Meet the Self-styled Kendrick Lamar of Israeli Poetry: A Romanian Royal With Dark Family Secrets

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Israeli poet Amir Sommer.
Israeli poet Amir Sommer.Credit: Tommer Appelbaum
Hilo Glazer
Hilo Glazer
Hilo Glazer
Hilo Glazer

They’re afraid I’ll call him Yehovah but I want to

Yehovah, Yehovah, where are you hiding?

Yehovah, Yehovah, do you like me also think

That there is something that’s pleasant to God and something that’s pleasant to them?

– From “Yehovah,” by Amir Sommer

Last Sunday morning, a regular day without a cloud in the sky, Amir Sommer, a young poet, left his home on Allenby Street in Tel Aviv, took out his bike and was about to head north. The fist that slammed into the back of his neck stunned him completely.

“With the first punch, I didn’t yet understand that someone was hitting me,” he related the following evening, in a bar not far from where the incident occurred. “When I tried to get up I thought I’d run into something, but then I realized that I’d taken another punch. He said something like, ‘You’re a real man against God, eh?’ His mouth looked like jaws and he had an insanely maniacal look in his eyes. At that moment, the seller in the adjacent kiosk intervened, and the guy ran off.”

If Sommer was indeed attacked for “contempt of God,” nothing could be more absurd – whoever assaulted him apparently hasn’t read his poetry very carefully. Sommer is far from being a “secular poet” or a provocateur against religion. He puts on tefillin every morning (“with a meditative purpose,” he emphasizes) and says that God has been revealed to him in two separate visions. The icons of three religions – a Star of David, a cross and a crescent moon – appear at the opening of his book of poems, “He’arat Shulayim” (its English title is “FeelNote”), which was self-published last month.

Ex-King Carol II of Romania and his wife, Elena Lupescu, are pictured outside Claridges Hotel in London, Dec.6, 1951 They arrived at Tilbury yesterday on a surprise visit to England.Credit: Laurence Harris / AP Photo

In Sommer’s case, this immersion in symbols of the three religions is not some sort of empty mannerism, along the lines of “world peace”: Multiculturalism is deeply rooted in his genealogy. And what a genealogy it is! Sommer’s mother, who was raised in Romania as a Christian and converted to Judaism when she immigrated to Israel, is the great-granddaughter of King Carol II of Romania (who reigned from 1930-40) and his Jewish mistress, Elena Lupescu. Their relationship was one of the greatest scandals to rock European royalty in the first half of the 20th century, and earned Carol the epithet of “King Playboy.” He later abdicated, fled with Lupescu to Portugal and married her, even though she was a wanted woman in Romania, whose authorities tried to frame her for murder.

“My mother doesn’t like me to talk about it, because from her point of view, the family in Romania is still being persecuted,” Sommer reveals. At the same time, in his close circle, the family’s ancestry was never concealed, and in his childhood his mother explained to him why he had to undergo a conversion process together with her.

But what about the crescent, which suggests an affinity with Islam? That reflects a profound secret, which since it came to light three years ago has turned Sommer’s world upside down.

At age 24, Amir Sommer is the new, promising name in the realm of Hebrew poetry and the spoken word. He was born in Haifa, the younger of two sons. His mother, who was a physician in Romania, did not obtain the certificate that would have allowed her to work in her profession in Israel, and was employed as a lab worker in a school. His father, of German origin, was an engineer. When Amir was 2, another man came into his life – a Haifa physician who was an Arab Muslim and was presented as his mother’s new partner.

“She tried to divorce her husband, but in the end stayed friends with him, and they all lived in the same house in a sort of triangle. It wasn’t a ménage à trois, where everyone involved with everyone else, but a kind of arrangement in which there was their door and his door, and they would meet in the living room,” Sommer explains.

The “arrangement,” however, didn’t last long, and the man whom Sommer thought was his father left the house when the boy was 2. Relations with him gradually faded. “The peak came at my bar mitzvah, when he was supposed to be called to the Torah with me, but didn’t show up,” Sommer recalls, adding that at the time, while he was living in Haifa’s middle-class French Carmel neighborhood, he used to hang out with older youths in the underprivileged sections of the lower city. “They were considered the city’s anarchist youth,” he recalls. “Rootless types who did a lot of psychedelic drugs, especially LSD.”

