'I’m Different From Amos Oz, I Was Never Declared a Saint'

He is Aharon Shabtai, an important Israeli poet who caused a revolution with his erotic poetry. She is his daughter Nano, a poet, author and critic. The two talk about the family that fell apart and the clash between the family man and the poet

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Aharon Shabtai and daughter Nano Shabtai.
Aharon Shabtai and daughter Nano Shabtai. ‘Finally, the end.’Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv
Nano Shabtai

Growing up, every book my father published was accompanied by a spate of revealing interviews in the newspapers. Our private lives, with all their drama, were on display. My father’s erotic poems and open discussion of intimate matters in the press were painful and embarrassing for the family. Over the years, we got used to it and each found our own way to cope and laugh about it – or at least try to.

Despite what’s been written, my father didn’t break up the family. It was a mutual decision between my parents. But things look different under the limelight: one-sided and sensationalist. And so we dealt with the jeering children, gawking neighbors and tended our broken home of a mother and her six children.

Mainly we were heartbroken over our family’s disintegration – a special family, some might call it strange – but undoubtedly a family that boasted, with some degree of condescension, about its unique and rare familial bond. A sort of hubris. Because the family did fall apart, its disintegration reminiscent of Greek tragedy, all compounded in the constant, unflattering, public mirror.

My relationship to my father’s poetry and naked candidness ranged from total repression, to embarrassment, offense, severance, reconciliation and pride. But above all and at the very core, ultimately, I feel great admiration and love for my father.

In honor of the publication of “Aharon Shabtai – A Selection of New Poems 1966-2021,” edited by Elad Zeret and published by Am Oved, several months after he received a lifetime achievement award at the Metula Poetry Festival, I was asked to interview my father – both as his daughter and as a fellow writer.

'On one hand I’m the father who hurt you and is trying to repair it. On the other hand, I’m a poet who was in distress and needed a divorce to find a new life and the opportunity to find himself in poetry'

I recently read an advanced copy of Prof. Mickey Gluzman’s new book, “Aharon,” which will be published soon by the Open University in Tel Aviv and for which I was interviewed. The book takes a biographical-psychological perspective on my father’s work, which include some 20 books of poetry and the translations of the Greek classics. I learned several new details about my father, now 82, but mainly saw the familiar interspacing of the personal and the literary that is common to us both.

The multiplicity of identities confused me. The conflation of words and reality, so many reflections of a chaotic actuality. Each of my father’s books is another way station of his journey, books in which he is the hero – not a hero who conquers his nature or his language, rather a hero who changes and adapts and describes it all with no inhibitions.

He ranges from songs of praise for our home and family, describing the beauty of my mother nursing their child in “The Domestic Poem,” to his disconnection and plaintive searching in “Divorce,” to the erotic poems of “Ziva” and “The Heart.” His politics shift just as drastically: His essential love for the homeland in “Begin” gives way to extreme leftism in “Sun Sun” and “Tanya.”

So dad, I’m trying to understand where your foundations were rattled. Have you ever thought about how your books reflect on you as a person?

“It’s an interesting question. I thought about preceding this interview with a short and ambivalent sentence: ‘Finally, the end.’ I’ve reached the end, and that sounds sad, Ecclesiastes-like. But on the other hand, the hardest and most challenging thing in art is to keep going. We forget how often poets, even talented ones, get stuck and essentially write the same poem, the same idea, the same mannerisms, over and over. Often it’s a recipe for success, doing what the readers expect.

Aharon Shabtai. 'As far as I’m concerned, I never stopped.'Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

“As far as I’m concerned, I never stopped. Each time, to my surprise, I continued on my journey, I moved from one place to another, and it required reinventing myself and discovering the contradictions in myself, including the stupidity that Moshe Gershuni [who was Aharon’s best friend] considered vital for an artist. The poet John Keats called that trait ‘negative capability.’

