Backward, Forward, Afterword

With his inimitable wit and humor, Yossi Sarid recalls his political past, discusses his newest book of poetry and shares some existential thoughts as he approaches his 70th birthday.

At the start of our conversation, Yossi Sarid says he has an extraordinary scoop for me, but he insists I wait patiently to hear it. "First, ask what you planned to ask," he says. At the end of our talk, he drops the bomb: "You won't believe this, but in a few months I will be 70 years old. I started everything very young. Everywhere I was, I was the youngest and I was a Wunderkind."

Eventually, he continues, "I started going into rooms and looking around, and saw I was no longer the youngest person there. After that, you're not one of the young people at all. In the end, you get to the point where you enter a room and if [President] Shimon Peres isn't there then you're the oldest. I believe one must have a sense of humor about oneself ... I also invented a title for myself. I was the youngest Labor Party Knesset member for about 15 years and this stuck to me, without letting go. In the end I had no choice but to call myself by the very dignified title, 'the elder statesman of the young MKs.'"

Sarid's third book of poetry, "Afterwords," was recently published by Even Hoshen. His first volume of verse, "A Meeting at Another Place" was published back in 1961 by Mahbarot Lesifrut. At that time publisher Israel Zmora wrote that the young Sarid was "a Hebrew poet with an 'I,' with a personal coloration, with Hebrew that has a pulse, which does not fight tradition, though it is not subjugated to tradition either and, indeed, is innovative, combining new, modern experiences." Zmora added: "We are expectant and intrigued to see what direction his talent will take, and are making the assumption that important achievements can be expected from the poet, who at the outset has his own colorful style."

But Sarid quickly found himself involved in other things: "It was clear what I would be, and it was clear what my mother wanted: She wanted me to become a university professor and a writer, preferably a poet, which is also what I wanted. Lots of things interfered with the plan. When I got out of the army I would wake up at noon. In our class-conscious house it was not acceptable to sleep until then. My mother asked, 'Don't you intend to work?' I said, 'What do you mean?' She said, 'What do you intend to do?' I said, 'What do you mean, what do I intend to do? I'm going to be an announcer on Israel Radio.' She asked, 'Do they know that?' I said, 'No. But they will.'"

Sarid was auditioned at Israel Radio by the late Moshe Hovav, whom he calls "the greatest announcer of all time. He gave me hard words to pronounce, like 'Massachusetts.' I completed the test and he said I couldn't be an announcer yet because I didn't have a rolling resh, but it wasn't a lost cause because a course for announcers would be starting soon.

Yossi Sarid 03/09/10 Gali Eytan
Gali Eytan

"I said to him, 'Listen, Mr. Hovav, I'm going home now. What shall I tell my mother? That a course is starting soon? That doesn't seem reasonable to me.' He said, 'Ahh, okay. A mother problem' - and took me into the main news program studio. There was a splendid bunch of people there: Yoram Ronen, Hagai Pinsker, Yirmiyahu Yovel, Yigal Lossin and Yaron London. I have never worked with such a talented bunch."

After three years of work at Israel Radio, says Sarid, a problem arose with the management - though he says he doesn't remember exactly what it was.

"This is something that has characterized me all my life: I've always had problems with the management. In the army, at school, in the government. But I've never had problems with people who worked with me. When I left the Labor Party [in 1984], one day someone came to me and said, 'Listen, ever since you left, Shimon [Peres] has been very happy and Marcelle has been weeping.' Marcelle was the woman who served tea in the party headquarters building. I told the bearer of this news that that was a lot better than the opposite. I said, 'Imagine what would happen if you had told me that since I left, Shimon Peres has been crying bitterly but Marcelle was in a great mood. I would really have been hurt.'"

When he was 24, Sarid was offered the position of spokesman of Mapai (the major precursor of today's Labor Party ).

"I don't know how to convey to you the significance of being the Mapai spokesman," he says. "I said: 'Just a minute, does that mean that all the greats - Ben-Gurion and Golda [Meir] and [Pinhas] Sapir - I'll be speaking in their name?' I thought I would do that for a year and then maybe write a book. But I was bitten by the bug. I thought maybe I'd give the Knesset a try, since I knew better than they [people there] how to do the things they thought they knew how to do. And it worked. I didn't need to pay any price, I was always elected and my election never entailed any effort. Because this came so easily and I thought I had a role to fill, it continued."

Looking back, Sarid does not regret the road not taken: "I always say I look back without regrets and without longings. I have had a very interesting life." He is sorry, however, about his last term in the Knesset, between 2003 and 2006. "It was wasted," he explains. "I should have quit four years earlier. I was miserable, I felt completely alien there. Even had I done something wrong, or even something criminal - I would ask myself whether I deserved such a harsh punishment.

"When I first entered the Knesset there were people around like Menachem Begin and [Yitzhak] Ben-Aharon. Suddenly [in my last term], I was surrounded by all sorts of types and didn't know what I was doing with them. Like my mother used to say: 'These are not friends for you.' Sitting there was the person who was the most terrible education minister ever, Limor Livnat; there had never been a catastrophe like that. And suddenly for the first time in my life, I was becoming bitter. I was a short-tempered and unpleasant person, even more than usual."

