Gems on a Silver Platter

Every week, for more than two decades, Natan Alterman ruminated on events of the day - often in verse - in his newspaper column. Was he the first proponent of 'shooting and crying'?

Hatur Hashvi'i: Krakh Rishon, 1943-1945 (The Seventh Column: Volume I, 1943-1945 ), by Natan Alterman(edited and annotated by Dwora Gilula ); Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House (Hebrew ), 337 pages, NIS 92

On the centenary of Natan Alterman's birth and 40 years after his death, Hakibbutz Hameuchad is republishing all the columns the poet wrote for Davar between 1943 and 1967, many of which were written in verse. We can be grateful to the publisher for bringing Alterman's "The Seventh Column," as his weekly column was called, back to life.

The first volume in the series has just come out, containing columns printed in the labor movement newspaper (which folded 14 years ago ) from February 1943 to the beginning of May 1945. Opening the volume is the column "The Archimedes Fulcrum," which deals with Archimedes' theory and Nazi practice and describes how the "spawn of Satan" met in Munich, in the beer cellars: "And in the morning the chief of them said / To his friends all around him: To work, all of you! / We've set up a lever to overturn the world / And its fulcrum -- assailing the Jews." (All Alterman translations here are by Vivian Eden. )

This is also the fulcrum of the entire volume, whose leitmotif is a world looking on indifferently, continuing as if all were normal: "It begins with the perfectly reasoned knowledge / Of who ought not be saved and who ought. / It begins with those from whom on Judgment Day / Some part of the blood will be sought."

A week later, Alterman published "The Generals in Captivity," written after the German defeat in the January 1943 Battle of Stalingrad, a contest that had lasted for more than half a year. This, according to Alterman, sent the message to the world that the tide had turned, coming as it did after El Alamein, where Bernard Montgomery had succeeded in stopping the German forces in North Africa, under the command of Erwin Rommel, the "Desert Fox."

Thus the poet-pundit followed events here and abroad week by week, most of them stained with the blood of the war and the Holocaust, of horror and indifference, the cruel and alienating external reality and the domestic reality characterized by an inability to do much about it.

The volume ends with the immortal column "The Headline." With his skilled eye, Alterman follows the typesetter at his work: "He pulled from the box the heh and the yod and the tet / And added, joined and composed the words: 'Hitler is dead.' / That is to say, the man known / as Hitler to all / Is gone forevermore. / That is all. / ... And from the page, so gray, so gray / This headline gleamed / In Hebrew type. / And I am reporting in minute detail / Because to me it seems / This will be remembered for a very long time."

Protesting injustice

Now and then, Alterman allowed himself to devote a few columns to routine matters, even though he always seemed reluctant to deal with business-as-usual. Even in these columns, he tried to imbue his subject matter with extraordinary significance. The poet's ear hears the wings of history beating at every moment and every place in everyday life, at every ordinary event. Here, a court in Tel Aviv issues an eviction order against a mother, father, child and baby, all residing in a chicken coop turned into living quarters. The evicted family has nowhere to go, and Alterman cries out to the heavens to protest the injustice.

Or another everyday topic: The 1944 column subtitled "On the occasion of a strike, of course" stands up for "The Hebrew Teacher" (its title ), who earned a pittance even then. The disagreement between the teachers union and the National Committee (the pre-state executive organ of the Jewish community in Palestine ) was over a raise of 1 Palestine pound in the teachers' salary. Alterman writes: "If the pound has engendered a strike / We would not be far wrong to assess / That the Yishuv owes the classroom teacher / Somewhat more than this pound -- not less."

This is not the first time "The Seventh Column" has appeared in collected form. Alterman first collected and edited his own columns in 1948, then again in 1954 and 1962, and additional volumes of the columns appeared after his death. Uzi Shavit's detailed and illuminating foreword to the current collection tells us that, between Alterman's contributions to Davar and to Haaretz (in a column called "Moments" ), he published about 900 "poems of the times and the newspaper," which constitute "a poetic-historical-journalistic chronicle of a generation."

This collection is different from its predecessors in that the columns are arranged chronologically and not by topic, as Alterman arranged them in his day, and therefore the history of the times opens up before us and peels away in sequence, unfolding like a history book.

The new collection is not only chronological but also annotated, and without editor Dwora Gilula's notes and explanations at the end of the volume, it would sometimes be impossible for readers of today to arrive at a full understanding of what happened in the past. "The Whitewash Season," for example, is a riddle column, and it does not provide the solution. It emerges that in this column, written in code, Alterman is condemning British detectives' hunt for members of the Jewish resistance. Open language would have invited intervention by the British government censor. The key to solving the bilingual riddle is that the detectives were from the British police force's criminal investigation department, which was known by its acronym, CID -- and in Hebrew transliteration the acronym creates the word "sid," which means "whitewash," a popular summer activity in 1943, when the column was published. However, in Polish (the native tongue of Alterman and many other residents of the Yishuv ), the letter "c" is pronounced "tz," giving rise to the Hebrew word "tzayid," which means hunt.

