AMIR OR | Poetics of conflict and vision: hebrew poetry at the beginning of the millennium
1 | We are used to regard the Old Testament as religious scripture, which was translated to in the past to European languages and is read today in archaic vernaculars. But this is not the case for the Hebrew speaker. Since Hebrew was revived as an every-day spoken language at the beginning of the 20th century, a linguistic gap of 2000 years was bridged. On the one hand, nowadays an Israeli school kid can read and understand the Old Testament in its original tongue, and on the other hand, if King David could have leafed through a contemporary Hebrew poetry book, he would have little difficulty with its language.
Beside the spiritual and historical contents, for the Hebrew reader the Bible is a cultural and literary heritage, rich with rhythm, music, and forms of speech. Most of the Bible books are pure poetry of various styles and themes: the stories of creation and of the patriarchs, victory and love songs, prophecies, hymns, etc. In short, the beginning of the Old Testament is also the beginning of documented Hebrew poetry, about 4000 years ago.
Nevertheless Hebrew poetry didn’t cease with the canonization of the Bible, and even after the destruction of Judea by the Romans at the beginning of the first millennium a.d., Hebrew literature has been created continuously in the Jewish Diaspora. The ancient language of the scriptures hasn’t been spoken in everyday life for two millennia but went on being studied and used in prayer even by laymen in every Jewish community. Religious and secular Hebrew poetry has been composed throughout these generations in the east and in the west, in far and near countries, in regions located now in Iraq, Spain, Italy, Yemen, Russia or Germany. Some of the first sonnets in Europe were written in Hebrew by Emmanuel the Roman in 13th century Italy, whereas Hebrew poetry written by Yehuda Halevi and Iben Gabbirol in Moorish Spain was influenced by Arabic poetics. Hebrew poetic forms were introduced into Christian lithurgy by Romanos Melodos as early as the 6th century A.D. and on the other hand for centuries Hebrew poetic tradition has been enriched by other traditions in style, theme, and lyrical forms. Yet not unlike Latin, it lacked the vivid aspect of everyday colloquial speech. But this was to change with the rise of Zionism at the turn of the 19th century and with the return of Jews to Israel.
There is no other example in human history of a successful revival of an unspoken semi-fossilized language such as Hebrew was. Linguists like Eliezer Ben Yehuda and David Yelin reconstructed the language and innovated or brought back into use thousands of Hebrew words. But it took three more generations until Hebrew became a truly modern language. Fierce debates were taking place: should modern Hebrew speech adopt Ashkenazi pronounciation or Sepharadic? Should we base modern Hebrew on Biblical syntax or a later one? Many loan words were replaced by Hebrew ones, slang and various grades of speech had to be introduced. Poets like Byalik, Shlonski and many others were the leading force in putting the renewal of Hebrew speech into practice, and until the middle of the last century their works were celebrated both for their poetical merit and as a national achievement.
These immigrant poets who started writing in Hebrew in the beginning of the 20th century had a huge task of bridging traditional poetry and modern poetry, exploring free verse, tonal meter etc., and making them an organic part of Hebrew verse. To a large extent, they had to adapt European models in order to create modern poetry in Hebrew. For them and their generation, creating a fluent poetic expression in an acquired language was the main challenge. I will not go here into lecturing you about Hebrew poetry in detail, but it will suffice to say that our linguistic and poetic condition has changed considerably since then. But thanks to these poets, what was a terra incognita at their time is our natural inheritance today. In this ongoing creative work of Israeli poets, the language is continuously unveiled through poetic expression.
Nowadays, even though immigration to Israel is still taking place on a large scale, most of the writers in Israel are natives-of-the-country and their mother tongue is Hebrew. No wonder, contemporary poetry in Israel feels free to embrace and even mix a large variety of styles and forms, both traditional and modern to answer the needs of specific themes or atmospheres. For example, in my own generation we wouldn’t hesitate to mix biblical connotations and contemporary slang in our poems. To the “native” poet, the Israeli reality and the unique possibilities and limitations of Hebrew are the unquestionable basic condition. Nevertheless, Israel is still a mixing pot of cultures, is a conflict area, and contains an Arab speaking Palestinian minority. Now, let’s have a look at that mixing pot.
