First Mizrahi to Win Israel's Literature Prize Was Wounded by a Grenade and Healed by Poetry

Erez Biton talks with a fellow poet about being blind, his experience as a social worker, a chance encounter in Tel Aviv, and the importance of reading aloud.

Eli Eliyahu
Eli Eliyahu
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Erez Biton.
Erez Biton. Credit: Avishag Shaar Yashuv
Eli Eliyahu
Eli Eliyahu

One day, when Erez Biton was 11 years old, he was playing with friends in a field in his hometown of Lod, when he came across a small box. Thinking he’d stumbled on a treasure chest, he opened it. But inside was an old hand grenade, which exploded in Biton’s face. He lost sight in both eyes, and his left hand was blown off.

“Treasure” and “explosive” are useful images to describe the poetry of Erez Biton, now 73, who on Independence Day last week was awarded the Israel Prize for Hebrew Literature and Poetry. Biton’s poetry is comparable to a treasure hidden away inside a box lying at the far end of an abandoned field in a neglected city in the Israeli periphery. It’s poetry that draws on Mizrahi culture (i.e., that of Jews with origins in Islamic lands), contains a mix of languages and is rooted concretely in time and place. Among other subjects, for instance, Biton has written poems about the welfare bureau.

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One of Biton’s best-known poems is “Poem about Zohara Alfasia.” The woman in the title was a renowned Moroccan singer who immigrated to Israel, where her social status deteriorated and she lived a simple life, in contrast to her fame and glory as a performer in the royal court in Rabat. Another Biton poem, “Moroccan Wedding,” was set to music and recorded by the Mizrahi band Habreira Hativ’it.

But his literary output was hidden from the public eye for many years, residing on the fringes of Hebrew poetry, far from mainstream discourse. Furthermore, like a treasure chest, Biton’s poetry beckons those who seek a cornucopia of linguistic riches and, even more, cultural abundance.

But Biton’s poetry is also a type of explosive with an exceptionally long fuse – cultural and social dynamite that triggers a chain reaction that reshapes its surroundings for all time. Still, in contrast to the material that blinded him as a child, the explosive material of Biton the poet contains an eye-opening poetic sensibility – a different language, a singular grammar and distinctive cultural symbols. He is not alone in provoking this opening of the eyes vis-a-vis contemporary Israeli culture, but he is the one who paved the way for others.

In the view of many in the world of Israeli literature, the recognition Biton has now received comes exceedingly late, and that is because, they say, Israeli society did not want to place Mizrahi culture at its center. For his part, Biton is far more conciliatory, in no hurry to accuse reviewers and litterateurs.

“I think that processes have occurred here,” he says, “and within me, too – inner processes. My poetry has become more intimate, lyrical, interior. I’ve experienced an internal and textual broadening. I think that along with this development, and in its wake, a change also occurred in the approach of the academic world and of those engaged in literature and poetry: They accepted me more as belonging to the realm of Hebrew poetry.

“Being awarded the Israel Prize is not divorced from a certain process,” Biton continues. “I also received the Yehuda Amichai Prize and the Bialik Prize for Lifetime Achievement [both in 2014], which is very important to me. There is something of the ‘national’ about the Israel Prize, but the Bialik Prize is purely for poetry. I was absolutely thrilled to receive it.”

‘Prof. Halkin says you’re a poet’

Biton’s first encounter with poetry was in school, he recalls. After his accident, he was sent to Jerusalem to attend the Jewish Institute for the Blind. One of the teachers asked the class to memorize a different poem every week. “There was a great deal of Bialik and Amichai,” Biton recalls. “To this day I remember Bialik works by heart” – and he proceeds to recite lines from a poem.

“Subsequently,” he continues, “I started to feel that all kinds of sentences were forming inside me. They were small texts of two or three lines, attempts to decipher my situation in the world as a lonely child, a lonely youth, the onset of adolescence, with a sense of puzzlement. Astonishment at the passage of time. A give-and-take with time was a very basic component of my inner foundations.”

How did the stage of publication come about?

“At a certain point I showed some of my poems to Mrs. Kaplan. She was a piano teacher who forsook her profession in order to translate books into braille for us. She lived near Prof. Shimon Halkin, who was the head of the Hebrew literature department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and she showed him my poems.

“One day she called me, all excited, and told me, ‘Prof. Halkin says you are a poet.’ You have to understand that for me, ‘poet’ was a title of nobility, like being a count. It wasn’t an occupation or even a talent, but an innate trait. I felt as though he were crowning me. He said, ‘You have a tremendous lyric talent. The question is what you will do with that talent. Send some poems to [the literary editor and translator] Aharon Amir, and see what he says.’

