'I'm a great poet, but if you ask nicely I'll work as a doctor'

Russian-Israeli Mikhail Gendelev, who died last month, was part of a long tradition of literary physicians.

By DAVID STROMBERG
April 16, 2009 13:27

 
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On March 30, the Russian-language Israeli poet Mikhail Gendelev (b. Leningrad, 1950) was buried at the Har Hamenuhot Cemetery in Jerusalem. He is survived by wife Natalia Konopleva and ex-wife Lena Gendeleva; daughters Tali Gendelev-Uziel, Anastasia Brodotskaya and Serafima Gedeleva; and grandchildren Ofek Uziel, and Rufina and Faina Krasivshchikova. There's an urban legend about Mikhail Gendelev: In 1979, two years after making aliya and working at Beersheba's Soroka Medical Center as an anesthesiologist, Gendelev wanted to move to Jerusalem. He and his then-wife Lena had immigrated from Leningrad to Israel and could no longer take the cultural solitude of the Negev. Gendelev went to Hadassah University Medical Center in Ein Kerem for an interview and told them, "I'm a great poet. But if you ask nicely, I'll work for you as a doctor." No one knows whether this exchange actually took place, but those who knew him say it nonetheless reflects his character. Either way, Gendelev did not get a job at Hadassah. But he did move to Jerusalem. "In Russian literature," explains Masha Buman, a Hebrew-Russian translator and longtime friend of Gendelev's, "there's a tradition of literary doctors - Chekhov, Veresaev, Bulkagov and others." Following this tradition, Gendelev graduated from the Leningrad Medical Institute and worked in Russia as a sports physician. But unlike them, he moved to Israel. Relative to the wave of immigration that Israel saw from the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s, very few Russian-speaking Jews lived in Israel in the late 1970s. Of those who did, there was an even smaller number of young literary people. Many of them - including Gendelev, Buman, writer and journalist Lev Melamid, poet Vladimir Glozman, ambassador to Belarus Zev Ben-Arie, Russian literature professor Mikhail Weisskopf, as well as most of the Russian department of Israel Radio - congregated in the outlying Jerusalem neighborhood of Neveh Ya'acov. They lived a bohemian lifestyle in what Weisskopf says was called the "Poets' Quarter." "Having come from a country steeped in ideology," explains Weisskopf, "we didn't accept kibbutz culture, where they were still singing songs that in the USSR people had stopped singing in the 1950s. But from the beginning, Gendelev tried to find some alternative form of spiritual life. He instituted a different Israel." With a grant from the Israel Writers' Union, Gendelev published his first book, Entry to Jerusalem (1979), which consisted of poems he'd written in Leningrad. It introduced his work to a wider circle of Russian literati that included poet Henri Volokhonsky and writer Maya Kaganskaya. He was both upset and amused by the publication, in which he counted 127 typos. Nonetheless, everyone who surrounded Gendelev recognized him from the start as a "great poet." In 1982, Gendelev served as a military doctor in the First Lebanon War. It was his last experience working as a doctor and resulted in a cycle of poems called "War in the Garden," which put him on the literary map. His poems continued to discuss war for the rest of his life, with lines such as "I would so like to walk out from our speech / walk out in torment and not in human / rather / to take a fiery tire neath my tongue / a pill for entering the asthma of Gaza ever-burning" (taken from "To Arabic Speech," 2004, translated by Boris Dralyuk and David Stromberg). "Israeli literature was very ideological at that time," Buman explains. "It left behind Zionist ideology and began to go against it, but still in an ideological way." She remembers Gendelev as saying, "If you want to write your opinion, put it in the newspaper. If you want to write literature, write a poem." Melamid - who shared an apartment with Gendelev from 1982 to 1987 after both had gotten divorced - explains that the poet constantly struggled with the Israeli literary establishment, which was cut off from his poems because of the language barrier. Still, he called himself Gendelev Hermonsky (Gendelev of Mount Hermon); and though he participated in the tradition of Russian literature, he considered himself an Israeli poet. At the same time, Gendelev continued to write in Russian and publish in Israel, releasing Messages to the Lemurs (1981) and The Poems of Mikhail Gendelev (1984). Melamid remembers being awakened by Gendelev every morning in order to hear his new poems. Weisskopf says that Gendelev's art centered around three motifs: describing life in Israel and exploring Jewish tradition; always explaining himself in new and original ways; and writing about different women whose prototype was his ex-wife, making her into a mythological figure. "He turned reality on its head," says Weisskopf. "It was connected with his technical approach, which