Renowned Israeli Poet and Literary Critic Natan Zach Dies at 89

Israel Prize laureate and an influential name in modern Hebrew poetry, Zach is praised as a 'bright, unwavering artist' by President Rivlin

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Natan Zach, in 2016.
Nathan Zach in 2016.Credit: Tomer Applebaum

Renowned Israeli poet, translator and literary critic Natan Zach died on Friday at the age of 89. Zach, an Israel Prize laureate, is considered one of the most prominent poets of Israel's early days and one of the most influential names in modern Hebrew poetry.

President Reuven Rivlin eulogized Zach, a “bright, unwavering artist,” on Twitter: “Who would pin down the essence of pain for us now? Who would mold the Hebrew language with such an innovative, precise hand? Who would describe to us the life that can grow among us?”

Culture Minister Chili Tropper sent his condolences to Zach’s family, and said in a Facebook post that he “was one of the most important poets Israel has known, and his great influence on Israeli culture and Hebrew poetry will live on for generations to come.”

Born Harry Seitelbach in Berlin, Zach immigrated with his family to Mandatory Palestine when he was 5 years old. The family lived in Haifa and later moved to Tel Aviv.

Zach served as an army officer during Israel's War of Independence, and after finishing his military service he studied political science and comparative Hebrew literature at Jerusalem's Hebrew University.

He began publishing his poems in several newspapers in 1951, and became known as the son who rebelled against the generation of poets who preceded him, including giants of Hebrew literature like Nathan Alterman and Avraham Shlonsky.

In 1955, his collection of poems “Shirim Rishonim” (First Poems) was published, followed in 1960 by “Shirim Aherim” (Other Poems), which was considered to the book that heralded the revolution Zach and his generation created in Hebrew poetry, and their counter-reaction to the poetry of Alterman and Shlonsky. 

In 1968, Zach moved to England and he completed a doctorate at the University of Essex in 1978. He then returned to Israel and taught at Tel Aviv University and Haifa University, and lived in Tel Aviv.

Natan Zach.Credit: Yuval Tovel

In the 1980s, Zach published a collection of essays, “Kavei Avir” (Airlines), about romanticism in Israeli literature, and his translation of Allen Ginsberg’s “Kaddish and Other Poems.” He also published a book of short stories, “The Eye of the Needle,” and a memoir he wrote about his mother, “Death of My Mother,” along with the poems and literary criticism he published in newspapers – and Zach also translated plays, even publishing one of his own. 

He was awarded the prestigious Bialik Prize for significant accomplishments in Hebrew literature in 1982 and in 1995 Zach was awarded the Israel Prize for his Hebrew poetry.

“Thanks to his poetry, Hebrew poetry in Israel has discovered that it is possible to create poetic beauty and sensitive and rich musicality in forms lacking full regularity of meter and rhyming, too,” wrote the Israel Prize jury at the time. "At the same time, Zach’s poetry revealed that the distress, fears, joys and wonders of daily life, and even situations, emotions and thoughts that are seemingly completely ‘prose,’ can receive poetic expression that inscribes them in the hearts of hundreds and thousands of poetry lovers."

Zach’s well-known left-leaning political opinions caused some controversy over the years. In 2012, the Education Ministry weighed removing his poems from the national curriculum.

In 2013, he told the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, "Today I wouldn’t recommend for anyone to come [to Israel]. If it’s for their good and pleasure, then there are a lot of more enjoyable places. That’s completely okay. You want to go to Berlin – go to Berlin. For your own benefit and pleasure. Go anywhere that will be better for you. Just get out of here."

Zach occasionally published political ads in support of various causes in Haaretz. “I’m not a political person,” he said in an interview with Eli Eliahu in Haaretz in 2011. "For many years I didn't write a political poem. In the [1982] Lebanon War, I couldn't restrain myself and then the poem 'Ki Ha'adam Etz Hasadeh' [Because Man is a Tree of the Field] emerged, and became a national song of mourning [when it was put to music]. Each time I would walk down the street and hear it from people's windows, I would run home in order to check who had died."

"I prefer to call it protest poetry," Zach said. "Political poetry has an agenda, a party bias. I never belonged to a political party, except in 1949, when I was an officer during the War of Independence and they forced me to register for Mapai [the forerunner of Labor]. I still have the Mapai registration card. But since then, I haven't had any registration cards – not from political parties."

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