Yona Alon. Emil Salman

‘I Am Writing Myself to Death’: The Literary Treasure Under an Unknown Clerk's Bed

He lived a frugal life, believed that there were no innately wicked people in the world and found solace wandering alone in the forest. The story of an otherwise unknown, retired clerk named Yona Alon, whose notebooks, in which he documented his life over 13 years, are now being published

“I, Yona Alon, accuse you, Yona Alon. I accuse you because, instead of living the regular life of a regular person, you devoted all your time to reading, writing and learning. Instead of enjoying yourself on hikes, overseas, in restaurants, in museums. Instead of giving life what it deserves – vacations, entertainment – you always insist on doing what you want. You turned your life into a desert, a wasteland, in order to give yourself happiness.”

Next to Yona Alon’s bed was a wooden box, one meter long, 70 centimeters high. In it were 14,000 handwritten pages – in round, delicate, precise script – with no erasures. Twenty-eight notebooks that relate the drama of the trivial life of an anonymous individual. The protagonists of the drama are a librarian, a checkout girl and the changing of seasons in Jerusalem. Thousands of scraps of writing, rife with plots and narratives, but with no beginning and no end, and read by hardly anyone, other than Alon’s wife and his two sons.

Yona Alon, who died five years ago, was an introverted individual who led a simple, circumscribed life devoted to almost obsessive writing. At age 52 he took early retirement from his job in the recordings library of the Israel Broadcasting Authority. He spent the next 13 years wandering by himself in the Jerusalem Forest. In the 13 years that followed that, the last years of his life, he went every day to the National Library in Jerusalem to write. He never had a driver’s license or a car, and even after turning 75, he continued to walk, no matter what the weather, from his home in the nearby Beit Hakerem neighborhood to his regular desk in the upper gallery of the library’s general humanities hall, below a skylight that illuminated him and his work. His notebooks filled up with texts devoid of epic deeds or lengthy tales, but included myriad accounts of arbitrary acts and the barest descriptions.

“The whole day I am organized and ordered and calculated and regimented to the last detail,” he wrote. “Every minute is calculated. The reading is balanced out by the writing, the use of the eyes with the use of the ears. When the eye tires, I have to let it rest, whether by taking a break to wash, sleep or do some sort of work, or by turning to the ear: listening to music. Work is balanced with rest. Sleep with wakefulness, tension with relaxation. Every single minute is calculated. And my daily schedule is fixed, with few surprises: meals at set times, medications at specified times. That’s the secret of health: Give the body its due, the psyche its due. But amid this precise order there is also a wild hour: the hour of the dreams. Every morning before waking up. Then this perfect order is invaded by dreams; I don’t know where they come from. The exaggerated order and the control of the mind must apparently give way to hidden instincts. And having no other place, they burst forth in the dark to find an outlet.”

Every publisher dreams of finding a treasure trove of thrilling writing, such as that of Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, who, on his death, in 1935, left behind a trunkful of unpublished manuscripts. As far as Uriel Kon, editor-in-chief of Nine Lives Press, is concerned, he realized that dream when he encountered Yona Alon’s treasure and decided to publish it. Alon initiated a meeting with him in 2011, to talk about a book that Kon had brought out, and in their conversation he mentioned the notebooks.

“I read all night and understood that I was the intended publisher for the textual fabric I was looking at,” Kon writes in an afterword to the newly published book, “Kach Lehisha’er Le’olam” (“Forever This Way”). “I am the one who wants to absorb this life debacle and turn it into books. Why? First of all, I took note of the total convergence between Alon’s ‘forms’ and the content of his works: His texts are minimal and sparse, almost mere lines, void of pyrotechnics, embellishment and surpluses, exactly like the physicality of Yona Alon himself – thin, tall, almost stooped, as though responsible for his weight, in the same way as he was responsible and aware of the weight of his written words.”

This is the first original Hebrew-language book that Nine Lives Press has published. According to Kon, the book, which is largely made up of material from Alon’s 2007 notebook, is at the crossroads between Israeliness and modern European literature.

