Poet by Necessity

Aluf Benn
Aluf Benn
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Aluf Benn
Aluf Benn

I've known since childhood that my father was a poet. I saw from close-up the environment in which he did his creative work: the small den in our old home, with the typewriter and the stacks of typed pages. His pen name, "Aryeh Sivan," while we went by our forbears' name, Bomstein. The carton of poetry books that had been privately printed and not yet been sold. The tense expectation ahead of the reviews in the weekend papers. The public readings and the occasional encounters with Dad's literary friends.

Today I know that poetry has filled a central place in my father's life, but to us, the members of his household, it seemed more like a sideline. A hobby. We were proud of his books, the poems published in the newspaper, the good reviews and the prizes he received, and we shared the pain of his disappointments. But none of us read poetry. When I was asked what my father did, I replied, "He teaches literature in a high school."

It took many years, and many more books by Aryeh Sivan on the shelf, before I became accustomed to saying that my father was a poet. I came to interview my father on the occasion of his being awarded the Israel Prize for Hebrew Poetry, which he will receive tomorrow, Independence Day.

What does the prize mean to you, I asked him. "Recognition of my existence as a poet," he replied simply.

Where does the feeling of lack of recognition come from?

"To judge from the amount of attention I get from the poetry milieu, from the Israeli intelligentsia, my name is less known than names such as Zach, Amichai, Rabikovitch and Avidan. I am very poor when it comes to public relations, I don?t have the inclination for it. They do it much better."

And the prize will change that?

"I don't think so."

Who is your reader? Whom do you aim at when you write?

"Whoever comes across my poems. I write out of inner pressure to write something. I don?t think about whom it will reach and whom it will please, or whom it will curry favor with. Writing is an inner act of the writer."

Then why does it matter, really, whether your poems are read and taught?

"Who said it matters to me so much? If it really mattered to me, I would do more about public relations. The writing itself is what gives me satisfaction."

The writing experience does not lend itself to description in physical or psychological terms, my father continues: "The Greeks called it, in a word, the muse. It's a moment that can be the result of contact with a landscape, or an event I experienced, and it somehow metamorphoses into lines that emerge from you. Semi-automatic writing, or quarter-automatic. At the moment of writing, you are cut off from the reality you live in."

For a journalist like me, who is used to writing on deadline, and keeping to a specific word count, the idea of spontaneous writing, from an inner impulse, sounds strange.

"Sometimes the muse came to visit when I was on the way to work at school," he relates. "Because I didn't want to be late, I would say goodbye to the muse, and went on to my job. I usually forgot it, and even when I remembered, it wasn't the same thing."

Who is your first reader?

"I am. After I write, I put the poem aside, and after some time I discover it and then decide what to do with it. If it's worthless, I throw it out. If it's laudable as it was born, I add it to my poems, and sometimes make corrections."

What makes a poem good?

"A good poem has several dimensions. You, the reader, find in it a first, second, third layer. It's not certain that that was the poet's intention. That's the work of the reader, if he's receptive to the poem. It's said that only 10 percent of people are receptive to poetry."

You are undoubtedly among them.

"Poems can do wonderful things to me - shake me up, give me pleasure - if I find that they are good. When I started to read poetry, I fell under Alterman's spell. After I taught Bialik for a few years, I learned to love him. Also Anglo-Saxon poets, who were the antithesis of Alterman and the Russian school, such as Stephen Spender, T.S. Eliot and Auden."

As a teacher of literature, whom did you most enjoy teaching?

"Bialik, amazingly; Amichai, Zach, and very much Dahlia Rabikovitch."

Did personal acquaintance with the poets change anything in teaching their work?

"No. The poem is a poem, a creature in its own right."

Reading my father's poems, I readily identify the sources of inspiration: from stories I heard at home, from events at which I was present, or from the curiosity I discovered in him about historical figures and periods. It was all written in his work: recollections of landscapes and childhood experiences from Tel Aviv of the 1930s and 1940s, Jerusalem after the War of Independence, Israel's wars, trips to Europe, meetings with colleagues. A belated consciousness of the Holocaust on the part of the sabra who wasn't "there."

From the 1980s, the years of the first Lebanon war and the intifada, there is no small amount of political protest and understanding for the suffering of the other side, along with growing concern about the country and its future. Heaving eroticism, and in the most recent books, also, an unavoidable coming-to-terms with old age and its tribulations.

A new culture

A few weeks ago, I went with my brother to the State Archives in Jerusalem and brought back from there the list of the new immigrants on the ship Varia Valeria, which carried our grandfather, Haim Bomstein, to the shores of Jaffa on July 18, 1920. It was the start of the Third Aliyah (wave of immigration to the Land of Israel), which was made up of socialist pioneers who abandoned the recently established Soviet Union, and the Jewish towns in which they were born and raised during the czarist period, and set out to foment a Zionist revolution in Palestine under the British Mandate.

