Moshe Natan.
Moshe Natan in 1973. Photo by Yakov Agor
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Here is the tale of a Japanese writer who amused and entertained people all his life. As he lay dying, the people around his deathbed were very sad. He said to them: "The day of my death will be a day of very great joy, more so than all the days of my life." No one knew what he meant and the writer kept the secret until he breathed his last. In his will he ordered that his body be cremated. When they began to burn the body they discovered he had filled his pockets with fireworks, and as his body was consumed colorful sparks filled the sky.

This story appears in the preface to the 1996 book "Magic Against Death: The Theater of Nissim Aloni" (Hakibbutz Hameuchad, in Hebrew ), which was published 17 years after the death of its author, Moshe Nathan. The book is an anthology of conversations Nathan conducted over the course of 16 years with the late Israeli playwright and theater director, whom he very much admired.

This story is characteristic of Aloni's theater, "which glitters in a swirl of colors, reflections, masks and optical illusions," as Nathan wrote. In the same breath, he added: "It must not be forgotten that all these fireworks are in fact bursting out of the pockets of a person who is being cremated somewhere out of sight."

It would seem this story also serves as a good reflection of journalist and theater/film critic Nathan, who died in his prime, aged just 36. Those who read Nathan's reviews when they were first published felt his passion for these arts. His passion erupted between the lines, entwined among the letters and, in rich colors, exploded again and again before the readers' eyes.

Nathan wrote about cinema and theater in the Israeli press of the 1960s and 70s in a way that no one before him had dared. He devoted long and comprehensive articles to plays and films, and was one of the first here to grant the nascent, seventh art the respect it deserves. But even his close friends felt there was something mysterious about him that no one ever managed to figure out.

Nathan had many acquaintances and friends, among them writers, poets, journalists, and prominent film and theater people, but many have said they did not know all aspects of him. There seems to have always been a cloud of melancholy, an unexplained sadness, hovering over him.

His early death - after being hit by a bus near his home in Ramat Aviv - cut short his promising career and cast a veil over the possibility of understanding the mystery that surrounded him. The diligent, serious, talented and thorough writer left behind a large number of newspaper articles, one book about war and military people ("The War for Jerusalem," 1968 ), and many heartbroken friends.

According to his friends, Moshe Nathan wanted to remain forever young. His wish was granted, but not exactly in the way he envisioned. He was born in 1943 in the city of Plovdiv, Bulgaria - the only child of elderly parents, who immigrated to Israel when he was 6 years old. The three were sent first to Pardes Hannah and from there to a ma'abara (transit camp ) where they lived until the start of the 1960s. Together with a girlfriend from the camp, the young Nathan developed a system for forging tickets to the Cameri Theater.

"The theater shone like a beam of light in the dark sky of the ma'abara," he later related on his radio program "Hagasha Atzmit" (Serve Yourself ). "The ma'abara embodied poverty, meagerness, alienation, primitiveness. The theater was something of a temple, a place of magic, sorcery, adventure, poetry, imagination, culture, regal ceremoniousness. I felt like I was the lord of the castle, maybe the only ma'abara kid in all of Israel who was able to see so much theater. In those days the theater was a city of refuge for me."

His father was ill and his mother was forced to work double shifts at a spinning mill to support the family. The hut in the ma'abara soon became too small for the boy who hungered for culture. In his forays into the city, he bought many books, or stole them when he didn't have money. In the evenings, in the hut where there was no electricity, he read for hours by kerosene lamp.

When a relative suggested that he move to a kibbutz in the north, Nathan happily agreed. From time to time he would slip away and visit the big city, Haifa. "There," he related on Army Radio, "I discovered a new friend: cinema. It was the American cinema of the young rebels: Marlon Brando in 'On the Waterfront,' James Dean in 'East of Eden,' and more. They were objects not only of worship but also of profound identification. What began as a friendship became an obsessive love when the French New Wave [La Nouvelle Vague] appeared."

At the end of the 1950s, the young Nathan decided to return to Tel Aviv to study literature. One of his teachers at Seminar Hakibbutzim Teachers College was poet Natan Zach. "He was the flower who made teaching worthwhile," says Zach today. "He was the most brilliant student I had at Seminar Hakibbutzim, the only genius I had there and I loved him with all my soul."

In one class, recalls Zach, a debate developed with Nathan concerning the 1959 Alain Resnais film "Hiroshima Mon Amour."

