Every Word a Precious Stone

Only after he became a father did Ayin Hillel start writing for children. Two decades after his death, his daughters recall the man who, even in his last moments, never lost his profound sense of joy.

Ten days before his death in June 1990, lying in an intensive care unit, Ayin Hillel dictated a poem to the youngest of his three daughters, Hila, who sat at his bedside. These are the last lines of the poet's final poem (in an unofficial translation ):

A roe-deer soars over the mountain,

Good lord, what glory!

Would that be me!

An ant, a grasshopper, two goldfinches,

A roe-deer, doing that which they don't know,

Yanai Yehiel

But I do:

I stand, amazed, praising God!

These verses encapsulate the personality and outlook of Hillel Omer (1926-1990 ) who, on the recommendation of poet Avraham Shlonsky, adopted the pen name Ayin Hillel. These parting words beautifully illustrate his love of nature, his awe at the wonders of the universe and, above all, the tremendous passion for life that burned within him and refused to be extinguished even when his heart began to betray him and he was on his deathbed. Even then, at age 64, he was the same child-poet looking upon the world with "amazement and praise."

After his first heart attack, 13 years beforehand, the doctors didn't expect Ayin Hillel to last much longer. His heart may have been severely weakened, but it remained as generous as ever. In those years, he did his utmost to assist the new immigrants arriving from the former Soviet Union. He would go to the airport to greet them and helped establish a foundation that found employment for them.

Ayin Hillel's fierce love of life and his tenacious attachment to all the world had to offer actually makes it difficult for his loved ones to find solace even 20 years after his death.

"If only he'd had a little self-pity. If only he'd complained a bit, if he'd been bitter - that would have made it easier," his daughter, actress Nuli Omer, wrote in one of her own stories. "But that was him, and the combination of his joy and unbridled optimism and the illness that took up residence in his good heart, and finally killed him, darkened my own heart."

His daughter, Tal Omer, a drama teacher, director and writer, also talks about the difficulty of freeing herself from the influential figure of her father and his powerful presence in her life.

"He was someone with vast knowledge; he knew the names of all the trees and flowers. He was the first child on the kibbutz to learn to read and he was talented at drawing, too. Whenever anything bothered him," Tal explains, "he would write about it. He was annoyed by billboards on the street, for instance. Both because they were signs of the greediness that was covering up the landscape, and because they were put up without any thought for aesthetics. It was very hard not to see the world through his eyes."

The world as seen through Ayin Hillel's eyes was essentially a great treasure chest, which he always gazed upon with childlike awe. He had no need to invent a magic world for himself: The world itself was already magical enough for him.

"He always reminded me of Useppe, the boy from Elsa Morante's book 'La Storia,'" says Tal. "A boy with a rich imagination, poetic and full of sweetness, but at the same time very lonely. By the time he was three, he had a storeroom where he stowed away all kinds of things that he found, and everyone on the kibbutz knew that if you needed anything, you ought to check Hillel's storeroom."

A book is now being published with one of Ayin Hillel's best-known and beloved poems, "Yossi, Smart Child of Mine," with illustrations created by Liat Yaniv, using a special technique. For more than five years, Yaniv cut out and collected colorful clippings from Haaretz, sorted them into various shades of color, and then painstakingly glued them together to create these illustrations.

"She really loved my father's poem and was inspired to create the illustrations for it," says Nuli. "She showed them to [renowned illustrator] Danny Kerman and he encouraged her to call us."

Yaniv sent the sketches and Nuli was overwhelmed: "My father's works had many illustrators," she says. "Some better than others. But you can see how much work and how much thought was put into these illustrations. The quality is really on a par with the text my father wrote."

Ayin Hillel only began writing children's poems after he became a father. Among his most famous compositions are "Why Does the Zebra Wear Pajamas" (1959 ) and "Uncle Simcha" (1964 ). When his daughters grew up, Hillel found it difficult to write for children. Some years passed before he published, just a year before his death, two more children's books: "It Happened to a Fawn" and "A Cloud in My Hand." According to his daughters, he would write many drafts and would read his work out loud to his wife, their mother, Zippora, before letting anyone else hear it.

In "Yossi, Smart Child of Mine," first published in 1978, a mother sends her son out to buy some things, and even though the child comes back each time with something other than what he was asked to get, his mother always greets him with joy and love. But the story's idyllic image of a family is quite far from Hillel's own experiences.

As a child on Kibbutz Mishmar Ha'emek, he grew up in the children's house and thus, as was customary, did not live under the same roof with his parents.

In one part of his autobiography, "Blue and Thorns" (Sifriyat Hapoalim, 1977 ), he wrote: "We, the kibbutz's first children, did not get to have a mother and father of our own. For the new man, the pioneer, the kibbutznik, the socialist who was building and founding a new society, it just would not do to be an ordinary bourgeoisie 'father' and his companion in life to be just a 'mother' ... Our parents did not comply so happily with the imperative of the great revolutionary idea, but they suppressed their sorrow beneath the fervor of the Zionist project and the burdens of daily life. Until they broke down. But not all at once - and not together. The mother would permit her second child to call her 'Mother,' and by the third child the father, too, surrendered and consented (happily! ) to be called 'Father' ...

"One day when I was already a man among men (and no longer a kibbutz member ), Shulamit came to me and I felt: She has something to tell me. But she can't bring herself to say it. After she mumbled a bit, hesitantly, she finally came out with it: I want you to call me 'Mother.' Thrilled and amazed by this request, I was silent for a moment, and then, mumbling, I said to her: Now, Shulamit, I think that it is too late."

