Hebrew on a Desert Island: the case of Annabelle Farmelant.
The poetic output of the American-born poet and playwright Annabelle "Chana" Farmelant consists entirely of two books of Hebrew poetry, Iyyim bodedim (Desert Islands) and Pirchei zehut (Flowers of Identity), published in Israel in the early 1960s. In this article, I offer an overview of Farmelant's oeuvre through my own English translations of her poems and in the context of American Hebrew literary history and scholarship, which has long neglected women writers. Farmelant's short career as a poet notwithstanding, her work engaged directly--and thereby offers crucial attestation of--the gender politics and U.S.-Israel literary relations that contributed to the decline of American Hebrew literature in the mid-twentieth century and to Farmelant's early departure from the field of modern Hebrew poetry.
KEYWORDS: American Hebrew literature, women's writing, Israel, poetry
Someone writing a poem believes in a reader, in readers, of that poem.
--ADRIENNE RICH ("Someone Is Writing a Poem," 1993) (1)
In early 2009, the Hebrew and Yiddish literary scholar Shachar Pinsker approached me with the opportunity to participate in a translation project that would bring into English the work of two relatively unknown American Hebrew female poets: Anne (Chana) Kleiman and Annabelle (Chana) Farmelant. Yosefa Raz's translations of Kleiman's 1947 collection Netafim (Droplets) comprised the first half of the project, but Pinsker was looking for a translator for Farmelant, and sent me a sampler of her work that drew from her two collections, Iyyim bodedim (Desert Islands, 1960) and Pirchei zehut (Flowers of Identity, 1961), both published by Kiryat Sefer, a Jerusalem-based press. The poems sparked my interest in the project and in Farmelant's work, as did the prospect of participating in the "recovery" of an unknown poet, and specifically a female poet, but the lack of context for the poems was, and remains, disorienting. (2) For example, a poem titled "Fla-tuki ha-isre'eli" (The Israeli Parrot) offers a biting commentary on the Americanization of Israeli culture, but it was written in an unfamiliar idiom that many of the poems shared. Who was this poet? Where had she acquired her Hebrew? What had been her connection to Israeli culture? Had she ever lived there and for how long? What were her literary affiliations? A cursory Google search uncovered very little information: letters to the editors of Time magazine and Commentary, a few New York Times op-ed pieces on classical music, and evidence that between 1968 and 2004 she filed copyrights on numerous dramatic works, including The Wind Blows Westward (1993) and Today Is Like Yesterday (2000), two plays written in Hebrew. (3)
The only existing scholarship on Farmelant's work to date appears in Michael Weingrad's 2011 book American Hebrew Literature: Writing Jewish National Identity in the United States. (4) In his final chapter, "The Last Mohicans," Weingrad addresses the waning days of American Hebrew literature in the late 1960s and offers a summary of Farmelant's work, including a beautiful translation of her poem "Shorashim atsuvim" (Sad Roots). (5) Weingrad describes Farmelant as "a decidedly postwar sensibility, resdess and often acerbic," whose poems "often seek and do not find a basis for idealism and stable values in a post-Holocaust world." (6) Weingrad had corresponded directly with Farmelant but warned me that she was not inclined to speak about her poetry in any substantive detail. (7) He sent along the last address that he had on file, which confirmed not only that Farmelant lived in New York City but also, by a stroke of luck, in my very neighborhood.
Farmelant was mystified that there was any interest in translating her work; it had been years since she had written a poem, having dedicated most of her creative efforts to playwriting. Despite Weingrad's interest in her poems, she was curious to know what kind of audience existed for the translations, a question that touches on the very complicated and vexed relation between American Hebrew writers and their readers, a relation that continues to inform scholarly interest in these works. The reception of American Hebrew literary production and the question of who were its readers are central preoccupations in scholarship on American Hebrew writing, but issues and questions of reception shaped the discourse on Hebrew literature well before it reached American shores in the later half of the nineteenth century. (8) Arnold Band has addressed the paradox of a thriving Hebrew literary culture in the diminished European Hebrew literary market of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which coincided with the period of Hebrew literature's so-called techiya or "revival":
The trajectory of Hebrew literature during this period seems to defy all logic, for between 1885 and 1914, precisely when masses of Jews were leaving Europe, Hebrew literature enjoyed one of its most glorious, creative periods. And yet, this creativity is selective, for while great works were written and published, the audience for these writers diminished, so much so that in 1904 both HaShiloah and HaDor, the leading periodicals of Odessa and Warsaw respectively, collapsed. (9)
The question of audience in this period is more complicated than Band's description allows. Nineteenth-century Hebrew literature in Europe was, in Eli Lederhendler's words, "the metier and the passion of a small elite," specifically a male, literate readership. (10) Even in the early 1900s, the Hebrew writer David Frischmann was questioning--and lamenting--the investment of this selective readership and the very possibility of "revival" without a committed audience. (11) Eventually, a growing native Hebrew readership enriched the market for Hebrew literature in Palestine, until it became not only a but the center for Hebrew literary production by the mid-twentieth century; but this "great transition," as Gershon Shaked characterized it, was hardly linear and certainly doesn't account for the Hebrew writers, publishers, and editors who remained active on other shores well past 1948 and the establishment of the State of Israel. Despite the closure of major Hebrew periodicals like HaShiloah and HaDor, Hebrew literary journals and periodicals in the European and America diaspora continued to appear, if often in those familiar short-lived fits and starts that seem to mark the lifelines of so many literary journals, but that nonetheless represented "the life blood ... for the Hebraist world" and kept Hebrew literary texts in circulation. (12) Indeed, recent scholarship on modern Hebrew literature has taken pains to challenge a teleological narrative of Hebrew literary production and circulation that casts Palestine as the inevitable destination for Hebrew literature by focusing on its continued activity in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the United States through the early to mid-twentieth century. (13)
In fact, when Farmelant published her two books of poetry in Israel in 1960 and 1961, Hebrew literary production in the United States was still active, with journals like Bitzaron, Hadoar, and Niv providing varying degrees of opportunities for American Hebrew writers. (14) Niv was a significant outlet for young American Hebrew writers like Band and Farmelant, and an example of a sustained and meaningful attempt to nurture a "social context" where one could discuss a recent Broadway play or review a new book in modern Hebrew. (15) Niv, which began publication in 1936, counted Gabriel Preil among its early contributors, and was even edited for a time by the New York-born Israeli poet T. Carmi, when he still went by his birth name Carmi Charny. Between 1957 and 1966, under the editorship of the Israeli literary scholar Moshe Pelli, who had come to the States for his university studies, Nivs editorial platform "asserted that Hebrew culture should express the totality of the modern Jew's creativity." (16) In addition to poetry, Farmelant's contributions to Niv also included an essay on the poetry of Dylan Thomas, which accompanied her Hebrew translation of Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night" (1956), and a review of Archibald MacLeish's "J.B," a modern retelling of the story of Job set as a three-act play (1958-59). In some of the issues in which her work appears, she is described as a "meshoreret mechanekhet," a poet educator.
