A multi-faceted private man

An exhibition dedicated to the life and work of poet Natan Alterman opens at the Eretz Israel Museum in Ramat Aviv.

natan alterman 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
natan alterman 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
This week an exhibition dedicated to the life and work of poet Natan Alterman opened at the Eretz Israel Museum in Ramat Aviv. The exhibition, which will run until June 15, marks the centenary of Alterman’s birth and takes a retrospective look at the man and his eclectic professional work as a poet, playwright, songwriter, translator and journalist.
However, possibly the most intriguing facet of Alterman’s personality was the Bohemian in him. Outside office hours, he could often be spotted sharing a beer or two with colleagues from the Tel Aviv arts and literature scene and debating all kinds of hot topics of the day.
“There is no one like Alterman around today,” declares Sarah Torel, who curated the exhibition. “He was a cultural hero in the true sense of the term.”
While Alterman was certainly a man of letters of the highest order, he was also tuned in to street vibes. This came across most powerfully in his weekly rhyming column which ran in the Davar newspaper. “People used to hang around outside the Davar building, on Sheinkin Street in Tel Aviv, waiting to see his new column,” Torel adds. “He not only reflected current affairs of the day, but he also contributed greatly to shaping Israeli society.”
Naturally, those were different times, when newspapers carried a lot more clout. “There was no TV back then, and no Internet,” explains Torel. “People really read his columns and talked about them.”
Alterman appears to have been not only something of a proverbial “Renaissance man” but also an amalgam of a tongue-in-cheek ethos and a very serious side. “He was very much led by his conscience,” says Torel, “but there was also a well-developed satirical part to him.”
His popularity notwithstanding, Alterman was a very private man. “He was retiring and unassuming,” notes the curator, not like [contemporary Russian-born Israeli poet Avraham] Shlonksy who was far more of an extrovert.”
One wonders, then, what Alterman might have thought of all the fuss made of his centenary. “I don’t think he would have liked it,” says Torel. “At the entrance to the exhibition there’s a great big photograph of him. He probably wouldn’t have been enthusiastic about that at all.”
In addition to his Bohemian bent, there was a clear, acerbic side to Alterman, who was not one to keep his strong views to himself.  In 1942, for example, the darker textures of Alterman’s humor came to the fore in a satirical poem in which Jewish children who have been murdered in the Holocaust give sarcastic thanks to God for choosing them. The same year he wrote a poem, which is now displayed in the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum, that was critical of Pope Pius XII’s passive stance as thousands of Italian Jews were sent to their deaths.
Alterman’s work also brought him a slew of official kudos, not least the 1957 Bialik Prize for literature and the 1968 Israel Prize for his literary body of work.
The exhibition comprises different sections that correspond with various areas of Alterman’s life and work. The public domain section features his weekly current affairs column, written in rhyme, which ran in Davar and Haaretz for more than 30 years.
Another room highlights his songwriting work, displaying some of his lyrics – which include the words for Shoshana Damari’s anthemic “Kalaniot” hit. Additionally, visitors can hear some of his songs piped in through the sound system while they view the exhibits.
The playwright section contains photographs, sketches, posters and copies of reviews of his plays, such as Kinneret, Kinneret, Pundak Haruchot  and Esther Hamalka.
On the personal side, the exhibition also includes Alterman caricatures and some of his correspondence with his daughter, actress-writer Tirza Atar.