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Rivke Basman Ben-Hayim: a quiet Yiddish Israeli voice.

There is a quiet Yiddish poet living in Israel whose poems are like striking music: rhythmic and lovely. She is currently the head of the Yiddish Writers' Union in Israel, but she is virtually unknown to English readers. Her name is Rivke Basman Ben-Hayim.

Right after World War II, anthologists of Yiddish poetry looked for poets who addressed "large" issues, like the fate of the Jewish people in Europe or Zionism. While others addressed these issues directly, on a grand, social scale, Basman Ben-Hayim addressed these issues indirectly and on a personal scale. After the 70s, it became fashionable to look for feminist poetry. But while some women in Israel were angry or embittered over their fate in what they viewed as a patriarchal society, Basman Ben-Hayim, grateful for the comfort of love, could not be enlisted in this cause. While others were angry with the religious establishment, Basman Ben-Hayim, who was never religious herself, had no direct personal grievance with religion or with the religious establishment in Israel.

Born in 1925, Rivka Basman was a teenager when the Nazis overran Poland. She spent two years in the Vilna ghetto, and the rest of the war in a work-camp for women and young girls. While in the labor camp, she and two others decided that each would do something every day to lift the spirits of the women in the camp: each day, one sang a song, one danced, and one recited a poem she had composed. It was Basman who composed and recited a poem each day. She wrote these poems in micrography so that when the Nazis liquidated the labor camp, she was able to roll them into a tiny packet and slip them under her tongue. She kept those poems with her then, and she has them now. She has never published them because, she says, "they are not sublimated enough." Although she does not believe they have artistic value, she is fully aware that these poems have historic value. Accordingly, she has decided to bequeath them to Yad Va-Shem, the Holocaust Museum of Israel, when she is no longer with us. What follows is her poem "Remembrance," the only poem she has written about her daily recitation of a poem in a labor camp:

   They remember how I used to write poems
   Crying poems,
   Silent poems,
   On the red cobblestones.
   Remember me at the barbed fence
   My young skin
   Tattooed from barbed points,
   To see a teeny-thread of sunset,
   Of my own setting in the last sun.
   I sang then
   And my poem
   Was itself our sun.

Although Basman is a Holocaust survivor, the Holocaust is never discussed directly in her poet-Nevertheless, it lurks in the background of her work at all times. For Basman, as for many survivors, building a "normal" life and establishing a new home were of the essence. To do that, she needed to marshal all her newly found energy into building and creating. Had she allowed her pain and her anger to overtake her, she would have been overcome with a paralyzing rancor, or, as Basman puts it in the following poem, she would have been in danger of swallowing "the light of the night":

   To tell
   Means to allow one's self again on the ways
   And to come to the chasm
   Of yesterday's days.

   To tell
   Means to become wary
   As an owl,
   Which swallows the light
   Of the night.

Having been so deeply traumatized by their experiences in the Holocaust, survivors often made what seemed to "outsiders" an amazing "recovery." They usually married, and often had families. They worked and built new homes, and created, just like those who had never been through the Holocaust. This recovery, however, is spurious. It is a surface matter, and very deceptive. While all seems quiescent on the outside, inside, within the survivor's psyche, the pain churns on. Basman says as much in the following poem:

   You've stitched
   My ripped surface,
   Pasted and gathered,
   Until there appeared
   A tiny light,
   And I forgot about myself.

   I'm no longer broken
   But the depths-They
   haven't yet spoken.

Memories of the destroyed world keep recurring, and lost family members are addressed, as "In Memory of Arele":

   My brother my loved one
   Let us flee in haste
   Flee unvanquished
   From an unvanquished world.

   And take with us a glance
   Like wells within a field
   Deserted and dried up
   In a world that's charred.

   And take with us the sounds
   Of bell-bedecked sheep
   In a world that's lost the bounds
   Of beginning
   And of end.

... And in "My Teacher Riva," addressed to a much-loved teacher:

   Like sun in a min
   Begun in leaves
   Your image
   Shines always
   In me,
   My teacher Riva.

