The Kiss of July

Else Lasker-Schuler is alive and well on the Mount of Olives.

Jerusalem, on that day, looked like the huge yard of a psychiatric institution that had been abandoned by the management, leaving the patients to run hither and fro, without knowing whence would come help. Helicopters circled overhead and police officers blocked traffic for the march for the release of Gilad Shalit. And the populace of Jerusalem itself stared at them for a moment, before turning back to their own affairs with a shrug.

Nir Kafri

Among this great crowd going up to Jerusalem was one small group that had made its way from the German city of Wuppertal to pay a visit at 9:45 A.M. (so it had been decided, but because of the heavy traffic the meeting time was pushed back ) to the grave of the Jewish German poet Else Lasker-Schuler on the Mount of Olives.

The poet was born in 1869 in Elberfeld, now a district of Wuppertal, where there is a museum and memorial center named after her. Its director, Hajo Jahn, does everything he can to promote awareness of Lasker-Schuler's importance locally and elsewhere. He fought to have a municipal prize founded in her name, and to have public institutions named after her. He has an ambitious plan to set up a center to commemorate artists who were declared "degenerate" and persecuted by the Nazis. In Israel, Jahn was the living spirit behind a series of music and theater performances last week devoted to the works of Lasker-Schuler, at Tel Aviv's Tmuna Theater.

The great German Expressionist poet immigrated to Palestine after the Nazis came to power in Germany, and in Jerusalem lived a life of poverty and was even reduced to begging. Children thought Lasker-Schuler was crazy and would mock her as she walked the Jerusalem streets dressed in extravagant rags. So testified the poet Yehuda Amichai, the first of her translators into Hebrew.

One might think there are no longer any folks in the land who can remember Else Lasker-Schuler, but no: Among those who visited the grave on the Mount of Olives last Thursday, under a blazing July sun, were a few of those unexplained natural phenomena, such as Avital Ben-Chorin, widow of writer Shalom Ben-Chorin, who was a proponent of the Jewish Reform movement. She recounted in German, as though it were yesterday, memories from Lasker-Schuler's funeral on January 21, 1945, which she had attended.

That day, Ben-Chorin noted, was a wintry one, and not many mourners showed up. Maybe 50. She also told how Lasker-Schuler was hateful to her personally after she married, but later changed her approach, and invited Ben-Chorin for a conciliatory cup of coffee at a Jerusalem cafe. And Ben-Chorin mentioned the "miracle" of Else's flower: A flower the poet had given her a few days before she died, which died the very same day the poet passed away.

That episode was cited after Hajo Jahn read out the wonderful poem "Ich Weiss" ("I Know"), about a flower that is given to the poet before her death, as well as the image "Julikuss" - "July's long-awaited kiss," a word combination invented by Lasker-Schuler, who was known for her original and peculiar portmanteau words.

In Jerusalem, July is indeed a deathly hot month. It seems like one had to be present, last Thursday, in front of Lasker-Schuler's tombstone on the Mount of Olives, in the brutal blinding whiteness, to truly grasp the nature of this "Julikuss," which is capable of drying up the living on the spot and turning them into a mummy.

Avital Ben-Chorin was not the only living monument there around the grave. There were others, such as the singer Greta Klingsberg, who at 13 had the lead role in the children's opera "Brundibar," which was mounted at the Theresienstadt concentration camp. And from Germany there was Ingrid-Maria Keimel-Metz, who visited Israel for the first time as a school pupil before the Six-Day War, when the Mount of Olives was still under Jordanian rule and Else Lasker-Schuler's tombstone was defaced. Keimel-Metz had vowed to herself to come back someday to bow down before it.

The poet's grave now has three tombstones, one on top of the other: the original stone, and at its base another plaque denoting the tombstone's discovery after the Six-Day War, and above it a black stone inscribed in German, with Lasker-Schuler's name and birth and death dates on one side, and on the other side the story of the desecration of the cemetery on the Mount of Olives and its restoration.

Over the years the ancient cemetery has undergone massive reconstruction, and the panoramic plaza at the mountaintop, from which you descend to the graves, was given the name Mitzpe Rehavam (Rehavam's Lookout ), after the assassinated Israeli government minister Rehavam Zeevi. Next to the sign commemorating the father of the "transfer idea," a group of Palestinians in ethnographic garb sat waiting for the tourists debarking from the buses to take them for a ride on a camel with an elaborate saddle and bridle.

Else Lasker-Schuler aroused anger wherever she set foot. Her freewheeling sexual mores went down poorly with many, including in Jerusalem, where tongues wagged that she had affairs with this or that one of the town's worthies. She was everything but a distinguished poet. Nor was she much of a Zionist. She used to say - so Avital Ben-Chorin recounted - that this was not the Land of Israel, but rather the "Land of Misrael," a miserable land. Or worse: the "Land of Pissrael."