after the Hebrew of Avot Yeshurun1
As Psalms begins blessed are those who dwell
so too this land begins Eretz Yisrael.
My brothers the Arabs, who today wants
your bundles of wheat will bow to my bundle.
From the narrows I called-out a poem.
My mother’s sons mocked me:
in a language of rags
I called-out a poem.
What’re we waiting for? Since parting that parents-day
I seem a man who doesn’t fare well
if to translate to language—I also fared
from Poland Palestine of a thousand years.
& I had there a land.
& I had there a tongue.
& I had there a book on my grandfather, the tsadik of neskhizsh,2
by the name “good memory.”
In a context of people to people pours forth speech,
I had there a land.
In a context of manners & love of the world & homage to Europe
was born for me there a European-Jewish language.
But stray brick
& loneliness of brick
‘s greater than loneliness of wall.
I don’t say.
There’s a difference.
Dalia Melamed, from Moshav3 Nevei Yamin,4 she writes:
“the whole world belonged to two brothers alone.
& nevertheless one of them found a reason to kill
his friend his brother his flesh & blood.”5
A yellow fly rubs its hands on the body.
Fly on body leg on leg.
A sulha’s6 a message to treat the people well.
The whole world belonged to two brothers alone.
Sands & sand granules keep the oil in secret.
Overlords of a gift not promised to you.
Sands & groatseeds & atomic granite mobile front.
Scooch-over a bit & we’ll live & won’t die.
23rd of Av 5735 / July 31, 1975
The following are excerpts from a talk the translator gave at UC Berkeley on February 11, 2019, entitled, “Rudder to Rudder: Toward a Spectral Creole-Hebrew Poetics.”
Avot Yeshurun (b. Yekhiel Perlmutter, 1904–1992) bears witness in translingual Hebrew verse to an “epoch of khurbn.”7 Yeshurun is a writer committed to radical poetic resistance in the form of writing and speaking across and between languages, hidden in a Hebrew “language of rags,” in Yiddish-Arabic interfacing tongues. His poetics enacts a formal opposition to Zionist, statist, monolingual norms of standardization and totalization, which, he argued, only masqueraded as Jewish cultural unity. This is a poetics that dwells in the doubling sights/sites of exclusionary violence, demanding a singular space to dwell despite the systematic erasure of the very space demanded. Yeshurun’s body of work is just that then—a resistant body written and spoken into the systematic Hebraization of modern Israel/Palestine; a translingual virus infecting the national Hebrew host; or, better yet, a translingual antibody within a corrupted, exclusionary, nationalist body-politic. Yeshurun bears witness to Hebraist exclusions, first of all, by refusing to leave Hebrew and, at the same time, fusing and infusing his Hebrew with forbidden traces of Yiddish and Arabic speech. His Hebrew resists nationalist, amnesiac agendas, unwilling to forget the languages of the dead: those murdered and displaced by the Europeans in the Reich and those murdered and displaced by the Ashkenazi Jewish establishment in Israel/Palestine. Yeshurun demands a space for Yiddish (the language of khurbn) beside Arabic (the language of nakba) within the same Hebrew host, a doubly exposed poetic ghost that calls out from the “narrows” of modern Hebrew culture to anyone who will listen: “your ancestors will be watching you.”
The modern Hebrew language itself bears witness for Yeshurun to the paradox of two holocausts: the holocaust of the Jewish people there [in Europe] and the holocaust of the Arab people here [in Palestine]. When one wakes up in the morning to see that a people that had been living in its land yesterday is now gone, and hears from his parents that the Jewish people in Europe had perished in the Holocaust—a contradiction is created within him.8
Against the unified identity of the Zionist “New Jew,” this poetics asserts Yiddish and Arabic difference as dissonance, the disparate sounds of sister exiled tongues in hiding, speaking in whispers from the farthest margins of the nationalist cultural vacuum.
