Rivke Basman Ben-Hayim: a quiet Yiddish Israeli voice.
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:
REMEMBRANCE 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 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:
THE DEPTHS 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":
IN MEMORY OF 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:
MY TEACHER RIVA 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 Pristine-My 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":
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 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:
A REFUGE 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.
TO A FRIEND 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:
IF YOU CAN And you will It becomes calm and still. When 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 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:
FORA BIT OF LOVE 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:
YOUNGER THAN TIME 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 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":
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":
(untitled) 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|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2010|
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