There were about 60,000 Jews in the country at the time, and the ship's passenger list, in shaky Hebrew print, is made up almost entirely of young people with Ashkenazi surnames: Bloritzenko, Ratner, Silverberg, Lanzinsky. Disembarking, they created a new and different culture. They spoke only Hebrew with their children, consigning Yiddish to behind-the-back conversations and Russian to the books they brought with them.

My father was born in Tel Aviv in the summer of 1929, on the eve of the Arab riots in late August of that year. The house he grew up in, on Dizengoff Street, still stands, not far from the Batya Restaurant. He attended the Shalva Gymnasium, which was located on a side street near his home. He won his first writing prize while in the eighth grade: "There was an essay-writing contest in Tel Aviv and I wrote an essay that had something to do with the Holocaust and was awarded first prize. I no longer remember what I wrote in it."

The iconic poet Lea Goldberg taught him literature in high school, but was not a source of inspiration for him: "She wasn't a teacher. It was a lecture, like in university, with no dialogue with the students. She came, she lectured, she went home. I didn't even admire her. Later I read her poems with admiration, but in the 11th grade there was total alienation."

His excellent poem "Leah Was," written years later, is dedicated to the biblical matriarch - not the solitary poet.

My parents grew up in pre-state Palestine. My mother was born in Ramat Hasharon a few months after my father, and both of them have the self-confidence of sabras from that first generation, who built Israel with their own hands, for whom it was always theirs. They grew up in a minuscule society: Almost every time someone from their generation is mentioned in the news, it turns out that one of my parents knew him from high school or the army. That's how it was then, without any degrees of separation.

It's not by chance that they were referred to as the "generation of the state." They never had another country; my parents went abroad for the first time only when they were almost 50. The only landscapes they knew until then were those of Israel, and they heard about the Jewish world in the Diaspora, if at all, only from tales told by my grandparents. They never visited the towns their parents came from in Belorussia and Ukraine, a world that was laid waste by the Bolshevik revolution and the Holocaust.

The sabra quality is inherent in my father's poems, poems of the sea and the sand, of Hayarkon Street in Tel Aviv and the alleys of Jerusalem, in the biblical imagery and the proper Hebrew, acquired in the rigorous education of the Yishuv period. In his poems, Europe is always foreign, remote, as though he absorbed it through literary works, not from life. In the summer of 1947, after completing high school, my father enlisted in the pre-state Palmach militia, attending a camp at Kibbutz Maoz Haim that combined agricultural work with training; he toiled in the fish ponds in the oppressive heat of the Beit She'an Valley. It was while doing surveillance of Arab Beit She'an, in the winter of 1948, that he wrote his first poem, "Night March." It was published in the "recruits' corner" of the daily Davar under the name "Aryeh Bomstein." In his subsequent works he used the name "Sivan."

His most meaningful choice was made after the army, in 1950: He went to study literature and language at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which was then exiled from the isolated Mount Scopus campus to the Terra Sancta building in the western part of the city. Between the army and beginning university, he worked in an office of the Histadrut labor federation. Someone there was a friend of Natan Alterman and arranged for him to meet the revered poet at a Dizengoff cafe. "I showed him a poem. I wanted to get his opinion. He didn't say anything clear. 'Yes, maybe.' It was folly for me to go to him."

Likrat Group

At the university, my father formed ties with poets Moshe Dor (whom he had met previously in Tel Aviv), Natan Zach and Binyamin Hrushovski (Benjamin Harshav). Together they read and wrote, together they published the literary journal Likrat. Since then the name "Aryeh Sivan" has taken root in the annals of Hebrew literature as one of the founders of the Likrat Group and will be forever entwined with the names of its other members.

What was the importance of Likrat?

"The critics say it fomented a revolution in Hebrew poetry. First of all, in the transition from 'we' to 'I' at the center of the poem, and secondly, in the modes of writing, without meter and rhyme."

And what meaning did it have for you?

"I met people with whom I had a common interest, something quite central in our lives. Maybe a little less with me, maybe more for Zach and Dor. It was important for me, because I became acquainted with poetry that was not Alterman or Shlonsky - with the poetry of the West. I simply had a revelation of new secrets, new experiences. Zach had plans to bring about change and he brought the 'Zach style,' which later took over. As for me, I had no dreams, and afterward I had a crisis. For a few years I didn't write; I started to write again in the wake of the [1956] Sinai Campaign."

The timing was perfect. My father and his friends from Likrat were there at the right moment, when the state arose and the veteran establishment from the Yishuv period was called on to vacate its place in favor of the younger generation, which had taken part in the War of Independence. The revolt was reflected above all in the Hebrew names that the new poets chose: Sivan, Zach, Dor and Avidan - in contrast to Alterman, Goldberg and Shlonsky. The Land of Canaan as the inheritor of Poland and Lithuania. My father met my mother, Atida Hurwitz, while he was at university. After they were married, in 1954, they moved to Ramat Hasharon, next to her parents, Zvi and Stira, who were among the first residents of the small town. A year later my mother's younger brother, Aluf, was killed in the reprisal raid in Gaza (I bear his name). That was the world I grew up in - strawberry fields, orchards and groves, urban nature with high grass, deer and porcupines - which gradually was transformed into suburban real estate.

