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At eighteen the time came to marry,
A groom was found, a dress was made
(A bit too tight. The seamstress said:
Flap your arms up and down like a bird – it will stretch)
They hired a small hall and a band, they played Aris San
And danced. You flapped your arms up, down
And every which way. It didn’t help.
There was chicken.
Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden. From "Mipeh Lepeh" (Mouth to Mouth), Keshev Publishing House, 2013, poem number 8.
Anat Levin was born in Jaffa in 1973. She studied English at Hunter College in New York and now lives in Givatayim. In the tradition of many Hebrew poets and writers who have worked for newspapers since the earliest days of the Hebrew press, she is a copy editor for the local weeklies of the Schocken Group, the owner of Haaretz.
"Mipeh Lepeh" is Levin's second book of poetry. As she told Eli Eliahu of Haaretz (himself a poet), the book is a love song to her mother, an immigrant to Israel born in Tashkent in 1953 to parents from Eastern Europe who survived the Holocaust as children.
Of her mother’s childhood, she observed: “It was a childhood in which things happened that had no reason. Things that involved an obsessive strictness about order and cleanliness and the keeping of family secrets. It was forbidden to reveal things, forbidden to talk to strangers, who are always terrible enemies. One of the greatest ironies of my childhood was a sentence my grandmother and my mother kept saying: ‘With all due respect to friends, friends aren’t like family.’ This is because friends can hold up a mirror to you and show you your family is hell.”
This sad little vignette captures the moment of her mother’s wedding in about 1971. Aris San (1940-1992) was a non-Jewish singer who came to Israel from Greece. He started out as a niche “Mediterranean” singer – “Mediterranean” being the polite code used then and now to refer to non-Ashkenazi or non-“Land of Israel-style" Hebrew music. Performing initially in Greek and later in Hebrew as well, he was perhaps the first artist in the genre to cross over to the popular mainstream after being adopted by the bohemian establishment. “Bohemian establishment” sounds like a tautology, of course, but back when Israel was a small country with borders – or at least a very recent memory of borders – the political and the artistic elites overlapped considerably. Aris San performed, for example, at the double wedding of two of Moshe Dayan’s children.
The “you” in the poem – the poet’s mother – of course did not come from the bohemian establishment. Not only is the hired band nameless and the dress tight, which never happens in the boho world, but the hall is small and the menu is chicken. A quarter of a chicken was the standard aspirational wedding fare in those days and was immortalized in the skit “Bourekas or a Quarter of a Chicken” written by Hanoch Levin (1943-199; no relation, nor is the poet related to Gabriel Levin, whose poem appeared here last week) and performed by Rivka Michaeli and Yossi Banai.
The description of the wedding evokes Marc Chagall’s painting “Bride and Groom of the Eiffel Tower,” which depicts a groom, a rather mournful looking bride – and a rooster. The image of the bride flapping her arms to no avail is a kind of small hell, which Levin reflects with a daughter’s great love and a friend’s great kindness.
You can watch Levin read “Birthday Poem 2005” from her first book, “Slowly Revolving Anna,” (with English captions) here:
*In a recent review (Haaretz Tarbut v'Sifrut, June 28, 2013), Ilan Berkovich called Levin “one of the outstanding poets of the younger generation.” Is it possible to say that the capacity she evinces for frankness and sympathy with regard to a parent is more characteristic of her generation than of earlier generations, both in general and in families in which the grandparents are Holocaust survivors? If so, how could this be explained?