Writing home

Poet Shirley Kaufman, recent winner of the President's Prize for Literature, writes in her own language.

By SUZANNE SELENGUT
October 10, 2006 10:50
4 minute read.
Writing home

kaufamn 88. (photo credit: )

In her 33 years as an immigrant poet in Israel, Shirley Kaufman has experienced some "down" moments. It isn't always easy, she admits, to write prize-winning English poetry while based in a country where a different language is so central to the nation's culture. Yet Kaufman has found her niche, producing book after book of imagery-rich poems, translating Hebrew writers, winning the Pushcart Prize and two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and now at 83 - being named as one of the five recipients of the President's Prize for Literature, which is awarded in conjunction with the Hebrew University. "That was the biggest lift for me, to see that finally Israel is recognizing poets who write in languages other than Hebrew," she says of her latest achievement. The prize, which was set to be presented at a September ceremony that has been delayed indefinitely, has also been awarded in the past two years to writers who work in Yiddish and Arabic. Next year's list of recipients will include a Russian writer. Dr. Leona Toker, a literature professor at Hebrew University who is a member of the committee that selected Kaufman's latest collection of poetry, calls the poet's work "very sophisticated," and adds that it is "characterized by precision and subtlety." For Kaufman, a native of Seattle, there has never been any doubt that she would continue to write in English after moving to Israel in 1973. She was already an established poet by the time she made her home in Jerusalem with husband, Dr. Bill Daleski, a professor of English Literature at Hebrew University, who has since retired. Although she had written poetry her whole life - publishing a Zionist protest poem against the British White Paper while still in college - Kaufman began pursuing poetry in earnest at 40, as a mother of three, living in San Francisco with her first husband. Surrounded by the experimental Beat poets during the height of their artistic success, Kaufman's work flowered and she became a known force in the community. "It was exciting. We used to listen to a lot of jazz music. I smoked pot…. I didn't feel like I was 40," she says. Under the tutelage of poet Jack Gilbert, her teacher at a San Francisco State poetry workshop, Kaufman was encouraged to send her poems to The New Yorker. The famously picky magazine accepted her first submission and her renown spread. Kaufman also remained involved in Zionist causes, a pursuit she had begun as a college student at UCLA and later as an employee of the American Zionist Youth Commission. She describes her former home in California as a center for Israelis, and it was through her involvement in the cause that she met Nurit Orchan, a Jewish Agency worker who suggested that Kaufman work with her on a translation of the book-length poem "Achoti Ktana" (My Little Sister) by famed Israeli poet Abba Kovner. The translation, which succeeded despite Orchan's limited English and Kaufman's limited Hebrew, led to a lifelong relationship with Kovner, as well as an entry into Israeli literary circles. Those new connections were especially helpful when Kaufman made the move to Israel, where she was quickly befriended by fellow poet Yehuda Amihai among other writers and editors. She continued to translate Hebrew works, including works by Meir Wieseltier, and to keep abreast of Hebrew literature, which she usually reads in translation. Kaufman's poems reflect her active participation in Israeli life. They often deal with issues of exile and homecoming, showing the full spectrum of the search for roots, especially as it relates to the Jewish experience. They switch scenes - from Woodstock and San Francisco to Jerusalem and Ramallah, and travel back to Brest Litovsk, from where Kaufman's family originally came. Sometimes, the poems are joyous and simply sensuous. But, more often, they suggest a sense of longing, a pain that touches both the personal and the public, including political conflict with the Palestinians. She believes that both groups "have their fables," and that both have contributed to the situation. "It is a tragedy that we can't live together harmoniously, not in one state, and now, not even in two," she says. Yet, from her writing desk in Rehavia, Kaufman remains a mystically inclined Zionist - and a true Jerusalemite. "I feel when I go to Tel Aviv, that I'm going to the big city, like to New York," she says, chuckling. She calls Jerusalem "a center for all Jews," bemoaning the fact that not all groups accept that "there is a wide range of belief" within those who identify as Jewish. She remembers a bar mitzva she attended recently near Robinson's Arch, the site of Roman ruins. "I found it so moving that the Romans destroyed the Temple and this is where we are bringing a young boy into Jewish manhood and keeping Judaism alive," she recounts. "I get goose pimples just thinking about it and I'm not religious," she adds. Although at an age when many decide to slow down, Kaufman continues to write new poems, having just completed enough material for another book. Lately, she has been thinking about the medieval myth of the wandering Jew. "We are all wandering Jews and we have finally come home," she says, sounding every inch the Israeli poet. "Only, home is a pretty messy place."


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