Farmelant was born in Boston around 1926 to Morris (Moshe) and Lena (Leah), both Russian immigrants, and raised there along with her younger brother. (17) She attended public schools as well as Prozdor, the Hebrew high school program of Hebrew College. She was named "Chana Biala," a name later Anglicized to "Annabelle." (18) According to Farmelant, a family friend who avidly read Edgar Allen Poe suggested the name to her parents, though she went by "Chana" at Hebrew College, where she studied with the poet and translator Eisig Silberschlag, and briefly adopted the pen name "Chana Bat-Leah." Asked to describe her decision to write poetry in Hebrew, Farmelant remarked, "Ivrit modernit krova me'od la-tanakh"---modern Hebrew is close to the Bible--and, switching back to English, she characterized Hebrew as "my language." Indeed, when pressed even further to describe her relationship to the Hebrew language, Farmelant noted that when she wrote poetry in Hebrew, the language came to her naturally; she could recall no difficulties in writing, nor did she discern any major difference between her Hebrew and the Israeli Hebrew of the period. Her perception of her Hebrew fluency and its relation to Israeli Hebrew, however, needs to be understood in the context of the immersive Hebrew curriculum Hebrew College provided its students and the preparation in Hebrew language study that many of its students received through Prozdor. Early to mid-twentieth-century educators of the Hebrew language in the United States were primarily nonnative speakers of the language; this was a distinctive characteristic of American Hebrew language and literary pedagogy that marked the background and literary development of poets like Farmelant and Band, who also studied at Hebrew College and published a book of poems, Ha-re'i bo'er ba-esh (The Mirror Burns with Fire), in 1963. (19) Their teachers and peers by and large constituted their readership and shared with them this background and indeed this idiom, but "ever-widening generic, linguistic and thematic chasms" between American and Israeli Hebrew were evident in the pre-Statehood period and became even more visible in the following years. (20) One need only compare Farmelant to a poet like Yehuda Amichai to observe these differences. Even though both poets were not native Hebrew speakers, the cultural, political and linguistic milieux in which they developed as Hebrew poets shaped remarkably distinct poetries. Rather than accommodate these differences, Stephen Katz contends that this "phenomenon is perceived as a mark of the decline of [American Hebrew], and evidence about its eventual demise. (21) By the late 1940s, when Farmelant began to publish her original Hebrew poems, Hebrew in the United States already held the status of a foreign language, while in Israel it was already a dominant national lingua franca. It is in this context that in 1948, just a few months after the declaration of Statehood, Farmelant published "Iyov" (Job) in Gilyonot, one of her earliest publications. (22)
Translating Farmelant required that I acknowledge that the poet's language came "naturally" to her and that I reflect on my own biases, as someone who acquired her Hebrew in an Israeli context. One of the first poems by Farmelant that I translated bears the urban tide "Skyscraper"--in Hebrew "gored shechakim," literally "one who scratches the skies," a Hebrew caique of the English skyscraper. Katz highlights the word skyscraper as an example of the lack of consensus between early twentieth-century American Hebrew writers, who, he argues, "sought ways to impress a personal imprint on the Hebrew language, either by 'inventing' . . . terms or by determining a personal way to depict Americanisms. (23) Their attempts to render the uniquely American skyline resulted in a variety of terms, including Silberschlag's shachakon (from shechakim, for "skies"), (24) Bernard Isaacs's mekartsefay 'ananim (cloud gnashers, from lekartsef, which is Aramaic in origin), A. Z. Halevy's marki'ay shechakim (25) and Moshe Brind's mekartsefay shechakim (sky gnashers). (26) Farmelant's contribution to the poetry of skyscrapers is the following spare poem (see Appendix for the original text):
SKYSCRAPER Child, the plaza is flat. Take care, the slope sets before you, the sky, immense. It's naked. Cover it. You will be a man, like Adam you will scrape the whole sky. Slowly, child, the sea is deep. Descend up. Spaceman.
"Gored shechakim" is current Israeli Hebrew usage, and when I first read this poem, I formed a mental image of an Israeli skyline, even though the (once) tallest building in the Middle East, Tel Aviv's Migdal Shalom Meir, was not completed until 1965. This is one of many examples of how I initially read Farmelant's work through the lens of Israeli Hebrew, to such an extent that resolving the difficulties that her "foreign" poetic idiom presented required that I also translate, as it were, between two Hebrews. In this poem, the speaker experiences the reflection of the sky on the plaza as both a doubling effect and a fata morgana. The reflection of the sky is both literal but also transformative, and it is in this context that the ungrammatical command "descend up" takes effect and makes any sense. In moving between American and Israeli Hebrew, moments of (mis)perception have proven to be comparably generative.
