The Child in Him

A year ago, the poet Mordechai Galili received a collection of letters written by his mother in the years before her suicide. Reading them turned his anger with her into empathy, and tattered memories into his first book of poetry in more than two decades.

Dakia Karpel
Dalia Karpel
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Dakia Karpel
Dalia Karpel

"To the question of whether or not I was at home / when my mother killed herself / I did not respond / Until I wrote / I did not know I had to ask myself / At the edge of the question / Darkness awaited"

- From "A Journey that Ends with a Dance" by Mordechai Galili

Fifty-five years after his mother killed herself, Mordechai Galili, 61, is publishing his third book of poetry, named for the poem from which the above lines are quoted: "Masa Shenigmar Berikud " ("A Journey that Ends with a Dance" Yedioth Ahronoth Books / Sifrei Hemed ). And now, at this stage of the emotionally charged discussion, he stands in the heart of the darkness he depicted. The attempt to focus on the moments of being in the apartment when the suicide took place, when he was just a boy of 6, gives rise to an inner confrontation. One that is sometimes translated into tears.

Mordechai Galili and his wife, Rina.Credit: Reli Avrahami

Galili barely remembers his mother, Mia, a native of Holland - at least not in the usual sense of the word, although there is no doubt that over the years she became the central guiding force in his life. He seeks to reconstruct the events of that day out of tattered memories. The conversation with Galili, like the reading of his poetry, is intimate. He gives you the feeling that he is close to you, that his consciousness is open before you. He calls the note he left for his father when he was a little boy - "Daddy, I want my mommy back" - his first poem. The long poems that comprise the new book serve as letters to his mother across the span of time, a substitute for the real-life conversations he was unable to have with her. In them he offers a unique look at his life and his parents' lives, crystallizing a chilling emotional essence: "I understand that you could not bid me farewell in writing / or explain. I would like to understand / how the lust for life turned to a desire / to turn your back and die." But this book struggles to provide an answer to the mystery of the day his mother died.

"I don't have any clear memory from that day," he says. "You're asking questions like someone who expects that I did historical research. I just don't know. It's all based on slivers of information. To this day, my wife asks me how it's possible that for all these years I didn't try to find out what exactly happened."

Nevertheless, over the years, he did form a hazy notion of what happened that day. The way he tells about it reveals just how elusive the concept of "memory" is and how subjective experience has the power to overshadow the dry facts.

"I was living with my aunt and uncle then, Ziona and Shmuel," he recalls. "My mother killed herself in the studio apartment. My father was doing reserve duty at the time, my mother went to work and I stayed with Ziona. Everyone was doing their own thing. But as I wrote in the poems, I have this memory that I can feel, and whenever I touch it, it's not a good place."

What is this memory?

"I know that I have my finger on the doorknob and she's behind the door, and I visually remember coming through the door into the apartment. I kept going, and to my right was the little kitchen and dining area, and there was a small window there covered with a black placard because of the blackout. And then I see something. I remember that I was standing there and looking for a long time. I don't remember what I saw. And then I'm going down the steps by myself to Jabotinsky Street [in Ramat Gan], which was very busy and the cars were all these bright colors and I was afraid to cross the street to get back to Ziona's house. Beyond that, I don't remember anything."


Galili as a child, with her parents, Maya and Yehuda

Would it be correct to say that the moment you just described is the moment out of which you write?

"I think so. Look, somebody could say that what I saw that night didn't really happen. But today I'm not in a situation where someone can come and correct the reality for me and tell me a different story, because what I saw that night has become a symbol of my condition: the sensation of that situation, of the darkened apartment with the board covering the window because of the blackout, that I'm standing in that spot there. If I go back to that memory now, let myself enter into it, a shudder goes through me because something physical apparently happened to me, like a loss of consciousness or falling into the darkness. In that place I am dead. Every so often I try to enter this place because it was my last moment with my mother."

Do you know how she killed herself?

"No. I only know that she was taking a medication for migraines at the time and among her things there were three small empty bottles of it. My Aunt Ziona didn't say anything. My father didn't talk about it."

