A centenary salute

Israel this week marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Leah Goldberg. She is today recognized as one of the nation’s greatest poets and playwrights.

Leah Goldberg 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Leah Goldberg 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘A poet of the broken heart.” For years, that was how poet, scholar and translator Leah Goldberg was dismissed by some of the most influential critics and writers in Israel, such as poet Nathan Zach. His critique in 1959 accused her of “narrowness,” adding that “Goldberg writes many poems on one subject:: the torment of unrequited love.”
Avraham Shlonsky, who was her lover for a while, also had little regard for her work.
However, “Today,” says Jerusalem-based poet and writer Hava Pinhas-Cohen, “there is no question about her place among the contemporary poets of Israel. Who remembers Shlonsky’s anniversary now? While Goldberg is gaining more popularity and elicits more interest as years go by, we can say that she has triumphed over all the men who disregarded her in the early 1950s and ’60s.”
An overview of her entire body of work shows that Goldberg’s creative skills expressed themselves not only in poetry but also in prose for both adults and children (generations of Sabras grew up with the enchanting words of “Where Is Pluto?” and “A Flat for Rent,” to name but two of her immortal poems for children). And many of her poems have been set to music and have become very successful.
GOLDBERG ALSO wrote plays and translations (she translated Tolstoy’s works). She was a scholar and a critic of literature and theater, established the Poalim Library edition and laid the foundation for academic literary research in Israel.
Goldberg was born on May 29, 1911, in Königsberg, which was then part of Prussia, and spent her childhood in Kovno, Lithuania. During World War I, her family was exiled to Russia but returned to Lithuania after the war. There, Goldberg studied at the Hebrew high school and later at the University of Kovno. In 1930 she continued her studies at the University of Berlin and later attended the University of Bonn, studying Semitic languages, history and pedagogy. Her dissertation examined the sources of the Samaritan translation of the Torah.
She began to write poems at the age of 12, mostly in Hebrew, and in her late teens she was already a member of P’tach, the Lithuanian poets’ circle.
She immigrated to Israel in 1935 and settled in Tel Aviv. She never married, but events of her private life, most of which ended in separation and betrayal, figure widely in her poetry. In the early 1950s Goldberg moved to Jerusalem, where she served as a lecturer in the Department of General and Comparative Literature at the Hebrew University.
She later became the chair of the department, promoting her primary area of interest in Russian literature. In Jerusalem, Goldberg gathered around her a circle of young poets, which included Dahlia Ravikovitch, Yehuda Amihai and Tuvia Ribner, exerting considerable influence on their poetic development and their published works.
Goldberg continued to write poetry until her death, of cancer, on January 15, 1970. Her last poems were compiled in a collection entitled She’erit Ha’haim” (The Rest of Life), which was published posthumously. That year, she was also posthumously awarded the Israel Prize.