Three Hebrew Poems: Windows Into Israel

Below are three Hebrew poems along with introductory remarks and context provided by Rachel Korazim, a renowned educator of Hebrew literature. While the first poem “The Silver Platter” is iconic (here’s Hartman scholar Rani Jaeger talking about it in 2008), the last two, “Coke and Jeans” and “A Post to the Poet Rachel,” are contemporary offerings and may be less familiar, particularly to North American readers. Read individually, each tells a different story about Israeli ethos. Read together, they provide a glimpse into the enduring complexities of Israeli society and life.

While the poems are presented in chronological order, you can feel free to start at the end and work your way back.

For an entire educational curriculum, Zot Hashira, devoted to poetry from the seven decades of the State, see Rachel’s website: https://www.rachelkorazim.com/

— Hartman Editors 

“The Silver Platter” by Natan Alterman

Natan Alterman (1910 -1970) was one of the most important poets of the pre-state and early years of the State of Israel. His body of poetry is vast and includes volumes and volumes of lyrical, historical, personal and national poems and prose.

Israeli poet, Natan Alterman, from Kfar Saba Municipal Museum via Wikimedia
Israeli poet, Natan Alterman, from Kfar Saba Municipal Museum via Wikimedia

Yet, he is mainly remembered for one poem: “The Silver Platter,” which was published in The Seventh Column – his weekly Friday column in Davar for over 30 years. In this column, Alterman reacted poetically to contemporary events. Reading the collected works of this column is a unique way of learning the history of the State of Israel. Alterman was not paid for The Seventh Column. He had held the position of the night editor for his livelihood.

This poem, which is an iconic text in Israel poetry of remembrance, was published in Davar on December 18, 1947. It is linked, but not in a simple fashion, to the date of November 29, 1947, when the United Nations adopted the Partition Plan as Resolution 181. Three weeks had passed between this decision and the publication. The events of these weeks are crucial not only for the understanding of the poem and the poet’s intention in writing it. They are key to the formative days of the State of Israel and its military forces.

The poem was written at the very beginning of the War of Independence, thus positioning the poet in a prophetic role of he who sees the future and can promise the hard days will end. Note the time of day – sunset – conforming to the biblical concept of the beginning of a new day. The poem is replete with other biblical allusions as well. Note the anonymity of the soldiers, the equality of genders, and the lack of decorum – all characteristic of the early IDF just emerging from the anonymity of the undergrounds. Note the name of the state (“The Jews’ State) as the poem was published in December 1947: The State of Israel was not yet named.

Translator: David P. Stern
 
…And the land will grow still
Crimson skies dimming, misting
Slowly paling again
Over smoking frontiers
As the nation stands up
Torn at heart but existing
To receive its first wonder
In two thousand years
 
As the moment draws near
It will rise, darkness facing Stand straight in the moonlight
In terror and joy
 
…When across from it step out
Towards it slowly pacing In plain sight of all
A young girl and a boy
Dressed in battle gear, dirty
Shoes heavy with grime
On the path they will climb up
While their lips remain sealed
To change garb, to wipe brow
They have not yet found time
Still bone weary from days
And from nights in the field
Full of endless fatigue
And all drained of emotion
Yet the dew of their youth
Is still seen on their head
Thus like statues they stand
Stiff and still with no motion
And no sign that will show
If they live or are dead
 
Then a nation in tears
And amazed at this matter
Will ask: who are you?
And the two will then say
With soft voice: We–
Are the silver platter
On which the Jews’ state
Was presented today
 
Then they fall back in darkness
As the dazed nation looks
And the rest can be found
In the history books.

For more on the historical context of the poem, take a look at the following slide show.

 

Guiding questions:

1) What images stand out to you in the poem and why?

2) What are the values and ideals enshrined in “The Silver Platter”?

3) As the power point makes clear, it was difficult to track down and determine the context when Chaim Weitzman uttered the line “A state is not given to people on a silver platter.” Why do you think Alterman chose an obscure line (originally pronounced by Weitzman in English and in the United States!) as the title and axis of his poem, rather than a more classical or biblical quotation?

 

 

“Coke and Jeans” by Yosef Ozer 

Yosef Ozer (b. 1952) was born in Jerusalem and grew up in northern Israel. In the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, Ozer embraced a more religiously-inclined Jewish identity. He studied education and literature at the University of Haifa and worked as an educational director in ultraorthodox Jewish education until resigning with profound discontent. Ozer is the author of several volumes of poetry, and twice the recipient of the Prime Minister Levi Eshkol Prize for Literature.

Israeli poet, Yosef Ozer, from Wikimedia
Israeli poet, Yosef Ozer, from Wikimedia

Note the pain over the loss of life, the deliberate biblical images and the tongue in cheek reference to the “Population Exchange” terminology which is often used by Israeli politicians. Ozer continues a long tradition in modern Hebrew literature of turning to Biblical themes and narrative, and the Binding of Isaac especially. This makes Ozer’s poem part of a very rich body of Hebrew poetic dialogues.

Guiding questions:

1) There are a number of biblical references in Ozer’s poem: first, the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael at the hands of Sarah and Abraham (Genesis 21) and second, the Binding of Isaac (Genesis 22). Sarai’s harsh treatment of her maidservant in Genesis 16 also lurks in the background. What role do these references play? How does the juxtaposition of biblical scenes with contemporary events serve to illumine the latter? In what ways are the contemporary events continuous with the biblical scenes and in what ways do they diverge?

2) What does the poet mean by the line: “Slowly and delicately we will carry out a population transfer”? How does Ozer employ and subvert the notion of “population transfer” in this poem?

3) Why do you think the poem is titled “Coke and Jeans?” What voice and theme does it highlight?

 

“A Post to the Poet Rachel” by Agi Mishol

Agi Mishol is one of Israel’s greatest and most beloved poets of our generation. Her writing forges a rare balance between literal and poetic precision and accessibility to the readers, combining everyday language and slang with inventive linguistics. Infused with irony and humor, hers are very personal poems, which, at the same time, provide extensive human insight. For her, “Poetry is swimming against the current of all the noise and commotion, the political events and the wars. It is being in an underground stream. It is seeing what everyone sees, but differently.”

Israeli poet, Agi Mishal, photo by Iris Nesher on Wikimedia
Israeli poet, Agi Mishal, photo by Iris Nesher on Wikimedia

This poem (along with others by Mishol) articulates rebellion against the state of affairs in Israel that the poet is uncomfortable with. In “A Post to The Poet Rachel”, Mishol uses the contemporary form of “Post”. She is holding a discourse with an iconic poem of the early Zionist poet Rachel. The poem “To My Land” is very well known. It depicts the idealistic love of the country as expressed by the early pioneers of the beginning of the 20th century. By looking at both poems side by side, the critic is very clear. Mishol, once as loyal to the country as her poetic predecessor, is now contemplating leaving it.

Guiding questions:

1) Where in her poem does Mishol use the language of Rachel’s famous poem? How does she change Rachel’s language to express a different agenda? Which references belong completely to Mishol’s milieu?

2) How do the gender dynamics of the two poems compare?

3) Mishol, the only daughter of Hungarian Holocaust survivors, came with her parents to Israel as a young child after the war. Does this biographical information color the poem at all?

 

Old and new, reverential and subversive, “bitter and sweet.” Chag sameach. 

 

 

 

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