Nahum, Don’t Talk Only in Pictures’

On the 30th anniversary of the death of painter Nahum Gutman, a first look at some remarkable pieces from his literary estate.

It may seem as though everything that could have been said about Nahum Gutman, the artist and writer of Tel Aviv when it was young, already has, and that everything that has been said appeared in print. But no: Gutman, who died three decades ago at the age of 82, left behind a rich literary estate, the major part of which was gathering dust in the Genazim Archive of the Hebrew Writers Association, and elsewhere. There is no doubt that the writings from the estate, a few selections from which appear on these pages in English translation, are helping to change the perspective we have on Gutman as the painter of the first Hebrew city. Gutman also responded to places outside Tel Aviv, as in the elegiac essay, published on these pages for the first time, about the uprooting of an olive grove in Ramle. The fresh writing and the so very vigorous and contemporary Hebrew of the extracts from the estate presented here are also not to be taken for granted. Thanks are due to his daughter-in-law Ruth Gutman, who opened this treasure trove to us and to the Gutman Museum, Tel Aviv, which put its archive of the master’s paintings at our disposal.

"Ships in the Haifa Bay" - Nahum Gutman
Nahum Gutman

Boris Schatz’s wonder box

During the years of World War I, when the Turks ruled the land with an iron hand, tyrannically, greedily and lawlessly, the Jewish community − the Yishuv − was wretched, impoverished and dependent on the good graces of the hostile regime. I suppose you know about the scarcity and troubles that afflicted the Yishuv at the time.

During those years I was studying art at the Bezalel academy, under the direction of Prof. Boris Schatz. When I recall his name, I cannot help but sketch his appearance: a tall man, with a prominent chest, a beard and long hair, wearing an English pith helmet, a long Arab robe and a silken Bedouin headscarf, and armed with a Damascene sword. His eyes always glittered with the urgency of someone into whose head a new idea had just popped. He had a baby’s smile on his pink cheeks. He was a polymath and an inventor. He had a hand in everything that was happening in public life in the land.

I have described him at length not only because he has come to mind, but also because he is directly connected to my story. He was the man who invented the idea of the wonder box − the boxed chess set made of silver, presented on behalf of the Jerusalem city council to Jamal Pasha, the commander of the Turkish army in the land during the war. Thanks to that box, which was produced at Bezalel, many allowances were made for the school and for the city as a whole.

After this success, Prof. Schatz smiled another smile and said: Now we have to make a silver table for the chess set. After two months of working to achieve this, Schatz planned to add chairs as well − but the tale of the wonder box came to its end even before he made the chairs, because suddenly Jamal Pasha’s face went serious. I don’t want a table and I don’t want chairs. Basta!

At that very time Jamal Pasha proposed to Mr. Meir Dizengoff that he wished to visit Tel Aviv and to see for himself what a Jewish town is, and to offer his personal opinion of it. Huge anxiety gripped the leaders of the community there. Schatz’s invention ‏(the wonder box‏) had already lost its effectiveness and our Dizengoff was overcome with consternation.

Now I will take a little break, and tell about the Bezalel students. Because the effectiveness of the wonder box had lapsed, the students were in a very bad way. Our communal kitchen was shut down and the students scattered, some to their homes and some to work in the Jewish agricultural cooperatives in Judea and the Galilee. I returned home − to Tel Aviv. And with me came my good friend, painter Haim Navon, who is the elder brother of painter Aryeh Navon ‏(those of you who have read my book “The Long Vacation or the Mystery of the Crates” will know him by the name Ram‏).

I loved Haim Navon best of all my friends and I wish everyone a friendship as good as ours. I loved his talent, his personality and his energy. I also loved his outward appearance: For example, when he sang in our choir, he would move his lower jaw to the right and I, who also sang in the choir, would see this and burst out laughing in front of our conductor, which always caused upsets.