Yeshurun navigates the traumatic aporia of his reality by inhabiting in his poetics the stigmatized zone of the “other” while simultaneously recognizing and facing that “other,” now doubly displaced. Against the unified identity of the Zionist “New Jew,” this poetics asserts Yiddish and Arabic difference as dissonance, the disparate sounds of sister exiled tongues in hiding, speaking in whispers from the farthest margins of the nationalist cultural vacuum.9
Yeshurun is a famously difficult poet to classify in the context of the nation-state. Is he an Israeli poet, despite the fact that his poetry opposes the political and cultural program that built the State of Israel? Is he a Hebrew poet, despite the fact that the Hebrew literati of the 1940s and 1950s claimed he did not in fact write in Hebrew? Is he a Yiddish poet? An Arabic poet? I use the term translingual to describe Yeshurun’s poetic praxis—translingual meaning born in the pangs of diasporic translation, between several language “houses.” while settling in none. The term spectral creole-Hebrew helps us further imagine the speculative possibilities of Yeshurun’s hauntological language practice without simply reducing or reifying his work to standard Hebrew (or English) prose. This is a spectral creole-Hebrew since it is the ancestral ghosts themselves who speak in the mouth of the translingual cipher. Yeshurun’s creolizing of Hebrew functions then as a poetic mode, not merely as an extended metaphor or conceit but as an opaque, translational witness of creole life across the ongoing diaspora of Poland-Palestine.
I take as key precedent in this work Edouard Glissant’s Poétique de la Relation (1990), a formal and conceptual theorization of an expanded, diasporic, creolizing language that connects across archipelagic networks of mixing, from the Antilles to the Indian Ocean and beyond. Yeshurun, I argue, retains the translingual-diasporic thread Glissant imagines, relating to Hebrew as a vehicle of radical creolizing change against the normalizing violence of nationalist monological exclusion. Reading Yeshurun’s Hebrew as a singular translingual agent within a wider diasporic field of Jewish-creoles—across Yiddish and English, Spanish and Portuguese, German and French, among others—we immediately recognize in his poetics the potent urgency of impending extinction. And indeed, we find that the most violent attacks on Yeshurun’s work are driven by nationalist fears of mixture, and specifically by fears of Jewish identification with the Arab other in Israel/Palestine.
Relating to Yiddish and Arabic as interfacing poetic rudders (interfacing mouths in the form of a siftah or opening of a conversation), Yeshurun’s creolizing Hebrew navigates the translingual portals of Poland-Palestine
If creolizing is taking place in language all the time, against all odds, as Glissant suggests in his Poétique, Yeshurun recognizes this diasporic dynamic as an outsider within his own Hebrew (just as Glissant is an outsider within his own French). For Yeshurun and Glissant both, the translingual axis of a creolizing poetic language is fundamentally ethical. It is not because they cannot pass in standard Hebrew or standard French that they do not pass. They do not pass because they refuse to pass. Relating to Yiddish and Arabic as interfacing poetic rudders (interfacing mouths in the form of a siftah or opening of a conversation), Yeshurun’s creolizing Hebrew navigates the translingual portals of Poland-Palestine, where ethical reconciliation is still a speculative possibility.10 His poetics arises from the diasporic rift between Poland and Palestine, from Bełżec to Silwan, in mixed and mixing tongues: a Yiddish-Arabic-Hebrew zhargon that expands into a creole futurity.
Avot Yeshurun was born Yekhiel Perlmutter in Nezkhish, Poland, 1904—the same year, I’m often reminded, that poet Louis Zukofsky was born in the Lower East Side. As a child, he took sick. And so, he was given the second name “Alter” (meaning “older” or “elder” in Yiddish) in order—according to Jewish tradition—to trick the evil eye and save his life. And he lived by that name for 44 years, wrote Yiddish poetry in that name, Hebrew poetry in that name, and published his first Hebrew book in 1942 in that name, six years before he changed it.
He spent his childhood in Krasnystaw, Poland (today Ukraine), until the age of ten, at which point the outbreak of World War I forced his family to flee their home. They became refugees, along with thousands of other displaced Jews across Europe. The family moved around for several years, homeless, penniless, and witness to violent pogroms, what Yeshurun would later refer to as one start of the “epoch of khurbn” that expanded into his (and our) contemporal future.
