Over the years I have translated to English some of the Hebrew poems I found
most evocative and/or meaningful to me personally. Among them are quite a number
by Fania Bergstein. Her name most likely means nothing to most Israelis,
although so many know her rhymes by heart. They just aren’t aware of who wrote
them, who enriched our childhood, whose lines became cherished household
Amazingly, Fania Bergstein faded into undeserved anonymity. But
she’s important to understanding our Israeli identity, why we are here, what
moves and motivates us.
She died young, at age 42, some 17 years before
the Six Day War to which she is tragically connected. There is relevance to
remembering her these days when we mark another anniversary of that 1967
showdown, which has increasingly become yet another occasion to besmirch our
self-defense, demonize us as land-grabbing imperialist ogres and castigate us
for having inconsiderately emerged victorious.
Fania provides context and
connections to who we really are. Hers is a quintessentially Israeli story – not
only figuratively so. Israeli was her married surname.
I was a toddler
when I first encountered her but her name didn’t sink in. Her verses did,
however. By my third birthday, I had memorized all the stanzas in her book Bo
Elai Parpar Nehmad (come to me pretty butterfly). My mother taught me to recite
them with “feeling” and my father caught a butterfly for me, let me hold it for
a moment and then release it – as in the title poem: Pretty butterfly, come
Sit on my hand and stay.
Sit rest, don’t fear,
And then you
Curiously that beautifully illustrated book (by the late Ilse
Kantor of Kibbutz Na’an) imparted in me an affinity to some mythic kibbutz
childhood that I never experienced. Neither Fania’s nor Ilse’s name even
featured on my early-edition book cover, but the thin horizontal volume filled
me with images of farmyard chickens, of little black-eared lambs, of newborn
calves, of noisy tractors, of nighttime in the communal children’s room and,
above all, of that iconic big green truck which “travels far from morning till
night to deliver eggs and milk to Tnuva.”
The ditties Fania wrote for the
tots in her own Kibbutz Gvat inspired a kinship with them in me. I longed to be
a kibbutznik – much as my American counterparts identified with Dick and Jane or
wanted to be cowboys.
It was only decades later that I translated another
Fania Bergstein staple – Nigunim (melodies). Its haunting, very traditionally
Jewish music (composed by another matchless Na’an kibbutznik, David Zehavi) was
once very familiar in this land – a near classic.
The delicate lyrics, though, are
sophisticated in their understatement and hardly mass-market material.
the content so overpowering that I thought it best not to try to emulate Fania’s
rhymes or cadences. Instead I opted to focus on what she says: You planted
melodies in me, my mother and my father,
Seeds, seeds my heart carried –
Now they rise and grow.
they sprout offshoots in my blood,
Their roots intertwine in my arteries,
melodies my father, your songs my mother,
Awaken and reverberate in my
Here I listen to my distant lullaby,
Chanted from mother to daughter.
Here will sparkle in tears and laughter
“Lamentations” and Sabbath tunes.
Each sound is hushed and each note is stilled.
It’s within me that your faraway voices teem.
My eyes I’ll close and I am with you
Above the darkness of the abyss.
These lines were penned in 1944,
when the magnitude of the Holocaust was already evident and when most of the
Jews of Eretz Yisrael realized that they will never again see their loved ones
left in the abyss. Like Fania they understood that the sounds they once
habitually heard will from now on resonate only in their memory, that all that
was homey and recognizable is now relegated to the realm of
Fania could reunite with her parents, “above the darkness of
the abyss,” only by shutting her eyes and recalling.
The socialist milieu
to which Fania belonged had for decades shunned the Diaspora, charging it with
all the ills that warped Jewish existence. The aim was to create a wholly new
Jew of the stalwart kibbutznik model, free from the complexes of 2000 years of
exile. But Fania’s heartstrings were powerfully tugged by the lost world, by the
melodies sown in her soul.
She entertained New-Jew preschoolers who grew
up on the farms of the Jezreel Valley, at one with nature and without being
chased by European ghosts and gloomy genocidal shadows. At the same time she
herself was inexorably drawn to a past that was entirely foreign to
It was a dichotomy and a paradox that characterized much of her
generation here. She expressed what so many others felt but couldn’t put into
words. They forged ahead with daily life, with bringing babies into the world,
rearing and defending them, but in most everyone’s background lurked a
melancholy undertone – the knowledge that their original families had been
devoured by the unfathomable genocidal conflagration ignited in civilized
Like most everyone around her, Fania was a bridge. She was a
living connection between a destroyed world and the new one being created. She
articulated both the heartache and the hope.