“Alon’s writing is connected to a certain Hebrew tradition,” Kon observes. “He references Lea Goldberg and Natan Alterman. On the other hand, it’s very alien to Hebrew literature, and this is where his major influences come in: Franz Kafka and Fernando Pessoa. They both gave him a ‘green light’ to do what he wanted to do. He achieved a hybrid form of writing, neither realistic nor nonrealistic. It’s a sketch, but on the other hand, it’s a story. It’s a fragment, but on the other hand, it’s connected to the whole, large totality of 14,000 pages that contain recurrent motifs. He’s sparing with words, which makes his prose rapid, and that way he can address the harshest subjects. And he really does deal with the toughest issues of Israeli society: kibbutz, city, selfishness, capitalism.”

Emil Salman

Treasonous step

Yona Alon was born on Kibbutz Ein Shemer, near Hadera, in 1935. He was the first member born on the kibbutz who left to pursue a higher education – a step that was then considered nothing short of treasonous. As a boy he discovered his love for music and learned to play the trumpet and the piano, but had a hard time finding his place amid the rigidly educated “children’s society” on kibbutz.

“I was always afraid to touch,” he wrote. “I was under the critical observation of my mother, who was afraid that she would be exposed in her inability and her inferiority, and looked at me with sharp eyes to glean any sign of weakness that would expose me. She transmitted all her fears to me in totality. Only when I hid between the books was my weakness not exposed to razor-sharp eyes. In the meantime my mother grew distant. Childhood grew distant. The prying eyes of the group, of the kibbutz. The eyes that pierced me to dust.”

“He wasn’t a sociable person,” says his half-brother, Emmanuel Alon, who still lives at Ein Shemer. “He was an extreme individualist who was growing up in a very social web. In an educational collective that obliges a person to conform to its codes, the tough codes of a socialist, egalitarian education system.”

Yona’s twin, poet Eli Alon, also wrote about his brother’s unusual childhood. “You were born an old child, wise, thinking, a little philosopher” he wrote in a eulogy for Yona. “You were a special child, so special, so ‘other,’ as though hatched from a swan’s egg that an unknown hand placed in the duck’s nest in our coop. You flew in the sky, the open worlds of the wind were your homeland, while we, the other chicks in the yard, cavorted in the mud and played in the sandbox.”

And Yona Alon himself wrote, “Subsequently in life I became increasingly aware of the fact that I am very often mistaken in my relations with others. I am an alienated and constrained individual when I come to forge human ties. And the bursting of my bubble causes me pain. I put on a likable face for every person, but the true lack of connection surfaces at a moment of error.”

His family and acquaintances say that Yona saw his early years as the source of the wound that he bore for the rest of his life, and that this burst out in his writing in his last years. “I had a father who had nothing to say to me,” he writes. “My birth was forced on him after immature sexual contact, birth in the seventh month (twins) and the confinement of my mother in a hospital for the mentally ill after the birth. Afterward he lived with another woman and assumed responsibility for us out of duty and nobility, but in actual fact he had nothing to say to me. My mother had nothing to say to me.... After the traumatic birth she was hospitalized for two years. When she returned, I was a stranger to her. She had nothing to say to me. I grew up without words.”

Yona’s mother, Rachelke, was an orphan who came to Palestine from Poland with a group of young people from the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair Zionist youth movement in 1930. His father, Yaakov, arrived on the same ship (he was from Lublin, she was from Warsaw). “At that time people [on such socialist kibbutzim] didn’t marry,” Emmanuel recalls. “They announced that they were establishing a family, were given a tent, maybe a room in a cabin – obviously without a toilet or a shower. And the children were born.”

Under his baton

After the birth of the twins, as noted, Rachelke suffered severe postpartum depression and was hospitalized in Jerusalem. The boys spent the first two years of their lives without their mother. It’s said on the kibbutz that milk from other mothers was brought to them from neighboring communities. When Rachelke returned home, she discovered that Yaakov had established a new family with a different woman – Emmanuel’s mother.

After retiring and devoting himself to writing, during the period of his wanderings in the Jerusalem Forest, Yona self-published seven poetry collections, one of whose central themes was the still-open wound of his childhood. In one poem, titled “Where I Came From,” he offered a different version of his birth, according to which it was the result of rape:

Mother relates:

“No girl wanted

Yaakov.