“I did so, and received a moving letter back from Amir, informing me that he would publish five of the poems [Amir edited the literary journal Keshet] and keep the rest, and asking me to send more. I also sent my poem ‘Some Comments on a Turbulent Wind’ to Haaretz. They published it immediately – after cutting it from all directions. I was euphoric.”

This promising start turned out to be deceptive, however. After the publication, in 1976, of his first collection of poems, “Moroccan Gift,” which was followed, three years later, by a second volume, “The Book of Mint,” in 1979, no fewer than 11 years elapsed before the publication of his next collection, “Intercontinental Bird.” And then 19 more years went by before his fourth book, “Timbisert, a Moroccan Bird,” appeared, in 2009. (His fifth, and latest collection to date, “Blindfolded Landscape,” was published in 2013. He also published a play, “Soulica,” in 2005. None of the books has appeared in English translation.)

What is the reason for these long silences between books?

“There are a few reasons. Above all, there was a feeling of darkness – an absence of response [among both local literary figures and the public] to the poems. There was a gap between my readiness as a poet and the public’s readiness. And say what you will, recognition fosters an openness to poetic giving. It’s good for self-confidence, for one’s development.”

Another delaying factor, Biton says, was his immersion in editing and publishing the literary journal he founded, called Apirion (the Hebrew word for “sedan chair”).

“I was at the service of other poets,” he explains. “The journal was established to provide a platform for poets from remote towns and for Mizrahim, but in short order we offered a platform to wonderful poets irrespective of their ethnic and geographic origin. Oddly, the journal wasn’t [publicly] embraced, either.”

Therapeutic mission

The final reason Biton notes for the long lapses between his books is his devotion to his profession of social worker. From a young age he knew he wanted to be a therapist, he relates, in order to help hardscrabble families like the one he grew up in, a migrant family with “a father who scowled all day.” (Biton, who is of Moroccan descent, was born in Algeria. His family immigrated to Israel in 1948.)

Biton obtained an undergraduate degree in social work from Hebrew University, and in the early ‘70s, began working in the profession in Ashkelon. He then enrolled for a master’s in rehabilitation psychology at Bar-Ilan University.

“One day,” he recalls, “on the way from Ashkelon to Bar-Ilan, I encountered a friend from the Jewish Institute for the Blind, sitting and playing an instrument for hand-outs. I wrote the lines, ‘You who promised us great symphonies of love, what do you say now, when you’re extorting a penny with a broken three-stringed mandolin in the Central Bus Station of Tel Aviv.’ I found it hard to accept that any one of us had the option of becoming a beggar. I rejected that option with all my might, and for me to reject means being on the other side of the barrier – being a therapist.”

As a rehabilitation psychologist, which involves work with patients suffering from both physical and emotional problems and their families, Biton worked, among other places, in Neveh On, a hospital for the mentally ill in Ramat Gan. One of his principal goals has always been to get patients to return to the family fold. At Neveh On, he initiated conversations with patients and their relatives “in order to prepare the family. It’s no simple thing. There is a change in the way it functions, you need a different form of patience.”

Biton’s therapeutic work and his studies kept him from his poetry-writing, but also contributed to it. As a student at Bar-Ilan, he encountered the Tel Aviv way of life, which was completely different from anything he’d known before. This experience produced poems such as “Shopping Poem on Dizengoff” – referring to the iconic street of upscale Tel Aviv – which concludes: “At a dusky hour / In a Dizengoff store / I pack things / To go back to the outskirts / And the other Hebrew.”

“The encounter with Dizengoff left me wondering a great deal about belonging, about being accepted,” Biton comments. “Questions of identity came up. This heightened my alienation from myself, from my Moroccan part. I started to tell myself: It’s not me, I am also something else. And then it all burst forth, it was amazing. I encountered myself at the place of identity, and I experienced the inner development [that produced] the Moroccan poems.”

At what stage did you start to feel a change in the public’s attitude toward you and your poetry?

“I think it was after ‘Timbisert, A Moroccan Bird’ [2009]. I also have to say that the country’s poetry festivals – in Metulla, Jerusalem and Kibbutz Sde Boker – played a large part in the process of my being accepted. They gave me the opportunity of presence, and much of my poetry is oral – I recite it. My rapport with the audience is magical, an act that opens inner doors within me. Perhaps because I can’t see, sitting in front of an audience does something for me. I often change the poems as I go. The festivals also allowed me to become closer to other poets.”