Poem and collage

This is the third book by Mordechai Galili, who currently works as director of pre-press systems at Haaretz. In his first book, "Poems 1972-1976," he refused to touch on the wound that shaped his life. In the second, "Two Collages" (1988 ), a chapter entitled "Collage: A Process of Suicide" is devoted to his mother. Twenty-three years went by before he came out with his latest book.

The book opens with a chapter called "Collage: Self-Portrait" - "a direct and straight-spoken chapter," says Galili. It is followed by three unsparing long poems that reveal a mosaic of a bleak life. One describes a private trip in a car, a second concerns a vacation with his father at Michmoret beach, and the third presents letters he wrote to his mother, "in a virtual way, as if she were alive," explains Galili. "That is the power of literature, and I use it for my benefit even though it has no basis in reality. The three long poems are essentially a single trilogy about the family. I didn't realize at first, or that easily, that I was telling the family story out of my own personal, intimate view."

Stylistically, Galili says that his writing belongs to the "long poem" tradition that corresponds to collage in painting, as inspired by works of artists like the American painter Robert Rauschenberg. The content of the poems is autobiographical, and piercing. His book also includes an impressive collection of letters written by his mother between 1950 and 1956, in which she tells her parents in Holland and her sister Nellie in England about her life in Israel. The letters recount the mother's complicated and fascinating life story - a story Galili was only able to put together in the past year, after he was given the letters by Nellie's son, Ronald Worrall. (Another cousin, Marsha Perchard, translated them from Dutch to English.)

Everything is so Spartan

Maria (Mia ) Eleonora Paulina Hendriks was born on March 28, 1926 in the Hague. Her father owned a ironworks factory; a piece from it now sits on Mordechai Galili's desk in north Tel Aviv. Shortly after finishing school, Mia met an Israeli kibbutznik named Shlomo Winograd, who was 12 years her senior, and she decided to follow him to Israel. She landed in Israel on October 9, 1948. In her new immigrant ID card under "Next of Kin," she wrote "Shlomo Winograd"; relationship: "Husband."

Upon arriving in Israel, Mia Hendriks went to the Israel Defense Forces base at Tel Litvinski (now Tel Hashomer ), where she started the process of becoming a soldier. After two days of medical examinations and interviews, and having been issued a uniform and gear, she and two girlfriends hitchhiked to a military hotel in Tel Aviv and from there she called Mishmar Hasharon, Winograd's kibbutz. She was stunned to learn from his sister that he had died of cancer on October 3, 1948, on Rosh Hashanah eve - just six days before she arrived in the country. "My dear sweet Shlomo. He was the shining star in my life. I am so sad," she wrote to her parents.

On May 6, 1949, she was discharged from the IDF after serving in weapons maintenance at the Givat Rambam armaments corps base, and was issued a permit for a four-night stay at a hotel on Mapu Street in Tel Aviv. There she met Yehuda Rudlevich Galili, a native Israeli born in 1923. He was from a family that had immigrated from Bialystok and was among the first inhabitants of Ramat Gan. The family lived at 74 Jabotinsky Street, next door to a bakery they owned.

Yehuda Galili, a handsome fellow who rode a motorcycle, was determined to wed Mia Hendriks, and though she was planning to go back to Europe at the time, he convinced her to stay. By the entrance to the Jewish Agency building where she had gone to arrange her trip back, he persuaded her to remain in Israel and marry him. Mia underwent a quick conversion and on the ketubah (Jewish marriage contract ), her name is listed as Miriam bat Avraham. The couple lived in Ramat Gan before moving to a new moshav near the coast, Udim (near Netanya ), where they raised turkeys and grew vegetables. In August 1950 Mia wrote to her sister Nell in London that she was six months pregnant and that the baby inside her was preparing himself for life in this crazy world by doing all kinds of acrobatics. "Motti is such a sweetie, such a cute little thing, he even says a few words. 'Aba' and 'Ima' and 'et zeh' when he wants something, chik-chik for the chickens and 'ita' when he wants to eat," she wrote in the next letter. "As you can see, Hebrew, English and Dutch are all mixed up. What will become of him? By the way, his brother or sister is on the way. Nobody knows about it yet, but I don't think I'll be able to keep it a secret for long. We go by the new method here - that is, suddenly everyone sees what's happening with you and that's it! I'm not looking forward to the birth very much, because here everything is done in such a Spartan way! Without painkillers and in 24 hours you're out of bed and walking around! Were you ever given painkillers or anesthesia to relieve the labor pains? Can you picture me sitting at home with two babies instead of one?"

