Princess Leah

Director Yair Qedar aims to uncover the truth about Hebrew-language poet Leah Goldberg in his documentary being screened at the DocAviv festival.

When Leah Goldberg was 8 years old, her father suffered a mental illness and her mother went to work. Leah started studying at the trade school in Kovno (now called Kaunas ), Lithuania, and turned out to be a gifted student. Within just six months she was learning Hebrew.

"Today I am starting to write a journal. I remember that two years ago I also wanted to write but there was never any time," Goldberg penned at the time. "When I got home I stared at the sky and saw little clouds, like angels of light that sailed across the heavens. There is nothing to write about today. Enough!"

Leah Goldberg
Courtesy of the Gnazim archive

Using a variety of quotes from journals, letters and poems she left behind, plus a number of unpublished photographs and interviews with literary figures and people who knew her, the documentary film "The 5 Houses of Leah Goldberg" will premiere tomorrow at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque (as part of DocAviv ). The film tells the story of the revered Hebrew language poet and writer, whose 100th anniversary falls in two weeks, on May 29.

In the film, director Yair Qedar attempts to squeeze not just the story of Goldberg's life but also tidbits from her work into 52 minutes. Given the fact she wrote around 100 books, this is no easy feat.

"Leah Goldberg wrote poetry, articles, columns, books, children's books, children's songs, and plays, and translated, edited, taught and wrote research books. She was a literary powerhouse, nothing less than that," notes literary critic Ariel Hirschfield in the film. When you consider that Goldberg is also one of the country's most beloved and popular writers from the 20th century, and that many of her poems are known to anyone who grew up in Israel, creating such a film seems not just like an impossible task, but also a very intensely pressured one.

"Yes, it was intense," acknowledges Qedar. "And what made me even more nervous was the responsibility. After all, a film like this is made once every 50 years. I am now receiving power of attorney from the Israeli culture to make a film about Leah Goldberg, that's how I felt. There is such a large corpus of her work and she is also so entrenched in the hearts and souls of Israelis, that it makes it even harder. I felt I had to do something that would not contradict that, that whoever watched the film should not feel like something was missing. So I said to myself, OK, I recognize all these things but am putting them aside, because this film has to be made."

Qedar, 41, a journalist and director of documentaries ("Gay Days," "Mom, Dad, I have something to tell you" ), has undergraduate and master's degrees in literature from Tel Aviv University. Around eight years ago, he tried to promote a project known as "Ha'ivrim", which was to have been a series of biographical films about deceased Israeli writers and poets, but was unsuccessful.

"I collaborated with several producers but it didn't get off the ground," Qedar recalls. "However, this long dead project is being revived, albeit not as a continuous series." After the film about Goldberg, he started work on a film about the life and work of Israeli poet Yona Wallach, and he already has plans for another film: "The third film in the series will focus on the early 20th century, around the time of [Yosef] Brenner, [Shai] Agnon, [Hayim Nahman] Bialik, on all three of them, or individually," he says.

Map of the emotions

As indicated by the name, "The 5 Houses of Leah Goldberg" - which was made with the support of the New Film and Television Fund, the Second Channel Authority and the Film Service - is divided into five chapters. The first focuses on Goldberg's childhood. Her birth in Kovno, the wandering with her parents in Russia during World War I, the soldiers who abused her father, the Hebrew studies of the curious girl, the circumstances that forced her to go out and earn a living at a young age, the doctorate she began writing aged 18, her first steps in poetry. and the joie de vivre that engulfed her then.

The second chapter tells of Goldberg's early years in Palestine: Her entry into the Tel Aviv literary scene, the cafes where she would sit on her own, or with her colleagues, practically the only woman among a group of men. It also notes the numerous occupations she engaged in, alongside art, in order to support herself - including translation, newspaper writing, copywriting, writing skits, and lectures on literature.

The third chapter, a heartrending one, is devoted to the writer's failed love life. It looks at her puzzling relationship with the poet Avraham Ben-Yitzhak, who was 28 years her senior, her attraction to impossible love, her low self-image and the impact of all these on her work.

Goldberg's decision to move to and study in Jerusalem is at the heart of the fourth chapter, alongside the tremendous impression she made on her students and her relationship with her mother - who lived in the same house and cared for and looked after her.

The final chapter covers her waning years: The reviews that belittled the value of her work and hurt her, another infatuation, this time with an Italian researcher which also ended in heartbreak, and her sinking into depression and emotional turmoil. Finally, there is the cancer that afflicted her, the difficult treatments she endured, her demise and death at the age of 59.

Why did Qedar choose Goldberg to begin the series of films? "The more time passes, the more Leah Goldberg stands out among everyone else," Qedar says. "She is very popular, she is beloved; there is a passion for her. Every book of hers that is published is a bestseller. She has become a public and cultural favorite as she never was during her lifetime, and as few others have become. This is evident, for example, in the instinctive purchase of every item of hers now released, in the great demand for courses about her, in the performances based on her works, arrangements of her songs and children's plays. She is a very strong brand; she is now at the height of her popularity."

Qedar says he can't explain where this popularity specifically stems from, but still cites several reasons: "One reason has to do with her image - which is that of a feminist success story, self-fulfillment, a career woman. And that, incidentally, is contrary to how she saw herself. "In addition," he adds, "her writing is not nationalistic, something that contributed to the waning of other writers from her era, and her biography is the story of a woman who chooses art over other forms of fulfillment. There is something Sisyphean about it. She is a tragic figure, and this is also reflected in her work. She is a marginal figure and it is hard not to love her: She did not earn sufficient recognition and was deemed too feminine, overly simplistic.

"And there is another component connected to her European origins and her being a sort of European ambassador in Israel," Qedar believes. "She did major translations, she was trained as a European intellectual even before the war, and superb and unmatched cultural credentials. Not many artists earn a doctorate on the Samaritan translation of the Bible at a remarkably young age. And there is something else connected to her Hebrew, which was secular."

However, when you think about Goldberg's popularity, the first thing that comes to mind is her children's work (such as "Where is Pluto," "A Flat to Let," "The Magic Hat" ) and her poems, so many of which have been set to music. "She wrote 'A Flat to Let' in 1959 - this is a 52-year-old text and it is still on top of all the charts ranking the best children's books. How is it that it manages to be so relevant and alive," wonders Qedar.

"In her poems," Qedar continues, "Goldberg displayed an ability she did not have in her personal life or in her journals: The ability to map the emotional life. I think she is the poet with the most works set to music in Israel. Another thing that amazes me is the fact that things she wrote at the age of 30 in newspapers, for the purpose of earning extra money and for which she received a pittance, are today succeeding as the most popular book ['A Flat to Let' ). How did that happen and how is it that every other mall today features performances of this work, which attract thousands of young fans? I don't know. It's magic."