From the Ashes of Tragedy, a Literary Life

Prof. Hamutal Bar Yosef's biography is interwoven with that of the country: immigration, deprivation, bereavement and survival. Despite getting a late start, she has become a leading figure in the field of Hebrew literature.

Aviva Lori
Aviva Lori
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Aviva Lori
Aviva Lori

The meeting with Prof. Hamutal Bar Yosef took place several days before Rosh Hashanah. In the Jerusalem air, gradually recovering from the summer, one could sense the pre-holiday activity and the atmosphere of the approaching Yom Kippur fast: a time of summing up and soul searching. Bar Yosef's modest home, almost like a student's apartment, which she shares with her partner of seven years, Aryeh Gazoli, is surrounded by a small garden, creating an intimate self-contained space that is separate from the city.

In our conversation, Bar Yosef, in her precise language, engages in a kind of soul-searching about her life and her long-term activity in the field of Hebrew literature. Before the meeting, she provided impressive background material in the form of a 38-page resume full of achievements, which makes the reader slightly dizzy. Bar Yosef has published 14 books of poetry, 12 books of research, dozens of translations from Russian, French and English, encyclopedia entries, articles of criticism and commentary, literary works and professional articles. She has won 13 prizes for books of poetry and fiction, 10 academic prizes and research grants. She has done professional consultation; taught courses and lectured; participated in scientific conferences, and more. A slice of life that would be enough for three people working full time.

Bar Yosef is not amused. She considers her achievements quite reasonable, an integral part of her active personality. She is 72 years old, but most of her activity has taken place in the past three decades. She completed her doctorate in Hebrew literature (about metaphors and symbols in the work of Uri Nissan Gnessin ) at the age of 44. "I had time for creative work only after the children grew up," she explains.

A few weeks ago, her first book of prose, "Music," was published (by Hakibbutz Hameuchad and Safra books ), a collection of stories that received the Hebrew Writers Association in Israel award for 2012. Some of the stories were published in the past in magazines and literary supplements, and new stories have been added. "Just as a retiree suddenly begins to collect his photos and put them in albums, I decided to collect my stories. I didn't believe that anyone would want to publish them," she says.

Most of the stories in the book are autobiographical: They are about daily life, people she met at home, in the backyard, at a conference or a lecture. There are stories about human weaknesses, small events and great tragedies within a supposedly banal reality, which cause the passing moment to become unforgettable. The prose is written in lean, precise and unpoetic language. The point of view is factual and critical rather than emotional, sometimes distant and hard to digest. Some of the stories recall the atmosphere of 1948. A childhood in the shadow of the establishment of the state and the atmosphere of the 1950s.

'Life became hell'

Bar Yosef's biography is interwoven with that of the country: immigration, deprivation, kibbutz, moshav, wars, bereavement and survival. Her parents, Avigdor and Monya Burstein, immigrated to Israel in 1936 from Rovno, Poland (today Ukraine) with their six-year-old son Menahem. They settled on Kibbutz Ayelet Hashahar, but had to leave after the collective enforced its authority. "My mother was a kindergarten teacher, and when my brother contracted scarlet fever, they forbade her to see him for three weeks because they were afraid she would infect the kindergarten children. But she went to visit him, and apparently they were thrown out because of that."

Bar Yosef was born in 1940 on Kibbutz Tel Yosef. "From there we moved a year later to Kibbutz Beit Alfa, then to Tel Adashim, and when I was three to Beit Zera. Afterward we moved to Kfar Warburg, and when the War of Independence broke out they evacuated us. During one of the evacuations, when we were living in Jabalya [a Jaffa neighborhood], my parents were informed that their son, my brother, had been killed in the War of Independence. He was not yet 18."

Bar Yosef was almost eight years old when her brother died; her mother told her of his death in the Tel Aviv zoo, in front of the deer cage. In the story "Mastik" (chewing gum ), she describes the moment: "She gave me a banana and I peeled it and started to eat, and then she said: 'Why don't you ask me why my eyes are red?' So I asked, and she first said that my big brother, who was now in the Palmach [the elite commando force] had been wounded. And I asked when he would recover, and Mother said that he would never recover, because he had died from his injury.

