The Man Who Penned a 'Gay Bible' When Homosexuality Was Still a Crime in Israel

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Not a single resident in the apartment block in Ashdod where Yotam Reuveni lives knows that a renowned novelist and poet lives among them. Even though Reuveni has garnered much praise, high regard and keen anticipation of his new books by the stalwarts of the literary community, he’s always believed that his work is regarded as remote, taking care to remove himself from mainstream literary discourse. But now there is a new sense of momentum, with recognition of the importance of his literary work.

Last year the 67-year-old Reuveni won the Landau Prize for poetry and this year he’s one of the five finalists contending for the Sapir Prize for literature, for his new book “The Autobiography of Jean Riven” (Afik publications). It seems that the literary establishment has belatedly understood that it’s time to embrace Reuveni to its bosom.

Reuveni has a rich corpus of 14 novels, three books of poetry and dozens of translations of salient world literature. In 1986 he won a creativity award given to novelists and poets. His novel “The Meaning of Deeds,” published a decade ago, was highly acclaimed by critic and journalist Adam Baruch: “the book of the year. Something has happened in Hebrew literature.”

Reuveni devoted 10 years to writing this book, which is composed of seven volumes describing the lives of immigrants to the Land of Israel at the start of the 20th century. His new book is an unconventional autobiography. Jean Riven is Yotam Reuveni’s original name. A new music album is due out soon, produced by David Pearl. It will contain songs written by Reuveni, with music composed and performed by Ninet Tayeb, Karni Postel, Dana Ivgi and Einav Jackson Cohen.

“They said that when you attain recognition you have to start worrying. Maybe you’re gravitating towards the center too much,” he says. “I know that I didn’t make things easier for myself or for others with what I wrote. Obviously I wanted to have more readers than I had.”

Yotam Reuveni in 1982. Credit: Rahamim Israeli

Over the years he’s earned a living mainly by translating. Among other writers, he translated Claude Levi-Strauss, Knut Hamsun, Jerzy Kosinski, Marcel Proust, Henry Miller, Graham Greene and Kurt Vonnegut. He’s translated plays by Pierre de Marivaux, Alfred de Musset, Jean Genet, Henrik Ibsen, Maxim Gorky and John Osborne. He also translated suspense and science fiction novels, as well as books by modern Romanian novelists and intellectuals.

In 2000 he established a small publishing company called Nimrod, as well as the mini-theater Nimrod, located first in his living room, then in Tel Aviv. Following financial losses incurred by the publishing company and the theater he had to sell his apartment. He is still in debt.

Winning the Landau Prize caught him by surprise. “I got used to thinking of my poetry as something removed,” he says. “I hope I get the Sapir Prize as well, since the bank is breathing down my neck. You know, I just had no revenue. You can’t go to the grocery with good poetry.”

Last year he looked for work as a guard. “I didn’t find any because they said I was too old and have back problems. Obviously no one knew who I was and if I’d said I was a poet it would have made things worse,” he laughs.

Maverick poet Yotam Reuveni, who lives a secluded life in Ashdod. Credit: Kobi Kalmanovitz

The gay bible

Reuveni’s first novel, “In Praise of Illusion”, came out in 1977 (Akhshav publications). In this collection of stories Reuveni struck out as a pioneer giving bold literary expression, among others, to homoerotic experiences. At the time, in the late 1970s, this was a sensational literary, cultural and public landmark. Reuveni wrote with exceptional directness about his sexual identity, at a time in which homosexuality was still a crime in Israel. Even today it’s difficult to perceive and assess the important impact of the avant-garde steps he took. In a slightly parochial vein, one could say that Reuveni is the Allen Ginsberg equivalent of modern Hebrew literature.

His vivid verbal descriptions in the stream of consciousness style, his dense syntax and intense motion, the constant delving of the individual into the soul, mixing in dangerous ingredients of truth, were all a new and unique literary gospel. Reuveni dealt with the homosexual experiences of life as one layer of the experiences of existence in general. He sketched bleeding daily experiences in the same manner in which he described philosophical and religious wonderings, mystical and existentialist. The key writers who influenced him were “first of all Proust, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, James Joyce and Faulkner.” Among Hebrew writers he cites only Pinhas Sadeh.