After the move to the coastal plain, my father started to teach literature and language in high school, becoming a regular fixture at the Katzenelson School in Kfar Sava until his retirement in 1990. His former pupils, whom I encountered in the youth movement or at work, always remember him fondly, as a teacher who opened for them the gates to Hebrew literature and to the Bible, which my father considers the greatest literary work of all. Some of his students themselves developed into well-known writers, among them Zeruya Shalev and Reuven Miran.

What did you dream of becoming? What did you think you would turn out to be when you went to study literature in Jerusalem?

"A journalist."

So I realized your dream?

"Well done, yes," he smiles. "It wasn't a dream, but it was a reasonable possibility."

Cut off

Life in the family enclave, on the hill next to the Kochav Cinema, and the steady work in the education system, had many advantages. But my father felt cut off from literary life, which continued to be conducted in Tel Aviv without him. Even though he lived in Ramat Hasharon, it remained a foreign city to him and makes infrequent appearances in his poetry.

He dedicated the theme poem in his book "To Live in the Land of Israel" (1984), the book I love best, to the memory of his father-in-law Zvi, "pioneer, commander and bereaved father." In that book he wrote about a walk with his son (my brother? me?) on the main boulevard of Ramat Hasharon. Two connections to the world of my childhood: my grandfather and my neighborhood. But those were the exceptions. His heart remained in Tel Aviv - so near, so far.

As he grew older, his creative work grew more abundant. His first book of poetry, "Poems of Armor," which was inspired by his reserve service in the Sinai War, appeared in 1963. His 15th book, "On the Sand and on the Sea," was published last year. In 1992, he published a detective novel, "Adonis," which is now out of print and has become a cult book.

Along with the poems, he devoted long years of work to a play, "Catch 44," about the behavior of the Yishuv during the period of the Holocaust. The established theater was afraid to stage the play, which deals with the incomprehensible disparity between, on the one hand, the economic prosperity of the war years, the struggle against the British and the turbulent election campaign for the elected assembly of the Yishuv in the summer of 1944 and, on the other, the slaughter of Hungarian Jewry that summer by the Nazis.

My father was 15 at the time, and undoubtedly went to Frishman Beach while the trains were hurtling from Transylvania to Auschwitz. The protagonist of his play is Ahasver, the Wandering Jew, who comes from the horrors of Europe to sun-drenched Tel Aviv to sound an outcry in the name of the murdered, but is unable to stir the interest of anyone here. Five years ago, the play was staged in the drama school of Seminar Hakibbutzim Teachers College. Maybe now, when the subject is less taboo, the bigger theaters will also show an interest in it.

What did you expect from the state that you and your generation established?

"That it would be a model state, that everything would be managed in an exemplary manner, from the prime minister to the last of the subjects."


"Yes. The more so, because the people I knew were not marginal types but the finest of the youth, the people in the Palmach and afterward the students in Jerusalem. I didn't know the bad types, and we were also very innocent. I suppose there were corruption cases then, too, which I didn't know about. There were many shirkers in the War of Independence who sent their sons abroad, and we didn't know about that. We wanted to have a state."

Was the past really so beautiful, or does it look like that only in retrospect?

"From the present, the past is refracted in splendor and beauty. Maybe it's old age, which makes you more curmudgeonly."

When my father was born in Tel Aviv, there were about 170,000 Jews in the country, most of whom lived in small apartments and barely eked out a living. Today, at the age of 80, he lives in a developed country with a high-tech industry, a large army and the Internet in every home. It might have been expected that he would look back in pride at the achievements and the development, but for some years now I have been hearing from him concern about the fate of the Hebrew state at whose birth he was present.

What happened? Where did we fail?

"In the past few years I see the demographic data and our failed governments, and my heart is filled with gloomy thoughts."

More than a year ago, a big event was held in honor of my father - a summation of decades of creative output - at the Tzavta Club in Tel Aviv, produced by Nili Shachor. His friend Natan Zach and three professors - Nissim Calderon, Ruth Kartun-Blum and Nurit Govrin - sang his praises. My cousin Hemi Rudner, and other musicians, set his poems to music and performed the songs. My Aunt Tamar talked about childhood experiences from the Dizengoff days. The hall was full, and my father, who is not used to this kind of exposure, was deeply moved. He deserved the accolade. The Israel Prize, which he will receive tomorrow, is indeed a proper "hashlama? - a "completion," to borrow the Hebrew title of one of his recent books - for the career of the eternal Tel Aviv boy who was privileged to be visited time and again by the muse, but was always weak when it came to her public relations.

I'm proud of you, Dad.



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