Sommer was no different from them; he had several run-ins with the law during that period. “I had two police files for possession of weed, and I also took on myself a dealing rap that I had nothing to do with, because I was a minor and didn’t want the older guys to get into trouble.”

'The day I decided to end it all was a beautiful day. I sent a message to my brother: ‘Don’t be angry, it’s not your fault,’ and swallowed all the pills in the house.'

He attended Leo Baeck, the high school of the Haifa aristocracy, but sought to distance himself from his identity as the descendant of a royal dynasty. A decade ago, when Prince Edward of Britain visited Haifa to dedicate a peace mosaic in the city, the school’s administration saw a chance for a photo-op. Edward showed up, but the Romanian prince had other plans. “I stood him up,” he says, “and went to smoke in some hiding place in the school. That got me suspended.”

Sommer didn't serve in the army, mostly because of the dissonance generated by his life with his mother’s Arab partner (“It felt like I would be acting against the person who raised me, and in a certain sense, serving the war”), but also because the army had classified him as problematic and wasn’t eager to draft him. Instead, he did volunteer work through the National Service in a hostel for battered women and in an old-age home.

At the same time, at 18, Sommer moved to Tel Aviv, where he worked odd jobs, barely made a living, scrawled immature lines of poetry on the city’s walls and in general cultivated a way of life that was as destructive as it was self-aware: “All my culture heroes were holy junkies, and I aspired to be like them. I thought that in order to be a writer, you had to sniff Ritalin. It took me some time before I understood that that’s not the case.”

Sommer enrolled in a writing course at the Camera Obscura art school in Tel Aviv, not imagining that around the bend another major plot twist awaited. For a journalistic investigation in the course, he decided to trace his paternal roots, because “suddenly something didn’t seem right about the fact that my father and my brother were light, and I was the only one with dark pigment.” In visits to Haifa, he pored through his mother’s papers and discovered an exchange of love letters between her and her partner, the Arab physician, that predated his birth. The pennies began to drop slowly, particularly in light of a strange message that he got from his “Jewish father,” asking, “Have they told you yet?” After which the man disappeared again.

Conditions were ripe for a confrontation with his mother, he decided. “I waited for the right moment on her birthday, and then I asked her the Argentine telenovela question: ‘I know that he [the doctor] is my father, why did you hide it from me?’ She started to cry, locked herself in the bathroom, and when she came out denied everything ... I told her that it was alright, that this is apparently my role in the world, and maybe I need to be crucified because of my DNA every so often. In the end, she confessed.”

According to Sommer, his biological parents devised the arrangement in order “to protect me from racism.” His father, he adds, “always took the approach that even the most enlightened leftist is a racist deep down in his heart. As far as he’s concerned, children of mixed marriages are inevitably miserable, and he wanted to spare me that.”

It’s still an extreme act to deny paternity, even in the name of that argument. And, after all, we’re talking about a physician who grew up in a mixed city.

“True, Haifa is a mixed city where Jewish and Arab hipsters dance together, but in neighborhoods where there is no fringe culture, you’ll find plenty of racism. On top of which, my father is himself mixed. His mother was a Tigrayan African. In his Arab school he had to conceal the fact that he had a black mother. Not to mention the fact that his family, too, really didn’t like his relations with a Jewish woman from Romania.”

How did he react, when you told him that you knew?

“He’s an old-fashioned man – you can’t talk to him about feelings. Driving with him in silence is the most intimate conversation. He would tell me, ‘Forget that nonsense, Amir, shut your mouth.’ The only time he revealed something was when he sent me a poem by Khalil Gibran called ‘Children.’ That was a type of wow for me, like, you know poetry? For him, being an artist was like being a junkie. When he sent it, I felt that it was recognition of both paternity and of my decision to be a poet.”

Amir Sommer.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Sommer documented the identity crisis that struck him when he was 21, including the moment of revelation and the confrontations with his parents, in real time, to prepare for his participation in “Connected Plus,” a reality TV show. He’s come to regret it.

“It was another emotional burden,” he recalls. “You feel how as a boy they’re playing with your biography. I came for psychological treatment, and instead I received a camera.” The material he filmed of himself for the show was never broadcast. The family drama may have been photogenic, but it exacted a price that forced the producers to replace him.