"The most important book in my career is a book of poetry my brother wrote," says Bar Yosef. "My parents published it after his death, and there, among other things, are letters he wrote to me from the front. Long letters with detailed descriptions of the battles. We were very close. He was the center of my emotional life. 'I would like to describe for you the surrounding landscape, which is very beautiful,' he wrote. 'You should be aware that it is hard to describe very beautiful things. I'll try. I'm now on night guard duty. It's beautiful now at night ... At 7 P.M. look at the moon and say hello to it, and I'll look at the moon too.' My childhood fell apart after his death. My parents fell apart, and life became hell."

One result of Bar Yosef's trauma was the outbreak of a serious intestinal illness, from which she suffered for many years, and which included prolonged hospitalization in Tel Hashomer hospital under the supervision of Prof. Chaim Sheba. The illness disappeared when she left home and moved to Jerusalem. At the same time, her parents once again decided to wander, believing that a new place would soften the reality. The family moved to Moshav Ein Vered, but their dead son moved along with them.

"He was present in me all the time," says Bar Yosef. "I always felt him walking a few steps behind me. I dreamed that in another moment the door would open and he would enter."

In the story "Me'az lo kara davar" (Since then nothing has happened ), the first story she published in Haaretz in the 1960s, she describes herself returning from school with her brother following behind her: "Every day on the way to school and back, among the orchards, via the forest and the cemetery, every day he would wait for her in order to accompany her from behind ... And then she could permit herself to open the cracks in her face in order to suck the rhythmic sound of the steps behind her, at a distance of about 100 meters. She knows exactly how he looks and doesn't turn her head. A fixed distance separates them, like the distance of eight years in age."

End of a fantasy

About 10 years ago Bar Yosef discovered that her brother did not die as a war hero, but apparently committed suicide. "The writer Dorit Silberstein told me about it. Her father was on the spot when it happened and told her before his death that she had to tell me. He was sitting alone in the tent, cleaning his rifle, and there had been some kind of quarrel beforehand. I don't know whether he shot himself or a bullet was ejected, and I don't feel any need to investigate. I assume my parents were aware of it, but thought I was better off thinking he was killed in the war."

Her parents moved to Ein Vered with only a simple Jewish Agency bed and a kettle, and slowly began to get organized. "They even bought me a used piano after I went on a hunger strike and didn't eat for two days," says Bar Yosef. "When I finished elementary school, my mother, who was very ambitious - for me as well - thought it was impossible for me to travel to Tel Aviv every week for piano lessons, and wanted me to study at a good high school and not in continuing education classes, as was customary at the time in the kibbutzim and moshavim. So we moved to Tel Aviv, to Kiryat Shalom, a terrible place. My father was a teacher, my mother was a kindergarten teacher. I studied at Ironi Hey high school, and when I finished at the age of 17 - I skipped a grade in elementary school - I went to study Hebrew literature and philosophy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem."

At the university, Bar Yosef met her husband, playwright Yosef Bar Yosef (son of the writer Yehoshua Bar Yosef ), who had been married earlier to the poet Dahlia Rabikovitch ("My parents weren't at all pleased" ), and married him. She worked as a high school teacher, and later in the curriculum department of the Education Ministry. At the age of 29 she was already the mother of four. Tzipori, now 52, a psychologist, lives in Ashdod; Racheli, 50, has a master's degree in psychology and lives in Mesilat Zion; Menahem, 47, lives on Kibbutz Harduf and teaches literature and drama. The youngest child, Avigdor, committed suicide 27 years ago, when he was 16.

The suicide was the final blow to Bar Yosef's fantasy of living a normal family life. "From the time I was in high school, the thing I wanted most in life was a large normal family that eats three meals a day, not in the children's house or in the dining room, and I failed in that project although I invested 20 of the best years of my life in it. I have wonderful children, nine delightful grandchildren, but the most important thing in life I was unable to do."

Did it depend only on you?

