Sad, sweet dreamer

Meet poet and photographer Ruth Becker, whose work with death, loss and mourning succeeds to be ultimately life-affirming and humanizing.

August 15, 2007 09:57
ruth becker 88 298

ruth becker 88 298. (photo credit: Carl Hoffman)

The poets tell us that sadness, in varying measures, is the lot of every man and woman. Some people deny their sadness and try to "soldier on," while others are eventually defeated by it. Many people, particularly after the loss of a loved one, are consumed by their sadness, while a small and select number of extraordinary individuals have found themselves inspired by it. For more than forty years, poet and photographer Ruth Beker has responded to sadness by using it as the raw material for hauntingly beautiful works of art. At "Blue Skies," her current exhibition of poems and photographs now showing at the Givatayim Theater until August 23, Beker courageously opens her heart and puts it on public display. "I suppose I am a sad type," she says, with a pensive smile. "My parents were Holocaust survivors and refugees. And it permeated our home, this sadness," Beker recalls. "On Kristallnacht, my parents were in Vienna. My father was taken to Dachau, which was a very lucky thing, really. I don't think my parents would ever have gotten out of Vienna in time otherwise. He was taken to Dachau, my mother got him out - I don't know how. Then they went to Riga and stayed there a year. Then they went across Russia, on the Trans-Siberia train. Then, onward to Kobe, Japan, and from there they got a boat to Seattle." Beker grew up in Seattle and attended the University of Washington, graduating with a Bachelor's Degree in journalism and literature. The unyielding influence of the Holocaust, seen so often in the children of survivors, brought her to Israel as a young, single woman during the 1960s. "I'm a Zionist, very much so. And I love Israel. And I felt very strongly about the Holocaust. I wanted to redress a wrong, to work in some kind of pro-Israel 'propaganda,' telling people good things about Israel. That was one of my primary reasons for coming here." Even today, she says, at home in Kfar Shmaryahu, "I meet embassy people, business people on two-year contracts, and I try to share my love of Israel, to tell them how precious and special it is, and to describe the "great thing" about this country." And what, according to Beker, is that "great thing"? "The miracle of it all," she says. "God must be watching over this country, or otherwise there's no hope, no Israel. The people have to recognize that, and God has to recognize the people, because they have sacrificed and worked so hard to build this country." Beker's love for Israel is not uncritical, however. She acknowledges that adapting to the country was difficult - that Israel, in her words, "took some getting used to." Even now, she says, "I love Israel, and I'm often sorry for it, because it has so much trouble. I feel bad that the right people somehow can't be found to run it. I feel bad when it makes mistakes and bad decisions." Beker is particularly incensed by one decision made recently, concerning the granting of stipends to Holocaust survivors in amounts - NIS 83 per month-that most commentators have described as insultingly small. "They've never been able to deal with the Holocaust here, and they obviously still can't," she says, visibly upset. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was Israel - with all of its emotional pulls and tugs - that was to serve as the initial catalyst for her writing, decades ago. "Although the thing, whatever it is, that makes me write was inside me all my life, I suppose it really came out when I came to Israel. I started writing poetry, specifically, after the Yom Kippur War." Since then, she has both written extensively and published widely. Her poetry has appeared in such venues as Midstream, The Literary Review, The Seattle Review, The Jewish Quarterly and The Jewish Chronicle as well as numerous anthologies published by Penguin Books, University of Illinois Press, Monitor Books, and even a calendar produced by Amnesty International. A number of her poems, in addition, have achieved honorable mention in poetry contests sponsored by the Kansas Quarterly and Writer's Digest; one of her short stories has been included in a published anthology. The photography began later, however. Beker began taking pictures almost immediately after the death of her husband, Israel, almost exactly 20 years ago. A lawyer with business contacts in the Far East, Israel had returned from a trip to Singapore with a new camera for his wife shortly before his death from cancer in September 1987. Not long after, Beker recalls, "I took the camera, I walked around Tel Aviv, and this is what I saw." What she saw, in fact, forms the core of her work currently on display. An entire row of photographs, for example, were taken along the beach and feature festively colorful beach chairs - always empty - overlooking expanses of sea and sand that are utterly devoid of people. One is entitled, "Goodbye Again"; another is called "Melancholy Weather." Another area of the exhibit features pictures of the ruined shutters, boarded-up windows and sealed, mute doorways of what appear to be derelict empty houses - abandoned homes - with such titles as "Betrayal," "No Forwarding Address," and "My Lover in the Back Room of My Heart." Interspersed among the photographs, several of Beker's poems amplify the theme of loss and yearning. One, entitled, "In Silent Gardens the Leaves Fall" laments: My street / is empty now. / No one walks to / find the shade. / The wind blows / through the empty / houses and in silent / gardens the leaves fall. / All the lovers / have gone home. / Summer has passed away. / The mourners file out. If any clearer statement of the theme is necessary, "My Lover is Never Coming Back to me" tells us: The night is sick. / Day brings its ruin / The bed is empty. / My dreams lie fading / on the floor. / They wait for you, / but the room is bare. / The garden is filled with / flowers that fall to the ground. / Summer is heavy, / leaving too soon. While it is undeniable that Beker's work conveys sadness, it is a kind of sadness that, oddly enough, is not depressing. As though it had been aged in fine oak barrels like good wine, Beker's sadness is sweet and complex. And despite the apparent preoccupation of her work with death, loss and mourning, one finds her poems and pictures to be ultimately life-affirming and humanizing. It is a masterful bit of magic - a truly clever trick - one that only a very good artist is capable of pulling off. Beker says that the pictures she takes today are less sad. "My poetry is sometimes heavy, pensive, sad. They deal with things like old age, the Holocaust, time, Israel - Israel the country, and my husband Israel's death from cancer. But the pictures are different. In my opinion, they're beautiful. They're about the beauty of the world - flowers, faces of people, pieces of something beautiful that I think I've caught." Some of these pictures, such as photographs of flowers and portraits of rather dour-looking children in Purim costumes, adorn the exhibit as well. What is next for Ruth Beker? "I'd like to do more with my pictures, and I'd like to do a book of my photographs and poems," she says. Whatever lies ahead for this very talented artist, one can only wish her continued success and happiness. Ruth Beker's website is at

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