“The selection of poems that is coming out now reflects this long journey of necessary change. Change is part of poetry’s essence. Poets are meant to listen for real changes, political and ethical changes, which obligate us to accept new concepts. There has been no other period with as many changes as the past 55 years, from ‘The Teachers,’ which I wrote in 1966, to ‘What Will I Do Today’ in 2020-2021.”

‘We’re undivorceable’

I remember myself at the age of 12. I was a “good girl,” quiet and introverted. I read a great deal but I wanted to be a dancer, like my aunt whom I loved. She was the subject of the book “Love,” which hangs above our family legend like a heavy tombstone, embodied in the line: “We’re an undivorceable man and woman.”

When my father left, I stopped dancing and started writing teenage poetry, for my eyes only. I never planned to be a writer, certainly not a poet. For me, words were a symbol of failure – of the intolerable gap between what is said and what is. To me, “Love” is my father’s most beautiful book, but it’s a book filled with passion and yearning for my mother’s sister. When I was 18, my psychologist asked me what it was like to read, at 13 years old, that your father became “a 6-foot-tall penis.” I had no answer. But even before the erotic issue, I was someone who didn’t trust words, and certainly not people, in the most basic sense.

'I didn’t like Amos Oz’s flowery style. Along with his self-righteousness, it dominated his image and he became a kind of cold marble statue'

Did you ever consider the tremendous implications of your writing on us, your children?

“Job used the expression ‘from my flesh I will see,’ meaning, from one’s own experience. When leveling criticism, it’s important to remember that as a starting point. You also write about intimate experiences that are likely to be an embarrassing revelation to your children. Turns out you have no choice. ‘We’re an undivorceable man and woman’ has value as an ethical ideal, and that’s important. I wouldn’t erase it as a poet or as your father, who held on to that ideal, and practiced it as a devoted partner and father for quite a few years. It was an honest intention. Many good intentions expressed in good faith prove false after 20 years.

“Children always idealize their parents, and eventually discover that they aren’t angels, but real people, with strengths and weaknesses, and that it wasn’t the stork that brought them into the world. That painful discovery prepares them for life. Even you. Despite the disappointment, it would have been better if you’d had a more realistic concept of your father, which would also allow you to better accept yourself. It’s how you develop understanding and form a relationship founded on reality. Idealization is a weak foundation for self-righteousness. There are endless examples of it, the latest being Galia and Amos Oz.

“It highlights the importance of freedom in poetry and art. Openness is also controversial. It undermines the accepted order, and that’s why literature has always encountered censorship and persecution. From the time of the Spanish Inquisition … to the cancel culture that silences people in the name of political correctness today. There are educational institutions in America where ‘Lolita’ and even ‘The Odyssey’ are blacklisted.”

You’re funny, Dad. I’m talking about my past, and you tell me about the present and somehow got to the Inquisition. You have a tendency to get defensive and lecture. So I’m inviting you to listen for a moment: I didn’t aspire to be a poet. It took me years to bridge the gap between words and life, and to rid myself of the illusion that it was a bad influence on my relationships. Today it’s different, I’m happy when I write. But you said it yourself, after reading my “Book of Men,” that you know that there’s one man behind all of them. And that’s you.

“You’re right, and you’ve brought us back to the true soft spot, which doesn’t live on the page, but in reality: The destruction of the family and the years that our relationship was painful and problematic. The wound in your lives and mine, which can never be fully repaired, when I left you and moved to Tel Aviv.

“On one hand I’m the father who hurt you and is trying to repair it. On the other hand, I’m a poet who was in distress and needed a divorce to find a new life and the opportunity to find himself in poetry. Nano, there’s nothing to be done, that’s your father. For everything that has happened and is happening, there are only ‘words, words, words’ in my books. I recall the lines of Lea Goldberg: ‘What will remain? Words, words like the ash of this fire which consumes my heart of shame, all of my meager bliss – only letters sealed in a book.’

“And she, the childless poet, helped me find the answer. Ostensibly there is a deep abyss here that separates the father from the poet, but it’s also possible to forsake the abyss and be happy with both. Both with the half-full glass of the father, and in the best case of the father who is also a poet, and you can enjoy the poems that preserve for you both his shame and his meager happiness.”