   Unique and eternal
   Your vision.
   A true-rooted-vigil.
   The strongest your love-My
   teacher Riva.

   I gather-in the sunset
   Which has lit before me
   Through dark panes
   A corner of memory
   Where the years wait patiently,
   Where time has over them
   No dominion.
   And there,
   In a shtetl in Lithuania,
   At the first sung alphabet-letters,

   Dripped with honey and tears,
   I swallowed then
   Your smile,
   Learned in sadness.

   Hours probably overlap
   The latter reach the former
   And they meet
   Somewhere together
   By seas.
   And there
   In a blue remembrance
   Your name will gleam
   teacher Riva.

For all that, the Holocaust memories are indelible and painful, Basman Ben-Hayim is capable of self-directed humor, even as she hints of the toll the Holocaust has taken on her. This can be seen in an excerpt from her poem "From Camels":

   You teary-eyed camels
   My desert is larger
   My desert is hotter.
   And don't be jealous
   My desert burned up
   Its fata morgana.

When the war was over, Basman married the painter, Shmuel (Mula) Haymovitz, later Ben-Hayim. Together they moved to kibbutz Ha-Ma'apil. The poems Basman wrote in this era tell of the healing she felt would come with working the land and making things grow

   My field,
   My most intimate field
   With sun in your veins,
   Just as I took thorns out
   Of your body
   Now you help me
   Patch up my own ache.

The comfort to be found in the natural world continued to be one of Basman's themes, as we can see from the following poem, whose lines suggest a light bird that has landed and bobs up and down on a twig, finding support for itself despite the twig's thinness:

   Loads of gray reality
   Found a refuge
   On a thin twig
   Of flowers.

   And see how
   Such a thinness
   Of rose and greenness
   Can be a refuge
   For gray reality
   And support it
   So well
   So well.

Basman Ben-Hayim's poems tend to be no longer than a page, and they rarely address historical events. However, there was one period in her life when her poems spilled over onto a second page and she spoke of non-personal issues. This happened in the days of the Cold War, when Basman Ben-Hayim served as the Israeli cultural consul to the Soviet Union. In that capacity, she personally witnessed the suppression of Yiddish voices and the fear that gripped her fellow Yiddish writers.

   I'd like to visit you today
   But do not know your home.
   I'd like to bring to you a flower
   But leaves are dry as bone.

   When I want a word with you
   The wind becomes too wild
   I'd like to hear just how you sing
   Sing, please do, my child.

   Take my loving as a flower
   Take my words to you
   Surely, surely they will reach
   Right up till they're in view.

And seeing the grave of the great Yiddish writer Y. L. Peretz, Basman invokes the silence of Peretz's fictional character, "Bontshe," and reminds the reader that the silence of the Soviet era is one that is enforced by outsiders, painful and servile:
   AT PERETZ'S GRAVE (an excerpt):

   Bontshe looks over the grave amazed
   He's upset by his painful silence
   He's learned it a whole century
   Now he sees broken branches...

   Tired shoulders are lowered deeper
   Weighted by graves and graves-And
   may my poems not remain in me
   Silenced, servile, poor.

   I want to give wing to patient stones
   With sparks of melodies
   So that they fly higher, if not yet higher,
   Fly away from all silences.

Back in Israel, Basman Ben-Hayim found comfort in moments of poetic inspiration, as we can see in the following poem:

   And you will
   It becomes calm and still.
   It becomes so good,
   So easy,
   It sings of itself,
   From its self,
   The sounds
   Listen to
   Their own calm.
   Rare when there's
   Such a
   Becalmed calm-I'd
   go there
   More often
   If I knew
   How to
   And to-where.

The ultimate comfort, of course, is to be found in a human bond. Basman writes of this too, as we see in the following poem in which this bond is said to be "rooted to streaming wonder," one that destroys the bounds of time:

   With you I am calm and close
   And I need not withhold any words
   Like leaves in a sun-lit crown
   Anchored in their earth.