“It pretty much flipped me out when I found out that I’d been lied to about my father’s identity, supposedly in the name of some noble intention, and it also led me to ask who the father in heaven is,” he relates. “The day I decided to end it all was actually a beautiful day. I sent a message to my brother: ‘Don’t be angry, it’s not your fault,’ swallowed all the pills in the house, drank everything in the cupboard – whiskey, Tubi 60 – closed all the windows and shut off the Wi-Fi.

“My brother saved me,” he continues. “He found my friends through Facebook and within a minute, eight paramedics and policemen broke down the door. I was chilling out on a red carpet and felt that if I closed my eyes it would an eternal sleep. I was taken to the hospital and my stomach was pumped twice, I was almost a total loss. But the next day I was at the beach with friends, with beer and a joint, celebrating the fact that I was alive. My message in dealing with issues that should be in the closet, just as with suicide attempts, is that we all experience these moments and need to talk about them.

“I’ve always flirted with death. When I was 13, my mother took me to a well-known tarot card reader, who described my whole history up to that precise time. She said that I would be an artist, that our home would fall apart, that I would move to Tel Aviv and that I would die early. My mother cried all the way through. Since then I’ve been stuck with the death bug. It’s there in my dreams, too; the guy with the scythe is lurking for me in every corner. I don’t think I’ll try to commit suicide again, but I can’t guarantee it.”

Aside from the fortune-teller’s dark prophecy, there’s another curse that he has to break. “My mother calls it the ‘family curse,’” he says. “She means the pattern in which you’re raised under a different name or identity. It happened to King Carol and Elena Lupesko’s daughter, Rebecca, who was sent to a Catholic boarding school and was raised Christian, under a different name, for her protection. My mother herself got her last name from her mother’s new husband, an abusive man, because her biological father died shortly after her birth. And then, of course, there’s my story.”

'I don’t think I’ll try to commit suicide again, but I can’t guarantee it.'

Life has already put Sommer in situations that showed the durability of the curse. Once, he went with an ex-girlfriend to get an ultrasound after she became pregnant by another man.

“That relationship put me in a position of castration,” he says. “Before her I was a little macho. Maybe I needed it to learn a few things about the world, but it also made me undergo a few things a man shouldn’t go through, and I put up with it. I feel as if in my poetry, I express the scream of many men.” Indeed, Sommer breaches that topic in poems like “Falling in Love with Aphrodite,” which includes the confession: “I want to objectify you.”

“I’m a feminist,” he says, “but I don’t mean feminism in its Tel Aviv version, which is a type of neo-feminism that can be expressed through emotional terror or abuse. I think that in certain areas, like in bed, chauvinism needs to be maintained.

“I’ve been sexually abused by women,” he reveals. “When it happens to a man, it’s problematic, because it plays on the ego. You ask yourself, why am I not attracted to her? Why don’t I want this? Am I not man enough?”

‘A retching body’

If only your skin was my rolling paper.

– From “Smoked Love”

In one of his poems, Sommer refers to himself as “a healthy mind in a retching body.” Indeed, his lifestyle sometimes seems to be a sequence of contradictions: pothead but productive – someone who makes a living from deejaying at night and has also established a business for publishing poetry books almost at cost, sharing profits if there are any; a lost young man but one with sky-high confidence; disconnected but actually very connected.

“‘I’m a microphone whore,” he said, quoting from a poem by his friend Ronny Someck, after I’d accompanied him to a poorly attended poetry event. “The aim at the moment is to reach as many people as possible.” But the quality is no less important than the quantity.

Roy Hasan.Credit: Oded Kirma

To devote himself to writing, Sommer fled Tel Aviv, because, “I felt that the city had turned the muscle of my stream of consciousness fat and flaccid.” He sublet an apartment at Kibbutz Beit Oren, near Haifa, holed up in it for a month (“without a computer that had internet”) and returned to the city with a completed book.

Sommer dedicates the poem “King Zohar Argov” (referring to the late, iconic Mizrahi singer) to members of the Ars Poetica movement, which has been dubbed the “new Mizrahi wave.” One of the leading lights of that group is Roy Hasan, whose poetry is suffused with rage against the “Ashkenazi hegemony” in all its derivations.