How I became a poet

I’m no longer angry at my father. I enjoy him as a father and as a grandfather to my children, who share a great love. Talking to him about life or writing is one of the most precious things I have. I learn from him, and I know that he’ll always tell the truth, for better or worse. He’s surprised and sometimes even shocked by what I “dare” to write, and how. It’s funny, because that courage was etched in me by him, quasi-biologically.

Father and daughter Shabtai.Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

You mentioned Amos and Galia Oz, who really are different from us, but still – what is your opinion of Galia’s book and the accompanying scandal?

Galia Oz’s book is moving and well written. I wrote a poem about it, ‘To Amos Oz,’ which is included in the new book. I didn’t like Amos Oz’s flowery style. Along with his self-righteousness, it dominated his image and he became a kind of cold marble statue. So I was happy to discover that he was a living person with problems and weaknesses, and that the two girls succeeded in making him human. That’s also an achievement to his credit, because he’s the father who trained them to think and write well and that’s a big gift.

“And yes, I’m aware that it also reflects on us, another father and daughter who write. We must remember that a person becomes a father when he’s very young and doesn’t know if he’s really suited to fatherhood, which is a long-term responsibility. There are other unknowns. The parents’ relationship, problems with work. A child’s nature or the unexpected changes in life. It’s hard to be a perfect father.

“I’m different from Oz, I was never declared a saint, so at least we could agree on that. It was hard for me to read ‘The Book of Men.’ It was very painful for the father in me, and on the other hand I was happy at your ability to come out of your father’s shadow and express your fury at disappointing men who apparently also represent something of me.”

You once told me that you weren’t a communicative child and they even sent you for a psychological evaluation to see if you were autistic. You weren’t, but they only realized once you discovered reading and writing and a world opened up for you. What was in that world?

Amos Oz. In Galia Oz's book she writes about her father’s collaborators, at home and outside, about a dynamic of erasure and amending reality.Credit: Yanai Yechiel

“Mom took me to a psychiatrist who lived on Gordon Street. He showed me Rohrshach ink blots, and after hearing my answers, told my mother that I was a very gifted child. That morning is etched in my memory. It was the first time I received positive reinforcement.

“And then everything changed at once. I registered for the library, read books and excelled at writing. In the classroom, I became a talker, making friends with the clever kids… I must note, the moment I learned to read and write my body image changed as well. I became one of the strong ones and excelled at sports, especially soccer and later basketball.”

When did you know you would be a poet, and what does it really mean to want to be a poet at such a young age?

“I wrote poems right away. And my father used to copy them into a notebook with a black cover. One evening he went with me to the editorial office of the [children’s] newspaper Davar L’Yeladim, and they published a poem of mine, ‘The Butterfly.’ I was 8 years old. Today culture, and poetry in particular, are marginal. There are screens, apps, Facebook, TikTok, and children dream of being [singer and actress] Noa Kirel or [pop duo] Static and Ben El. We had none of that, but in the house there was a bookcase, so I always read. I registered at two libraries and I began to write stories, and of course poems.

“For hundreds of years, poetry had senior status in culture and education. I belong to the generation when children dreamed of being either Napoleon or a poet. To enter the world of poetry, one had to develop taste. There was a long period of mentoring before you developed a style of your own, and it was hard to publish – it’s very different from the abundant writing that is common now in workshops and on the internet.

“But the serious start was when I was a ninth grader on Kibbutz Merhavia. Tuvia Ruebner was a very strict teacher. He introduced me to Goethe, Shakespeare, Dante, and in Hebrew poetry, Avraham Ben Yitzhak and Lea Goldberg, and they were my role models. In order to read Heine, I studied German. I traveled from the kibbutz on Fridays to hear Lea Goldberg speak at the Tzavta theaters. The auditorium was full, including many young people, and sometimes we had to stand outside next to the window to listen.