Alterman, who died in 1970, not only edited his collections himself, he also culled his work, so he didn't include everything he wrote. The new edition, however, includes all his columns, thus enabling us to examine his work to see if it withstands not only the test of time but also the test of quality: Have they gone stale, has their flavor dissipated over the years?

Small failures by great writers

When the writing is weekly -- and Alterman was the most diligent of writers -- it is driven by both the public's expectations and the writer's obligation to the paper. It is no wonder, then, that some of the columns suffer from mediocrity and some are even awful, and not only because the teeth of time have devoured them. However, even given the regimen of weekly writing, all the columns are of some historical interest. Small failures by great writers are just as interesting as their achievements, and sometimes even more so.

Though Alterman was a wizard of rhyme and meter, political commentary in verse is nonetheless a straitjacket. It sometimes seems that more than he controlled rhyme, rhyme controlled him, dictating the line and occasionally ruining it. Did Alterman himself arrive belatedly at the same conclusion? Was it by chance that in 1959 he stopped writing his Davar column in verse and moved over to prose, with the exception of two columns in verse he published about three years later? Sometimes writing in verse weighs heavily upon the message and complicates it, and a number of the columns would have benefited from having been written in prosaic simplicity and directness.

Would Natan A. -- as he signed the column -- have achieved the national status he did had he written only his poems and not the column? Would he have become what he is, with all the aura and clout, had he published only "Stars Outside" and "Joy of the Poor," without "Among All the Nations," "And Indeed This Too," "Menachem Mendel's Letter," "Reply to an Italian Captain After Landing Night," "Mother, May I Cry Now?" and "The Silver Platter" -- all of which were written as weekly columns for Davar? Quite possibly not.

After all, every ceremonial event in this country necessitates turning to Alterman's writing, whether the columns or the poems, for the appropriate lines. Teachers and students who go looking for a suitable quote -- and needless to say, politicians, who are usually far removed from the world of poetry -- generally find in "The Seventh Column" cultural gems on a silver platter.

This first volume in the series will serve writers of official speeches well, even if it does not contain the canonical columns written before 1943 or after 1945. Those who want to condemn corruption can turn to "The Main Condition":

"The Yishuv prospers. The city thrives. / Business deals wink -- jump on for the ride! / In the air drunken on profits of war / Hangs the dust of embezzling and bribes ... / It's the first condition! Sweep clean and assault / Deception, embezzling and fraud! / Let the iron comb rake through / Right down to the root / And the leadership rise up to the top!"

And those who want to condemn the conduct of political parties in Israel -- splits, factional schisms and internal quarrels -- can turn to "Aleph Bet," written "upon the unification of the two factions in Poalei Zion in 1943": "What is it our time so mournfully lacks? / Not a pact between parties, heavens forefend. / It needs at the least to arrive at the end / Of a fuss and a fight ... 'twixt a party and its hacks." Opposition leader Kadima MK Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak -- and everyone else, in fact -- can use this passage at the next party convention.

Conscience of the Yishuv

Alterman plays the role of the conscience of the Yishuv, the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine. He does not spare his rod from "the petty hacks," "the bureaucrats" and even the leaders of the state-to-be, who spout poetry and power while the Jewish people is drowning in the sea of blood in Europe.

In this volume we do not yet see his personal relationship with the political leadership, especially David Ben-Gurion. His dimensions as a poet are greater than the dimensions of a mere "court poet"; is this also true of his dimensions as a columnist? Later, when he flogs the "reparations morality" or the slaughter at Kafr Qassem and its deniers, does he not display his certification of integrity as a writer who feels free to repudiate actions identified with the state and its leaders?

But there is also another possibility: Perhaps Alterman was in fact the originator of "shooting and crying," the term used to describe those who fought in the Six-Day War and met regularly after the hostilities ended, often expressing remorse for the suffering their actions had caused to the other side.

Of all the columns in the new volume, I most liked "Metamorphoses," written when the Allied armies entered a large, unnamed city that was a satellite of the Axis powers. There, according to a note that precedes the column, "the zoo management is considering what to do with the monkey they had taught to salute in the Fascist style." Writes Alterman:

"And millions in Europe did just as he did / And one couldn't really say / If the monkey imitated the people / Or the people in their evil -- the ape. / And the simian cringes and thinks / I'm tired, I can't learn this new job. / Yes, he lacks the acrobatic skill / Of the magician known as the mob."

Wonderful as it is, this particular column is not recommended for public speakers who earn their bread by digging around for Bible quotations and literary excerpts. The last thing they need is a pretty way to compare a mass of people to a troop of monkeys.

Yossi Sarid is a regular columnist for Haaretz.

Haaretz Books, April 2010,