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Take Cheese: When in Israel, Do as the Romans Did

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Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot: 'Civita Castellana,' ca. 1860, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In the style of Corot

Shimon Bouzaglo

If Cicero had to choose between
dropping in to visit a friend this morning
or writing about it,
I’m pretty certain,
at least judging from his essay –
De Amicitia –
what he would have chosen.

And as for me – shall I go see my friend
or write this poem?
In the store, at the gas station
opposite the boot camp,
they sell great coffee.
I’ll buy him a big can.
Cicero, clearly, wasn’t familiar
with this magic brown powder.
Probably he’d have brought his friend
cheese balls in olive oil,
all from his farm.
Okay, I’ll bring this to Ran too.

Suddenly I’m possessed by a yen
for that row of cypresses there. See them?
Beside the path that Cicero’s climbing.
The sun is already high enough
to slap his bald pate,
but the light breeze from the hill
takes the edge off the heat.
One hand holding the labaneh,
the other rolling his toga up,
alongside the silent cypresses,
there, on the hillside
he, with the starling, is faintly whistling
a tune that’s dogged him for two days.

Shimon Bouzaglo and Cicero in a 1st century AD bust at the Musei Capitolini, Rome.Credit: Ofira Henig, Wikipedia

From Midshaot Hollywood (“Hollywood Lawns”), Even Hoshen Publishing House, 2015. Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden

Israel’s Independence Day often involves visiting a military base – and endlessly humming or whistling one or another of the old favorite “Israeli songs” nostalgically dominating airwaves and communal singing events. Poet, playwright, classicist and translator Shimon Bouzaglo, who was born in Acre in 1962 and lives in Tel Aviv, combines visiting an army base and the persistence of tunes, with an eye on culture beyond the here and now.

There is no explicit reference to French artist Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot (1796-1875); the title is an aid to envisioning the scene in the painter’s distinctive blend of Romanticism, Classicism and proto-Impressionism.

The treatise by Roman writer, orator and politician Marcus Tullius Cicero names friendship as the second “greatest of all things” (after virtue, in the Roman sense of manliness, courage and rectitude), while acknowledging that “Friendship penetrates into the lives of us all, and suffers no career to be entirely free from its influence.” Cronyism isn’t new.

The poet’s chooses to visit his friend at a boot camp – specifically, Mahaneh Shmonim, the basic training base near the town of Pardes Hannah. At a gas station, he selects a “magic” modern gift for his friend -- a can of coffee.

Seeing jars of cheese in olive oil, he collapses time and imagines that Cicero would have brought that from his own estate on a visit to a friend (today’s Italians make something similar with mozzarella).

The decision to bring his friend that ancient delicacy leads to him to envision Cicero climbing a nearby hill on a similar expedition. Here Bouzaglo chooses the Israeli word labaneh – an Arabic word – for the cheese, thus relocating Cicero very much in our here and now, as he whistles a popular tune.

*Double bonus, guaranteed to dog you:

Some supposedly “Israeli songs” are in fact adaptations of songs from other places. In the 1950s and 1960s the Mecca for young Israelis was not Berlin but rather Paris and French popular music was greatly influential; the troupe Les Compagnons de la Chanson, for example, performed a number of concerts here. Speaking of birds, among their greatest hits (words: Jean Broussolle, music: Jean-Pierre Calvet) was “Si tous les oiseaux” .

In about 1967 Naomi Shemer translated the song for the army entertainment troupe Lehakat Hanahal, associated with the Nahal combined agricultural and military service brigade that trained at Mahane Shmonim, as the now canonical “Hebrew song” -- “Illu Tsipporim.”