Discussions of the "language wars" in the pre-Statehood period emphasize the contentious relations between Hebrew and Yiddish and other diasporic languages, but the decline of American Hebrew literature was also related to language politics that favored Israeli Hebrew. The older generation of American Hebrew poets did not adapt to this shift. For example, Mintz characterizes Silberschlag's detachment from Israeli Hebrew and its literary culture in the following terms:
Although all of Silberschlag's work as a teacher, translator, critic, and poet took place in Hebrew, he keenly felt his distance from the literary center in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and he remained critical of Israeli slang, linguistic innovations, and contemporary literary trends. The hallmark of his intellectual world remained the classical, whether ancient Greece or ancient Israel or the "classic" modern literary idiom forged by Hebrew writers at the turn of the twentieth century. (27)
The number of active Hebrew poets in the United States decreased significantly in the 1950s, leaving behind poets like Preil, "who lived in a half-Hebrew, half-Yiddish world," according to Band; the poet and translator T. Carmi, who was raised in New York in a Hebrew-speaking home, had already immigrated to Israel in 1947. Farmelant and her peers were well aware that their future in Hebrew letters relied on how successfully they could create an audience for their work in Israel. Lederhendler's assessment of the decline of American Hebrew literature de-emphasizes its preoccupation with alienation and marginality, attributing its decline instead to the problem of audience: "American Hebrew literature failed not because it could not communicate American ideas, but because American Hebrew writers lacked a 'market' of prospective readers. Their problem was not that they were poets of alienation, but that they were isolated by a semantic wall from their only potential public." (28) Unless one immigrated to Israel, a career in Hebrew poetry was not a viable option in the United States. Preil's success stood out as the stark exception.
In 1950, following her graduation from Hebrew College, Farmelant moved to Israel and remained there for three years, auditing courses at the Hebrew University. During this time, she remained in touch with Silberschlag, who was then dean of Hebrew College, and occasionally sent him copies of articles and poems. (29) Farmelant dedicated Iyyim bodedim to the poet and editor Avraham Broides, who encouraged her writing and publishing endeavors. At the time, there were few publishing outlets for Hebrew poetry in the United States-- the leading Hebrew publication, Hadoar, was not, in Farmelant's words "very sympathetic to my generation." In Israel, on the other hand, Farmelant found a supporter in Broides, as well as in the poet Yitzhak Lamdan, who edited the journal Gilyonot. Lamdan was supportive of the aspirations of American Hebrew writers, "[which] was very strange," Farmelant recalls, "because he was Israeli [and] had no contact with American Hebrew, American Jewry, at all, but he didn't care, and when I lived in Israel, [my friends] kept urging me, [put out] 'a book, a book!'"(30)
Regardless of how Farmelant perceived Lamdan's interest in American Hebrew writers, browsing through issues of Gilyonot--which ran from 1934 until 1954--a sustained interest in American Hebrew literature and criticism is apparent. Poets like Preil, Hillel Bavli, and Ephraim Lisitzky made frequent appearances in its pages. Farmelant also made three notable appearances in Gilyonotr. in 1948 with the poem "Iyov" (Job); in 1949 with her poems "Ka-shir ha-'olam" (The World Is Like a Poem) and "Me-rachok le-karov" (From Far to Near); and her last, in 1954, with the poems "Rega" (Moment) and "Pirchey yaldut" (Childhood Flowers). lyyim bodedim, which spanned a decade of poetry, included revised versions of all five poems. She was not the only female writer to appear in Gilyonot, though admittedly there were few, but she certainly was the only American Hebrew female poet. In fact, she was the only female writer included in Gilyonot's 1954 special issue on American Hebrew literature, which appeared shortly before Lamdan's death. Farmelant also published poems (as Chana Bat-Leah) in Gabriel Talphir's Gazith ("Galim" [Waves] and "Lo nafal kokhav" [No Star Fell]) and in the American journal Bitzaron ("Kavlei shirah" [The Chains of Poetry]). Between this visit and her brief return to Israel in 1960, Farmelant's contributions to Niv also make an appearance. In that year, she published lyyim bodedim and wrote the poems for Pirchei zehut, which was published the following year. "Most people prefer the second one, and I do too," she said. (31) When Farmelant remarks "most people," however, it isn't clear to whom she is referring; scarce textual evidence of the critical reception of her work makes it difficult to substantiate her assessment.
While Pirchei zehut is the more technically mature and thematically cohesive of the two collections, lyyim bodedim encompasses a decade of writing and engagement with a diverse range of literary sources. Although poems published earlier in the journals cited above underwent revision, the collection as a whole offers crucial information on Farmelant's poetic development. In a brief review of lyyim bodedim, published in Moznayim in 1960, the critic and editor Moshe Ben-Shaul observed that the poems "carry something of the style of fin-de-siecle English poetry in their distinct Modernist flavor, especially with regard to the image and the musicality of contemporary language and . . . definitely modern concepts." (32) In my conversations with Farmelant, she consistently resisted any attempt to identify her influences or to affiliate her work with the prevailing groups and movements of early to mid-twentieth century Hebrew poetry. Nevertheless, Farmelant's emphasis on the fragment and image aligns her work with the modernism of H.D. in English and Esther Raab in Hebrew. For the most part, Farmelant's poetry does not adhere to classical forms and prosody; her limpid intertextuality also distinguishes her oeuvre from the densely allusive poetry of early twentieth- century American Hebrew. Where this would have taken Farmelant as a poet remains in the realm of speculation.
Her Hebrew literary education was broad but she did not follow any specific trend or writer. She and Band were peers at Hebrew College; she followed his career for a time but felt no strong affinity to his work. Indeed, Farmelant situates herself in a very solitary place in the space of Hebrew letters. She knew T. Carmi personally and felt that his left-leaning politics aligned him with many of the major poets of the period, including Amichai, whom Farmelant claims "stood in the way" of the American Hebrew poets. She acknowledged, but did not feel a strong affinity to, the work of poets Leah Goldberg, Anda Pinkerfield, and Dahlia Ravikovitch. Preil had great success in Hadoar and "no one could touch him," she observed, in terms of poetic talent and status. His success in Israel put him, like Carmi, in a class apart. American poets like Silberschlag and Preil belonged to an older generation that had carved a place, however temporary, for themselves in modern Hebrew letters but had neglected--and even refused--to nurture future generations of Hebrew writers.