"I said that sentimentalizing a disaster like that was a big sin, whereas he argued that the film was very powerful, a cinematic tombstone," says Zach. "This was perhaps the only time we didn't agree. The debate between us lasted throughout a whole lesson. The rest of the students didn't participate and I remember how afterward they came complaining about how I devoted a whole lesson just to Moshe Nathan. They complained I devoted too much time to him."

Zach and Nathan began meeting outside of class and held long conversations about literature, film and culture in general. Inspired by Zach, Nathan began to write some poetry and screenplays, which he later deemed "worthless," and laid the initial foundations for his writing career.

"He was a fellow who was able to make literary judgments, though that can't be compared to the amazing intuition he had about cinema," says Zach.

When the time came for his conscription into the Israel Defense Forces, Nathan made a surprising choice. He decided to try to get into an army entertainment troupe.

"I auditioned him for the troupe and remember that he was different from all the other candidates," says veteran journalist Muli Shapira, who was in charge of the try-outs. "All of them sang contemporary hits, and only he chose to sing 'My Field,' a song that was so old (written in 1927 ) and serious. Before he began the audition, I remember he took a recorder out of his pocket and played a note on it to ensure he had the right pitch, and only then did he begin to sing. That was very unusual."

Nathan was accepted to the Central Command entertainment troupe, with whom he performed for several months. Then Yitzhak Livni, editor of the IDF weekly magazine Bamahane, invited him for a meeting following a recommendation from Natan Zach.

"At that time I was looking for young people who would not only be eloquent and diligent, but would also have cultural breadth," Livni says now. "I asked him to write something on a certain topic and I interviewed him. Usually I asked interviewees what they were reading, to ascertain the extent of their cultural knowledge. I quickly found out that Nathan was very knowledgeable not only about film and theater, but also about literature - Kafka, Thomas Mann, Proust - and also poetry (T.S. Eliot ). Not many people of his age were knowledgeable about all that, but he already had an excellent breadth of knowledge."

It wasn't long before Nathan started writing for Bamahane. Naturally, he set about writing articles on theater and film, but alongside that Livni detected other abilities.

"Because of the quality of his writing, his ability to intuit people's motivations and be precise about people and what made them tick, I asked him to write about people who received medals of honor," Livni recalls. "Ostensibly this wasn't suited to him, to the man of culture who was far from military matters, but I hoped something of value would come out of it. He succeeded in touching the essence of the people he interviewed and his series of articles, 'A Hero's Name,' became a byword."

Nathan's writing about cultural matters, Livni recalls, was unique on the journalistic scene of those days: "He was the embodiment of the combination between highbrow and something that wasn't boring - very readable, though there was criticism of his formulations, which included many superlatives, both positive and negative, and strong colors."

Livni, who was also the head of Army Radio, quickly decided to allow Nathan to express his talent as a broadcaster as well. At the radio, Nathan created the program "Personal Experience," on which he interviewed people about special experiences ("He was very successful at grasping the elusive element that exists in human nature, and he knew how to formulate it," says Livni ), and a documentary program about writer Yosef Haim Brenner on the 50th anniversary of his death. Nathan undertook on long and detailed research, interviewed many people, read much material and produced a show that lasted for three hours and generated extraordinary reactions.

One of his colleagues at Army Radio was journalist and writer Yitzhak Ben-Ner. "Livni paired us up for a number of programs we edited and produced together," Ben-Ner recounts. "He did the studio work almost entirely on his own - he was very meticulous. I remember he would go through an hour and a half of recordings in order to fish out one line. If a complex documentary program requires a certain number of hours of studio time, which was always tight, he always used three times as much, or more."

"When he did a program for Army Radio," says Tsippy Gon-Gross, who served with Nathan at the army station, "he would record tens and hundreds of hours in order to produce a one-hour program. His perfectionism became a byword among the technicians, who did everything they could to avoid working with him."

A literary relationship

The young military reporter regularly visited Aharon Kushnir's bookstore, which was near the Gat Cinema in Tel Aviv and specialized in literature about theater. A strong friendship developed between them and they met almost daily. Kushnir read every article of Nathan's before publication; he would cut out and save theater and film reviews from The New Yorker for him, and kept a folder of Nathan's work.

A sworn lover of theater, Nathan was an ardent admirer of Nissim Aloni. He admired the playwright's works, believed he was the greatest of all the local theater people, and devoted to Aloni's "The American Princess" his first article as a journalist and theater critic at Bamahane.