In 1925, against the express wishes of his parents, he emigrated to British-Mandate Palestine. He would never see his family again, all of whom perished, along with 2000 other Jews from Krasnystaw, in the Bełżec extermination camp during the Holocaust. Yeshurun’s poetics is simultaneously subsumed and impelled by the guilt he bears for his family’s death and his own survival, which is marked by and in his Hebrew. “Those,” he writes, “my father and mother, brothers and sister, stand straight in my eyes / and all Krasnystaw stands at the windows”.11
The young Yiddish-Hebrew poet, Yekhiel Alter, worked as a day laborer during his first years in Mandatory Palestine—passing much of his time in the company of Bedouin and Palestinian Arabs—and learned spoken Arabic before spoken Hebrew. In 1942, he published his first book of Hebrew verse, Al khokhmat ha’drakhim (On the wisdom of roads), a work engaged specifically with the linguistic and cultural polyvalence of Palestine, paying close attention to the cultural and linguistic landscapes of Bedouin and Palestinian life.
In 1948, on the eve of his conscription into the Israeli army, Yekhiel Alter Perlmutter legally changed his name to Avot (meaning “fathers” or “ancestors”); and later that year, to Avot Yeshurun, a strange archaic Hebrew pseudonym taken to mean, “Your fathers [or ancestors] (will be) watching you.”12 Four years later, he published the highly controversial translingual long poem, “Pesakh al kukhim” (Passover on Caves), in which he spliced and reconfigured a network of classical and modern texts, including the Passover Haggadah, the Book of Esther, the Song of Songs, as well as Avraham Shlonsky’s “You Are Hereby” and Natan Alterman’s Poems of the Plagues on Egypt. Reverse engineering the accepted seder (order) of Hebraist standards, Yeshurun creates an intensive mash-up of negated narratives in order to cast into relief an urgent contemporary poetic-ethical link between the catastrophe of the Palestinians in the Jewish-Arab war of 1948, and the catastrophe of the Jews in the Holocaust. “If Yeshurun’s text is indeed a tissue of negated quotations,” writes Michael Gluzman in The Politics of Canonicity (2004), “it aims to problematize, critique, and disrupt the ‘story grammar’ of…the biblical Jewish-gentile master-narrative.” Yeshurun’s creole-Hebrew begins with this breaking-up of the traditional Hebraist order-of-events and operations, in order to implant traces of the other into his poetic language.
But how can Yeshurun’s poems be both nonsensical and heretical, meaningless and still a threat to Israeli society?
Yeshurun was derided for this poem, and cast out of the Zionist literary establishment by his contemporaries who were threatened as much by his radical diasporic politics as they were by his innovative poetics, claiming that he wrote “in a language of rags.” Yeshurun was so heavily stigmatized by the Hebrew modernists for his subversive politics and radical translingual mode of writing that he was deemed (paradoxically) incomprehensible and simultaneously dangerous to read. But how can Yeshurun’s poems be both nonsensical and heretical, meaningless and still a threat to Israeli society?
The writer and politician Ya’akov Gil wrote the following condemnation of “Passover on Caves” after it first appeared in Ha’aretz in 1952:
On May 23, Avot Yeshurun published a lengthy poem of 27 quatrains entitled “Passover on Caves,” all of which is [about] assimilation (hitbolelut) with Arabs, moral slavery, and psychological complexes…If Ha’aretz will nourish its readers with this heretical literature (sifrut shel minut) not only will their national sentiment be in danger but so will their mental health…Yekhiel Perlmutter of Poland despises [the pioneer] and replaces him with the Arab farmer…Until these lines were printed in Ha’aretz we didn’t know that there are Jews among us who linked themselves to the Arab…It’s a wonder that these guys don’t move to the East Bank of the Jordan.13
Gil’s diatribe against Yeshurun’s poem is emblematic of the nationalist party line that the modernists toed. I am especially taken by Gil’s assertion that Yeshurun’s writing is in fact heretical, suggesting that Hebrew poetry has replaced scripture in modern Hebrew culture, and that Yeshurun’s poem is not only a threat to the State of Israel but also to “World Judaism” more broadly. It is noteworthy that Gil calls Yeshurun by his former name, Yekhiel Perlmutter, a gesture of blatant disrespect; and “of Poland” suggests a metaphoric revocation of Yeshurun’s biblical birthright as a Jew, which has become the modern “right of return” to Israel—a one-sided “birthright,” according to Yeshurun, which he scrutinizes in “Passover on Caves” in the form of a critique of the biblical source itself: “Surely, Jacob’s rose / ask the thorns.”