Sommer maintains a complex poetic relationship with Hasan. “If Roy Hasan is Tupac, I’m Kendrick Lamar,” he says. “If it weren’t for his first collection, a poem of mine would not have been published in Haaretz [in Hebrew], so he definitely influenced me. On the other hand, I deny all connection with what happened with Roy Hasan after that collection. He got older, bourgeois-ified. There was an authentic scream there, which was also the right thing politically. But it lost the youthful spirit that flattered it. You want to write about Mizrahi consciousness? No problem, but justify it at the mathematical level of the poetry, the technique.”

But Sommer does not see himself as part of a sequence of oedipal revolts of poets against their literary fathers. “My politics is expressed in a-politics,” he asserts. “That’s my activism. I’m here to engage with my mind, in pure poetry. To the people who want to scuffle with me, I say: ‘I live on that planet, you can wallow in your shit like pigs.’”

Sommer doesn’t scuffle with poets, but he definitely plays off some of the finest of them. His book contains quotes or variations of lines from David Avidan, Yona Wallach, Yair Hurwitz and others. Apropos his decision to add a layer of footnotes to his poems, Sommer notes, “Apart from Yoel Hoffmann and David Foster Wallace, footnotes have not been used in lyric texts.”

'I don’t claim to be the Shakespeare of my generation. Even during my megalomaniacal moments, I’m not a narcissist. In fact, I hate myself. But I do think that my book is ahead of its time.'

You’re reaching high, maybe with chutzpah.

“I have chutzpah, you’re right, but I think that this is the age when having chutzpah is permitted. The energy overcomes the precision. I am so asymmetrical, even in my exterior appearance, in the nose that’s broken from being hit. I understand that to quote Yona Wallach is to be presumptuous in some way. On the other hand, Yona Wallach? Darling, you were the height of chutzpah. There was a period in which she claimed that she was God, she pulled a Kanye West. From my point of view, to be brazen is to dare to look at life through the crack in the wall, even if it’s perceived as not being right.

“For many years, I took the approach that ‘there’s no way I’ll publish a book,’ even though that was my dream, because I would not bind myself up with being a product. Until I reached the point where I was an iota from death and I understood that the time had come to release the genius in the room to the world.”

More chutzpah.

“I don’t claim to be the Shakespeare of my generation. Even during my megalomaniacal moments, I’m not a narcissist. In fact, I hate myself. But I do think that my book is ahead of its time, and that even if it doesn’t get recognition or fame, it will influence creative artists here and through them the artistic field will change.”

All I wanted was to be there

in you. Ready to fight against all the secretions, the anger and the agony.

I was ready to die for you

Perfecting my breaths like a run-over animal

Just not to watch someone else capture the kingdom.

– From “Mama”

The launch last month of “FeelNote” at Beit Romano, a trendy Tel Aviv bar, was an upliftingly happy event. Among the participants were Ronny Someck, musician Chemi Rodner, editor and writer Benny Ziffer, actor Michael Aloni and others. Sommer took the stage last and shouted, without playing it cool, “All my life I’ve waited for this moment!” But the real celebration came later.

“The first thing I did when I got back home was to fill up the refrigerator,” he says. Not even a mixed review in the literary supplement of Haaretz (in Hebrew) by poet and writer Yotam Reuveni – who wrote that “Sommer is a poet of single lines, sometimes wonderful, but which swim in a turgid soup of verbiage” – could spoil his mood.

The physical attack on him last week had a far more destabilizing effect. After recovering, Sommer went to a police station to file a complaint. He had recognized the assailant: a person who hangs out regularly at the nearby kiosk and was one of his Facebook friends. He showed the police anonymous emails sent to him during the days preceding the incident, which included threats.

Sommer: “When I insisted, they said they would summon the dude, but that they wouldn’t be able to tell me what was happening because it’s classified, and that most likely it wouldn’t go anywhere.”

Ex-King Carol II of Romania and Elena Lupescu.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In his distress, he called his biological father, but wasn’t able to elicit empathy. “His response was something in the style of, ‘I told you to shut up.’ He didn’t even try to contact his mother.

His new book is dedicated to her, but that gesture was not enough to diminish her objections to the public peeling of the family scabs.