Silberschlag was, in her words, "the most erudite" of the Hebrew poets she encountered, but she never understood why he was not more supportive of her work. She recalls that she once asked him directly if his reluctance to offer more support to her and Band had something to do with the quality of their work and Silberschlag conceded that it did. (33) Frequent references to Greek mythology and ancient Greek and Roman history and culture may be signs of Silberschlag's influence on her work, so may the considerable time she devoted to playwriting in her later years, but Farmelant is adamant that his influence was "indirect" and that what shaped her as a poet were "interests" more than "influences." (34)
After Pirchei zehut, Farmelant returned to the United States and abandoned Hebrew poetry. Though declining to give specific reasons for this decision, she did admit to the following:
The obvious reason was that I didn't think there was any place for me, or anyone else ... mostly as an American Jew. [I] never had political discussions with Carmi but he was very strong left winger and there was ... a place for left wingers in the [Israeli] literary circle-- [they] didn't like anything about American Jewry--[Carmi's] father was extremely Orthodox and Carmi wasn't at all, and it was kind of a rebellion against his father that he turned to Israel and frankly speaking I don't blame him for that ... I thought he was a nice person ... but a million miles away. (35)
The decision to leave Israel, however, implicated more than American and Israeli cultural differences. Finding the Hebrew publishing climate in the United States inhospitable to the younger Hebrew writers, Farmelant concluded that she "didn't see any future ... in [Hebrew] poetry." (36) Reflecting on Hadoar s longevity in American Hebrew letters, Farmelant offered the following critique: "The editors of Hadoar had their own certain quirks, their own generation, they just didn't [publish the new generation]. It was quite a disappointment to me and I suppose to anyone else who tried. I think they could have tried to be more sympathetic." (37) Farmelant noted the irony that her only publication in Hadoar was an elegy for Carmi published in 1995 ("Kerem almavet" [The Vineyard of Immortality]). (38) There is no evidence that she continued to write Hebrew poetry in the intervening decades.
Weingrad discerns echoes of Silberschlag's 1931 Bisbvilim bodedim (On Solitary Paths) in Farmelant's choice of title for her first book. (39) If this is the case, though Farmelant denies it, it is worth considering what the allusion says about Hebrew language pedagogy and Hebrew publishing in the United States that, almost thirty years after the publication of Bishvilim bodedim, Farmelant characterizes her work as a solitary, even abandoned enterprise (that she herself later abandons) from the onset, with the eponymous poem that opens the collection (see Appendix for the original text):
DESERT ISLANDS On islands of life, death and love we all sail without an oar or captain blind oarsmen. Our destination is in the wind's hands. Our journey has no purpose. Between islands and seas the bridge is time.
If Silberschlag's Bishvilim bodedim "lives up to its title of charting a singular path for American Hebrew poetry," in Mintz's words, Farmelant's Iyyim bodedim is arguably reflecting, in the 1950s, on the success of this endeavor. (40) The fourth line, "blind oarsmen," is likely the grammatical subject of the poem, but the enjambment in the second and third lines leaves the impression that this blindness results from a lack of direction ("captain") and the right tools ("oar"). The personification of the wind may allude to the "ruach elohim" but it also underscores the vagaries of chance and luck that not only bring the "blind oarsmen" to shore but also defer their arrival. Without the proper tools and direction, however, the journey is aimless, lacking "purpose." As the first poem of this first book, the poem is both poignant and polemical. For a female poet working inside and from a largely male lineage, the lack of guidance is particularly relevant, but Farmelant's use of "we" also highlights a more inclusive, generational dilemma. In this respect, Farmelant's "Desert Islands" can be read as a commentary on the solitude of young American Hebrew poets, for whom the question of orientation took on urgency as many of their peers and mentors set off for Israel, taking with them the resources for sustaining a viable literary culture in the United States.
The question of influence looms large over Farmelant's work, and it is telling how much she resisted locating her poetry in any specific tradition. In his reading of Silberschlag, Mintz quotes Avraham Epsteins evaluation of the early American Hebrew poets, noting their particular brand of "the anxiety of influence":
As immigrants, their first steps [as poets] were fraught with uncertainty, false steps, and struggle, which resulted, on the one hand, from the burden of the patrimony they brought with them from abroad, and, on the other, from the painful adjustment to new and alien modes of behavior and thought. (41)
Most of the poets that Mintz profiles were immigrants to the United States and brought an outsider sensibility to their poetry. By the same token, their resistance to a local poetry--for all the complicated reasons that Mintz describes--may have left the next generation of writers, whom Farmelant and Band represented, unmoored. Farmelant's poetry makes repeated references to technology, often as part of a critique of the deterioration of social ties and historical consciousness, but the skyscrapers, robots, astronauts, and angels that inhabit her poetry also suggest a thematic preoccupation with detachment, for which the gradual post-1948 breakdown of the American Hebrew literary community and the attenuation of already slim ties to the Israeli Hebrew literary scene provides a context. The poem "Chidush" (renewal or innovation), which appears in Iyyim bodedim, addresses the fading dream of arrival in the form of a lullaby (see Appendix for the original text):
RENEWAL Sleep, child, sleep The ladder does not reach the sky All the angels and theories flew by. (42) If no ships sail to Tarshish (43) Where will we take the baksheesh? Sleep, child, sleep. A rider on a white horse Swiftly gallops on the back of a cloud. Rise, child, rise. Forget old things. (44) Night and day are the same Recount how dreams change.
Farmelant employs the form of a lullaby to ironic effect. Whereas lullabies are meant to calm and reassure, to guide a child from restlessness to a dream state where all things are possible, in this case the lullaby also articulates states of detachment and thwarted aspiration. The reference to "Tarshish" in this poem recalls Shimon Halkin's poem "Tarshisha" (To Tarshish), from his 1946 collection 'Al ha-i (On the Island), and may represent America, or simply a "desert island" where lost dreams set anchor. In the Mediterranean and Arab world, baksheesh often refers to a bribe or offering, as well as a tip and act of charity (it comes to Hebrew via the Persian bakshidan, meaning "gift"). If, following Halkin, Tarshish represents America, then "baksheesh" could refer to Hebrew literature, perhaps even to Farmelant's own Hebrew work, which won't make its way back to American shores; ifTarshish is Israel, the offering that never arrives is arguably American Hebrew poetry. The "renewal" that the title promises is activated at the end of the poem, when the child is summoned out of the dream state and exhorted to "tishkach et ha-yashan" (forget old things). Farmelant also appears to be capitalizing here on the homophonic relation in Hebrew between "old" and the past tense of "sleep" (also "yashan"), advancing a more general critique of tradition and its "old dreams" and encouraging the younger generation to embrace innovation. But the line "night and day are the same" proposes the less optimistic possibility that the dream has passed by, never to return.