"One day Aloni was in my shop and Nathan also came in," Kushnir recalls. "I was talking to Nissim and I signaled to Nathan to come over, but he didn't budge. I signaled to him again, but he turned around and walked out of the store. I ran after him and caught him. I brought him back to the store and turned to Aloni. 'Nissim, I'd like you to meet this person - he is very interested in having a literary relationship with you.' That was one of the introductions I am happiest I made."

The young soldier began following Aloni and his works, which became an obsession with him until he died. Nathan did not content himself with meeting Aloni sporadically, attending his plays and writing about them, however.

"He would sit in on Aloni's rehearsals from morning till night, drinking in his every remark," recalls producer and director Yaakov Agmon. "During that period there wasn't anyone except Aloni; he was the only one by virtue of whom you could say Israeli playwriting actually existed. Nathan admired him, analyzed him ... went to parties with him. He attended everything connected to Aloni. He insisted that he was there not only to document what was happening, but was carrying out a mission that went beyond the limits of a journalistic assignment."

On the "Hagasha Atzmit" show, Nathan tried to explain why Aloni's theater captivated him so. "You could call it magic, you could call it a celebration, you could call it an amusement, you could call it majesty or a game. Aloni embodies the theater I believe in, theater I dream about, a game against the everyday, against emptiness, against death. Theater that has magic in it, in which there is a bit of consolation," he said.

For his part, Aloni told writer Gabi Aldor, in an article published in the now-defunct magazine Monitin in 1983, that Nathan followed his rehearsals from the age of 18. "He would come often, he would follow the rehearsals nearly all the time, taking notes, notes and more notes. I never understood what that was about. I would tease him: 'You are building such a tall building - in the end you will climb onto it and shoot me.' Ultimately I had to disappoint him; he reminded me of [French author] Andre Gide. He was born as a person who wasn't destined for writing and forced himself to become a great writer."

Former journalist Nili Friedlander, a close friend of Nathan's, notes that when Aloni was working on the play "Napoleon, Alive or Dead," he began rehearsals but was having difficulty completing the script. "Nathan pushed him forward, pressured him, didn't leave him. He'd go to his home and take him to the rehearsals. He totally identified with the writer, he pushed him," she says.

Nathan himself was an industrious writer, but when it came to Nissim Aloni, he was prepared for a endless effort. Says Ben-Ner: "I once met Aloni coming out of Habima [Theater] with a new play of his that had only just been printed, and he was furious. He told me the typist who had copied the play from the manuscript had written 'The End' on the last page, and that made him boiling mad because with him there never is an end. With him it never ended. And it was the same with Nathan when it came to Aloni."

Nathan continued to write for Bamahane and to broadcast on Army Radio, even after completing his military service. In 1966 he published an especially long interview with Aloni in the journal Keshet. Two years later, he edited a special issue of Keshet devoted to cinema, a new and daring move at that time when many people in Israel still refused to acknowledge cinema as an art. In that issue Nathan published a similarly long and detailed interview with a local film director he admired, David Perlov.

Nathan also had an extensive social life: He continued to meet with Natan Zach; he felt right at home with David and Mira Perlov; and he developed a close friendship with writer Yehoshua Kenaz.

"We met at a time when we were both theater critics, he at Bamahane and I at Israel radio," recalls Kenaz. "We would travel to see plays and spend many hours on bus trips from Tel Aviv to Haifa. We were close friends."

Over time, Nathan became part of the group that gathered every Saturday evening at Kenaz's home, including Zach, the Perlovs, theater director David Levin (playwright Hanoch Levin's brother ), and writers Ehud Ben-Ezer and A.B. Yehoshua. The friends would discuss literature, cinema theater and current events. The makeup of the group was different each time. Nathan said of himself, in jest, that he himself was "part of the permanent furniture" there.

All his acquaintances say Nathan was a handsome, impressive-looking man. His hair was black, his skin was dark, his eyes were blue and he always paid attention to his appearance. He wore stylish clothes. Some say he was a closeted gay; others speak with a glint in their eyes about his relationships with women.

"His features were handsome and delicate, but with authority," says Livni. "He had a strong but refined posture. He was intelligent and precise and sensitive, but this sensitivity also had something coddled about it, a bit unrestrained, not always considerate of others. There was something of a decadent aesthetic about him. He was very vivacious, but there was also something sad in him."

"He was the only child of elderly parents, immigrants, and there was also something of the ma'abara kid in him," Mira Perlov says. "That is, he was the opposite of the self-confident native [Israeli] ... There was something a little foreign about him."