I was night organizer, I took pity on him

And assigned him to the tent with me.

One night he came back drunk from a party

Attacked me and raped me.”

“To this day I don’t know whether that’s real or made up,” says Ofer Alon, Yona’s son, 53, but he does remember that his grandmother was furious. “I was a witness to it, with my own eyes,” he recalls. “When it was published, in black and white, she was very angry. It was meant to be a story between mother and son, and not something public. If I remember correctly, she also tore the book to ribbons. There was a long period in which they didn’t speak. A person doesn’t write something like that if he doesn’t have some sort of duty to discharge.”

Emil Salman

Yona wanted to do his army service in the Israel Defense Forces orchestra, but instead, like most kibbutz youths in the 1950s, he was assigned to a combat unit. He did a squad commanders course and made it through four months of officers training. “His buddies in Givati [infantry brigade] said of him that he would even turn a simple tap on the wrong way, and he wasn’t able to disassemble a Czech rifle,” his brother Eli wrote.

Yona was dropped from the officers course and spent the rest of his service in the IDF orchestra. After his discharge he established a choir on Ein Shemer, which performed under his baton on holidays.

“He took what was probably the most undesirable job for kibbutz members, and went to work in the kitchen, while everyone wanted to work in agriculture and drive tractors,” Emmanuel remembers, adding, “He also wanted to be a permanent night guard in the kibbutz. That was really unusual, but it gave him time to occupy himself with music during the day.”

‘Tragic failure’

In 1958, when Alon came under greater pressure to work more hours, he announced that he was leaving the kibbutz. He moved to Jerusalem to study composition and piano at the music academy there.

“He left with nothing, they didn’t give him anything, maybe only a bed and a mattress and a few blankets, but no money or anything,” his twin relates. “He lived very frugally, he barely had enough to subsist. He lived in a tiny room next to the roof, two meters by three. He would go to weddings in order to eat sometimes. His mother sent him food packages in the mail.”

He met Yafa, who became his wife, in a music-theory group in which academy students participated. They were married in 1962. She too recalls the penury of his existence during his student period. “A few times I thought he was doing reserve duty, because he wore army clothes. He went on wearing the wool pants of reservists because he didn’t have any others,” she says. His broad musical knowledge pleased her, she recalls, as did his courteous and polite demeanor. The couple had two children, Ofer and Noam. Ofer, the firstborn, remembers that during his childhood his father would closet himself in his room to write. “He loved the children very much,” Yafa says, “but when he wrote, the door had to be locked. We called it ‘Daddy withdrawing.’”

“What’s the source of this quality of solitariness?” Yona wrote in his journals. “Stage by stage I’m starting to understand. First: two years without Mother; lying down and sleeping. Afterward the trauma, at age 5, when with a kind of odd perversion of a late attempt to breast-feed (search for a bond? an intimate physical bond?), Mother rejected me. After that watershed and for many years, I never touched any person. After that, four parents: Each of my parents established another family, and I had to adjust my behavior to four different people, with none of whom I had either an intimate relationship or unconditional love. Afterward the children of the group: All were strangers to me. Afterward hundreds of kibbutz members: They were strangers, too.

“I grew up without intimacy in the heart of the most crowded society in the world, which claims [to stand for] fraternal relations and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ Like everyone, and more than everyone, I wore a mask on my face. I always made pretend in order to adjust to the conventions and modes of thinking of an authoritarian society, in which individual comfort and personal fulfillment were considered selfish, careerist, strangeness, and which condemned everyone who was different and exceptional. My reaction was escape from everything: from the kibbutz, from the group, from the army, from work, and only when I escaped from every obligation did I find perfect happiness, alone in the library. I wouldn’t have survived without Yafa. She, loving, honest, natural and sociable, made existence, progress and emotion possible for me. But even so, it is extremely difficult to change the foundations of personality, even if I have come a long way.”