"That was my big mistake. I was accustomed to thinking that if there's something I want, I have to do it. That what others can't do, I will. But there's a moment in which, when you want to attempt a project, you have to know how to create cooperation around you. It's a talent I lack. I'm unable to infect people with my ideas and enlist their help. It's a lack of a certain wisdom. I assume that it's an art that depends on all kinds of give and take that I don't understand."

For example?

"At the age of 40 I wanted to change my lifestyle. To stop being a teacher and an official in the Education Ministry and to begin an academic career. To do a doctorate. It's a tremendous effort that can't succeed without the support of the family. And I didn't know how to prepare the family for that and get them to help. Although I had no support, I began my doctorate in 1980 at the Hebrew University. I had a dream of teaching there, but I didn't succeed in that either.

"In 1984 I finished my doctorate. It was a period of many layoffs at the university and the only option for getting work was with a Yigal Allon Fund grant [for distinguished young researchers]. The condition for the grant was that the scholar be no older than 40, and I was 44. I remember that Prof. Dov Noy, head of the folklore department, told me: 'You wasted your time on a family and children and now you're seeking an academic career; what are you talking about?' It was very hard for me to hear that. I taught in the department of comparative literature, I tried to fight for my place, and I didn't succeed. In 1986 I was dismissed from Hebrew University."

Were you insulted that they let you go?

"Yes. But now I understand that maybe the decision-makers had considerations that were not necessarily related to the level of my achievements, such as the matter of chemistry, for example. I wasn't very nice. I'm a pathological arguer. Everything I hear, I see that there's also a chance to say the opposite, and I don't keep it to myself. It's quite foolish. Just like in the family, at work too you have to create an atmosphere of trust, affection and a desire to help you. People do it spontaneously, and I'm not good at it. Maybe I have inner objections, too, but had I known at the age of 40 what a high price I would pay, I would have done those things despite my objections."

What, for example, would you do differently?

"I realize that I made every possible mistake in terms of human relations. I was so naive. I thought there was some absolute scale, and that if I did my work well I would succeed. It turns out that although such successes are foam on the water in my opinion, things don't work that way. Today I understand the mistakes and where I had no sense."

And maybe you couldn't go against yourself?

"I can't accept the fact that people say 'I had no choice, there was nothing to be done.' You can always do something. Usually you don't because you make a mistake or you don't understand the possibilities or you're unaware of the price you will pay."

Late divorce

While Bar Yosef was struggling over the doctorate and an academic career, her personal life was gradually disintegrating. "I had no support at home. My then-husband hated the academic world. He didn't understand why I was fighting so hard for this stupid thing. And apparently I didn't know how to explain why it was important, and the children didn't understand what had happened to Mom the cook, and I was living under tremendous tension and pressure. When I brought home my doctoral degree the only one who said: 'Mom, I'm proud of you,' was Avigdor."

And why didn't you receive support at home?

"I was tough on the children. A mother who sets boundaries and demands discipline. Yossi sat at home and played the mischievous one against Mom, who would cause her problems. That was the hard part. Because he was home all the time and it was impossible to demand that they do things. In effect I had five children, and one who thought he had a right to tell me what to do and what to buy for the children and on what to spend money, although he didn't bring in money and didn't function as I expected a father to function.

"He conveyed a type of nonconformism to the children. I remember that when she was a year old he taught our eldest daughter that when people asked her 'How are you?' to answer 'shitty.' That was the politics in which I was involved. On the other hand, I wanted a patriarchal family. I wanted a home in the traditional sense of the word, a home in which the children are obedient and a man recites the Kiddush. I taught the children that a father has to be obeyed, but that's not what he conveyed to the children about me. It was quite a mess."

Amid all that chaos of a dysfunctional family and a struggle over the job at the university, in December 1985 her son Avigdor committed suicide. "I returned home in the evening from a lecture at Bar-Ilan [University], all the lights in the house were on; the older children no longer lived at home, Yossi wasn't there and I found Avigdor on the rug. He had shot himself with a pistol that belonged to his brother who was serving in the army. The pistol was tossed on the floor, his glasses were on the other side, and he was still gurgling. I called an ambulance, I don't know how I had the strength, and they arrived and did all kinds of things and took him to a hospital and he was fading away all night and in the morning he died. We donated his organs. It's a blow from which you don't recover for years. A week after the shiva [week of mourning] I went back to teaching."