The pessimism that one discerns in several of Farmelant's poems is connected in part to anxieties concerning technological innovation and its intrusion on human relations and imagination, but also touches on the question of reception that preoccupies her work. (45) The poem "Shira aviva" (A Spring Poem), which appears in Iyyim bodedim, opens with the lines "My words are a sterile seed / lying between the broken quill / and the dry ink." Nevertheless, this seemingly infertile seed gives birth to a daughter, the "spring poem" of the title, which the speaker hands over to her people. "They will sing forth my poetry," concludes the first stanza. It's an uncharacteristically hopeful poem that underscores the revitalizing energy of readership. There are undertones here of Chaim Nachman Bialik's 1905 essay "Chevlei lashon" (Language Pangs), where the poet argues in favor of a vital and dynamic Hebrew writing that resists the constraints of "normative rules," which strip language of its vitality, revealing "the dry bones of its philological skeleton." (46) In Farmelant's poem, it isn't enough to offer the poem; the transaction is completed in its reception, when the people/readers themselves participate in the creative process, literally by singing forth her poetry. In "Ka-shir ha-'olam" (The World Is Like a Poem), first published in Gilyonot, Farmelant describes the poetic text as an "unnamed wanderer / amid the world's splendor." "Me-rachok le-karov" (Far to Near), also published in Gilyonot, elaborates this idea of the nomadic poetic text but addresses specifically the Jewish textual tradition, casting the modern American Hebrew poem in the role of prodigal son (see Appendix for the original text):
FAR TO NEAR Foreign poems enchanted me and painters from strange lands but this magic passed my heart like the taste of wine--from my lips. For a deeply hidden beauty draws me to my father's origins, to the pages of the Bible and Aggadah (47) Drawing me like a mother's heart to a son who has sailed off seeking wonders-- (48) in a strange land.
This poem offers a glimpse of the strategies a female poet could employ to inscribe her work in the predominantly male tradition of American Hebrew writing and in the broader category of Jewish literature. The speaker represents a male talush (uprooted) figure who has strayed into the foreign land of "secular" writing and art only to be brought back into the fold of Jewish tradition by the siren call of sacred Jewish texts, hence the movement in the poem's tide from "far" to "near." This move is also linguistic--from foreign languages to Hebrew--and testifies to the tremendous influence and pull of sacred Hebrew in secular Hebrew writing, an influence that Farmelant corroborated in our interview when she remarked that modern Hebrews attraction for her also lay in its proximity to Hebrews sacred register. Writing as a male allows Farmelant to access, like a lover, "the deeply hidden beauty" of the Jewish textual tradition and also to play the "son" of the maskilic tradition, which shaped the work of early American Hebrew male poets. Echoes of Bialiks 1902 poem "Levadi" (Alone) underscore these relations, and yet, the figure of the prodigal son "off seeking wonders-- / in a strange land" emphatically exits the poem, implying that the poet can't resist turning back to those foreign horizons. A resistance to arrival is evident in Farmelant's work--her poems often conclude, as does "Far to Near," in states of departure or wandering, and it begs the question of where Farmelant would have taken American Hebrew poetry had she continued to develop this nascent nomadic poetics.
Issues of gender and reception and their relation are also inherent in "Ha-'almah she-lo hitchatnah" (The Unwed Maiden), Farmelant's variation on a Sapphic fragment (see Appendix for the original text):
"THE UNWED MAIDEN" after a poem by Sappho (49) "On the twig above" (50) an apple reddens. " The maiden's nest rests on the lower step; The women buzz like bees in the company of men. Still virgin after the vintage and oil harvest. Among these thousands of gatherers not one was able to pluck you?
The poem, which appears in Iyyim bodedim, reads retrospectively as a critique of the sexual politics and problems of reception that shaped--and constrained--the development of American Hebrew poetry in general, and Farmelant's poetry in particular, in the mid-twentieth century. Indeed, the first line of the poem "'al zalzal elion" may allude to Bialik's well-known poem, "Tzanach lo zalzal" (A Twig Fell), which Farmelant arguably appropriates to advance a critique of Hebrew's gender politics. It is worth exploring, then, what it means that Farmelant chooses to problematize issues of access and reception in Hebrew literature by recasting Sappho, a poet who has been continuously revised and rewritten in translation, and through this particular fragment, one of many epithalamic texts attributed to Sappho. The work of Sappho, the Greek lyric poet who lived in the seventh or sixth century BCE, survives largely as fragments on papyri and in the quotations of lines of her work that were cited by her male contemporaries and later writers. Interest in the fragments have shaped an afterlife in translation that has remained continuous for centuries, and has resulted in what Diane Raynor has characterized as "the constant creation of new Sapphos by translators." (51) Translations of Sappho and their critical reception have offered scholars ample material not only for contextualizing ideas on poetic translation in a given period but also for understanding how gender has shaped this activity by comparing the work of female and male translators (poets, for the most part). Why this comparison matters comes down to what is at stake, for a male and female poet translator, in the "recuperation" of the broken, incomplete, and, indeed, lost voice of Sappho, who in Yopie Prins's words, "emerges as figure for voice in a lyric tradition that marks the loss of song." (52) In the case of Farmelant's poem, a failure of reception leaves the apple and the maiden-- figures of Hebrew literary excellence and the female poet respectively--unattended. The conflation of these figures suggests that neglecting the female Hebrew lyric voice undervalues the Hebrew literary system as a whole.