Herein perhaps lies the secret of the magic of Ayin Hillel's poems: Yes, they are brimming with joy, but it is not an empty sort of joy: It is the joy of someone familiar with sadness and yearning. He did not write in a didactic tone. If his poems preached anything, it was love for the world.

In a 1989 interview with Haaretz, the writer said: "If my stories are educational, that's great, but if not - that's fine, too. It's not my problem. I'm just telling a story."

"If a poet's fondest wish is for his poems to be read aloud to all, then Ayin Hillel attained the highest level to which a poet could aspire," wrote Benny Ziffer, editor of the culture and literature supplement of Haaretz. "His children's poems are classics of Hebrew poetry, and are planted, one bit here and one bit there - amusing, witty and biting - in every self-respecting anthology of children's poems."

In 1990, Hillel was awarded the Andersen Prize, the most prestigious international prize for children's literature. He was due to accept the award in Virginia, but did not live to attend the ceremony.

The writer complained that the success of his children's poems diverted attention from the poetry he wrote for adults. His first such book, "The Noon Country," was published in 1950, and in 1984, his poems were collected in a volume entitled "Until Now" (Hakibbutz Hameuchad ). In these works, too, his natural cheerfulness is apparent, as is his great love for all aspects of the Hebrew language.

"In his poems for adults, every word is like a precious stone," says daughter Nuli. "You can read the poems again and again, and discover new things each time."

He may belong to the so-called Palmach generation of poets, but the lyrical writing of Ayin Hillel was unique and distinct. Prominent motifs were love for the earth and its landscapes, and the desire to fit into the world of nature.

The poem that best exemplifies this is "At the Kfar Sava Turn," which appears in "The Noon Country." The speaker in the poem revels in nature and the world in general with tremendous excitement and a rapturous burst of emotion. He and the world become one:

I felt someone smiling at me

It may have been me

It may have been the world

Or perhaps we were blended together.

And, the poem goes on to say:

I spied a flock of swallows there too

Set madly aswirl by the perfumed clouds

And right away it hit me

That these were exactly my feelings.

It concludes with the following:

Oh, on the fifth day of the month of Adar

At the Kfar Sava turn

How wonderful to be!

Just to be

To be! And to be!

But in the poems in "The Noon Country," the joy for life does diminish the quality of clear-eyed observation. "The things that are happening today were already alluded to in the poems of 'The Noon Country,'" Hillel told poet Anat Levitt in a 1986 interview, "the sense of sorrow, the pain and anxiety over what's starting to happen in this country - bribery, avarice, materialism - all of those qualities that I felt when they were just starting to emerge. Unfortunately, we're living today in a country in which there is a lot of bad. I'm not like some of my good friends who say that it's all bad, all is lost, there's no hope. I see myself as a pathological optimist."

As such, he had a keen aversion to melancholy writing. In 1989, he commented about the band Natasha's Friends, which was a big success at the time: "This is what they play on the radio today. Shouted songs, pointless texts. It doesn't speak to me, this fashion for melancholy, this crying all the time."

In 1951, Ayin Hillel went to Paris to study landscape architecture and came back to Mishmar Ha'emek, excited about applying his knowledge.

"He built terraces, planted trees and plants, turned the kibbutz upside down," recalls daughter Tal. But he didn't stay on the kibbutz. In 1954, he moved his family to Jerusalem, where he served as head of the city's parks department and helped design the botanical gardens and parts of Hebrew University's Givat Ram campus, among other projects.

Five years later, the family moved to Tel Aviv, the city that so enchanted him in his childhood.

"The first time my parents took me to Tel Aviv, to my aunts and uncles, to my grandfather and grandmother, Tel Aviv made a huge impression on me," he wrote in "Blue and Thorns." "So many white buildings, standing in rows, one next to the other, and those sidewalks where your shoes crunch sand when they step on them ... Later we went to the sea and when we got there, I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe that there was so much water in once place. I stood there and looked and looked, and I still couldn't believe it. I was sure it was an exaggeration."

But as an adult, and a landscape architect, the city's shortcomings were apparent to him. He felt the olive trees and palms, for example, were not suitable to the urban landscape, because they did not provide shade. He thought it would be better to plant citrus trees instead. He also couldn't abide the mishmash of paving styles of the sidewalks, which he felt gave rise to a feeling of unease.

"He never stopped missing Paris," says Tal.

Indeed, Ayin Hillel's dream was to turn Tel Aviv into Paris - a city of broad boulevards, greenery, trees and light. He had many plans and submitted some of them to the municipality. He envisioned transforming the area in front of City Hall, for example, into a blooming garden, perhaps even an orchard. He thought about redesigning Kikar Bialik and moving the Nahum Gutman mosaic out of there. In Gan Meir, he dreamed of seeing a market for pets and birds, plants and gardening supplies. In Hayarkon Park, he wanted to build a monkey island.

Not many people know how to combine the world of action with the world of intellect, but for Ayin Hillel it came naturally and he felt comfortable in both worlds. On the one hand he was a highly regarded poet who was friendly with other literary types, including Hanoch Bartov, T. Carmi, Amir Gilboa and Haim Gouri. On the other hand, he was a landscape architect responsible for the Charles Clore Park in Tel Aviv, for which he won the prestigious Rokach Prize. As in his poems, in his work as an architect, he sought a symbiosis with nature. In the Clore park, for example, he took his cue from the sea and designed everything in rounded, wavy lines. Even the trash cans installed there were round.

"Architecture and poetry weren't two separate things to him," Tal explains. "It all derived from the same place."

And, her sister Nuli adds: "No matter what, for him the supreme joy was to eat grapes on the balcony while listening to Bach." W