cohen and his colleagues were banned from some of the yeshivas, but their pioneering work paved the way for others who wished to express themselves in this manner. Cohen was moved to write "Hazmana Lebekhi" ("Invitation to Cry") out of "existential anxiety," he says. Some of his relatives personally experienced the fall of Gush Etzion in 1948. He says that, in light of the anticipated evacuation, this poem and other such poems by him and his colleagues are filling a fundamental void in Israeli culture.
"There's a pathology in this culture, that turns its back on everything that is supposed to be derived from the Jewish fate," he explains. "It has directed all of this repressed pain toward identification with the other, with the Palestinian who is perceived as a victim, who is a product of our story. I also see the direct relation between our independence and their nakba. The question is how much you allow yourself to undermine your narrative. I long for the day when the ruling elite in our culture will show the same openness toward us as we have shown toward it, both in the last issue of Meshiv Haruah about the disengagement, and in previous issues.
"Over the years, playwrights, poets and cultural people have scolded us: `You're settlers! How dare you write poetry after you've devoured two Palestinians for dinner?'" Cohen says. "As they see it, there couldn't possibly be any art coming from the right, since we're busy killing Palestinians all day long. I'm purposely exaggerating, but this is definitely the feeling that has been blowing our way for years. As I see it, when my friends and I write about a settler who is experiencing existential distress, whose friends are being killed, who loses almost his whole family and is now about to be evacuated, it's more authentic than a famous poet who tosses a sock filled with money and medicines over the separation fence."
Poet Tal Nitzan, who published work in "Be'et Habarzel" ("With Iron Pen: Hebrew Protest Poetry 1984-2004," Hargol Press), participated in an evening sponsored by Meshiv Haruah at the Artists' House in Tel Aviv a few weeks ago. She read her poem "Khan Yunis," which describes Palestinian suffering. Nitzan does not sound all that impressed by what the Meshiv Haruah group sees as a significant gesture of openness.
"I have no psychological difficulty identifying with the pain of `my brother' compared to the pain of `my enemy,' she says."It's not a psychological question, but a human and moral one. I don't divide humanity into my brethren and my enemies and there are human experiences that are situated much higher in my book, in the hierarchy of pain and injustice, than being uprooted from one place to another. I can identify with the sorrow of the settlers affected by the disengagement up to a certain point. But having to move to a new residence, when it comes with compensation and alternative housing that is already prepared, and especially when it is at last removing an obstacle to peace, is not the end of the world.
"Therefore, manipulations like threats of violence wrapped in slogans like `We have love and it will triumph,' and the vulgarity of the cheapening of the Holocaust and the waving of orange patches, and the racism behind the argument of how dare we try to move `Jews' - all of this repulses me. The excessive volume of the cries of distress seems to point to vast egocentrism and moral obtuseness.
"When Eliaz Cohen writes to a soldier, `In a whisper, you ask: Have you packed?,' I think about the tenants in a building in Nablus. No one asked them if they packed or not. They expelled them in the middle of the night a month and a half ago. Not in a whisper, but with shouting and yelling. Of all their possessions, all they were left with were the pajamas on their back, and they demolished the building, all four stories, with everything in it, not even as a `punishment' for something. Have any settlers from Gush Katif stopped feeling sorry for themselves and tried to put themselves in the shoes of these people, whose world was destroyed overnight? So if there's an `Invitation to Cry,' my tears are reserved for the children who were searching for their toys among the rubble the next day, even if according to the settlers' criteria, they're not `my brethren.'"
The discourse between writers like Nitzan and Eliaz or between Yossi Sarid and Rabbi Menachem Froman of Tekoa, who also took part in the event at the Artists' House - Sarid read his poem "Itamar" and Froman contributed a poem entitled "Vehayiti Kimeshuga" ("I Was As a Madman") to the disengagement issue of Meshiv Haruah - sometimes sounds like a dialogue of the deaf. People feel close to their own grief and not the grief of others. The sometimes very harsh writing against the disengagement expresses pain, anger and much sadness, but mostly it is writing that springs from a personal need.
The work of God
Ruhama Shapira, who lives in Shirat Hayam in Gush Katif, is the granddaughter of Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov, author of the famous Sefer Hatoda'a. Shapira grew up in the Kiryat Moshe neighborhood of Jerusalem in an unconventional household. Now she is occupied with meditation, prayer and writing and in "seeking God," as she puts it. She has lived in Shirat Hayam for four years. The settlement was established after the bombing of the school bus carrying children from Kfar Darom. The picture of her husband, Noam, holding one of their daughters and coming under fire at the memorial service for Tali Hatuel and her daughters on the Kissufim road is an image that stays with you for a long time. After the memorial service, Shapira wrote a poem entitled "Tzir Kissufim" which appeared in the last issue of Meshiv Haruah: "Bleeding heart volunteers with representatives of the law/ will wait politely for us to leave willingly otherwise/ with decisive and reasoned thinking they will remove us/ from our homes one by one/ load us on trucks for carting animals/ maybe the killer and his four wives will choose/ to live in the empty house of Tali and her four daughters."
Shapira and Tami Gilboa from Morag took part in a creative writing workshop organized by the Gush Katif community center. "There have always been writers from the right," she says, "but condescension and insularity on the part of the ruling clique didn't permit them expression on central platforms." She's not angry. "Now the time has come to be heedful and humble before God and man," she says. "Everything that has been happening lately is the work of God. The politicians and all the authorities - they're all tools in the hands of the Creator who is trying to wake us up."
Some of the writers rely on the religious sources, especially on verses from the Torah. Rivka Tanir Hadar, a newly observant poet who lives in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City in Jerusalem and has had two books of poetry published by Hakibbutz Hameuhad, took the commandment of the egla arufa, the "decapitated heifer" from the book of Deuteronomy and writes about "Love/ that we haven't spoken about/ ever" that "cries now/ between us/ like a heifer/ decapitated/ in the riverbed."
"The ritual of the egla arufa was an expression of mutual responsibility and accountability on the part of the public, when a person was discovered slain in a field and the murderer was unknown. This mutual responsibility and accountability is what is being killed in today's reality. And the present political leadership, which is causing a sharp polarization in the nation, is responsible for this," Hadar says.
Rabbi Menachem Froman wrote "I Was as a Madman" after a night of nightmares. Froman says that that night, he had a dream in which he saw settlements being uprooted. The images in his poem are borrowed from the story of Rabbi Akiva, whose flesh was shredded with iron rakes by the Romans. In the poem, the rakes are represented by the teeth of the bulldozer that comes to uproot the settlements.
For those unfamiliar with the history of Gush Emunim: In 1973, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, the spiritual father of Gush Emunim, took part in the first attempt to establish the Elon Moreh settlement south of Nablus. After most of the group was forcibly evacuated in an operation in which both evacuees and soldiers were crying, only a few people remained, including Rabbi Kook.
In his book, "Ahim Yekarim" ("Dear Brothers"), Hagai Segal described the moment in which he demonstratively held open his coat and said to the soldiers who had asked him to leave the area: "If you want, take a machine gun and kill me." Rabbi Kook repeated this sentence twice and then he added: "Just as you can't force me to eat pork and desecrate the Sabbath, you won't force me to move from here."
Fifteen years ago, Froman was asked in a newspaper interview what he would do if he was evacuated and he answered almost instinctively - "I'd die." Today, Froman wants to stress that he does not recommend dying. He says that his poem depicts a mental state being experienced by a good number of people - a madness that he wants to warn about. The name of the poem is taken from the section on curses in Deuteronomy (Chapter 28, Verse 34): "Thou shalt be mad for the sight of thine eyes which thou shalt see."