“We had one instant of reconciliation,” Sommer says, “in which she said she hoped for my sake that people won’t be insensitive and will understand what I’m getting at in my creative work. But the next day we were back to, ‘Be quiet a little.’ She regrets having come to Israel, is disappointed in people, and therefore has chosen to live in a closet. That’s a tragedy for me, because my mother is my head, the ghost writer of my consciousness. And I, I am sort of an artistic striptease of her psyche.”

King Playboy and the redheaded Jewess

King Carol II.Credit: Romanian Encyclopedia, 1938 / Wikimedia Commons

“It’s ‘Game of Thrones’ shit,” Sommer says about his family’s labyrinthine history. Indeed, the story of King Carol II of Romania (1893-1953), who embarrassed the royal house time after time with illicit love affairs and was finally forced to renounce the crown, could easily be the inspiration for a TV series like the one based on the books of George R. S. Martin. 

'It’s ‘Game of Thrones’ shit,' Sommer says about his family’s labyrinthine history.

The first scandal, while Carol was still a young crown prince, involved his decision to marry the daughter of a Romanian general, in opposition to his parents’ wishes. The woman, who was not recognized as a member of the royal family, gave birth to a child after their marriage was annulled, as per his family's order. Carol was then sent on an around-the-world trip, on which he cast about for a suitable bride.

He finally married Princess Helen of Greece in 1921, and had a child with her, Michael, who was next in line to succeed Carol. The following year, the crown prince took as his mistress Elena Magda Lupescu, also known as Elena Grunberg, a married woman who was the daughter of a Jewish pharmacist from the city of Iasi who had converted to Christianity. Lupescu divorced her husband in order to be with the crown prince, and the two left Romania for France. In 1925, Carol announced that he was renouncing the crown in favor of his son Michael, who was anointed king at the age of 5.

In practice, the country was ruled by a group of functionaries until, in 1930, Carol was summoned back from exile to take command, provided he did not bring his paramour. He agreed, ousted his son and was ostensibly reunited with his lawful wife. However, he soon invited Lupescu to live in the palace with him. What began as a reckless but innocuous affair, turned out to be a burden when the Nazis came to power in Germany and their ideas spread across Europe.

According to Dr. Lucian-Zeev Herscovici, a Romanian-born historian who teaches in the University of Bucharest and is also employed by the National Library in Jerusalem, “The Legionnaire movement, also known as the Iron Cross, which was a kind of Nazi branch in Romania, exploited the Jewish origins of Madame Lupescu in order to excoriate the king.” 

In 1938, the Legionnaires won a parliamentary majority, but following Lupescu’s direct intervention, King Carol decided not to entrust them with the formation of the government. According to Herscovici, however, Lupescu’s concern was not “the wellbeing of the Jewish community.” He goes on to explain that, “In a recently published memoir, titled ‘They Called Me the Redheaded Jewess,’ Madame Lupescu [who died in 1977] claims that she was not even aware of her Jewish identity." That Lupescu and the king were motivated primarily by the desire for political survival is indicated by the fact that Carol finally charged another party, one with an anti-Semitic agenda, with the task of forming a government. At the center of its platform was a call to expel the Jews to Palestine. This government did not last long, and in 1938 the king decided to seize power himself. 

“Overnight he canceled Romania’s liberal constitution, outlawed all the political parties and established a single party called the National Renaissance Front, which he headed and under which he had unlimited powers,” Herscovici says, adding that this period is known as “the dictatorship of the king.” 

In the midst of World War II, as chunks of Romania were torn away in swift succession – and after the defense minister took advantage of the crisis to mount a revolt against Carol – the king was forced to abdicate and leave the country. 

As the convoy of the king and his mistress, packed with precious artworks, tried to cross the border, it was attacked by forces of the Legionnaires. Carol and Lupescu survived the attack and escaped, but without their most valuable belongings. At first the couple lived in Brazil, then in the United States and Britain, before finally settling in Portugal. There they were finally married but the king died a few years later, in 1953. Lupescu survived for another quarter of a century. In 2003, the remains of both were brought to Romania for burial.

“I remember myself as a boy watching with my mother the arrival of their coffins on the Romanian TV channel,” Sommer relates. “She tried to get the authorities to bury them side by side, because that was Elena’s wish in her diary, but they were buried in different plots. Apparently the Romanian nation still hasn’t forgiven the king with the mistress.” 

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