The nationalistic poet

Dan Laor's new book shows how Natan Alterman left his mark on culture and politics through an unparalleled literary body of work.

Prof. Dan Laor, author of ’Alterman: A Biography,‘ at his home in Jerusalem (photo credit: Courtesy)
Prof. Dan Laor, author of ’Alterman: A Biography,‘ at his home in Jerusalem
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The day before The Jerusalem Report interviewed Prof. Dan Laor, a literary evening dedicated to his new book, in Hebrew, on the life of poet Natan Alterman, was held at Tmol Shilshom, a Jerusalem bookshop-café. Laor, 69, professor of Hebrew literature at Tel Aviv University and formerly both head of the department and dean of the Humanities Faculty there, is well used to such events. As the author of five other books on Hebrew literature, including an acclaimed biography of the 1966 Israeli Nobel Prize laureate, Shmuel Yosef Agnon, he has been the main attraction at many of them.
Nevertheless, he was unmistakably thrilled by the way the evening had gone. Serving pastries made by his son, a professional patissier, at his childhood home in the veteran Jerusalem neighborhood of Rehavia where he lives with his wife, Dr. Lihi Yariv-Laor, head of the Asian Studies Department at Hebrew University, Laor chats animatedly about what happened.
He had been surprised by the turnout. “The place was packed,” he asserts, noting that the guests included a former president of the Supreme Court, Dorit Beinisch, who told him after the event that her mother had been a pupil of Alterman’s father at his seminary for Hebrew kindergarten teachers in Warsaw.
Although the Agnon biography, he recalls, was also well received, it had not drawn as much attention. “Alterman,” he notes, “stimulates a different kind of sentiment. People seem to be more excited to read about him.”
The interest the biography has aroused has gone beyond its expected audience. It is no surprise that literary doyens of an older generation, such as Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua, have shared their thoughts about the book with its author. However, younger writers such as Nir Baram, born six years after the poet’s passing, have also called Laor about it. The owner of a nearby bookshop informed Laor that the biography is especially popular with the 30-something generation and that it is also being purchased by youth movement counselors who want to use it in their educational activities.
“In the academic world,” Laor tells The Report, “his literature is extensively researched, and courses about his work attract many students. He is one of the very few whose poetry is still mandatory in the high-school curriculum, though his accessibility to youth today can be attributed mainly to the constant popularity of his songs.”
Laor cites historian Anita Shapira, whom he describes as the founder of contemporary Israeli biography writing. “She said that fundamentally, besides conveying and analyzing all the facts, the writer tells the great story of a great personality,” he says. “I, too, attempted in this book to weave a fascinating story of a person and an era. But it still should be noted that this response originates first and foremost from the fact that Alterman is such a conspicuous icon.”
Following six years of extensive research and writing, “Alterman: A Biography” hit the bookstands at the end of November. Despite its length (912 pages), its cost (about $36), and some tepid reviews, the book swiftly made its way up the country’s best-seller charts. By early January, the book’s publisher, Am Oved, had already printed a second edition.
Beginning with Alterman’s birth in Warsaw in 1910, and ending with his death in Tel Aviv in 1970, Laor’s book portrays the life of an extremely talented literary – and equally ideological – figure. Born into an activist Zionist family and milieu in Eastern Europe, he became one of the most passionate and articulate advocates of this worldview, and contributed much to the shaping of Israel’s current perception of Zionism.
Furthermore, Alterman left his mark on Israel’s culture and politics through an unparalleled literary body of work and the propagation of linguistic, social and ideological visions. Everyday speech and idiom, popular culture and current literary discourse would have been very different without him.
“Outside Israel,” Laor says, “Alterman is hardly known.” Of his countless works, very few were translated into other languages. “But for Israelis,” he observes, “Alterman is a national icon. He apparently touches something very deep within the Israeli soul.”