The poems in Sarid's new book deal with endings. "I do not regret / I do not yearn / I touch the caboose," he writes in the poem "Another Way."

There is something of the nightmarish, of death and separation in the poems. In "Tip for the Loser," the politician-poet writes: "Who will eulogize Yossi Sarid" [in Hebrew, "eulogize" - yaspid - rhymes with "Sarid"]. However, there is also irony and humor in the book, as in the poem "Interest in Life." There, Sarid writes somewhat humorously about death, with whom he has been acquainted for many years: "He's the only one who hasn't criticized me for smoking." In the poem "In the Cellar," he writes: "My hand is cold / and I want to wrap myself in you / to escape the cellar that is like an attic / for a person with TB / Menachem Begin is waiting there for me / with a glazed look on his face."

On the subject of Menachem Begin, Sarid says: "My home is my castle. I sometimes go out for a day's work, but usually not. Sometimes this staying at home reminds me - of course, the difference is huge - of how Begin stayed at home. He did this because he was a broken man, and I am doing it because things are coming together. My need for the outside environment is minimal these days. Nevertheless, I am not completely exempt from thinking it is similar. Sometimes it seems to me that if I open the door, maybe I will find Begin waiting for me."

Is it hard to watch things from the sidelines without the ability to wield any influence?

Sarid: "I don't know how much influence I had before. When the bitterness accumulates in me, I have, to my great delight, somewhere to let it out. When I am angry or annoyed, I write a column for the newspaper. [Sarid writes a regular column for Haaretz.] When I am more serene and contemplative, I write a poem. And in between, when I want to combine the anger and the contemplativeness, I take the time to write prose."

Of his attitude toward death, he says: "[Some people] mess around with hemorrhoids or sinusitis. I go for the big stuff - I only go first class, either the head or the heart. The rest is trivial. Death has taken a personal interest in me and I have dealt with it and have remained alive. This is a fact. I know exactly what the life expectancy is for men, 78 to 79. You women last longer. I acknowledge this reality and therefore I have a sense that time is running short. There are still a lot of things I want to do. People don't define the matter of death correctly. So the body dies in the end, big deal. But long before a person dies, the soul dies. Therefore, every day I conduct a self-examination of the state of my soul."

How do you do that?

"It's very simple. I check whether I still get annoyed. Yes. Do I still get angry? Yes. Do I still feel love? Yes. So that's a sign my situation is all right and not desperate. I want to check if the fire is still burning and if it is burning, that's a sign that I am alive for now."

Just as he has few regrets about his political career, Sarid does not have strong ones concerning the Sapir Prize and the scandal surrounding it last year, which culminated in the cancellation of the prize; Sarid was chairman of the jury that reviewed the candidates.

"I do very much regret that I took this upon myself," he explains. "I did it for three years. I read 250 books, of which 200 were really terrible and I nearly got book poisoning. What did I need that for at all? What demon was pushing me? To this day, when I look back, I find it hard to understand it. Regret isn't an especially noble quality.

"All my life I've said it's necessary to regret in advance - not in retrospect. Last year there were people who were a lot smarter than I was, who regretted in advance and not in retrospect: There isn't a person who wasn't offered the position of chairman of the prize jury; people replied in the negative out of a sense of revulsion and also because they didn't want to go through the whole 'security' check."

Sarid says he and his colleagues on the jury did their work "with a completely untainted mind. After all, no one would dream that there were any extraneous considerations. There was a bit of arrogance on my part, though. I was working under the assumption - which may have been absurd, but I believed it - that no one would cast any doubt on my integrity, and there is more than a smidgen of arrogance in that."

He relates that many years ago, he was invited to lecture at the police staff and command college: "My car broke down, I called them and told them I was very sorry but I had no way to get there. They told me they would send a car. I waited and suddenly from afar I saw a police vehicle. They sent me a police car. So, what should I do? Tell them I don't get into police cars, even though they are also cars? Along the way there was no alternative but to stop at traffic lights. Every time we stopped at one, people peered in; some saw that I was sitting in the car. I saw, or so it seemed to me, that a lot of people were in fact pleased. I saw their faces light up: 'At long last they have caught that saint.' What greater joy is it possible to cause people?"

His book of prose "Accordingly, We Are Here Assembled," published by Yedioth Books in 2008, became a best seller, eventually selling 55,000 copies. Sarid says he received about half a shekel per copy.

"There are people who talk about the commercial aspects of literature from a sense of oppression. I am the last of the sober ones, a person who has no reason to complain and therefore I can talk about this objectively. What is being done in the world of books in this sense is an incomparable scandal. For me, it doesn't make that much difference because I am not financially dependent on anyone."

Are you in favor of the "book law" [proposed legislation stating that authors' royalties will not be hurt by special discount campaigns by local book stores]?

"I am not all that familiar with the bill, but I know that the current situation cannot continue. It's impossible that writers, without whom there is nothing left in life, will get half a shekel or a shekel for a book. This is Sodom. This is unacceptable. There are quite a number of authors for whom this is their employment, their livelihood."

Sarid is prepared to reveal that he is currently writing about his literary life. "It will be interesting, to say the least. I have seen some interesting things in my life, and I have heard some interesting things in my life."