Mouse on a treadmill

On September 10, 1952, Mia reported that for the last three months, she hadn't budged from the bedside of her baby girl, who was "born sickly." "The different payments to the hospital have finished us off completely. We're totally broke. We weren't insured. Yes, she is dead. It's a terrible accident, a tragedy. Perhaps it's better this way, for the little girl's sake too. I'm so grateful that I have Motti and that Yehuda and I are healthy. That's life, you don't know what fate has in store for you, like this tragedy of ours ... I must bear it and bear it heroically! Like the Arabs say, everything is written beforehand: 'Maktub!'"

Mia sank into depression. "My anxiety attacks have subsided," she wrote. "I was depressed and felt miserable and lost. Everything looked bleak. I was treated with psychoanalysis by a psychiatrist. Anyway, he assured me that I'm not suffering 'from anything unusual,' aside from a depressed mood ... I felt very low and fatigued with headaches and I felt like I was carrying the weight of the whole world on my shoulders. Now it's a lot better, now that I'm aware of my problems and trying to control them. This is why I must tell myself to hang on and to cope with the difficulties. My nature is quite weak and I am blessed to have found such a wonderful guy. He always treats me nicely and forgives me for everything (all these fluctuations in my moods )."

Later in the same letter, she added paragraphs that shed light on the mores of the era: "You could say that household chores are of great importance here. What I mean is that the wife has many duties to fulfill here. A good wife is one who is devoted to caring for her husband nonstop - his meals, his baths, readying his clothes, making the bed, placing the newspaper on the table, serving him a glass of milk in bed and so on. When it comes to the children it's even worse. Three times worse. Yes, we are our children's maidservants here! A yiddishe mama. When it's pouring rain here, Yehuda's mother walks 30 kilometers just to make sure that Yehuda is wearing his thermal underwear. Oh, these Jewish women and mothers! It's backbreaking work trying to meet their expectations."

At around this time, Mia began working shifts at the reception desk at the Acadia Hotel, and said, "It works out well because it keeps me away from my problems and worries. I am like those white mice on the treadmills. I go from shift to shift and I'm so tired that nothing worries me." She asked her sister to look into a new antidepressant medication, "for the depression I get from time to time."

In the next months, Mia's mood was also affected by the serious economic hardship in Israel and the tension on the Israel-Egypt border. In December 1955, she wrote to her sister: "The situation is really very tense. Everyone feels that something is about to happen soon. May God protect us, but the way it looks now, it's pretty bad. They're always fighting at the border. I'm quite depressed by life here, I want to leave, Nell, I can barely deal with it all. There's hardly any kind of entertainment or amusement, there's nowhere to walk or to ride, no adventures, nothing! I've had it. Yehuda really understands me. I even went to the Australian Embassy, but of course you need a sponsor ... Maybe you know someone. How is life in England? Could we find work there?"

In the next letter she wrote: " ... I'm bored to death here in this weird village [Udim]. The house makes me so depressed. I never see a living soul all day! As you know, the situation in the region is not that heartwarming ... always war, it's making me ill ... When I think about Motti it breaks my heart. The poor child, he's so dependent on Yehuda. I pray to God that everything will end well."

'No point anymore'

Galili says that what happened during the last six weeks of his mother's life will almost certainly remain a mystery. On September 21, 1956, she applied for a passport at the Dutch consulate, a passport she never used. Another odd detail of the passport episode was her decision to mark a large X over the section designated for information about her children - as if to say, "no children." In a letter from October 4, 1956, it is apparent that she had made up her mind to leave the country soon. "I anticipate a quick and polite end [of her marriage]," she wrote.