Poetry as healer

Did your family and others in your immediate circle read your poems?

“No. Never. When I was cut off from Lod in the wake of my injury and went to the Jewish Institute for the Blind, in Jerusalem, my personality split into two. When I visited Lod, I would ‘put on’ the Arab part within me, because my parents never spoke Hebrew, and would become Yaish [Biton’s Moroccan name], an Arabic-speaking youth. And then, back in Jerusalem, I would shed Lod and become Erez. A double life.”

At a spontaneous hafla (Arab-style celebration) organized in honor Biton’s winning the Israel Prize by Mizrahi activists, one of the guests told him that for years he was afraid that his mother would come to visit him in school, because she spoke Arabic and wore a kerchief, and he was ashamed of her. “I too was ashamed for years,” Biton says. “In that sense, my poetry acted as a tikkun [healing, repair] for me. Today I can say ‘Yaish’ without feeling shame. My poetry connected the two worlds: Yaish and Erez.”

But the current Mizrahi revival in poetry is more aggressive than in the past, less conciliatory than your approach.

“Within that development, I distinguish between good poets and poets who aren’t as good. When I was asked about the poets of the [defiantly Mizrahi] Ars Poetica group, I replied that what I notice primarily is a cry, which is of course painful at social levels. I recognized the same distress that I thought had existed only in the 1970s. Besides the cry, however, they write marvelous texts, which offer an original poetic expression of their life experience. It pains me that they [members of Ars Poetic] have been quoted saying that it was only in recent years that they discovered there’s a poet named Erez Biton.”

Now they treat you as a spiritual father of that generation. Do you find similarities between your writing and theirs?

“Not really. Ars Poetica [poets] are more open than I am.I am not close to that group in poetry. I am more closed; my texts have a beginning, a middle and an end. Their work displays a sort of opening, perhaps under American influence. A poem starts and you don’t know when it ends – but it’s poetry, of that there’s no doubt. In my case, perhaps because I usually write vocally, I need my poems to be framed, easy to remember. But I know that a great many young poets had recourse either to my themes – father, mother, family – or to elements that I introduced into my poetry, such as a concrete approach to place and time, which was not the case with other poets of my generation.”

It was the case with the poetry of Avoth Yeshurun.

“Indeed. I very much like his poetry, but not because of that. It’s because I like broken structures of grammar. For the same reason I like the work of Amir Gilboa. Avoth Yeshurun renders words into broken wheat: you smell the flour, the inner-ness of the word.”

Which poets actually influenced you?

“There is no Hebrew poet that I have read and didn’t internalize, and I might even know whole segments of his poetry by heart. Nevertheless, I aspire to write poetry that is unique to me and that no one can put a finger on and say, ‘Ah, he’s Amichai, he’s [Nathan] Alterman.’ I have an absolute criterion: not to take from anyone, not to imitate.”

Who are the poets you love best?

“There are those. Certainly. David Avidan, Amichai, Avoth Yeshurun, Gilboa, [Dahlia] Rabikovitch, Yona Wallach.”

You didn’t name any Mizrahi poets.

“Give me an example of a Mizrahi poet.”

If Biton finds it difficult to name an influential Mizrahi poet, he himself has become just that – in large part because of the traumatic accident early in his life, he says. In other words, if he hadn’t opened that box in the field as a boy, he would not have been a recipient of the Israel Prize. “Because of the blindness I was sent to the school for the blind in Jerusalem, and that changed my life.”

If you had stayed in Lod, you wouldn’t have become a poet?

“Of course not. What a question. I would have been like everyone else there, like all my friends. I would have finished primary school and gone to work, mostly because of the family’s economic distress. All my friends became salesmen or porters at the airport. But if you ask me honestly what I would choose, I would choose not to have opened that box, to keep on being able to see, to be healthy and to be an authentic part of my family in Lod. I’ve often imagined myself as a bird that disconnects from the nest, and as we know the nest is not always ready to take you back. And that’s hard.”

Scaffolding

On the threshold of half a house in the Land of Israel
My father stood
Pointing to the sides and saying:
In these ruins
We will one day build a kitchen
In which to cook a whale’s tail
And a wild bull,
And in these ruins
We will erect a prayer corner
To find a place
For a synagogue.
My father remained on the threshold
And I all my days
Am erecting scaffolding
To the heart of the sky.
– from Biton’s “Intercontinental Bird” (1990)

Members of the Ars Poetica group.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

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