Lea Goldberg’s Most Intimate Thoughts Now on Display

The Israel Prize laureate’s personal letters are revealed: 'I don’t go to the movies or the theater or concerts, and even less to parties’

Eighty intimate letters sent by the legendary Israeli poet Lea Goldberg (1911-1970) to poet Tuvia Ribner between 1949 and 1969 were unveiled Tuesday morning by the National Library in Jerusalem.

They offer a rare glimpse into Goldberg’s personal life and provide information about her loneliness, her relationship with the writer S.Y. Agnon (who was angered by her smoking) and with painter Marc Chagall (whose poems she called “terrible”).

For literary researchers, the collection fills in two blanks in Goldberg’s biography. They reveal that Goldberg, born in Konigsberg, East Prussia, moved to Lithuania when with her family when she was just 10 days old (until now it wasn’t known how old she was when she moved there), and it also provides the exact date of the publication of her first book of poems, “Smoke Rings,” one month after her aliyah in February 1935.

Writings from Goldberg’s estate began to be published a year after her death, when Ribner published some of her poems in the book “Remnant of Life” (She’erit Hehayim) in 1971. Literary scholar Gideon Tikotzky says the letters “add another dimension to our acquaintance with Lea Goldberg,” adding, “This is one of the most significant correspondences left by Lea Goldberg.”

Only “one or two letters” will not be revealed to the public, says Tikotzky. “These are letters that contain medical details, and for privacy’s sake, we will seek to prevent their publication,” he explained.

Dr. Hezi Amior, Israel Collection Curator at the National Library, says that in the coming months the library will scan Goldberg’s personal archive, and some of the material will be posted on the library’s website.

Thursday, January 15, is the 44th anniversary of the death of the woman who was one of the most famous and important Hebrew poets of the modern age, an Israel Prize laureate in literature who authored hundreds of poems, three novels and dozens of short stories. Among her best-known works for children: “A Flat to Let,” “Where is Pluto?,” “The Absent-Minded Guy from Kefar Azar” and “What Do the Does Do?” This month also marks the 90th anniversary of the birth of Ribner, an Israel Prize laureate in poetry who was a student and close friend of Goldberg and the recipient of these letters.

“Ribner was her student, an exceptional poet. Because of their intimate and emotional connection, Goldberg felt a special closeness to him and spoke to him about things she wouldn’t discuss elsewhere,” says Tikotzky.

The letters offer an unusually candid glimpse into Goldberg’s personal life. “Goldberg writes admiringly of the Old City in Jerusalem and says that a shell hit the house where she and her mother were living, but they weren’t hurt,” says Tikotzky. “A little later, you can see that she has a less rosy view and has come to understand that ‘the Arabs aren’t quite as fond of us.’ We haven’t seen statements like this about current events elsewhere in her writing, not even in her diary.”

The correspondence also includes comments by Goldberg about her painting and other matters that were on her mind in her last years.

For decades, these letters were kept by Ribner and by the Genazim Bio-Bibliographical Institute at the Beit Ariela Library in Tel Aviv, where Goldberg’s archive is kept. The National Library did not provide information on how the letters came to be there, but Haaretz has learned that the library acquired them about six years ago in a public auction.

In a letter dated September 17, 1957 referring to her early poetry, Goldberg wrote, “When I submitted ‘Smoke Rings’ [her first book] for publication, I had the feeling that now I mustn’t continue to write poems anymore ... I used to go around saying ‘Why don’t I know how to compose music?’ Well, it’s a good thing I kept on writing poems after that first book. I just happened to peek at it again now, and I was amazed at just how bad the whole thing is. You and all those who, for various reasons, didn’t publish their first book when young will never know this sort of feeling of ironic amazement at one’s self, and that’s good. All my life I’ve been in a hurry. I was in such a rush, and in my haste I did so many things that I would have been better off not doing.”