2 | The unique complexity of Israeli society and culture seems at times fascinating, and at times unbearable. It seems to be a bridge, or sometimes a limbo at the point where East and West meet. Israel has about 3 milion inhabitants whose parents or grandparents have been expelled or emigrated from Arab countries only half a century ago. Hebrew is a semitic language, akin to Arabic and Kurdish more than to any other modern Languages. For example words are based on consonants that form roots, whereas vowels serve to express shades of the different meanings. So, where in Enlgish LIVE, LOVE and LEAVE have different meanings, in Hebrew LEV (meaning “heart”) and LIVLEV (meaning “flowered”) share a common root meaning. Unlike Indo-European languages Hebrew often relies on the single word or root rather than the syntax and phrase. Each word may contain several meanings depending on the context, and diverse meanings are all connected through the logic of symbol and metaphor. For instance the words “hypocrite” and “painted” are the same word in Hebrew, that tells us the hypocrite’s face is painted, hiding its truth. So is the case with the words “abstract” and “stripped” or “unclothed”: to Hebrew, abstraction is simply stripping off our mental image from material perception.
However, because of the common Judeo-Christian tradition and dialogue, because of Biblical imagery and narratives, and because of literary, philosophical and even social changes that affected both Jews and Christians in Europe, Israeli culture is more than anything European. In the Israeli mixing pot, the majority of Israelis and certainly the majority of poets and writers are European by origin. Moreover, historically, the founders of Israel were European - by origin, upbringing ideology and mentality.
The first Zionists have come to Israel as pioneers. These fairly young people were dreamers, visionaries, adventurers. In more than one way they were the first hippies of the 20th century: they left their European middle class homes to create a new society, to cultivate a land, and to experiment with new ideologies. They formed communes, created a new culture in a new language, and on the whole they tried to transform and re-invent themselves mentally. Historically the Zionist vision has so far succeeded tremendously, but with big waves of immigration coming in after the founding of the Israeli state these pioneers felt disillusioned and deceived: persecution and need rather ideology was the chief motivation of the new comers, and the utopic dream of the founders was shuttered. Israel has become a huge refugee camp. People from the Arab world side by side with Holocaust survivors had now to live there together, to create new lives and identities for themselves, and form new common values and social agreements that had very little to do with the ideals and ideologies of the founding pioneer generation. To a large extent the holocaust was the most important founder of the independent state of Israel.
But in spite of the suffering of the Jewish people in the 2nd world war, the new state of Israel was hardly welcome by Europe, and created a lot of enmity in the 3rd world, where it was seen as if the European final solution for the Jews was at the expense of the Arabs.
War and isolation, as well as loss of income, dignity and identity, disillusioned many. More than 1 million Isrealis have emigrated from Israel between the fifties and the eighties of the 20th century, most of them to the United States. Europe, that has been their home for almost two millenia, has masacred the Jews, and later locked its gates to the next generation of European Jews that have settled in Israel.
However the majority of Isrelis, chose to stay. They went on developing their country and fighting for its existence. These refugees had a European or Eastern history and lineage of 50 generations or more, did their best to nurture their new Israeli identity, one or two generations old, but fest uprooted and expelled from their cultural ground and history. Many still feel connected to European culture, and yet betrayed by European politics. They feel antisemitism has risen again, supported politically by the Muslem immigration to Europe, and by cold economical and political calculations of Eruopean governments. To a large extent Israelis feel that for many Europeans that have no clue of what Middle-Eastern mentality-and-culture is, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become a popular passtime discussion at their expense: a debate where European interests in our region are cumoflaged by pseudo-ethical standpoints. They feel they are victims of the European guilt of colonialism, and the European wish to get rid of the holocaust guilt by presenting an implicit “equals-sign” between the Nazi regime and the Israeli rule in the Gaza strip and West bank. The effort to justify something by this gortesque equation is precariously supported by the media too: the endless terrorist attacks on Jews are hardly seen on European TV channels, but every Palestinian casualty is being focused on - without any care for the context and complexity of the situation.