There are many other Hebrew writers whose biographies have yet to be written, he says, “but Alterman has intrigued me more than others – because of his splendid poetry, which has always fascinated me, his profound bond to the historical perspective of Zionism, and his presence in the Israeli theater, a realm that has always enthralled me.
“But I also knew that I was going to tell the story of the life and the work of a literary figure who was at the center of the literary, cultural and political essence of this country both during the pre-state era and the first two decades of Israel’s existence. And as much as I aspired to tell Alterman’s story, I also wanted to tell the story of a period in history of which he was one of the most eloquent narrators.”
Alterman’s father, Yitzhak, was a renowned Zionist pedagogue. His mother, Bella, was a graduate of Warsaw University. The family, including his sister and maternal grandmother, came to Palestine in 1925 and settled in Tel Aviv, integrating well into the life of the pre-state Jewish settlement. Alterman’s academic education was acquired in Europe; at the age of 19, he studied for a year in Paris, then a couple more in Nancy, where he completed his degree in agronomy.
By the time he returned to Tel Aviv, Alterman was already a published poet. The Hebrew poems he sent from France to the leading literary publications in pre-state Palestine marked him as a budding talent. Thus, aside from a brief period as a failed agriculturist, the young urban writer quickly found himself at the center of the city’s contemporary bohemian scene.
Apart from writing poetry and plays, composing lyrics for cabaret and satirical shows, and translating French, English, Yiddish and Russian literary works, including masterpieces by Shakespeare and Molière, into Hebrew, Alterman worked as a journalist; it became a lifelong profession.
There, he found his highly influential political voice. His commentary articles and poems – mostly poems – first in Haaretz and later in the Histadrut labor federation’s daily, Davar, were very popular, and he became a widely recognized leader of opinion. Alterman was a master of the genre of exquisitely rhymed op-ed writing. “In its prime, during the 1940s and the 1950s,” Laor says, “Alterman’s column reached a huge public. People looked forward to reading his take on these matters.”
Throughout the decades, his columns covered almost every contemporary topic – World War II and the Holocaust, the Jewish-Arab struggle, the British Mandate, the pre-state Jewish underground militias, the terrorist actions of the right-wing underground, and the establishment of the State of Israel. “The Silver Platter,” Alterman’s 1947 poem that addressed the heavy cost in human life during the War of Independence, is regularly recited at ceremonies to mark Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers.
“Unequivocally,” Laor says, “Alterman’s authority and his credibility stemmed also from his success as a poet. His reputation as the author of “Stars Outside” (1938), which is considered one of the greatest accomplishments in Hebrew poetry, preceded his popularity as a poetic columnist. But some of his columns reached artistic greatness on their own merits. They were truthfully written with the sublime flair of a poet.”
Alterman openly identified with the prestate Labor Party and became a friend and colleague of many in its leadership. He saw himself, Laor writes, as a writer who takes part in the shaping of the spirit of the nation. “He worshiped David Ben-Gurion,” Laor notes, “and regarded him as a political genius without whom the Jewish State would have never been established nor continued to exist.”
At the same time, Alterman also insisted on preserving what he perceived as his moral independence. When Ben-Gurion sent Shimon Peres to offer him assistance to purchase an apartment, the poet declined. “I will be able,” he explained to Peres, “to write negatively about Ben-Gurion, but what will happen should I choose to praise him?”
Alterman was also an admirer of Tel Aviv, unquestionably his spiritual as well as his physical home. Alterman, at the age of 15, was introduced to Tel Aviv just as the town was turning into a metropolis,” Laor says. “It was, for him, a very powerful encounter, and an experience that only intensified as time went on. He led a very urban life, wrote extensively about Tel Aviv, and I think that this city achieved in his writing an almost metaphysical aspect.
“He saw it as the embodiment of a Zionist renaissance, an attractive possibility for new, liberated and natural living. In ‘City of the Dove,’ his 1957 epic poem on the revival of the State of Israel, Jerusalem is conspicuous by its absence, while Tel Aviv is undoubtedly the space within which Jewish life in the land of Israel materializes.”