In a letter from May 7, 1963, Goldberg talks about Agnon. “I’ve thought about what Agnon told you about our first meeting. My cigarettes really upset him now, since he quit smoking himself and can’t bear to see women he likes with fingers turning yellow from cigarettes (I was always careful to clean them). I seem to be ‘one of those moderns’ who is not among his fans. Meanwhile, his attitude toward me changed after he saw what my attitude was toward him, and he’s ascribing his rejection to the yellowed fingers that never existed. If I were a novelist I would make him a most interesting character, with all his flitting about.”

On March 22, 1964 she writes to Ribner about the weather and her innermost feelings. “I too find it strange that I so often write about the weather. Perhaps it’s because I’m finding less and less interest in the usual things that people enjoy. I don’t go out to the movies or the theater or to concerts, and even less so to parties, not that I have any special talent for staying away from them ... and so my life, outside of work, ranges from the book to the field. But the truth is − there is plenty of work, and when suitable it is also quite pleasant. I have excellent students and I’m teaching ‘War and Peace’ in comparison to other versions of the historical novel.”

In another letter, sent on January 24, 1965, Goldberg tells about an injury to her leg. “The sun has been shining for the past two days and I was out picking the first anemones in the Valley of the Cross and ... I fell and sprained my leg or something like that. It only hurts a lot when I try to walk, but when I sit on the sofa with my leg up I’m very happy that my lecture today is cancelled ... because I can’t move. And so I get to spend my time on more pleasant things, like listening to Bach and writing to a friend.”

In this same letter, she also talks about painter Marc Chagall. “I haven’t put my Chagall in a frame yet,” she writes. “And in the meantime, in order to win his autograph one day, I translated from awful Russian several of the most awful poems that he wrote. Did I tell you about that in my last letter? My secretary nearly howled when I dictated those sentimental lines, and she doesn’t even know how really terrible it sounds in his awful Russian. Why does such a painter need to write too? So here I am quietly taking revenge by doing my own little paintings.”

Goldberg also talks about her paintings in another letter. On November 28, 1965, she writes: “As far as my painting goes, I’ve been misunderstood: I myself can’t express in it what I’m able to express in words. It’s another thing entirely and so I still believe that what I find in painting is like what you find in photography. If only my paintings were up to the level of your photographs. But the thing is that I have no need for words now. Apparently I have nothing left to say in words, so I find all the joy in something else. And it helps me be totally at peace with having no need to write.”

Goldberg’s correspondence also makes reference to the Six-Day War. For the first time, we learn that her house in Jerusalem was shelled. “Nothing happened to us personally, except that a shell fragment broke a round hole in the pane of the door in the main room, when we weren’t there. Mother was very brave. We didn’t go down to the shelter and were even able to sleep at night,” she wrote in a postcard dated June 16, 1967.

A few weeks later, on July 8, she described the political situation following the Six-Day War and the conquest of East Jerusalem. “Jerusalem − really Jerusalem − is incredibly big and beautiful! Dear Tuvia, how many decades has it been since I last wrote to you? ... The first day I got back on my feet [after an illness], I couldn’t resist and went to the shuk in the Old City, and it was the best medicine … How wonderful this city is now. And it’s also … nice to come in contact with the Arabs. And everyone feels it, even the people who don’t hold those kinds of views. And the nicest thing is that the people of the Old City seem very positive, and this gives a lot of hope. I was pessimistic about the political situation, but now I somehow believe that we’ll be better off than before.”

Four months later, on October 18, 1967, she writes from Paris and sounds less optimistic. “And as for not-so-cheerful matters − the issue of our Arab neighbors − I, too, am very worried. The friendship of the first weeks [after the Six-Day War] is actually what was not normal. The troubles had to come. I was overly impressed at first, and now I am thinking about Israel with anxiety. Meanwhile, I’m kind of cut off here [in Paris] and, as always in such cases, it distances the fear and brings it closer at the same time. And it reminds me of so many past travels in times that were very far from calm, such as October-November 1947, when I returned from Prague just as the state burst into being.”

National Library
David Eldan