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Posted in: Israel

Published on Oct 07, 2011 by Phyllis Chesler

Written for Israel National News

The Sublime Alterman


I recently attended a Hebrew poetry class taught by a friend, Atara Fobar, who translates Hebrew poetry into English. Atara is a serious teacher and is the distinguished translator of Moshe Itzhaki. Every month, Atara teaches poetry to religious Jews of a certain age—to the kind of people whose delight in learning is almost child-like and which renders them ageless.

We are a bit like those Jews who continued to write and produce plays, newspapers, and musical evenings in Holocaust era ghettos, who so optimistically kept taking books out of libraries (and returning them) until they could no longer do so.

We lucky few do not live in such ghettos but still, we are Jews who were alive during the Holocaust and who now live in the shadow of a potential second genocide. We ourselves are in no immediate physical danger--the class meets in America, in Riverdale, a leafy, hilly, suburb of my Manhattan--but our "hearts are in the East" and so we feel the palpable, existential danger that Israel currently faces.

Nathan Alterman is a well known and beloved Israeli poet who was born in Warsaw in 1910 and who settled in Tel Aviv in 1925 where he died in 1970. Alterman received both the Israel Prize and the Bialik Prize. His poems have been translated into twenty languages. Alterman was also a prolific lyricist, playwright, and essayist and wrote poetry and plays for children as well as the lyrics for a number of hit Israeli songs. There was even a movement to make him Israel's national poet instead of Chaim Nahman Bialik.

In 1942, Alterman bitterly, heretically, condemned the Holocaust, ("Praised are You…who has chosen us out of all the nations);" in 1943, he praised the Swedish for rescuing Jews ("The Swedish Tongue") and criticized the Pope for failing to do so; between 1945-1947 he denounced the British for their heartless measures in Palestine and for their refusal to allow Jewish immigrants into the Mandate ("In Praise of An Italian Captain"). The British banned his work but people passed it around from hand to hand.

In 1948, Alterman wrote many prized poems about the creation of the Jewish state, most notably "The Silver Platter," which is read on Israel's Memorial Day and describes the fallen soldiers as the silver platter upon which the Jewish state was given to its people.

Alterman denounced the killings of Arab civilians during the conquest of Lydda and Ramla ("About That").

However, after the Six Day War, Alterman was one of the founders of the Movement for a Greater Israel; he even criticized Ben Gurion for being too eager to give up territories captured in war in return for the promise of peace.

But all that came later. In 1936, when he was 26 years old, Alterman wrote an extraordinary poem: "Horgai Hasadot: or "The Killers of the Fields." It is a major mystical prophecy, a meditation on Jewish history, Jewish destiny, and on the history of Zionism. It is very beautiful and very tragic.

Alterman wrote this poem seven years after the Arab massacre of Jews in Hebron and Jerusalem and in the same year that Arab riots broke out in April of 1936 in Jaffa. Sixteen Jews were killed; many more were wounded. The Arab Higher Committee, headed by the infamous friend of Hitler, Haj Amin-el-Husseini, led a campaign of terrorism against both Jewish and British targets. That same month (April), Husseini declared a strike and boycott of Jewish enterprises and products.

After the strike, Jewish property was burned, Jewish pedestrians were killed and Jewish settlements were attacked. Still in April of 1936, cars on the road between Tulkarm and Nablus were held up by Arab highwaymen. Jews were shot, stabbed, and beaten to death and there were further Arab riots between Jaffa and Tel Aviv.

By the end of April in 1936, Jewish buses were stoned and fired upon; the Jewish settlements in the Northern District were constantly the victims of arson; trees and crops were damaged.

In May and June of 1936, Arabs launched attacks on public and private Jewish property, and sabotaged railways and telegraph and telephone communications. On May 16, 1936, three Jews were murdered and two wounded as they left a Jerusalem cinema.

This may have been on the poet's mind. In the poem, Alterman depicts "God's handmaid" as "falling on her face." He beseeches G-d to "call out to her, to ask her, perhaps as He did in the Garden of Eden, "where are you?" The poet reminds G-d that it was G-d who "held up her slumped head…injected her bloodstream with youth…and (refreshed) her…and she "bore a tractor in her heart."

The Zionists had left Christian pogroms and lands with no Jewish future and came to the Promised Land, where the winds are soft. grain grows, and the air is perfumed with gardens.

And then, Alterman strikes.

He describes "the killers of the fields," like "massive-jawed raptors," advancing "at a desert crawl, more primal than any law." With heartbroken sarcasm, the poet reminds us that, as in the famous Zionist song, "Splendid are the nights in Canaan"—just as he tells us that the "grain fields of Jezreel are ablaze" and that the "threshing floor" (where Ruth came to Boaz, and which her descendent, King David, bought as the site for the future Temple), is also "decked out in fire." Alterman concludes that the hermit (nazarite) mountains and the moon itself are cloaked in Arab abayas.

And now Alterman closes in for the mystical raptor/rapturous poetic 'kill.' He writes:

"For destiny of old has not let go, no he hasn't,
For amid her quietude and the songs of her tents
He's been holding her neck in a lock since Vespasian
And brandishing his whip."

Perhaps Alterman did not expect such vicious and continued Arab hatred and intransigence. Perhaps 1936 taught him that Jewish history might partake of Jewish destiny and therefore would follow Jews even to the Holy Land.

As we happy few sat there together in Riverdale, stunned and moved, we felt the poem spoke to us today, to the events of today. Silence reigned. We felt Alterman's "wings of eternity" pass over us for an instant. Jews have been sitting like this for a long, long time—and here we are, yet again.

I do not wish to diminish the power of Alterman's prophetic poem. I do not even wish to quarrel with it.

But in a still, small voice allow me to say:

"We are the only people who have been counting our continued presence on earth for nearly 6000 years. We have seen many miracles in our own time: From the founding of the state of Israel to our triumph in the Six Day war to our being spared when Saddam Hussein tried to mass murder Israelis with his fiendish weaponry.

"Today, Israel has the strongest and most efficient military and the most creative economy in the region. Always, always, we have been surrounded by hostile forces. Always, always, we have been forced to fight for our survival. This has been out history, Alterman suggests it may be our destiny until the end of days.

May G-d grant up more miracles in the coming year.


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