On October 22, 1956, she composed her final letter in the studio apartment on the roof of the building on Jabotinsky Street: She was getting divorced. "Dear Nell, Please don't worry. Yehuda and I are parting amicably ... " The reason, she adds, "is sex. We don't have sex anymore. I'm sure you'll understand right away. There's no point anymore, you know, Nell."

Yehuda was then in the throes of an affair with Mary, an Italian widow and mother of two. (In his book, "Two Collages," Galili published letters his father sent to Mary from the front during the Sinai Campaign .)

" ... I will not stay here [in Israel], it will be extremely hard for me, especially as a single woman on my own," Mia wrote after the couple decided a few days later to sell their house in Udim. "I'm thinking now about moving to America, or maybe New Zealand, but because it could still take a long time (I don't have the precise information yet ), I may come to England in the meantime ...." She was hesitant to move back to her mother's home in the Hague because there, "the rooms with wooden furnishings in Holland frighten me." She ended the letter with a request: "... The best thing, Nell, would be for you to arrange some job for me, okay, Nell? And a place to live."

On October 29, a week after that letter was written, the Sinai Campaign began. Four days into the war, Mia filled out a form requesting permission to leave the country, and she signed it with her maiden name - Mia Hendriks. Family status: "Divorced" (although it had yet to be made official ). She also said that she desired to go to "England-Holland" (so she wrote ) and "permanently." The name of her son Motti was missing this time as well. On November 18, she killed herself.

'Total oblivion'

During our conversations, Galili repeatedly stresses that despite the powerful depiction of his mother's life that comes through in her letters, they are not the real crux of the book. In other words: This time he is the subject, not his mother. "The effort here is not directed at understanding her life story or her suicide because I really don't arrive at any new insights. This time I wanted to focus on myself. Basically, I wanted to tell my mother what happened to me when she was gone, and to return to the child and to his shattered world.

"In reality, too, relatives and family members always focused on the suicide as the big tragedy and didn't focus on me just because I was alive. No one asked, 'What happened to Motti?' So I tried to get at the broken places inside me. And I know that when she died, I went through an indescribable crisis. Darkness. Total oblivion. A period of five or six years that I completely blacked out of my memory, until age 11, more or less. So I wanted to go back to these places and touch them. My feeling was that there are things there that I don't understand well enough or know well enough. Sealed-off places. I wanted to tell about the darkness that the child in me lived in when he yearned to be and to live like everyone else, to repair his world, and not to return to the menacing darkness. Today I'm ready and able to descend to the difficult places when I sense their presence."

I ask him what has really changed. After all, in 1988 he wrote very powerful poems about his mother. Is he finally reconciling with her now, at age 61? Galili says yes, but that's not all. "The perspective is different and my feelings are different. In the earlier book I was gentler and gave legitimation to the suicide. I tried to cloak this act in an aesthetic, reasonable aura. But now, after reading the letters, I understood that she was genuinely suffering because of her personality, because of her weaknesses, and mainly because of her profound depression. For the first time I really understood how terrible her suffering was. Another feeling that was aroused in me after reading the letters was that I started to love her, because I saw how much she loved me."

Didn't you agonize over the publication of such private, intimate letters? On the ethical level, if nothing else?

"I agonized over it a great deal. I know what a poem is, and I didn't want a memory book or a memorial candle, and the book immortalizes her. As a rule, I'm against mannerisms of this kind. But to me these are texts that are cited in the book in the right place, if only for the sake of its composition, like in a painting. They are pure poetry and I love them. They connect to my life story, but in another category. I feel that I am their addressee; that in them my mother answered the questions I had, and this helps me make sense of the world. Some people advised me not to publish them, or only to put them in as an addendum or to cite them as a source as in a bibliography. I rejected this advice."