The projected danger (and internalized fear) of Yeshurun’s writing during early statehood years manifested in ugly parodies of his work, in the slapstick style of barbaric sub-human language. The poet and editor L. Livne, for example, wrote and published in his own journal, Be-terem, a seething farce of “Passover on Caves” entitled, “Purim al-nekhasim” (Purim on real estate), in which he casts Yeshurun’s poetics as “a porridge of sardines, straw and onions,” an inedible beastly fare. Chaim Shorer, the editor in those days of the influential Hebrew newspaper Davar, wrote and published a cruel parody of Yeshurun’s work as well, entitled “Nikhnas ha-ru’akh be-avi Avot Yehsurun” (The demon enters the father of Avot Yeshurun), a modern Hebrew euphemism for “let Avot Yeshurun go to Hell.” And just as the early (conservative) critics claimed of Gertrude Stein, Shorer deems Yeshurun’s writing decadent gibberish. Shorer’s parody of Yeshurun focuses on what T.S. Eliot negatively defined as the dislocation of sound from sense: “parush (reclusive),” Shorer writes,
ba’ush (a stinking)
The poem speaks for itself, a mean smirk at Yeshurun’s poetics in which Shorer besmirches the radical translingual modality of Yeshurun’s work in dull bullying taunts. Shorer’s and Livne’s “hate poems” for Yeshurun recall Ezra Pound’s 1928 “Yiddischer Charleston Band,” an antisemitic rant he writes in an apparent “bastardized” English as a parody of what he imagines will become the new American (and always for Pound, Jewish) literature after he is gone.
One especially paranoid response to “Passover on Caves” goes so far as to accuse Yeshurun of collaborating with Arab propagandists. This response comes in the form of a letter to the editor of Aleph—a literary journal of the “Young Hebrews” that published Yeshurun—after Yeshurun was praised on Damascus radio for his sensitivity to the plight of Palestinian refugees. “One day I heard Rabhi Camal in his Hebrew program on Damascus radio,” the letter begins,
praising the strange poem “Passover on Caves,” a poem written by the Canaanite poet Avot Yeshurun…[The poem was perceived] as an expression of the “honest” feelings and “regrets” of a “large number of Jews in Palestine” over the expulsion of the [Arab] refugees. At the end he suggested that Avot Yeshurun…“unconsciously” echoed the feelings of an Arab poet, one of the refugees themselves, as expressed in a poem entitled “Afterward,” whose main idea reads more or less as follows: “My land, my land I shall return to you / my land, land and home / my land, land and olive tree… / All the foreigners who came to you, my land / from France unto China / will not become rooted in you, my land / because my roots in you are deeper / I shall return to you…” I simply want to ask whether the poets of Young Hebrews innocently match the ideas of Arab propagandists, and whether it is accidental that Damascus Radio emphasizes their stand and compliments them.14
This letter reveals the uses and abuses of Hebrew poetry and poetics in the age of early Zionist statist unification. The writer parodies in this case the Arabic poem of return, in formulaic paraphrase that makes the contemporary reader cringe. The translingual poetic rudder of Yeshurun’s “Passover on Caves” transforms the poet in the eyes of the mid-century Israeli literary establishment into an enemy collaborator, a poet guilty of high treason.
Yeshurun’s is a poetry written to us from a diasporic Hebrew past-future, in a “mongrel” tongue that holds & beholds multitudes of dialects & ideolects, accents & inflections, sources & translations rattling in broken howls & growling vowels. A poetics of radical necessity. Yeshurun understood this need better than most. Not the need for fluency or mastery, but the need to see. He stared into catastrophe and would not look away, could not look away. He refused the center for the periphery, refused clarity for opacity, refused the state for the stateless. For the statelessness of catastrophe—his own, and others’, in “double-life” and “double-eternity”—as a counter-past that compels a counter-future; in this sense, a future that must contain multitudes, against the notion of national-cultural unity. Yeshurun’s vision for a creole-Hebrew futurity therefore functions as a holdout from the monolingual assimilationist forces of the modern and contemporary nation state.