Laor’s book is the first comprehensive biography of Alterman. Menachem Dorman, a friend of the poet and his posthumous editor, started a similar project but abandoned it. Alterman’s problematic relationships with his wife, actress Rachel Marcus, and with his lover, the painter, Zilla Binder, were too much for Dorman to cope with.
Laor’s book was criticized in some reviews for not exposing the disregard, contempt and even physical violence with which the poet treated the women with whom he was involved. But the biography leaves no room for doubts about Alterman’s sexist crudeness. Laor also explores the relationships Alterman had with two other women prior to his marriage to Marcus. The picture he reveals is unsettling. In both cases, connections that began as genuine affection degenerated into obsessive, invasive and forceful behavior on Alterman’s part. Laor describes the poet’s manner as “vigorous courting,” but Alterman’s conduct in these cases was practically one of a stalker.
Perhaps that is why Laor was surprised to find out, from letters and the many interviews he conducted, how deep, respectful and tender was the appreciation that Alterman expressed towards his mother, his younger sister, Lea Lahav – a kibbutz member whom the poet admired for her choice of a pioneer’s life – and towards his and Marcus’s only daughter, Tirza Atar, an actress and a poet whose chronic depression made him fear for her life.
He also felt guilty for his own contribution to her fragile state. Atar died in 1977. She fell out of her apartment’s window, likely a suicide. The incident tragically evoked Alterman’s 1965 poem, “Protect Your Soul,” written out of his acute concern for her well-being.
In 1967, Alterman became an ardent supporter of a Greater Israel and called for Israel to annex the occupied territories. “Just four days after the Six Day War,” Laor explains, “Alterman published an essay in which he presented a brand new political doctrine. By doing so, he also split with Ben-Gurion.”
The Labor movement, with which Alterman had so deeply sympathized, Laor notes, “was a national, Zionist and socialist party. But it was also a very pragmatic party and it well acknowledged the limits of power.
“The writer Moshe Shamir, ideologically close to Alterman after the Six Day War, argued that the same national and patriotic elements that eventually erupted in 1967 had already existed in Alterman’s early poetry. I beg to differ. In the book, ‘City of the Dove,’ Alterman clearly and authentically sees the State of Israel, as shaped during its first decade, as the ultimate fulfillment of the Zionist vision.”
There are numerous possible explanations for Alterman’s abrupt move to a new ideological path. The mid-1960s were hard on him. His plays suffered bad and sometimes even vicious reviews; he was helpless in the face of his daughter’s deteriorating mental health; his sister, whom he had venerated, died less than a year before the war. Perhaps he felt that his world was crumbling.
Laor believes that above all, it was Ben- Gurion’s fall from power and Alterman’s subsequent anxiety that without his idol at the helm, the state would fall apart, which pushed the poet to seek an alternative horizon for his Zionist vision.
“I think that Alterman, traumatized by Ben-Gurion’s political collapse a few years earlier, feared that without its leader, the Zionist revolution was in danger of losing momentum,” Laor says. “To him, the new geopolitical situation had created an ideological dimension in which, as he saw it, Zionism could revive itself.”
Despite that, Alterman’s name and image personify today the milieu he was so strongly identified with before 1967 – the Westernized, urban, Labor-oriented Jewish Israeli.
Just like his book, Laor is fluent, communicative, articulate and overflowing with stories, examples and anecdotes. He is critical of certain aspects of Alterman’s behavior and views, but also sees eye-to-eye with most of the poet’s core political values.
While working on the book, Laor adds, he became “even more convinced of Alterman’s genius, of the sublime beauty in his lyrical poetry, of his stupendous linguistic energy, which is a chapter in itself in the history of the Hebrew language, of his unusual intuition of the historical implications of current events, and of his ability – reflected especially in his journalistic poetry – to give exquisitely accurate verbal expression to the Zionist story and, as such, to the Israeli condition.
“This makes Alterman as relevant and as challenging a writer today as he was in the past,” Laor concludes.