Learning to walk again

Hanging in the warm, inviting living room of Galili's north Tel Aviv apartment are impressive art works by Henry Shlezniak, Raffi Lavie, Yair Garbuz and Igael Tumarkin. Galili has a kind face. He speaks softly. There are moments in the conversation when he can't hold back the tears. One senses that his mother's death will continue to hover over him for many years to come. He has been married for the past 16 years to Rina Simon-Galili, who has three children from a previous marriage. Two of them, twins doing their compulsory military service, live with them. Galili's son from his first marriage, Itamar, 32, is about to become a father. This week, in honor of the publication of Galili's new book, the scholar and critic Prof. Gabriel Moked brought him an old issue of the journal Akhshav from 1980, containing the first five poems Galili wrote, which Moked had first published in Akhshav in 1973. A year before that, Galili had finished his army service in the Sayeret Shaked special forces unit, during which time the poems were written.

Three years after finishing his military service, while Galili was working as a security officer for El Al, he was offered a job working for a large publishing company, and he has been in the same industry ever since. He specialized there in phototypesetting, and subsequently worked for Masada Publishing House, and later for the Monitin quarterly journal. It was then that his connection with the world of journalism began, a connection that has continued to this day. In his next position, at the Hadashot newspaper, Galili introduced a computerized system and served as production manager, overseeing graphics and photography. There he was sucked into what he describes as an impossible schedule.

"Up to then I was writing poetry, but the job at Hadashot got in the way of my writing. I remember that when I was working on the poems for my second book, I would be up writing at three in the morning, and at seven, when the sun came up, I'd still be bent over the paper. But I knew that if I didn't have a stable source of income, I'd have to ask for handouts."

Galili speaks fondly about the world of print production. "Everything that has to do with print is aesthetic and beautiful. I love typography, the aesthetics and strict rules of arranging texts in different variations and using fonts from different families." In 1993, he moved to Haaretz as the pre-press systems director.

Wasn't the contrast between office work and poetry writing a problem?

"There is no contradiction; on the contrary. The cultural environment at both Hadashot and Haaretz enriched me - the precise, unadorned secular Hebrew of writers whom I admire was important to my writing. Look, not everyone is an Agnon who can get up in the morning and write from eight until one in the afternoon. Nor do I see any contradiction in terms of identity. In my self-definition I am a poet, and I feel that the new book took this definition another step forward."

Where have you been for the past 23 years, since the last book?

"I came out with a few poems here and there that were published in the 'Culture and Literature' section in Haaretz, and I also worked on poems that were supposed to appear in a book published by Hakibbutz Hameuhad, which wasn't published in the end. I refer to those years of silence in childish terms - I was mad, I didn't want to write poetry. I'm a poet and I have my abilities and I want to write but I don't have the place and the platform. I knew that I didn't want to go begging to publishers. So I didn't write."

And how was the matter finally resolved?

"After two of my long poems were published this year in the 'Culture and Literature' section, I received offers to publish a book of poetry from Keter and from Keshev Leshira, and later on from Yedioth Books."

Galili's book is being published as part of Yedioth Ahronoth Books' Lirica series, edited by Aliza Zigler. Four to six books a year are to be published as part of the series. Galili's is the second so far, after "Neged Bedidut" ("Against Solitude" ), a book of essays by Gadi Taub. Galili says that the two long poems that launched the process originated from a feeling he had two years ago that he just had to get back to writing. "I felt that if I didn't write now, my existence would crumble away."

What were the conditions that allowed you to break the writing barrier?

"First of all, it was a conscious decision of mine that derived from the realization that I was approaching my 60th year. Beyond that, there was a certain element of convenience - I was more free, the kids were grown."

And so two years ago, Galili sat down to write again; the first poem he published is the one that later became the first chapter of the new book. It was a powerful experience, he says. "I came back to Motti the poet. Sometimes I feel like this book is my first book. Maybe because of the large amount of time that's passed, maybe because I'm doing things better in it. In other words, I've learned to walk again. I feel that the return to writing has given me tons of energy and also a certain desire and readiness. I think that writing is the thing I do best."

He adds: "After I finished the work on the self-portrait, I felt that it put my poetic world in order. I took the old long poem 'The Hills' and peeled off the layer that was political and that's how I ended up with the long poem 'A Journey that Ends with a Dance.' I came to understand that my poetry was not suited for subjects like politics or philosophy. I couldn't imitate Wieseltier and others who were writing poems then with a political context. And so, even the Peace Now demonstrations, which were the center of my life at one time, come down to just a single sentence in the new book - 'I barely remember the protests in the square,' It was clear to me that I could only write well about things that I really know, that I feel and experience."