Although a study of the Ancient Greek and Roman classics would have formed part of her literary education at Hebrew College (in fact, Silberschlag's translations of Aristophanes and Menander were highly praised), it isn't clear that Farmelant is working from previous Hebrew translations of Sappho. Early modern Hebrew translators of Sappho included Aharon (Armand) Kaminka (1866-1950), Yehoshua Fridman (1885-1934), Benzion Benshalom (1907-1968), and Shlomo Dykman (1917-1965), but only Kaminka appears to have translated Fragment 105a, a translation which bears no strong relation to Farmelant's reworking of the poem. (53) Translating Farmelant's poem into English, I was struck by the poem's affinity to earlier English translations of this fragment, particularly those by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Mary Barnard. Rossetti's version appeared in his 1870 collection Poems under the title "One Girl" (later changed to "Beauty" in the 1881 reissue) and carries the subheading "a combination from Sappho." The first part of the poem, which is indeed a combination of Sapphic fragments 105a and 105b, recasts Fragment 105a as follows:
Like the sweet apple which reddens upon the topmost bough, A-top on the topmost twig,--which the pluckers forgot, somehow,-- Forgot it not, nay, but got it not, for none could get it till now. (54)
Mary Barnard's famed translations, which appeared in 1958, may have been a source for Farmelant as well. Barnard, like Rossetti, combines 105a and 105b with 105a serving as the first part of the poem: (55)
LAMENT FORA MAIDENHEAD Like a quince-apple Ripening on a top Branch in a tree top Not once noticed by Harvesters or if Not unnoticed, not reached
I include both translations not only as possible sources or influences for Farmelant's reworking of Fragment 105a, but also to highlight the extent to which translations of Sappho reflect the poetic tastes in a given period of time, differences that become clear just from a surface reading of Rossetti's Victorian rhymed and metered version and Mary Barnard's Imagist, unrhymed, and disjointed translation. Farmelant's poem is not exactly a translation--the only parts of the poem that "translate" the Sapphic fragment are the first and last two lines. (56) Lexically, Farmelant's rendering of the fragment is closer to Rossetti's English in its translation of Rossetti's "twig" as zalzal and "reddens" as mitadem (for the Greek ereuthetai) but her line breaks acknowledge, as Barnard does, the fragmented text. Another possible tie to Barnard's translation is the language of harvest in line 7 of Farmelant's poem and Barnard's "harvesters." Barnard's title is also notable in that it turns the epithalamic lyric into a lament for the unmarried state, which also accords with Farmelant's title "The Unwed Maiden." (57)
In her translations of Sappho, the contemporary poet Anne Carson translates this fragment as follows:
as the sweetapple reddens on a high branch high on the highest branch and the applepickers forgot-- no, not forgot: were unable to reach (58)
Carson's translation, with its repetition of "forgot," not only highlights the relation between memory and reception, but also reinterprets forgetting as a problem of access. For Susan A. Jarratt, this kind of forgetting is "a form of incapacity, or a combination of inattention and ineptitude ... Here, the obverse of forgetting requires a kind of physical attentiveness, a sensing of the physical presence of another, along with the capacity to 'reach' the other--to respond in a way that suits the features, the state of the other." (59) Farmelant's reworking of the poem conspicuously leaves out the language of forgetting, but the form of forgetting that Jarratt describes is implied, nevertheless, in the rhetorical question posed in the second to last line. Here, Farmelant levels criticism at the failure of this male public to reach out to the maiden, who sits closer to the ground than the apple above her. If Farmelant's apple is representative of a ripe, viable (and American?) Hebrew literary future, the blame for its unattainability rests on a politics of exclusion that fails to engage and include the female poet. (60) The poem, then, calls out for a reader--to be received, to be remembered. Yet, because the original wedding poem no longer survives intact, the fragment and its translations both preserve and reenact endlessly the neglect and absence of the female poetic voice, thereby problematizing the very idea of recovery that motivated this very project.
Contemporary studies on American Hebrew poetry have acknowledged but not engaged the work of Hebrew women poets of the early to mid-twentieth century and the prevailing view has been that their participation was either negligible or nonexistent. Mintz acknowledges that even his is a study that advances a masculine constellation of poets and offers a partial list of contributions by women to the field of American Hebrew poetry, which include, in addition to Farmelant's collections, Claire (Chaya) Levy's Kissufim (1941, Longings) and Anne (Chana) Kleiman's Netafim (1947, Droplets). (61) My translation of Farmelant's poetry was well under way by the time Mintz's book was in publication, but Mintz's introduction recalled months of trying to contextualize Farmelant's work in a field of scholarship that by and large has presumed the absence of women poets. Mintz frames the question of female participation in American Hebrew literature as a problem of method: "I expect that when the Hebrew periodicals of the time are combed through, we shall find a number of women who wrote poetry and published individual poems but did not bring out a book of verse. It will be intriguing to piece together the story of women's participation in American Hebrew literature." (62) If it is book publication that determines by and large the viability of a literary economy and the visibility and value of its authors, then--going by Mintz's list alone--it is clear that female authors are at a disadvantage, but any serious mapping of American Hebrew literature is incomplete without a consideration of how Hebrew poems have circulated in journals and newspapers. (63) Certainly one finds numerous male poets in the journals of the period whose work leaves few, if any, appreciable traces on scholarly investigations of this literature, but even the work of an exceedingly minor male poet (including those who did not bring out a book) can be situated, contextualized, and historicized in the field of American Hebrew literature. (64) In this case, the problem of absence--indeed, the perception of absence--has to do with how we determine the value of texts and authors within a literary system as well as the relations that we privilege when we narrate the biography of a literary community. (65)
Pircheizehut opens with "Shorashim atsuvim" (Sad Roots), which Weingrad describes as " [a] Celan-esque poem that... most poignantly expresses Farmelant's uneasy search for roots." (66) The poem, which consists of twelve, fragmentary lines, concludes with the following observation: "under a river of blood / flows / a mute skeleton / and the flower above." The focused attention that translation demands ultimately sparks "an exchange of electrical currents through language" that can be mutually recuperative and re-visionary/ (67) Through translation and scholarly engagement with her poetry, not only do we bring Farmelant's poems (back) into circulation, but we also recover an underlying network of relations that the "mute skeleton" of this poem represents.