Were there signs that it might happen?

"The issue of signs is very elusive. After it happens you say: 'Aha, we should have thought of it.' But during the daily routine you don't imagine such a possibility because lots of things happen, especially in adolescence. Suddenly he shaved his entire head. That shocked me. He had wonderful red hair. Then he said: 'If it bothers you, I'll grow it back.' A few days before it happened something broke in the kitchen and he came with a broom and cleaned up the fragments and I remember saying: 'What would we do without you?'

"The atmosphere at home was tense, and that was his way of making us happy. Four days before it happened I was sitting on the steps of the house with a girlfriend and we were talking, and he came on his own initiative and served us tea. He had all kinds of sweet gestures. I think that had my parents told me the truth about my brother, maybe I would have been on the alert about my son. Because I never imagined that such a thing could happen to me."

Was there blame, guilt feelings?

"It's a very big scar. Every death is accompanied by guilt feelings, and even more so in the case of a child, and when it happens in your own home, that's the hardest. Where was I? How did I not see or hear? How did I let it happen? He didn't leave a letter, so I have no idea what was going through his mind. And there was also a disappointed love affair, and he felt lonely because my husband and I were going through a bad time.

"A few weeks before he did it, he told me he wanted to attend a mental health therapy group because he thought his social abilities weren't so good. Afterward I met two therapists from there and I asked if they had sensed anything. They said that at the sessions they had discussed a wave of suicides that had taken place at the time in Jerusalem, and he sat and didn't talk. They didn't think it required attention. At home we never spoke about such things. The issue of accusations is idiotic, but it exists, even if the things weren't said. Immediately afterward there was a short period of mutual closeness between me and Yossi, but later it became very difficult.

"In 1993 we divorced after 33 years of marriage. After the divorce, we tried to get back together, but it didn't work. I didn't initiate the divorce. For me to give up the family framework was a terrible thing. Not that I'm sorry now; it was the right step, but very difficult. During that period I suffered blows each of which in itself was enough to kill a person."

In the hierarchy of death, suicide is considered the lowest level. People whose relatives decided to commit suicide are ashamed to admit it. Bar Yosef is not ashamed, but even now she is unable to say the word suicide. In order to describe what happened she chooses circuitous words. "I assumed at the time that people were condemning me for not having been a good enough mother. That they were probably talking behind my back: 'Who's that woman whose son could commit suicide?' I think that for some people my credibility evaporated, for some it may not have been pleasant to be in my company."

And how do you live with it now?

"In the past 20 years, in my poems too, the atmosphere has been one of calm and reconciliation and even a considerable measure of happiness, and those are not usually materials from which one makes poems. In order to make poems you need dramas. For me that's the drama. The ability to achieve a balance and to report about happiness and love of life. I wouldn't have believed it would happen to me, that I would be able to say that life is good. It's important to me to tell about that, so people will know that it's possible to recover even from such a difficult period of mourning. In my opinion, sanctifying death is not such a great accomplishment. It's those who have succeeded in overcoming such things who should be sanctified. That's a real reason to be proud."

Bar Yosef's model is the amputee pilot (the hero of a novel by Boris Polevoy, based on the story of Russian fighter pilot Alexey Maresyev, who fought in World War II with two amputated legs ), a person who can deal with his bitter fate. "Encouraging victimhood is removing responsibility, and that doesn't make a person happier," she says. "The struggle of the amputee pilot causes greater joie de vivre."

In the midst of the terrible upheaval caused by her son's suicide, an offer came from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev to recommend Bar Yosef for the Yigal Allon scholarship. "You could say that it saved my academic career. I think I was the only person in Israel who received the grant at such an advanced age. And it didn't make me very happy, because I wanted to teach at Hebrew University." Bar Yosef began to teach at BGU in 1987, in the department of Hebrew language and literature, and received tenure. In 1991 she became a professor and in 1993, head of the department. In 2003 she retired.

Did belonging to the famous Bar Yosef family help you?