"To this day I’m happy I published In Praise of Illusion,” says Prof, Gabriel Moked, the past and present editor of the journal “Akhshav”. “I see Reuveni first of all as an important prose writer. ‘In Praise of an Illusion’ was the gay bible of its time. However, Reuveni never presented himself foremost as a representative of alternative gay literature, a contrast to the literature written by the 1948 generation of writers. He is part of that literature.”

Reuveni was a pathbreaker not only in Israeli gay poetry. In 1980, the daily Yedioth Ahronoth published a series of stories he wrote called the “Accursed Race.” It described the lives of Israeli homosexuals living under a law forbidding sexual relations between men (a law that was only rescinded in 1988). One would expect Reuveni to be highly acclaimed by the LGBT community, serving as a spiritual father figure whose bold actions as an artist and intellectual broke ground in the struggle for awareness and liberation.

Moked says that this didn’t happen because Reuveni didn’t want to be that figure. “Real poets don’t want to be fixed in one mold of sexual ‘otherness’ or on some axis of alternative culture” he explains.

Documentary filmmaker Yair Kedar says that “Yotam Reuveni is undoubtedly an important ground breaker. His contemporaries such as film director Amos Guttman or the poet Hezi Leskali did become gay culture figureheads. Reuveni, in contrast, plays a different role in this liberation project. He sticks to himself, angry, not connected to the sources of glorification of past heroes. This might change now.”

He was born as Jean Riven in 1949, in the city of Iasi in Moldova, Romania. His mother died of cancer when he was six. In 1964 the family came to Israel and settled in Ashdod. He later Hebraicized his name. He moved to Tel Aviv in his twenties and worked for seven years as an editor at Haaretz and Yedioth Ahronoth. He relates how he first realized he was gay on the boat coming to Israel. His first experience was in high school. “I would come to Tel Aviv. Independence Park was the most beautiful park in the world. I spoke with my ‘inner homosexual’ even then. I told him to look at where he was and not to deny he existed.”

What do you mean by “inner homosexual?”

“It’s how the world viewed gays 50 years ago. A homosexual was worse than a murderer. He was at the bottom of the heap. This image transferred to homosexuals and is part of their essence. I’m told this isn’t the case anymore. It’s over, they tell me. Young people are free now. So I have a simple question: Why is there such heavy consumption of alcohol and drugs in gay clubs and why can’t most gays have sex when they’re sober? This is in order to silence their ‘inner homosexual’ that tells them, based on history and on everything else that they’re gay and that something is wrong with them. I hope gays in the future are released from this burden although this could take decades or centuries.”

Reuveni has some sharp criticism for the LGBT community. He’s repelled by the prevailing features of their main activities such as the gay pride parade and the legal campaign to allow gay marriage. He is sharply critical of their ageism. “There are some strange phenomena in the gay community, such as their ridiculous weddings, the children they acquire through surrogate mothers in India. After such a long benighted period of rejection and concealment, there are those who wish to become like their tormentors, like ‘straight’ people. Why should I marry and have children if I’m gay? Apparently if nature made gays the way they are there is some reason for it, perhaps to control the number of children in the world.”

Back to Ashdod

Three years ago he decided to return to the city of his youth, Ashdod, after living in Tel Aviv for 35 years. He lives alone there, having no contact with anyone other than his brothers. He wrote “The Autobiography of Jean Riven” in his first year back in Ashdod. He notes that while writing it he had in his mind’s eye the “The Autobiography of Salomon Maimon” by the eponymous 18th century Jewish philosopher, which was a novel form of book at that time.

The apartment Reuveni lives in is sparse, with few objects around. He’s had three ruptured discs and suffers from intense back pain that makes it difficult to concentrate and write for prolonged periods. During the day he’s busy proofreading a novel and long poem he wrote. Tired and contemplative, he says that in recent days he’s rediscovered the reason for all the sadness, depression and fitful sleep. “The reason is that I’m going to die sometime and everything I do is vanity of vanities.”

And writing?

“Writing tries to enable us to live with this. On one hand, to leave something behind. But it’s so pointless that it’s ridiculous even more than the act of writing itself. In Hebrew, the greatest book of all time has already been written. Writing is a lie you tell yourself. At least while I’m writing there is no fear or death. There is some proximity to God, to something eternal. This is what sincere poetry does – it tries to approach the eternal as much as possible.”

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