“Several years later I sent her poems, and her response was friendly and she guided me. And why did I want to be a poet and only a poet? Because it was the way to change and shape myself. To seek and to find, in words and style, the person I wanted to be.”

Opposed to puritanical policing

Times really change. And so must we. I ask him about the #MeToo movement and the struggle against harassment and objectification, because women’s basic right to exist has been under a long oppression.

In your writing about love and eroticism, did you ever receive negative reactions regarding the objectification of women?

Poet Adrienne Rich.Credit: AP

“I just read an article about the famous feminist poet Adrienne Rich. She came from a well-to-do Jewish family, studied at Harvard. She and another two poets from a similar background started a petition calling to boycott literary prizes, due to the blatant bias in favor of men. There was a young poet, Eleanor Lerman, an impoverished girl from the Bronx, New York, whom they pressured to sign, and she responded: ‘Who are these elitist, educated, fancy-schmancy women to tell me what my situation is? Men were not my problem. Money was, work was.’ And she was right.

“I’m in favor of feminism. And it’s also possible to agree that #MeToo is a positive step that grants a voice to women who are subjected to violence that haunts them as trauma. Only yesterday I spoke to a female friend who told me in tears about such an attack. But the problem of women is only one aspect in a field of broad problems of today’s insane capitalism, problems that also harm men.

“Most young men, those who aren’t in high-tech, what are their chances of living in dignity? The broader problem is the terrible income gap, the transient nature of employment, construction workers who fall to their deaths, poverty, deteriorating education, and in addition the oppression of millions of Palestinians in ghettos, the fact that every day we kill Arabs, and children in particular. These are combined tools, and only with a holistic view and a shared effort is there a possibility of bringing about real change.

“As far as I can see, #MeToo is an issue for famous people. The celebrities are condemned and punished. But what about the women in the Hatikva neighborhood [in south Tel Aviv] or in Umm al-Fahm? What do they care that they slandered and destroyed Chicky of all people [Roy Chicky Arad, former editor of the literary periodical Maayan and a journalist at Haaretz], at a time when many soldiers, like the one who murdered an autistic teen in Jerusalem’s Old City, are now sitting in some café?

“I’m also disgusted with the reliance on gossip from social media, which could be untrue and written out of envy or revenge, and everyone sees it. In the Soviet Union, neighbors informed on their neighbors and relatives. In a properly run country people are supposed to be tried in the courts. I’m also against puritanical policing of erotica, and even women like Margaret Atwood and Catherine Deneuve have criticized that. Moreover, in consensual erotic relations there’s partnership, and the man and woman are both subject and object.”

And what about the men in the literary world who were accused of sexual harassment or assault, such as Yitzhak Laor or your friend Chicky. Why is it hard for you to take a public stand on the issue?

“I read what they wrote about Chicky’s reckless behavior as a young man. But accusations must be proven, and then judged, proportionately. And he wasn’t charged. And how can you even judge acts that were committed 20 years ago based on contemporary ethical standards? After all, we’re at a certain point in history, and morality will change, and then morality will judge the people of this moment differently too.

“It’s like the way they judged Oscar Wilde according to a certain moral standard, and after a while it seemed absurd, and his judges were depicted as an example of evil. Apparently the fanatic judges of today would once again have jailed him, and probably would also have prohibited the staging of his plays. What did culture gain from the fact that they removed and silenced a talented man who was also a social activist, and in doing so also eliminated the unique periodical Maayan?

“And there’s another point, which is that the relations between a man and a woman are complex and there’s also covert aggression, and we, especially as artists, are supposed to understand and to show compassion. Apparently we can still learn from Ibsen and Chekhov. I have the impression that the extreme bias of #MeToo is beginning to show its weakness. The prevailing system is interested in creating a separation into identities and a negative common denominator in which individuals take revenge, each one for the injustice done to him, instead of initiating activity based on a positive common denominator, on what is acceptable to most women and men and that which unifies.”

Condemning the occupation is easy. I would like you to also have the courage, as a man and a famous poet, to publicly condemn specific acts by poets who cause harm. That’s solidarity that we lack – there are almost no men who have publicly criticized someone who was said to have committed rape, even if he wasn’t charged and convicted. Why not?