"You're asking if joining that literary family helped my status as a writer? Absolutely not. Most of all I was fascinated by the fact that Yossi had a big family, that his father was born in Israel, that his grandmother was born in Israel, and the entire family is here and was not killed in the Holocaust. For me that was exotic. Compensation for the vacuum I carried around, because most of my family was killed in the Holocaust and I grew up on a kibbutz and I didn't know how to get up one day and make a family. Only now do I know how little I knew then. I thought that endless devotion and the fact that I was an indentured servant to my family was a key to success, and I didn't understand that starting a family is a work of the art of human wisdom and that you have to invest a lot of energy in it, and to set boundaries, and I lacked wisdom and energy.

"When we got married, my husband's father, the writer Yehoshua Bar Yosef, was famous, and I think I disappointed him a little. I worked in the Education Ministry and afterward at the university, I wrote literary criticism from an early age, and he hoped that I would work to promote his name and his status, and I didn't do that. I had a principle that I don't write criticism about anyone I know, especially not a relative. Nor was I an enthusiastic fan of his books. Yossi told me more than once that my biting articles of criticism were ruining his relationships with his friends."

Who for example?

"I didn't like the book 'Shirim Shonim' by [poet] Natan Zach and I wrote that and was reprimanded, so I decided to stop writing criticism for a certain period. Today I might have said: 'Excuse me, it's none of your business.' But Yossi, the son of a writer, knew from an early age how to build a web of friends around him, so there would be people to support him and recommend him for the Israel Prize. I didn't know how to do that, and apparently I won't be doing it."

As opposed to prose, Bar Yosef began to write poetry very early on, at the age of nine, in order to talk to her dead brother. "The poems come to me and it doesn't take a lot of time, but I couldn't conceivably have written prose earlier because I was very busy with the house, the family and work. During all those years I would start writing prose and I wouldn't finish because I always felt it wasn't good enough. I have a lot of beginnings, but I don't know if they will ever end."

The first of her poems to be published ("All night long the dew rested on the pine needles, in the morning the wind awakened and the drops fell one by one on my tombstone" ) was published by Aharon Megged, editor of the literary supplement of the now-defunct newspaper La Merhav. "A journalist named Haim Gil advised me to go and meet Aharon Megged. I wore my prettiest dress, long earrings, high heels, and went to meet him. I entered the room and he seemed to me the most apathetic person I had ever met. He didn't even look at me; I had wasted the earrings for nothing, but he took the poem and published it."

Why does poetry have the reputation that a master's degree is needed to understand it?

"It's not true. Maybe a little. To understand some of modern poetry you need a knowledge of language, because poetry plays with the covert and the overt, and that requires reading comprehension that not everyone has. But there are still poets who are not complicated to read: [Yehuda] Amichai, Roni Somek, Agi Mishol; my poems aren't hard to read either."

Will you ever write a novel?

"If I get good reactions to my book of short stories, I'm playing around with the idea of writing a novel about the men I met after my divorce. When I divorced I was 53 years old, and I said to myself that I was going to join a group of single women who meet in all kinds of cafes, and that when I went to Tel Aviv I would see Yossi in the street with a woman and she would be pregnant. That was my nightmare. But happily, I met men of varied cultural and ethnic identities. In the end I also used dating sites on the Internet. That's how I met Aryeh, and that is an outstanding success."

What are you doing now?

"Nothing. I'm emerita. I'm studying the recorder with Prof. Michael Melzer, I play Baroque music with a cymbals player, and I have another girlfriend with whom I play music. It takes up quite a lot of space. I have a garden, a partner, a family, friends, cooking." Later she recalls a joke told by the actor Edward G. Robinson at his 80th birthday party: "He got onstage and said he had nothing clever to say except for a story about a Jew who went to the doctor because he was unable to pee. The doctor asked him, 'How old are you?' '80 years old,' replied the Jew. 'You've peed enough,' said the doctor."

Bar Yosef as a girl.
Bar Yosef playing piano as a young woman.
Yosef Bar Yosef. 'Conveyed nonconformism to the children.'
Hamutal Bar Yosef



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