Poem of the Week

All Are Equal in the Deluge of Hebrew Rain

Aharon Shabtai in a radical take on Hebrew, in the puddle that is Israel.

Wiki Commons

Hebrew rain

Aharon Shabtai

Hebrew rain drafts its circles in the water of the puddle.
It sees the state, its laws, its rulers’ caprices, its bigotries
as a viscous layer of filth on the country’s narrow ribs.
What’s to be learned from the drops? To bead into clarity
reserved for itself, to fall from the sky tranquil and benign,
not to flow into one pocket or collect in a single fist
but rather in a broad, unbiased balance of solicitudes.
The Western Wall looks the same as an outhouse wall
to drops sliding down stone cracks in quest of radish roots,
Even, they say, if we are captured in the tarred square
where only oppression, inequity and abuse can grow
we shall persist till the mire sinks then slowly condense
or continue with the great vertical rain arrow, piercing this
imperviousness to a looser, more fruitful commonality.

Published in Hebrew in Haaretz, April 10, 1998. Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden.

In this unrhymed sonnet, Hebrew is the great equalizer in Israel, “the puddle” – barely a small pond and not the center of the universe. The language can articulate all that is ugly and wrong, as detailed in the second line. “The country’s narrow ribs” are a scrawnier version of what is known as Israel’s “narrow hips” within the 1967 borders, often cited as a security justification for the occupation – let’s have some love handles there to make us safer from harassment.

Aharon Shabtai
Tomer Applebaum

The language, like rain, is for everyone, not the possessor of any particular economic “pocket” or power (“fist”) group. Indifferent to history and holiness, it does not distinguish between the Western Wall and a humble yet necessary and universal type of structure – the outhouse.

The ultimate purpose of the language and rain is to help grow nourishing things – like the radish, a modest vegetable associated with the labor Zionist pioneers’ efforts to create a new society and culture. In his book “One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate” (Picador, 2001), Tom Segev noted that in the early days of Kibbutz Degania, which was established in 1909: “The comrades continued to be tormented by doubts about their future, but they put down roots nonetheless, establishing a tiny kitchen garden. Homegrown radishes began to appear on their tables.”

The “tarred square” could refer back to the Western Wall plaza, though in actuality it is paved, in a large area where in 1967 the entire Mughrabi quarter and a mosque  were bulldozed to provide a space for worshippers, or it could refer in general to the over-construction in the country. In any case, there is hope, perhaps, that by persisting the language will help make the country a better place.

Aharon Shabtai was born in 1939 in Tel Aviv, and studied Greek at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He has published about 20 books of poetry as well as translations into Hebrew of Hesiod and the entire extant corpus of classical Greek tragedy. He has recently released a translation of Homer’s “Odyssey” and is currently working on a translation of “The Iliad.”

*Musing: Is language itself – and especially Hebrew – indeed neutral?

*Bonus: Listen for the word for radish, tsnon, in the refrain as Kaveret, “Israel’s favorite rock band of all time,” performs an affectionate but wry homage to the pioneering spirit: “Hora Heahzut”.