Friedlander agrees there was always something mysterious and secretive about Nathan. "There were lots of things we didn't know about him, but he had such a strong presence that we didn't deal with that," she says. "Everyone knew everyone else then from the army or university, and he was the first who suddenly came from a different background, a stranger. At his funeral we suddenly discovered he was four or five years older than what he had led us to believe. This astonished me. However, that was so like him. He was the eternal youth, and that's how he presented himself. We always laughed that he was Tonio Kroger [the eponymous hero of a Thomas Mann novella]."

War correspondent

When the Six-Day War broke out, his editors at Bamahane commissioned Nathan to write a portrait of some of the heroes of the battle for Jerusalem. The interviews and the research he conducted were so extensive that he decided to expand his considerable work beyond what he had been asked to do.

"I remember that Nathan ... felt he had to research everyone and not make do with the IDF Spokesman's version," Friedlander says. "He went from one fighter to the next and spoke with everyone. He knew how to get what he wanted from people, even if it was their deepest secret. His great talent was for building whole and rounded characters from a number of details."

Nathan then decided to focus his work on a book that would tell the whole story about the battle for Jerusalem. He interviewed about 400 people, cross-checking the information with military investigations, diaries and other sources. He even reconstructed events on the battlefield with some of the fighters. The result was the only book Nathan published during his lifetime, "The War for Jerusalem," which came out in May 1968.

There Nathan described in minute detail the progress of the battles, day by day, hour by hour, and combined that with the personal experiences of the book's protagonists. He wrote about their fears and distress, the shocking lack of planning and the endless series of mistakes made in the war.

At a time when the whole country was intoxicated with victory and euphoric, Nathan's book pointed to the other side of the coin: the bleeding, human side.

"This is the best book written about the Six-Day War," asserted a review in the now-defunct daily Davar on May 31, 1968. "In effect it is the only book. The others are patchworks of reportage, or a huge song of praise to the victorious Supermen. 'The War for Jerusalem' is a book about people."

"The War for Jerusalem" sold about 60,000 copies and won its author the Jerusalem Prize for Literature. Yosef Alkony, who published the book under his private imprint Otpaz, notes that a 1971 survey by the Institute of Applied Social Research in Jerusalem found that 22 percent of the population had read the book.

In the wake of the book's success, Nathan was invited for a job interview at the mass circulation daily Maariv, and from 1970 until his death he published detailed, profound articles and film and theater reviews there, in his own inimitable style.

At one stage he began to edit the film journal Kolnoa, published by the Israel Film Institute in Tel Aviv.

"In Israel at that time there was very little personal writing about culture and that is what Nathan would do - personal analyses of culture," says Livni. "In his writing he would conduct a dialogue not only with the material but also with the reader and himself. He was the most outstanding writer about culture in those years and a trailblazer in the field. He knew how to convey precise and well-gathered information, and also to express an opinion and give an interpretation. He wasn't just a culture correspondent, but rather a kind of 'culture hero,' a figure with significance beyond his writing. Conversations with him were just as significant as his writing."

Livni relates that one time when Nathan read a piece of his that had been edited, he reacted angrily. The editor tried to calm him down with humor: "What is this relative to eternity?" asked the editor affably. "These articles in the newspaper are my eternity," Nathan replied.

In January 1979, Nathan returned from a vacation in Paris, where he spent time with Kenaz and translator Nili Mirsky. The three toured the city, visited museums, and had long and pleasurable conversations. When he returned home, Nathan settled into his old routine and started preparing for his next trips. He planned to go to the Berlin Film Festival that February and afterward again to Paris, for a longer period.

However, on February 6, Nathan was rushing to a meeting with his friend Kushnir in downtown Tel Aviv, planning, as always, to show him his latest piece for the newspaper and then go to the Maariv editorial offices to hand it in. Running on a Ramat Aviv street, not far from his home, to catch his bus, the bus struck and killed him.

Looking back today, Agmon reveals that at one point Nathan began writing a play. Rehearsals started but were stopped after he didn't manage to finish writing it. Livni notes that Nathan dreamt of directing, planned to write screenplays and plays, and had even begun writing a book of prose. Friedlander, meanwhile, says Nathan had told her he was planning to write a novel based on his autobiography.

Nathan's father died shortly before his son did, and his mother donated his entire library to Maariv. In December 1979, at the dedication of the Moshe Nathan Library at the Maariv building in Tel Aviv, editor Shalom Rosenfeld made the following remarks: "In every one of the books Moshe Nathan left, there is a drop of the sufferings that are the lot of those who bear on their shoulders the blessing and the curse of creative talent that seeks perfection - the talent of the person who is painfully in love, who is horribly disputatious with himself."