What was there for us to do in Tel Aviv, which had only four streets? How could we earn a living? Haim had the idea of giving a painting course. We were joined by Mita Halperin, daughter of Michael Halperin from the Shomer watchmen’s organization. When Haim wanted something − it got done.

One day I heard footsteps near the stairs to our home, which was located near the secondary school, the Herzliya Gymnasium. It was Dizengoff: “Nahum, we need you. Jamal Pasha is coming to visit us. Something has to be done that will make an impression on the military governor! The street ‏(that is to say, Herzl Street‏) has to be decorated. Something must be done that will bring to mind the Avenue des Champs Elysees in Paris. Come to the Committee House and suggest how to do something beautiful, which will capture Jamal Pasha’s heart.”

That same morning Haim and I went to the Committee House and the plan was prepared: to bring several cartloads of pretty tree branches ‏(“festoons,” in our language at the time‏) from the agricultural school at Mikveh Israel and to buy Turkish flags in Jaffa. We would get out a crowd to welcome him on the sidewalks, and that was it!

“Will all this make a good impression?” − asked Dizengoff with a worried face.

At that moment I thought: What would Schatz do? Where is the wonder box? And then the wonder occurred − a brilliant idea came to me!
I gave Haim, proponent of the fair-like decorations, a look telling him not to contradict me, and I said: “We don’t need festoons on all of Herzl Street − we have to satisfy the Turkish commander’s personal pride! We will make a large portrait of Jamal Pasha. So large, it will be seen hanging on the facade of the Gymnasium from one end of the street to the other.”

“We’ll add a frame of foliage to the portrait,” offered Haim, who leapt right on board.

“This will be a big portrait and not a photograph, so we will give him to understand he is in a city of culture, and not in some Nablus or Hebron.”
From then on, Haim was with me full steam ahead. At Ponarov’s store, we didn’t find any canvas, but we did find several sheets. We gave the sheets to a seamstress and from Soskin ‏(the photographer‏) we obtained a photo of Jamal Pasha. We drew a grid on the cloth and I started paining his fur hat as I stood at the top of the tall ladder. When we got to the buttons below his beard, I collapsed on the floor.

We attached the picture to the wall of the Gymnasium. Haim did not give up on the festoons around it. The picture was of a size that covered half the height of the building and it could be seen from the top of Herzl Street. Flags were unfurled on the street.

From the end of Herzl the procession approached as though drawn by magnetic force. Jamal Pasha in his fur hat, with a military step, smoothing his mustache and beard. Dizengoff in a frock coat accompanied the city councilmen, all of them wearing tarbooshes, striding with bravado and a puffed chest, the expression on his face asking: What’s to be done? One has to live and one has to know how to behave.

I will mention the names of some of the members of the committee − because it is pleasant to hear their sound: Korkidi, Hanoch, Izmuzik, Lev, Pochovsky and others. They were not representatives of political parties, because they were there in their own right − because of their character, nature and habits. Each was a special character in his own way.

And the Gymansium band! Oh Pasha! Krachevsky, the brothers Lubrani! At the conclusion of the visit, I saw Dizengoff walking with Jamal Pasha. The children were in the middle of the road and they were approaching the portrait, which had a huge impression on him. Here, in the middle of nowhere, they had greeted him like this.

This visit had the particular aim of stressing to the Jews: Jamal Pasha has no desire to persecute us. As though to deny the evil that had been done to them.

Indeed, as we learned from Dizengoff: What’s to be done? One has to live and one has to know how to behave.


She, he and the other one − or pianos in Tel Aviv

On the Turkish expulsion of residents of Tel Aviv, due to fear of a British invasion, Pesach 1917

Through her window I could see Devora, picking up a rag, going over to the piano and starting to dust it. She opened the lid, dusted, and shut it with a thud. The piano growled like a musical bulldog.

Devora locked the piano with a key. She stood, her head bent until the curly hair at the nape of her neck was visible. Indeed, a shocking farewell. She knows she will not be back to play on it soon. Today they are going into exile. Devora straightened her head, raised a hand, adjusted a curl, and turned as though disappointed toward the window looking out over the street. Then I saw it wasn’t Devora. It was her sister Rachel.