To paraphrase the American poet Adrienne Rich, it would appear, going by current scholarship alone, that "historically male and female American Hebrew poets have played very different parts in each others lives." (68) And yet, in the journals of the period, alongside poems by Gabriel Preil, Ephraim Lisitzky, and Hillel Bavli one also finds poems by Farmelant, Levy, and Kleiman (who also published as Chana S. Zaleski), as well as Devorah Solomon, Rachel Levy, and many others who did not put out books and for whom the trail goes cold in the "wilderness." Retracing the reception and circulation of Farmelant's poetry, often through the kind of painstaking research that Mintz describes, has stirred long dormant names, texts and relations that suggest that we must start telling the story of American Hebrew literature from varied perspectives and through distinct voices. Though to her it may feel "like it happened to a different person," the research that undertaking this translation project has required has revealed Farmelant as an active, outstanding presence in the field of American Hebrew poetry. (69)
JACOBS HEBREW ON A DESERT ISLAND
APPENDIX: SELECTED POEMS FROM DESERT ISLANDS (1960)
[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]
I would like to offer my profound thanks to Annabelle Farmelant for agreeing to revisit this period in her writing life. I also thank Arnold Band for sharing his recollections of Farmelant and their student days at Hebrew College, and Shachar Pinsker for his invaluable comments on an earlier draft of this essay and for bringing Farmelant's work to my attention in the first place.
(1.) Adrienne Rich, "Someone Is Writing a Poem," in What Is Found There (New York, W. W. Norton, 1993), 85-86.
(2.) Alan Mintz's description of the process of reading and contextualizing the texts that formed his study of American Hebrew poetry resonated with my own: "In the absence of translations and any real critical literature, both signs of the long neglect of the subject, 1 found it challenging simply to read through the material and block out a general mapping of the poets oeuvre. It was akin, to press the metaphor, to cutting a path through a virgin forest. At first acquaintance, if truth be told, I often found the poet's verse daunting and uninviting. With persistence, however, the veil of difficulty would lift and the poetry would become differentiated and approachable. Afforded free movement within the poetry, finally, I could locate the individual poems that spoke to me and immerse myself in them. And thus, in stages and over time and somewhat unexpectedly, I would, almost without exception, fall in love with the poet I was working on at the time" (Alan Mintz, Sanctuary in the Wilderness: A Critical Introduction to American Hebrew Poetry [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012], xii-xiii).
(3.) Copyright information for Farmelant's plays is available at http://www.copyrightencyclopedia.com/societal-complex-by-executive-fiat- carnivore-the-furcoat/#b.
(4.) Michael Weingrad, American Hebrew Literature: Writing Jewish National Identity in the United States (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press), 2011.
(5.) Ibid., 244-46.
(6.) Ibid., 244.
(7.) In fact, Farmelant had read the Commentary article on which the chapter was based and was compelled to correspond directly with Weingrad. "I feel that you should think of me too," she remarked. Annabelle Farmelant, from a letter to Michael Weingrad, March 31, 2006; see also Michael Weingrad, "The Last of the (Hebrew) Mohicans," Commentary (March 2006): 45-50.
(8.) Stephen Katz, "The Language of Alienation: The Anxiety of an Americanized Hebrew," in Red, Black, andJew: New Frontiers in Hebrew Literature (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009), 175-88.
(9.) Arnold Band, "From Diaspora to Homeland: The Transfer of the Hebrew Literary Center to Eretz Yisraelin Studies in Modern Jewish Literature (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2003), 143-55.
(10.) Eli Lederhendler, "Against the Tide: 'The American Hebrew Yearbook,' 1930- 1949," AJS Review 17, no. 1 (1992): 53-54.
(11.) Dan Miron, Bodedim be-mo'adam: deyokanah shel ha-republika ha-sifrutit ha- 'ivrit be-techilat ha-me'ah ha- 'esrim (When Loners Come Together: A Portrait of Hebrew Literature at the Turn of the Twentieth Century) (Tel Aviv: 'Am 'oved, 1987), 23-25.
(12.) Mintz, Sanctuary in the Wilderness, 35.
(13.) In addition to Mintz's Sanctuary in the Wildnemess, see also Lital Levy's "Reorienting Hebrew Literary History: The View from the East," Prooftexts 29, no. 2 (Spring 2009):127-72; Shachar Pinsker's Literary Passports: The Making of Hebrew Modernist Fiction in Europe (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010); and Allison Schachter's Diasporic Modernisms: Hebrew and Yiddish Literature in the Twentieth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).
(14.) Glenda Abramson and Tudor Parfitt, eds., The Great Transition: The Recovery of the Lost Centers of Modern Hebrew Literature (Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Allanheld, 1985).
(15.) Lederhendler, "Against the Tide: 'The American Hebrew Yearbook,"' 80; Mintz, Sanctuary in the Wildnerness, 42-43.
(16.) Mintz, Sanctuary in the Wilderness, 42.
(17.) I compiled this biographical sketch from an interview that Pinsker and I conducted with Farmelant in July 2010 and from information acquired via various archives and online resources (Adriana Jacobs and Shachar Pinsker, Interview with Annabelle Farmelant, July 5, 2010). Pinsker uncovered crucial archival material on Farmelant in the Genazim archives in Beit Ariela, Tel Aviv's central public library. I am grateful that he made these materials available to me as I prepared this article.
(18.) In her extant correspondence with Silberschlag, she did sign her name as Chana Biala Farmelant.
(19.) Arnold Band, Ha-re'i bo'er ba-esh (The Mirror Burns with Fire) (Jerusalem: Ogen, 1963).
(20.) Katz, Red, Black, and Jew, 177.
(22.) Chana Farmelant, "Iyov," in Gilyonot 21, no. 3 (1948): 114.
(23.) Katz, Red, Black, and Jew, 181.
(24.) The Even-Shoshan Hebrew dictionary describes "shechakim" as an ornamental (melitsi) term of biblical origin for clouds, which later came to encompass the sky as a whole.
(25.) Job 37:18: "Hast thou with him spread out the sky, which is strong, and as a molten looking glass?" (King James Version).
(26.) Katz, Red, Black, and Jew, 181.
(27.) Mintz, Sanctuary in the Wilderness, 256-57.
(28.) Lederhendler, "Against the Tide: 'The American Hebrew Yearbook,"' 80-81; emphasis in original.