In that, her story is so
Fania came into the world in what some may prefer to
call Belarus and others Poland. Then, in 1908, it was part of the Russian Pale
of Jewish Settlement. But assorted predations sent the family running away, till
it eventually made its home in Poland proper. Fania lost her mother when she was
21. A year later, in 1930 she came to Kibbutz Gvat with her spouse, Aharon
Israeli. Her father and brother remained in Poland. In 1934 Fania gave birth to
the couple’s only child – Gershon Israeli – a tall, fair-haired, exemplary
So far, it’s a pattern replicated in numerous homes throughout
embryonic Israel. But Fania suffered from a severe congenital cardiac defect,
which weakened her, limited her mobility and kept her bedridden for the last
five years of her life – including long stretches at Afula Hospital. On
September 18, 1950 her heart finally gave out.
Her story, though, didn’t
end there and it continued to unfold according to an all-too-common Israeli
blueprint. Fania left behind a strapping remarkably handsome 16-year-old son,
who inherited the writing bug from both his parents (Aharon was a prolific
author on Jewish sociology and kibbutz dynamics). Gershon also played the
mandolin and composed music to many of his mother’s verses.
a bit of a dichotomy in his own way, he also loved everything mechanical and
avidly collected any bits of rusted disused scrap he could get his hands on. It
was no surprise that he grew up to become an engineer and was put in charge of
Kibbutz Gvat’s plastics factory production line.
As war broke out on June
5, 1967 Gershon, then 33, rushed to volunteer for reserves duty. He didn’t wait
for call-up orders. Gershon wasn’t unique. His entire unit was made up of “older
soldiers” and all showed up before anyone thought to conscript them. They did
patrol tasks and weapons maintenance work at Camp Amos, near Afula, on the
second day of the war.
Early that morning– exactly 46 years and one day
ago – a big plane appeared briefly above, dogged by two Israeli Mirage fighters.
Within seconds, the heavy Soviet-made Tupolev 16 jet bomber crashed into the
camp. Nobody knows exactly what happened and in those heady postwar days there
was no thorough investigation. The Tupolev might have been hit both by Israeli
ground-to-air artillery and by the Mirages.
The resultant explosion set
off a raging blaze. Fourteen soldiers were killed outright and two died later
from handling the Tupolev’s munitions.
It transpired that this was an
Iraqi plane that penetrated Israeli airspace and tried to bombard Netanya.
Luckily its bombs didn’t detonate but their impact caused damage in the coastal
town and killed one passerby. At Camp Amos there was devastation. Nine bodies
were buried in a common grave because it was impossible to tell them
But Gershon’s height as well as the kibbutz laundry number on his
socks facilitated identification. Gershon left behind a wife, Pnina, and three
daughters – the youngest only ten-months-old.
Today, the entire incident
is barely remembered. Hardly anyone knows about an Iraqi attempt to bomb
Netanya, like hardly anyone knows that shells fired by a Jordanian Long Tom
cannon reached all the way into the heart of Tel Aviv and caused damage to a
building in Kikar Masaryk. The utter existential vulnerability of terrifyingly
narrow-waisted Israel in 1967 is hardly discussed or so much as acknowledged any
more. But it was why reservists like Gershon Israeli reported for duty at their
They were children of parents who were more often than
not “bridges,” like Fania. They knew what would happen if they didn’t
Gershon Israeli and his comrades typified the IDF – Israel’s
people’s army. They were the diametrical opposite of greedy conquistadors. They
were defenders who aimed to preempt a second Holocaust. Anyone who then heard
the blusterous Arab propaganda, or saw Arab cartoons illustrating all the
sadistic methods to exterminate Jews, knew exactly what bloodbath was planned
The fact that in recent years it has become de rigueur not
only to rewrite history but also to subscribe to the false revisions as “a valid
narrative,” testifies to the shamelessness of the human capacity for
The only antidote to the Big Lie is remembrance. Each of us
who remembers 1967 is a bridge today, just as Fania was in her day. She wouldn’t
part from her seminal recollections and we mustn’t part from ours. Obscure
episodes such as the one that took Gershon Israeli’s life mustn’t be consigned
to oblivion because – along with his mother’s odyssey and her poignant longings
– they constitute an indispensable component of our very Israeli
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