   With you I am entirely with myself
   Rooted to streaming wonder
   Which nests in drops of light
   Even as it goes under.

   With you the day's not divided
   No separate yesterday and now
   Clothed in endless green
   And you're the eternal sentry.

While it is true that Basman found comfort in the possibility of love, she is no doe-eyed romantic, as is clear from a poem about love that has appeared in one of her later collections of poems:

   For a bit of love
   One goes world-wide
   Even when seas and hills
   Are disguised.

   For a bit of love
   One even roams
   O'er volcanoes that throw
   Lava over homes.

   One walks as though drugged
   By the moon's course
   An eternal walk
   From loss to loss.

There is much that is suggested here and much that is ambiguous. What exactly does one lose in the search for love: one's self? One's security? One's illusions? Perhaps Basman is speaking here of physical decay and the inevitable decline of strength and vigor. She does not say, and as is usually the case with poetry, we are free to decide for ourselves.

In addition to love, there is friendship. Basman has written more than one poem about friendship. Here is one of them:

   There exists an old friendship
   Young in look
   Which comes and speaks
   Of cherry blossoms,
   Preserves the sap
   Which a honeybee
   Has long lost-
   There exists an old friendship
   Younger even than time.
   It comes and inquires
   About each separately.
   A silence that is concealed
   Rejuvenates the mind:
   There exists an old friendship
   Younger even than time.

It is a truism of pundits that one cannot- indeed, should not- "look back." Pop psychologists tell us that we must "move forward." But as Basman would have it, it is sometimes the right thing to return to old friends/lovers, or former social circles or activities. The message is one of daring to do the unexpected:

   One must sometimes renew old paths
   And shake out gray from hair
   One may sometimes not even consult
   And knock on the door of have-been-there.

   Spring right in, wait for no thing,
   Throw off the yoke and be ready to dart.
   Take refuge in a tree, and like ring
   Upon ring encircle its heart.

   And ask no questions of the tree
   With its leaves decorate your hair.
   One may sometimes renew old paths.
   And remain at the threshold of have-been-there.

Yiddish poets in Israel have paid a dear price for clinging to their "mother-tongue." The vast majority of Israelis do not speak Yiddish, and so these poets remain largely unknown. What's more, because the lingua franca of Israel is Modern Hebrew, Yiddish is reserved for the closed, intimate meetings of Yiddishists, or the lonely dialogue one has with one's self in the intimacy of one's home. This issue arises in Basman's poem "Words":

   At night words stay up
   And speak without end
   By day words sleep
   A stony sleep.
   At night words spray forth
   And it's green and good
   By day words are silent
   As stubborn as Ruth.

Like Ruth, who chose to identify with the Jewish people and live in the Land of Israel, Basman chooses to identify with the Jewish people in the Land of Israel. But that brings with it diurnal silence for the Yiddish poet. It would be wrong to assume that Basman is bitter about this choice. As the following poem shows, even when she speaks Yiddish, her source is the ancient well of common texts, known to Jews as the "tanakh" and to Christians as the "Bible":

   In silence
   I speak Yiddish
   "From-out-of-the depths"
   By day it's easier
   To speak [Israeli] Hebrew.

The third line of this poem contains one word: the Hebrew word "mi-ma'akim": the first word of the first verse of Psalms chapter 130. It is the cry of the murdered, (some would say martyred), suffering Jews of all time. For Basman, then, even when she speaks Yiddish, it is the Yiddish rooted in the Hebrew of the Bible. Later on in that same poem, she uses the word "leshoynes," languages, when she could have used the German-derived word for languages: "shprakhn." Her choice of the Hebrew-derived word for "languages" suggests, once more, that for Basman, Jewish identity may be expressed in Yiddish, but it is a Yiddish that cannot be severed from its Hebrew origins. For her, both languages are rooted in her Israeli/Jewish identity.

ZELDA KAHAN NEWMAN, professor of Hebraic and Judaic Studies at Lehman College/CUNY), is the English translator of Rivke Basman Ben-Hayim.
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Author:Newman, Zelda Kahan
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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