Alon began to shut himself off in order to write, while he still worked for the Israel Broadcasting Authority. For years he toiled over two books of philosophy that he self-published: “There Are No Wicked in the World” (1968) and “The Social Moral vs. the Existence Moral” (1975). In them he set forth his moral principles, maintaining that human beings seek goodness by nature, from which it follows that there are no wicked people. According to Alon, even when someone does something that is perceived as bad by society – he is implementing his conception of goodness, which is intended to do good to himself.

“None of it should ever be seen as a wicked act by a single individual or a society, but as the tragic failure of the human capacity for dialogue,” he wrote. “If we accept the fact that there are no wicked people and that every person wants good (though each person has a different conception of the good), we will know that it always makes sense to engage in mutual dialogue and in the search for a way to maintain dialogue between people, and a prospect of finding harmony between them always exists.”

His acquaintances from the IBA, from a Yiddish club he belonged to, and from his period at the National Library all attested that his philosophical outlook found concrete expression in his affability. “He had faith in people,” Yafa says, “and he was also as courteous and polite as possible. As far away as possible from being wicked.”

His book “There Are No Wicked in the World,” she adds, “was the subject of contempt and ridicule on the part of many people – after all, to say in the generation after the Holocaust that there are no wicked people in the world?”

Yona pursued his philosophical endeavors by studying under two prominent thinkers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Yeshayahu Leibowitz and Father Marcel Dubois. Every Saturday evening, after the Sabbath, he took part in a study group in Leibowitz’s home.

As for Alon’s compulsion to write, Yafa is very cautious about trying to explain it, even after more than 50 years of marriage. “It’s impossible to enter into the depths of someone else’s soul,” she says. “It’s as though he saw it as a duty to go and write something every morning. A day on which he didn’t write anything was a wasted day. He imposed a duty on himself.”

Ofer, his son, read what his father wrote almost every day, but he too is unable to account for the driving force behind the words. “It’s clear to me that he had this urge to write,” he says. “I find it a little difficult to understand, because I don’t have an urge to write. I accepted it as a fact. The man decided that it was more important for him to write than to keep working. It was important for him to communicate with us through his writing, too.”

Staff in the National Library who knew Alon relate that he was the first person to show up in the reading room every morning, at 9 A.M. sharp, to embark on his daily labors. “We got worried if he was late,” days Daria Ganor, who worked in the reading room. “There were days when the heating in the library broke down. He would come no matter what, whether it was unbearably hot or freezing cold.”

Though there are many regular readers in the library, she adds, “he was very special and we loved him very much. When he stopped coming, after he fell ill, we called him to find out what happened. He was the only reader we did that for. We kept the last book he read on the [reserve] shelf as long as he was sick, but he never returned.”

“When you asked him how he was, he would say, ‘If I can get here on my own, on my feet, and smile, then I guess my situation is all right and I’m happy,” says Eyal Shalev, who also worked in the library. “When I called to ask him how he was doing, he reminded me of all the times he said that if he was there he was feeling good, and then he said, ‘I stopped coming because the situation isn’t good.’”

“My boat is full of holes and I have to pump water and spill it overboard, and a new hole is added every time and the work is harder. That is old age. The joy of life has faded. And suddenly I felt tremendous gratitude for the fact that the 25 years since I retired passed in relative health and in happiness. That’s no small thing. And now: Welcome to the agonies.” Alon wrote those words when he started to vomit, before he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. He died in June 2013, about a year after the diagnosis.

As long as he was capable, Alon continued to write in the notebooks, even during the period of his illness. His handwriting becomes gradually feebler and less precise. He believed that his spirit was embedded in the words. The book was edited posthumously, according to the minimalist instructions he had left.

“With the years I am becoming increasingly stooped,” Alon wrote, “constantly shrinking. Like my father in his last years. The weakness of the body with the years, the body having difficulty carrying the burden of the head on the shoulders, also the constant sitting and the work at the desk, the osteoporosis, too – all these connect me to my father. But I have an additional burden on top of his: I am writing myself to death in the notebooks. My body is constantly shrinking also because of the diabetes, which forces a severe diet on me, and in this too I am following in my father’s footsteps, but my spirit is collecting in the notebooks. They are relentlessly filling up, I am relentlessly being emptied of my life.”

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