Esther Cameron: The reclusive poetess

She understands that she’s something of an enigma in the field of Israeli poets today.

Esther Cameron understands that she’s something of an enigma in the field of Israeli poets today (photo credit: Courtesy)
Esther Cameron understands that she’s something of an enigma in the field of Israeli poets today
(photo credit: Courtesy)

Do you know someone who is completely dedicated to their profession, who engages in it as the Shema prayer says “With all your heart, and with all your soul?”
I’ve met a woman like that and it’s poetry that has become not only her vocation, but also her mission, her passion and her life’s work. Esther Cameron, a tall, impressive-looking American immigrant to Israel from the Midwest, has not yet been discovered by the general public, and even the popular literary figures of Israeli society may not recognize her talent, but she definitely has carved our a place in the world of “shira” (poetry) both in English and in Hebrew.
Esther did not grow up Jewish. But from the age of seven, she claims she already began to write poetry, she already felt a need to express herself in writing. “It’s an attempt to pull things together,” she tries to verbalize what motivated her to write from that early time in Madison, growing up in a typical American family.
But Esther must have one of the most unusual reasons for being attracted to Judaism. As a young woman she studied German in university and for her PhD degree specialized in German literature. That’s how, in 1960, she was introduced to a Jewish poet who wrote in that language, even though he lived in Paris and was a Holocaust survivor. Paul Celan was not an observant Jew but had a Hassidic soul which somehow penetrated his writings and had a life-changing effect on Esther.
Through his writings, she explains, she started studying Judaism, attending synagogue services in the Midwest and eventually converted – first through a Conservative ceremony and then an Orthodox one. All along, of course, she was writing. In 1979 she came to Israel to learn in a seminary, gain a deeper insight into Hassidism and become fluent in Hebrew. Esther writes poetry in both English and Hebrew and deems the fact that she has been able to be equally expressive in her adopted language most natural. “It’s important for a writer to give voice to the metaphors and idioms of his culture. If you live in a country you want to emulate that society, and express your experiences in the native language.” It’s also the Lashon Hakodesh, (the Holy Tongue), she adds and frankly she finds Hebrew very rich and expressive and therefore a hospitable vernacular for a writer.
Still Esther returned for what she calls “family reasons” to the US, where she lived from l990 until 2013. But her poetry writing in English and in Hebrew continued. She started an international literary magazine, called the Deronda Review, in l996 which she still edits today and which attracts a select readership interested in bilingual literature. She retained contact with many of her friends in Israel and visited several times. After her mother passed away she returned to an apartment in Ma’aleh Adumim. Esther likes the small town atmosphere where she lives and finds it conductive to the muse. Since her return she has started a blog (hashoshanah.net), led a workshop, and developed her spiritual and Torah learning.
For instance she’s taken a class on Hassidic music, attends a shiur (lesson) at Rachel’s Tomb on the weekly Torah portion, and has become a disciple of the first chief rabbi of Israel, Rav Avraham Isaac Kook.
In fact, she’s discovered many similar lines of thought between Rav Kook’s writings and her original guru, Paul Celan. She tells an amazing story about the first time she ever heard of Rav Kook.
Rabbi David Shapiro of Milwaukee, who converted her, saw a poem she had written as part of her response to Paul Celan. “That reminds me of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook,” he remarked. It was only almost a half century later that she herself discovered those parallel schools of thought between the great Talmid Hacham (scholar) and the secular poet, and led a workshop on it. Rav Kook, she ruminates almost to herself, attached great importance to poetry, but many of the experts on his works hardly touch on that point.
Esther understands that she’s something of an enigma in the field of Israeli poets today. She’s old-fashioned and proud of it, attached to the early Hebrew writers and tries to emulate people like Alterrman, Rachel and Bialik. She’s also very Zionist and very passionate about what’s going on in Israel. Esther has written poems of 500 lines or more (with references to all the people who have influenced her the most); she’s aghast at the terrible suffering the government has caused to so many citizens, the “heartless economic ruin,” and is terribly concerned about the chaotic mood now predominant. But on the other hand, she sees absolutely no reason to give up any bit of Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel), not only because it was promised to us by God, but because it’s just plain common sense. So she feels distant from most of the modern literary world where it’s no longer fashionable to write about landscape, politics or love of Eretz Yisrael.
Most writers today, try to find a path which is opposite to their forefathers, they tend to be ultra-liberal, post-Zionists and both by style and content more “postmodern.” That doesn’t mean that she doesn’t sometimes express herself in free verse or experiment with different styles.
She knows that she’s still unknown as a poetess by and large, and isn’t considered “cool” because she’s so patriotic and involved, but she feels it’s her duty to express in the way she knows best, her understanding of what’s going on and what should be done. “I try to write what I see almost as an outsider, and an outsider sometimes sees things more clearly than those involved. But sometimes I wonder if it’s not absurd to keep doing that.” Esther never married. She notes that many poets in Jewish history never married either (Rachel, Leah Goldberg, etc.) or, with a laugh, says those that did often made a mess of it.
“As poets we’re so obsessed with our vocation that we don’t really have room for domestic interests,” she says.
But she has a large circle of friends, and a small circle of like minded writer-colleagues, and feels content. At the beginning of 5781, Rubin Mass Publishing House brought out four books of her Hebrew poetry, written mostly since her return to Israel in 2013: “49 Stitches (Mem-Tet Tefarim),” consisting of 49 poems on the mystical meanings which accompany each day of Sefirat HaOmer, the days between Passover and Shavuot; “Golden Bells (Pa’amonei Zahav),” a series of sonnets on the weekly Torah portion; “Cables of Light (Havlei Or),” a series of poems written in the context of the Celan-Rav Kook workshop; and “Towards the Land (Likrat Haaretz),” containing all the rest of her Hebrew poems which she considers worth preserving.
This book contains over 300 pages of poetry from different periods of her life and could be considered a kind of summing up, for at the age of 79, Esther sometimes thinks, “I’ve actually said all that has to be said.”
But I don’t believe it. Because observing this shy, polite, soft-spoken, self effacing, very gifted but still unknown artist, I see burning within her a committed, strong minded, deep concern for the world she has chosen to live in where the ability meets the need to verbalize what’s going on around us and get others to see it too.
After all, that in Esther Cameron’s opinion is the purpose of poetry – to unite and pull together ideas and thereafter people of all walks of life.