This poetics addresses the site of Jewish settlement and renovation in the State of Israel, and specifically in the “Hebrew city” of Tel Aviv, as a simultaneous—and in Yeshurun’s words, “doubling,”— site of demolition and destruction. In his late long poem, Ha-bayit, for example, Yeshurun presents a complex polyglot response to sites of 20th-century destruction, which he witnessed throughout his life, both in eastern Europe and in Mandate Palestine (and later, Israel/Palestine) through the polysemic metaphor of the Hebrew “house.” The word “bayit” in modern Hebrew means both house and home, and refers also to the poetic unit of the stanza.15 In Yeshurun’s case, it also translates the Yiddish word “heym” connoting the alter-heym or “old home” of eastern Europe. The diasporic house of Yeshurun’s verse disrupts nativist myth-making across multiple entwined discursive threads; lamenting what’s lost to the violence of renovation, his writing upends the nationalist drive to “settle the land,” presenting a linguistic and cultural sub-architecture, though buried amidst the rubble.
Despite being derided by the center and center-right for most of his career, Yeshurun won every major literary prize the State of Israel awards, rejecting the highest prize—the Israel prize—on his deathbed. At every prize ceremony in his honor, Yeshurun gave a speech that offended the statist literati to their core and scandalized the cultural-political arena of the “invisible center.” It was the writers and artists of the Likrat group that first “rediscovered” Yeshurun in the 1960s and claimed his work as a precedent for their own anti-establishment and later “co-existence” politics, a role he felt as ambivalent about as he did the centrist literary prizes he received. It was not that Yeshurun wasn’t anti-establishment, he absolutely was; yet he put no stake in literary or political institutions nor movements, all of which he felt, following the Holocaust, and later the establishment of the political state of Israel, had betrayed the ethics of his diasporism, what he called affectionately Yahndes, the pluralism that his diasporic Jewishness, his Yiddishness, entailed, born in mixture.
- “Sifta” is Arabic and refers to the first sale of the day, which is considered lucky in Arab folk culture; Yeshurun changes the first letter in Hebrew from sameh to sin, connoting the Hebrew word safa (language) and sfatai (lips). The poem sometimes carries the subtitle “el ha-aravim” (toward the Arabs).
- The Ukrainian shtetl where the poet was born.
- Hebrew: refers to a type of Israeli cooperative agricultural community.
- Hebrew: meaning “pleasant right.”
- Reference to the biblical story(s) of Cain and Abel and/or Jacob and Esau.
- Arabic: refers to a pre-Islamic Middle Eastern inter- and intra-communal dispute management/resolution practice, still in wide use today.
- I use the Yiddish word khurbn here, meaning “catastrophe,” because this is the term Yeshurun himself used to address the catastrophic 20th-century: t’kufas khurbn (an epoch of catastrophe). The term khurbn also refers specifically to the Nazi Holocaust of European Jewry.
- Avot Yeshurun, quoted in Yitzhak Bezalel, Ha-kol katuv ba-sefer (Everything is written in the book), Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hame’uchad, 1969. 39.
- The violent rejection of Yiddish and Arabic by the early Zionist-Hebraists was so “resolute,” writes Michael Gluzman, “that it has come to be described in military terms: the Battalion of the Defenders of the Hebrew Language (gedud meginey ha-safa ha-ivrit) was the name of a militant group that supported the use of Hebrew in what has come to be known as the “language wars” (143).
- The title of a poem by Avot Yeshurun that can be found in his Kol shirav (collected poems) vol. 2, 170–171. With regard to his relation to Hebrew literature, Yeshurun writes the following: “A strange relationship has settled in between me and Hebrew literature. She did not attract me. I have a major gripe against her: she did not fulfill her fundamental role—to bring us closer to the Arab question and to the Arab people of the land…Hebrew literature brought us to Zion and it had to say the truth about who lived in the land, not to say that it was empty.” See: Sh. Shifra, “Reayon im Avot Yeshurun” (Interview with Avot Yeshurun), Davar, April 1, 1975.
- From “kol mi sh’ba misham” (all who come from there), in Yeshurun’s penultimate collection, Adon menukha (Master of Sleep); translation is mine.
- Helit Yeshurun notes that her father took on the name Avot (fathers) as a translation of a Yiddish diminutive nickname his mother called him as a child in Krasnystaw: tatelekh, meaning “little fathers.”
- Translation is Michael Gluzman’s.
- Translation is Michael Gluzman’s.
- To further intensify this polysemy, we might note what Chana Kronfeld emphasizes in her reading of bayit in the poetry of Yehuda Amichai—that the Hebrew bayit “is not only home and metaphorically the author’s body but also, in the rhetoric of Hebrew and Arabic Poetry…the first line of the poem.”