More than words

The inspiring centennial of the birth of writer Lea Goldberg, whose insights, born from unrequited love and a childhood of growing up in an anti-Semitic Soviet regime, continue to live on.

Lea Goldberg 521 (photo credit: Archive photo)
Lea Goldberg 521
(photo credit: Archive photo)
I grew up quickly when I arrived in Israel. Not only did I have to find my way as an 18-year-old new immigrant about to be inducted into the IDF, I had to catch up on a lot of missed Israeli childhood experiences.
I spent most of my first year on a kibbutz, where I worked with toddlers during the day and tried my best to understand what was going on in my Hebrew-speaking Nahal garin in the evenings.
A lot of my own Hebrew I picked up from the stories and songs that were as much the background noise of the children’s house as the sound of three-year-olds playing. Hence I can say I really grew up on Lea Goldberg’s stories for children – Ayeh Pluto? (Where’s Pluto?), Hamefuzar Mikfar Azar (The Absentminded Man from Kfar Azar) and the everrelevant Dira Lehaskir (Apartment to Let), which teaches the importance of going beyond stereotypes.
I can still sing more than one version of Goldberg’s Pizmon Hayakinton (Song of the Hyacinth), which carries with it the sweet scent of innocence. I also know, thanks to Goldberg, what “the roes do at night” (Ma Osot Ha’ayalot?) and who wakes them in the morning – and if you don’t know, you have a bit of catching up to do when it comes to the country’s cultural references.
Goldberg also provided answers to what the grown-ups were doing as the moon shone down (beyond the world of my Bnei Akiva garin), with sensual, timeless words put to music such as: “… And I learned a name for every eyelash and every nail; and for every hair on exposed flesh…,” an extract from Slihot (Atonement), a song made popular by Yehudit Ravitz.
Goldberg was born in East Prussia in May 1911. She received a doctorate in Semitic languages from Bonn University before immigrating to Mandatory Palestine in 1935. Apart from being a renowned poet and children’s author, she was also a theater critic, translator and editor, and, following her very public Tel Aviv period, she established the Department of Comparative Literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Goldberg prolifically published nine books of poetry, two novels, three plays, six books of non-fiction, and 20 books for children, although, tragically, she did not have any children of her own.
It is hard to live in Israel and not know anything written by Goldberg (some of her children’s books have been translated into languages as diverse as Korean and Gujurati).
Since she never disappeared from the cultural landscape, it’s not correct to say that she is making a comeback, but there is definitely a renewed interest in her work and life, with a large number of events marking the centennial of her birth.
Possibly the ultimate mark of success is the celebration of 100 years since a person was born, even if they aren’t around to enjoy it.
Goldberg didn’t even enjoy the country’s ultimate honor while she was alive. She was awarded the Israel Prize for Literature in 1970, a few months after her death. And if you ever needed a reminder of the dangers of cigarettes, look no further than the premature demise of the writer whose first anthology of poems was called Smoke Rings (a published copy was her welcome gift when she arrived on these shores). Her last poems are sometimes excruciating, written as her body struggled with lung cancer, including a poem called “On the Dangers of Smoking” and “Sickness,” in which the bedridden writer comments: “Someone has pasted on my window, a piece of the sky and my neighbor’s Venetian blind.”
As we celebrate that great institution Hebrew Book Week (June 15-June 25), thoughts have naturally turned this year to Goldberg. Just as Hebrew Book Week – a country- wide literature festival – is an only-in-Israel affair, so, too, is the eternally exalted position of poetry. Despite a genre of Hebrew songs utterly fitting for the generation raised on disposable items, classic poems that have been turned into songs continue to flourish.
It’s difficult to imagine the Israeli music scene without Goldberg poems-cum-lyrics such as: “Be’eretz ahavati, hashaked poreah” (In the land of my love, the almond tree blossoms) and “At telchi besadeh levadech…” (You will walk alone in the field, you will not burn in the heat...” – from “Ha’omnam?” (Is it true?), a Chava Alberstein hit.
It is humbling to think of all the works of this writer for whom Hebrew was not her first language – one of my favorite poems/lyrics, Oren (Pine Tree), sung by Achinoam Nini, demonstrates the sometimes conflict of the early days of an immigrant: “Perhaps only the migrating birds know – Suspended as they are between earth and sky – The heartache of two homelands.”
Three years ago, in honor of the country’s 60th birthday, Yediot Aharonot published a wonderful compendium of her poems in its Am Hasefer series, dedicated to bringing traditional Hebrew and Jewish literature into every home at affordable prices.
The Toby Press, in honor of the centenary celebrations, this year put out a second (English- language) edition of Lea Goldberg: Selected Poetry and Drama (translated by Rachel Tzvia Back), along with her novel And This Is the Light (translated into English by Barbara Harshav).
She might not be worth her weight in gold, but the Bank of Israel has announced it is issuing a banknote with her image next year.
Posthumously Goldberg is now being rewarded with both fame and fortune. Her insights, born from a tormented childhood (courtesy of the Soviet regime and anti-Semitism), and later of unrequited love, live on. So does the ever-intriguing question, as Nurit Galron sings: “Ma yihye besofenu?” – what will become of us in the end?