always looked for words that have more than one meaning." THOSE WHO survived this period speak of the poverty in which everyone lived. "I wanted to buy a car," remembers Buman, "so I called Misha [Gendelev] while he was still in Beersheba. Compared to us, he was rich - just because he had a salary. He gave me 1,000 lirot." In Jerusalem, however, Gendelev could barely earn a living, until the Russian press appeared in 1990. Gendelev loved to feed people and was a wonderful cook. He started publishing weekly recipes under the title "Society of Clean Plates." They were eventually collected in his Book of Tasty and Unhealthy Foods. In addition to his culinary articles, Gendelev also began writing about politics. He worked as a copywriter for Natan Sharansky's Yisrael B'Aliya party and eventually for Binyamin Netanyahu's camp to help gain the Russian vote. In 1999, he moved to Moscow to work as an advisor for oligarch Boris Berezovsky. For the first time in his life, he had money and was able to pay off debts he had accumulated over the last two decades. "He was an aesthete," points out Melamid. "Rather than play the stock market and accumulate more money, he set up a comfortable and beautiful life for himself and those that surrounded him." In Moscow he led a rich social life, becoming a stylish personage with a flair and befriending figures from all realms of society - bankers, rock musicians, poets. Lena Gendelev remembers him saying, "I have a lot of friends with whom you have to socialize the way you eat at a road stop - quickly and without looking." Despite some initial apprehension, Gendelev was accepted by the Moscow literati, though he always insisted he was an Israeli poet. "For him, working in Russian politics was never a spiritual mission," says Weisskopf. "He was surrounded by ethnic Russians, but he never considered himself one of them. Even there, his closest friends were always yordim [émigré Israeli citizens] who held onto their Israeli passports." In 2000, Gendelev finally published a collection of poems in Hebrew translation, the work of Peter Kriksunov over a 10-year period. "The most important thing to him [Gendelev]," says Kriksunov, "was that the translation sounded like the original, that it preserved the music." He remembers Gendelev saying that in the corner of his room he had a black hole out of which his work emerged. Haim Guri - who worked with Kriksunov to translate Gendelev and whose work Gendelev translated into Russian in collaboration with Kriksunov - considered Gendelev a national Israeli poet. Between 1993 and 2009, he published an additional seven collections of poetry in Russian, as well as the first installment of a novel called The Great Russian Journey and a CD recording in which he read his works aloud. In autumn 2000, Gendelev became seriously ill with emphysema. He was treated in Switzerland, and later in Israel. In 2004, on the day after an operation, Buman and Melamid went to visit him in the hospital. He told them that enough poems had come out of this illness for a new book and asked, "Why don't I read it to you?" And he read them the whole book right then and there. "When he got up from his hospital bed," recalls Melamid, "it was covered with sheets of paper, all of them full of his poems." His last book of poetry, War, Love, and Death - published, like all his books, in a small square format - was released at the end of 2008. As late as this February, on the eve of the lung transplant that would eventually take his life, he was already writing new poems for his next book. During the last period of his illness, in which he lived more and more in Jerusalem, he could often be seen riding his stylish black electric wheelchair throughout the city center. Israeli author Gail Hareven remembers seeing him trying to overcome a step in the Bell Garden. "He drove in reverse, revved his motor and jumped onto the curb like a regular James Dean," she says. Indeed, he lived intensely to the end, fathering his third daughter, Serafima, only last summer. When I visited Gendelev last year, he told me, "In addition to literature, a writer should know three subjects: medicine, philosophy and theology." He had long since been studying Kabbala and translating medieval Jewish poetry - including works by Moses ibn Ezra, Solomon ibn Gabirol, Yehuda Halevi and Yehuda Alharizi - into Russian. "Even when he lived in Russia," says Weisskopf, "he continued the spiritual struggle for self-identity. In his late period he became interested in his childhood memories of Leningrad and also in the Holocaust as seen through the tradition of Judaism and Kabbala." The more ill he became, he says, the more complex became his conversation with God. "Before his death, he didn't ask God to forgive him for his sins but kept arguing with Him." A memorial event for Mikhail Gendelev, in Russian, will take place on April 28 from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Cultural Center at Rehov Hillel 27.

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