My whole perception of things has to be different and I have to backtrack: First, I must cease to be emotional. The tragedy is not all that great.
Rachel can live without a piano, and with respect to the story, Devora most probably avoided bidding farewell to the piano. For her, “playing the instrument” was something “truly” serious. She will devote herself to it forever. Devora plays phrases, phrases. Analytically, precisely and intellectually. Possibly she also cried when she heard about the expulsion, because she knew her playing of the instrument had come to an end.

Their mother no doubt had said: “Girls, shut the piano.”

Devora rebelliously hunched her shoulders and did not rise from the sofa. Then Rachel stood up indifferently and − swaying her hips like a grown woman − walked over to the piano.

Now Rachel is standing and looking out the window. The street is full of people loading their possessions onto carts shared by several families. The turn of the possessions from Rachel’s house had not yet arrived. Rachel sees the pigeons taking flight ‏(the ones we had seen previously − I too‏), sticks out her chest, which is constricted a bit inside her singlet, lowers her eyes to the street and giggles into the space of the uproar of the expulsion with a strange, foolish laugh. As if to indicate nothing is touching her.

She is weighed down by a number of things with which she does not know what to do. Here breasts have grown so that the boys in her class gaze in embarrassment when they talk to her, and she doesn’t know whether she is supposed to feel this is an advantage ‏(at long last, definitely an advantage‏) or to be embarrassed and hunch over her chest a bit and narrow her shoulders, but that isn’t comfortable and she doesn’t want to. Her laughter becomes unsuppressed, raucous and stupid. After it escapes her throat it remains frozen in the air. And the main thing − Rachel isn’t stupid, she just doesn’t know how to control herself. And therefore nothing interests her. How to escape all this? In fact, she thought, I am a buffet where everything is good. But there isn’t a hand that is going to stretch out to take what is there.

On Rachel’s face, the part stretched over her prominent cheekbones spreads charmingly to her somewhat uptilted nose ‏(a potato, in her opinion‏). This expanse between her cheeks and her nose makes me want very much to stroke it and fill it with kisses.

The flesh emerging from the boundaries of her singlet and her jersey pants is simply breathtaking.

This is beautiful. Let him come let him see, let him take something. And now all of a sudden along comes this expulsion. I could be wonderful and it isn’t working out for me. Chopin, I bang out Chopin on the piano. And what can I do? I play with my heart and not from notes. But really I want to sit on the balcony in the morning and eat salad from the same dish with him. One dish, with him.

And my friends don’t understand anything. They don’t press up against me. They say sorry even before they’ve pressed. I laugh like an idiot. I know. I am dangerous and stupid. And all these explanations shouldn’t be connected to Jewish National Fund boxes, Graetz, Mendele and Lilienblum. To our land of Israel, to the shambles in the room and to the expulsion. They didn’t teach us all the important things at the Gymnasium. Where I am being taken that now I am surrounded by them.
Now, all those thoughts were encapsulated in the foolish laugh as it confronted the chaos in the main street on the day of the expulsion.

Across from her window, in my window, stands a fellow, and it is I. It’s disturbing that her name is the same as my sister’s. It’s disturbing that she’s so adorable. She would no doubt be surprised if she were to hear that from me. She would break out into a laugh and afterward wouldn’t know where to put it. It wasn’t me she was speaking to.

With her sister Devora, it is necessary to speak, and there is something to speak about − but not with Rachel. I don’t engage in psychology or analysis. I’m just stating my difficulty. I am not talking about my hands, which in my imagination are reaching out toward her chest. This laugh of hers is abominable and trivial, only she herself isn’t. And it’s precisely to a girl like that, who has suddenly leapt out of herself − that my heart is attracted. To see her on a washday, sitting with the Yemenite woman in front of the large basin with a smile spreading between the two expanses on her cheekbones − and her strong white teeth − glowing no bounds. This is indeed a pleasure.