(29.) I would like to thank Mattie Taormina at Stanford University's Special Collections for making Farmelant's correspondence with Silberschlag available to me.
(30.) Jacobs and Pinsker, interview with Annabelle Farmelant.
(31.) Jacobs and Pinsker, interview with Annabelle Farmelant.
(32.) Moshe Ben Shaul, "Review of Iyyim bodedim," in Moznayim n, no. 20 (1960): 142. According to the author's profile that she submitted to Genazim, the archives of the Hebrew Writers Association of Israel, reviews of Iyyim bodedim also appeared in Ha-boker, Haaretz, Herat, and Yedioth achronot.
(33.) Annabelle Farmelant, Letter to Michael Weingrad, July 6, 2007.
(35.) Jacobs and Pinsker interview with Annabelle Farmelant.
(38.) Chana Farmelant, "Kerem almavet" (The vineyard of immortality), in Hadoar 74, no. 5 (January 6, 1995): 13. "There are those who tack on words / and call themselves poets. / A deaf ear, a mute mouth-- / the barren tree. / But you are Carmi, you gave your people honest poetry / and death won't reach the vineyard of immortality / that you planted." In this poem, Farmelant plays on the Hebrew word for vineyard, kerem, and Carmi's name, from which it is derived.
(39.) Weingrad, American Hebrew Literature, 244.
(40.) Mintz, Sanctuary in the Wilderness, 261.
(41.) Ibid., 258.
(42.) These lines contain a reference to the story of Jacob's ladder (Genesis 28).
(43.) Tarshish is the name of a port city that appears several times in the Hebrew Bible, though its exact location remains unclear (2 Chronicles 9:21; 1 Kings 10:22; Jonah 1:3).
(44.) In Hebrew, "yashan" can refer to "an old man" or function as a verb ("he slept").
(45.) In his 1960 review of Iyyim bodedim, Ben-Shaul observed that "the writer regrets rapid technological advancement and the fading away of the simple man." See Ben Shaul, "Review of Iyyim bodedim," 142.
(46.) Chaim Nachman Bialik, "Chevlei lashon" (Language Pangs), in Kolkitvei Ch. N. Bialik (Tel Aviv: Dvir, 1939), 185-90. English translation by Chana Kronfeld and Eric Zakim.
(47.) See Bialik's poems "El ha-aggadah" (1892, To the Aggadah) and "Lifnei aron ha-sfarim" (1910, Facing the Library).
(48.) See Rachel Bluwstein's 1926 poem "El artsi" (To My Country) and Psalm 137.
(49.) Anne Carson, trans., "Fragment 105a," in If Not, Winter: Fragments by Sappho (New York: Vintage Books/ Random House, 2002), 214-15.
(50.) This line may allude to Chaim Nachman Bialik's 1911 poem "Tsanach lo zalzal" (A Twig Fell).
(51.) Louise von Flotow, Translation and Gender: Translating in the "Era of Feminism" (Manchester: St. Jerome's Press, 1997), 58.
(52.) Yopie Prins, "Sappho's Afterlife in Translation," in Re-reading Sappho: Reception and Transmission, ed. Ellen Greene (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 36.
(53.) Kaminka's translation of Fragment 105a appears in Margot Klausner's novel Sappho von Lesbos, originally published in German (Buenos Aires: Verlag Alemann, 1945) and translated into Hebrew by Eliezer Lubrani (Tel Aviv: Masada, 1945). I am grateful to Ronen Sonis for this information.
(54.) Dante Gabrielle Rossetti, "Beauty," The Rossetti Archive, 2013, http://www. rossettiarchive. org/docs/42-1869.raw.html.
(55.) Mary Barnard, Sappho: A New Translation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1958), 34.
(56.) The quotation marks in the first two lines explicitly suggest translation but do not appear in all editions of Iyyim bodedim.
(57.) The quotes around the title suggest a source, but it's one that I have been unable to locate.
(58.) Anne Carson, If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002), 215.
(59.) Susan C. Jarratt, "Sappho's Memory," in Rhetoric Society Quarterly 32, no. 1 (Winter 2002): 23-24.
(60.) Shachar Pinsker, '"Meager Gifts' from 'Desert Islands': Women's Hebrew Poetry on American Shores" (paper presented at the annual meeting for the Association for Jewish Studies, Boston, December 15-17, 2013).
(61.) Mintz, Sanctuary in the Wilderness, xiv.
(63.) Take for example Zohar Shavit's book-centric historiography of publishing industry in pre-statehood Palestine, a study that primarily tracks the circulation of prose. When Shavit does address poetry, her study overwhelmingly favors book-length collections of poetry, therefore offering a very incomplete portrait of Hebrew publishing in this period. Zohar Shavit, Ha-chayim ha-sifrutiyim be-erets yisra'el, ipio-ipyy (Literary Life in Palestine) (Tel Aviv: The Porter Institute for Poetics and Semiotics, 1982).
(64.) In Translation and Gender, Luise von Flotow contends that "translation has begun to play an important role in making available the knowledge, experiences and creative work of many of these earlier women writers" (30). She acknowledges that this kind of translation "moves well beyond traditional bounds of translation and incorporates annotation and criticism" (14), and that the academic introductions and essays that accompany these translations play an important part in creating a context for these texts and situating them in contexts from which they have been previously excluded.
(65.) In the early 1990s, scholars of Hebrew and Israeli literature began the vital work of recovering and reinstating female poets in modern Hebrew literary history, a revisionary project that could serve as a model for similar work in American Hebrew literary scholarship. Cf. Michael Gluzman, "The Exclusion of Women from Hebrew Literary History" in Prooftexts 11, no. 3 (1991): 259-78.
(66.) Weingrad, American Hebrew Literature, 246.
(67.) Rich, "Someone Is Writing a Poem," 86.
(68.) Adrienne Rich, "When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision," in College English 43, no. 1 (1972): 19.
(69.) Jacobs and Pinsker, Interview with Annabelle Farmelant.
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|Author:||Jacobs, Adriana X.|
|Publication:||Studies in American Jewish Literature|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2015|
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