Jews have been part of, and contributed to European culture-and-development for centuries, but at last they’re out – politically, culturally - but not psychologically. I think many of us, who feel like European exiles see it as a new chapter of Judephobic syndrom.
Neverthelss this is not to say the Jewish psyche came out intact and healthy out of the Nazi concentration camps and crematoria. At times it seems the Israeli mind is stuck somewhere between Massada and Aushwitz, but if one considers that these refugees arrived to a heavily threatened state, a small Western island in a sea of Muslem Arabic nations, perhaps he’ll find it easier to understand the situation and the mentality that has evolved therefrom.
The Israeli condition seems much more ambivalent and complex in real life: Israelis and Palestinians fight, but at the same time have a lot in common. In the Arab world society and culture are to a large extent still tribal, and not liberal or democratic. On the other hand Israeli Palestinians are gradually interiorizing these free democratic values, more than anywhere in the neighbouring Arab states. Have you noticed? Often the two sides of a conflict become more and more similar over the years, like a husband and wife. Paliestinians are called by othe Arabs “the Jews of the Arab world”.
I must say they do suffer from discrimination in Israel, but a discrimination in Eruopean standards, not Middle-Eastern. To this, one must add the Jewish wish to have “A Jewish state”, which in fact isolates and alienates the different ethnic group of the country. We can go on talking about the conflict forever, and some people even make a good living out of it, but to me it seems the only possible answer to this conflict is true understanding and integration. We need a true secular and civil state, where national and religious groups will be like clubs rather than separate enemy camps, and where culture is enriched by diversity rather than serves to mark borders and separations.
3 | Now, how all this has to do with poetry? Well, not much if you look at poetry as an old-fashioned form of artistic amusement. But this is not the case if you look at poetry as an art that deals primarily with speech and thought. Through the ages, poetry has been providing human society with the sense of existential meaning beyond the dry facts, and the ability to touch the essence of our life. I would like to declare poetry and art in general as a basic set of things we have in common: thought and feeling, creativity, imagination, and sense of freedom and beauty.
Its attitude towards artistic creativity is an important factor in widening or narrowing the spiritual capacities of a society, and enhancing or weakening its creative imagination and vital powers. Philosophy, the famous authorized professional of our culture about wisdom, becomes less convincing when one considers "wisdom". Philosophy is speaking about wisdom and insight, but it holds thought with thick pliers. Plenty of heavy slow words that clumsily catch hold of ideas that wisdom grasps in the blink of an eye. Only rare philosophers like Heraclitus, Plato or Nietzsche, who had poetic talent, could deal with this electric intensity of thought. It seems only poetry does to words what thought is doing to them, in their full power and scope: hears them, tastes them, understands and mis-understands them, combines them in strange ways, gets carried away by them, beats them against each other, tells. Poetry truly tells through words everything they can grasp and more. Poetry holds words alive in the moment they're formed.
A society that fails in the field of art and literature is perhaps a society that has become mentally fossilized and harmed its own capacity for self -renewal and rejuvenation. After all, the history of human evolution is in fact the history of creative ideas: every achievement of humanity is an achievement of the human mind. Somehow a poet seems to create with the most primal materials, in the mental mass of life and possible realities. His works serve to enhance and reshape the world in which we live. A poetic insight can serve as a renewed perception of reality, and draw new sketches or blue prints for its future development. A writer just sits there and “dreams” the world anew, but in this very action he gives validity and meaning to this reality we live; whether he is conscious of it or not, by his creative adventure the poet goes on creating the mental future from which our civilization of tomorrow will grow.
Amir Or (Israel, 1956). Poeta, tradutor, ensaísta e editor. Autor de Shir Tahira(A Canção de Tahira) (2001), Muzeion Hazman(O museu do tempo) (2007), e HaHaya SheBalev(O animal no coração) (2010). Contato: email@example.com. Página ilustrada com obras de Nelson de Paula (Brasil), artista convidado desta edição de ARC.