Half an hour later I saw Rachel taking her suitcases and her other possessions outside and my heart skipped a beat. Apart from the suitcases Rachel brought out, she also took along her blossoming youth, a one-time, insistent blossoming, bursting out in pleasure. It is possible she also wept when she learned of the expulsion.


Elegy on the cutting down of an olive grove in Ramle

I sat on the stump of an uprooted olive tree whose roots ‏(though it is very banal to say so‏) were like the hands of skeletons. I leaned my head on my right hand and looked at what had happened to this ancient olive grove, the one on your left as you enter Ramle.

Terrific, Nahum, you’re miserable! − I thought − miserable like everyone else. Miserable, flat on the floor, hermetically stuck. It’s impossible to be any lower and more miserable than you are. Don’t start moaning. Enough already. Your whole life is before you. Replace the Frigidaire. Instead of Cyprus you could travel to ... They have olive groves there as well. Anyway ... it’s boring to hear complaints. The skies will yet clear, a kitchen or two or three on the ship Shalom, and Ramle also need to grow. Plots of land are something this country needs. Instead of one sycamore tree − five plots, my friend! After all, you are, nevertheless, not so stupid and not always a fool. Interfere less and let people get things done. Your pictures are always happy and serene. What more do you want? What’s more, you’ll see that they won’t invite you any more to the reception for the heads of state next year. Don’t complain, don’t be a sourpuss, give us a smile, speak Hebrew without differentiating between masculine and feminine − like public figures and party activists talk. There’s something charming about this.

I shook my head left right and left like someone who wants to but can’t. No! Nahum, don’t kid yourself. You, Nahum, truly are miserable. Roundly miserable, there are sleeping pills.

A beginning and an end: a point you are touching, where there are both a beginning and an end. Look straight ahead.

I looked: a large olive grove, plowed by bulldozers and the uprooted trees with their roots falling without any order, some to the right and some to the left. Clearly, they refused to make a sound, and fell only at the last minute, when they lost their balance. The leaves on the treetops are fresh, washed by the rain and their roots really are like limp hands of skeletons.

Nahum, I said to myself, this time you won’t see me, stop being so smart and in order for them to understand you, don’t talk only in pictures − talk in words of human beings. That is to say, publish something in an evening paper. After the ad you published to sell a cupboard, the phone rang off the hook for two weeks. Here people read an evening paper.
Though they read “not exactly” − because all the calls I received after the ad was published were not between 4 and 6 P.M. as I had written, but rather at all hours of the day − but did they call, or didn’t they? Nahum, open your mouth. First of all, open the concordance at home and see how many times the olive tree is mentioned in the Bible. After that, everything will go smoothly.


In the kingdom of the Palmach

Gutman, a military illustrator during the War of Independence, describes leaving Tel Aviv after the blockade of the road near the village of Yazur was broken

A preface that is of use ‏(for me‏).

Of course it is of use: By the time I have written it my hesitations will have dissipated and I will be able to get on track. I need it in order to explain somehow that I don’t remember dates, names or places, as though I am detached from place and time like a feather molted from a bird’s wing. Sometimes rising, sometimes falling, sometimes here, sometimes there, moving of its own volition or transported, but in a lot of places and seeing things from various perspectives.

Let’s suppose I am amusing myself with this comparison and absolving myself in this way from the accuracy of an intelligent, reliable witness. I still haven’t got close to the matter. But why should I get close to it?
I am simply hearing the bell in the hall ring. And I see I am opening the door. And a fellow comes in and says: Are you Nachum? The jeep is waiting.

And the fellow is amiable, about 19 or 20, wearing an ironed white shirt with the sleeves rolled up nicely. Someone stands there and carefully makes the folds with loving fingers − otherwise it doesn’t work. And ironing like that of a shirt is accomplished only with the hottest of irons − this isn’t just an iron but a heart and the person who comes and puts it on wears a clean shirt after contaminating himself in all kinds of dirt and goes to have a good time on furlough.