'The moment I learned to read and write my body image changed as well. I became one of the strong ones and excelled at sports, especially soccer and later basketball.'Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

“To publicly condemn the occupation is not easy. Those who refuse to serve in the territories are sent to prison, and activists in the field like Jonathan Pollak or Rabbis for Human Rights are beaten up and persecuted. [Journalist] Gideon Levy was given bodyguards, Breaking the Silence is boycotted, and abroad there are laws against the boycott, and Jewish anti-occupation activists are condemned as antisemites. I myself was hurt in Bil’in.

“#MeToo enjoys broad support. The victims and the witnesses to the acts can testify, and justly receive favorable television coverage. In Stalin’s Russia it was customary to have artists stand up and condemn other artists, who were punished and silenced. Today that’s called ‘moral panic,’ I would be ashamed to participate in such a lynching. In Europe, even writers who committed crimes and were punished proportionately were allowed to publish their works, like Jean Genet, and even Ferdinand Celine, who was an antisemite and collaborated with the Nazis. Even in Israel they published his ‘Journey to the End of the Night.’ That’s the practice in an enlightened society.

“You should learn from the enlightening case of Daniel Oz. He jumped in enthusiastically to condemn Chicky on social media, until the start of the scandal regarding his father, Amos Oz, and then he sobered up, expressed regret, and wrote: ‘Only when they bite your foot do you realize that you have been a cannibal.’”

A funny father

My father was funny and creative. We had an acquaintance called “Tusik” (“Butt”), he called one of my teachers “Shoe Polish.” He would sing songs he invented, loudly, in the street. He would invent detective stories in installments for us during nighttime trips from the beach to Jerusalem. Each child had his own song. He put on plays in the living room, played hide and seek, ping pong and soccer with us. He wasn’t only funny. Once he was reading to me and I noticed that the page was wet and didn’t understand why. When I looked at him, I saw that he was crying because of the book. The emotion was contagious.

Why didn’t you write children’s books too, or a play, as a natural continuation of your translations from the Greek? Why only poetry?

“In the summer of 1965 I lived for a few months in my parents’ apartment in Tel Aviv. I met Yona Wallach at the time and I hung out in cafes. At that point I had to decide how I would live, and especially as a poet: a Bohemian life? a family life? And I thought, if you only live once, it’s better to choose the classic life as people have always lived, with marriage and a family. And so I returned to Jerusalem. A year later we got married in Paris and that was the beginning of the project that underscored ‘The Domestic Poem.’

“From the time Lotem was born, in a chapter that lasted for about 15 years, I devoted most of my time to caring for the children. In the morning, I would bring them to preschool and to school, go to the university, and in the afternoon I would pick them up, and we would spend time in the house and in playgrounds until late in the evening. Only at 10 P.M., after washing the kitchen floor, would I sit down to prepare the lecture for the next day’s lesson. It was wonderful, but hard too. I don’t regret a single moment, because it was an experience of daily chores, giving and love.”

“But it took me 13 years to complete my doctorate and to this day I sometimes have anxious dreams that I haven’t finished yet. That’s why I didn’t have time to write a children’s book or a play. I moved to Tel Aviv, earned a living from teaching in the university, and when I realized that my students didn’t have suitable texts in Hebrew, I took it upon myself to translate two plays a year from Greek, including introductions, footnotes and appendices, and I devoted all my free time to the translation work.”

What is most important to you for people to notice or to get from your poetry?

“My poems are characterized by honesty, not shying away from weakness or problems, and finding the humor that’s always rooted in reality – say the shape of a nose – even when you take a sudden tumble, even when you’re making love. So the poems are funny and are made with a bit of merriness. The shit in the poem doesn’t stink, but arises from our ability to create distance with observation and thought. That’s the advantage of human beings and the advantage of poetry. As long as troubles exist, there’s nothing more purifying than the ability to laugh.”

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