“Your name? Poet. Nationality? Poet. Religion? Poet,” wrote poet Samih al-Qasim in his poem “Doch Hakira,” and it seems nothing is better than these words to describe Nathan Zach, one of the most important Israeli poets since the founding of Israel, who died on Friday at age 89.
Zach knew how to take a biblical verse such as “For man is the tree of the field,” tear it away from its context of the laws of war – where it appears in the original – and grant it a new interpretation, human, universal. But the poet who tried to keep far away from and avoid national symbols, and offer a cosmopolitan position, nevertheless became a symbol of Israeliness in many ways. He asked to be a citizen of the world, but in the end, he was a symbol of the new Hebrew.
It is impossible to exaggerate Zach’s importance and influence – as poet, translator, editor, lyricist and literary critic – on Hebrew poetry and on Hebrew culture in its entirety. Generations of poets grew up under his cloak. Every single student in Israel has been exposed to his poetry as part of their studies. He translated, edited books and wrote criticisms. He even wandered the markets, looking for forgotten books, and brought back the recognition of the poets who wrote them. But first and foremost, he offered a new Hebrew, beautiful, clear and lucid – Hebrew that penetrated and influenced the writers of novels, songs and newspapers.
“There are always commitments and roles you are called on and rush to fill, those that others have imposed on you, those that you place on yourself, willingly or not willingly. And now it is the obligation toward beauty … that which you are always willing to postpone,” he wrote in his essay “The obligation to beauty.” But he himself did not put off this obligation to beauty at all – he was committed to it with all his soul. In his poetry, Zach took the words with which we trade and curse, argue and clash, and turned them into pure beauty, into music.
Zach wrote that the poet is “something broad, not understood like the wind, like a ship or poem, something that leaves something behind,” and he truly left a lot behind. What we have left it this “obligation to the beauty,” the obligation to appreciate, preserve and spread it.
As opposed to Zach’s cosmopolitanism, which seemed like a distant and hopeless dream in an era in which nationalism raised their heads high, one can hope that the beauty of the poetry he wrote will continue to accompany us for a much longer time. Because as he himself wrote: “Only the culture of the book, in its broadest meaning, allows the people to be called a cultured people.” On the death of such a great poet as Zach, we must remember and reiterate this even more.