So Galili went back to writing about a purely personal subject. The new long poem, "Masa Shenigmar Berikud," was published in Haaretz, and the response was overwhelming. Something opened up inside him. The repression that had previously yielded an emotional stinginess in his writing was gone. He opened up and put everything into his writing.

You wrote about your mother and didn't censor a thing, but for the first time you point an accusing finger at your father - "You thought that responsibility ended with the separation / You forgot me / I have many reasons / The ones in question I ruled out / I blame you for the suicide."

"I blame him because he was the one who courted her and caused her to spend her life in Israel, and for me to be born here, and because he left her when she was sick and crippled. He should have taken care of her for the rest of her life. The way he started a new life and ignored her, it was as if he ran her over, and for that I can't forgive him."

Your father died in 1995. From what you write in the poems, it appears that he never spoke about her.

"That's right. He didn't even tell me how much she loved me. Until I read her letters, I didn't know that. He barely mentioned her. It was as if she had never existed and he was the one who raised me. He told me nothing. I didn't discover that I'd had a younger sister who died until I was 19 and in the army, and then it was only by chance. I went to the Dutch consulate and the woman behind the counter took out my mother's file and translated it into English, and that's how I found out.

"I'm angry at him because he didn't understand that he needed to fill in details for me so I could preserve them as memories. And later on, this whole effort to try to scrape up information was very traumatic. The knocking on the doors of these difficult experiences meant entire days of not being able to really function."

But ironically, in a way, that is what eventually spawned the poetry.

"Yes, the poetry comes from these places. Less from the tragedy itself than from its consequences. You might call me schizophrenic, but today I can really see Motti the child, I feel like I can even caress him."

What does he look like?

"I'd describe him as a kind of alien. He's not from this world, he's only here to visit. He has a different way of looking at daily human experience: He's a child who doesn't understand the world of grown-ups and their twisted judgments. He's the normal one. You could say that this is the result of the new book - that at the end of a journey that concludes with a dance stands a child-alien who doesn't understand our world and our reality and who looks at us with different eyes. I'm trying to understand him. That's all."

Like a comet

Dror Burstein on Mordechai Galili’s book

It has been nearly a quarter-century since Mordechai Galili’s last book, but like a comet that vanishes deep into space, out of sight, but is always there in constant motion and will eventually return toward the sun and be revealed again, so his poetry returned to him. This is a poet who ostensibly had just one reader, a friend: “He’s the only one who says: Motti, go back to writing.” The wonder is that this is enough. One reader. A single drop of water that can make an entire garden bloom.

At the heart of the book are three long poems. Galili has managed to grab hold of two very distant ends of the literary stick. On the one hand, these poems tell a story, a family drama and the tale of a journey, and their horizon is the novel. On the other hand, the poems never disconnect from the lyrical for a moment, for they are broken down into small units of short lyric poems. This is a book that travels, like its author “with half the car on the fields, and the other half on the road.” This breakdown means that a poem is composed not only of what is written in it, but also of the many spaces between the chapters. Since the poet’s mother, who committed suicide when he was a child, is a central figure in the book, the empty spaces and silences in the book are transformed from something neutral into an emotionally charged and keenly felt presence.

The style of the poems is restrained, almost without adornment or metaphor. As if the poet were heeding his father’s instruction: “Just don’t be a crazy poet ... Keep stable!” But don’t be fooled by the “stable” style. The complexity and richness of the poems is not to be found here in a certain brilliant word or stunning juxtaposition, but rather in the silences and the relationships between the chapters.

Here I can give just one simple example: The poet imagines the farewell note his mother could have written to him, but didn’t write. He writes it for her, ending with: “I would like you to sign it with three exes,” i.e., with three kisses. And at the very beginning of the book, in the poet’s dedication to his wife, he signs it XXX. In other words, he takes the missing kisses from his dead mother and transforms them from “anti-matter” into “matter,” from absence to poetry. That one line encapsulates this entire amazing book.

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