Until I have readied myself for the trip and have collected paper and pencils − I squint at the fellow. He has a pistol jostling in a leather holster dangling on his hip. He has large hands, of the sort that suddenly, seemingly overnight, grow and become even larger than his father’s hands. The arms are lean. Muscles that haven’t yet been fully realized, that aren’t angular yet. Muscles in which there is more tension than power. Thin skin and intelligent veins in which there is a tendency toward simplicity, and in their branching hides the wisdom of tools the meaning of which I do not know.

To the reader about muscles [who expects to learn] how large they need to be in order to do great deeds − we will talk about that later in the story.
I sit down in the jeep, entering as the third in the back seat, and I was like a tent peg between two who were already there and parted to make a space for me, and our bottoms became a single unit within a small, light and wobbly jeep on a jagged road enveloped in a cloud of dust.

We are on our way to the Harel Brigade, to the kingdom of the Palmach. Here I see I have already emerged from my preface and have come to the chapter entitled − let’s suppose fittingly entitled: Don’t be sentimental!
I see the nape of the driver’s neck. It’s the back that matures first in adolescents. The nape of the neck was manly: The two triangular muscles that continued from the back reached it and made the vertebrae in the neck protrude in a kind of tender boniness. Barbered hair that tended to whirl like water became fuller as it reached the top of the head. On either side protruded small ears, slim of cartilage, ending in small, soft lobes. The fellow stretched out one long-shanked leg and then the other, and sat in the driver’s seat, sticking his two arms out and holding the steering wheel with the joy of a person opening the hot water faucet in the bathtub. Now a happy dance will begin.

Wait just a minute, why am I in a hurry? Indeed I also saw his face. He has eyes that try to hide the childishness in them. He has already been in battles. With an explosive charge he has crawled under barbed-wire fences. With his very own hands he has gathered Danny’s body parts into a dirty ground cloth and seen that life is dust and ashes. But in those eyes, which are trying to conceal, I see some small wells, I see reflections of all kinds of children’s stories. I was certain that in this smile he was smiling at me when he said “You are Nahum,” there was also, “I saw ‘Davar for Children,’ I read ‘Lubengulu’ [a popular children’s book written and illustrated by Gutman], and I’ll also read things like that tomorrow, or some other time.”

Then I said to myself: Nahum. Straighten up, don’t fail. Make them believe you’ve lain down under a tiger. And don’t hesitate. That’s the main thing, don’t be sentimental.

On this stretch of the road the enemy can see us, said the driver. So as not to be sentimental, I stopped looking at the glorious youth of the driver and my neighbors on the back seat, and I looked at practical things, concrete practical things, at the landscape to our left and to our right.
What a ride! The jeep is like an arrow shot from a bow. A deep road burrowing into the expanses. There is no longer the Abu Kabir area, there is no longer the Mikve Israel area, not the police headquarters on the left. They’ve already got rid of the obstacles and the positions that had been dug into the road.

Between the sky and Hades.

Was that a ride? It was flight. Into a large space empty of humans, on either side of the road, a landscape full of crops. Flight from inside Tel Aviv, which had been blocked for months, and now here we are in the expanse of the blue darkness. Flight from yesterday, from years of yesterday − into tomorrow. On the desolate yesterday road the fresh tomorrow is singing. The shirt stuck to the driver’s body and made several think folds, emphasizing his body as a sculpture. Flight like this cannot be told in simple words. A journey like this is made by souls trained on the throne of heaven. And as for purity − I saw in the driver’s hands holding the steering wheel no knots of polished muscles, but something of energetic thought; we prevail with more soul and thought. I have found myself in the chariot, rising upward. Alas! Alack! In my heart I enumerate the names of cherished and admired people who were not granted the rising chariot.

And why between heaven and Hades? Why?

Translations by Vivian Eden