Saturday, November 05, 2011

A piece of Israeliana:

Alexander Penn

was an Israeli poet, a flamboyant, even self-destructive, personality. Wikipedia provides a rather decent entry about his life:

"Penn was a contemporary of Israeli poets Avraham Shlonsky and Natan Alterman. He left romantic love poems, conformist and non-conformist patriotic poems, political poems and well-known songs.

But most of his fame seemed to derive from his Bohemian lifestyle. He contracted diabetes before the age of 30, but did not stop smoking and drinking large quantities of alcohol, and saw himself as someone who can overcome the weaknesses of the body in defiance of medical science. His cruel attitude toward women did not prevent many of them from falling in love with the talented and handsome poet. His romance with communism, on the other hand, led to his ostracism. To the end, he was upset that Alterman, who wrote "The Seventh Column," a weekly column of political verse in the now-defunct Labor Party newspaper Davar, was identified as the father of the genre in Hebrew poetry, while he, Penn, had had a similar column in Davar even before Alterman."

However, it neglects to add the fact that, though a married man with two kids, he pursued Hanna Rovina, the first dame of the Hebrew theatre, who bore him a child out of wedlock, something that was most unusual for the times. She was also 18 years older than him. The daughter, Ilana Rovina, became an actress and singer in her own right, though she never reached any big star status. In a television documentary I saw about her many years ago she confessed that she had never spoken to her father even though of course she knew who he was and used to see him regularly in the Bohemian circles in which she grew up. Here is what an article in Haaretz says:

"When Rovina says "my mother," one can feel in the room the tremulous voice of the great diva that seems to emerge from a color portrait that hangs in her living room. There is no doubt that the mother is still present in the life of her daughter and still rules with a high hand. Hanna Rovina was born in a small town near Minsk, in Belarus... In any event, she was a rebellious girl who was fascinated by the Haskalah (enlightenment) movement and by the relative freedom given to women. She studied in a college for kindergarten teachers in Warsaw, which was headed by Yehiel Halperin, the father of the Canaanite poet and ideologue, Yonatan Ratosh."
(When I was in the Hebrew University studying translation, Ratosh's brother, Uzzi Ornan, also a "Cannanite" was one of my professors).
One of Alexander Penn's most famous poems, "Vidui" (Confession), was set to music and became a staple in the pantheon of Israeli songs, performed by many artists in any time. Here is Ilana Rovina singing her father's song. Gila Almagor, another great dame of the Israeli theatre, has a different interpretation for the song. It is an intensely painful dramatic monologue about love and death, about abuse and violence, seen from the point of view of the woman who seems to glory in her power over her lover, even when she is the victim of his rage and she has no faith in him.

An article in Haaretz describes Penn's first marriage:

The first year of their marriage was magical. At the end of it their daughter Zerubavela was born and the couple moved from Tel Aviv to Rehovot. Penn barely managed to support his small family by giving boxing lessons; he began to drink and quite often beat his wife. During that same period he met Shlonsky, the first one to support him in his literary career in Palestine. A short time later he met Alterman. He was also very close to Bialik, whose poetry he read often. [-]

Bella, who had a little girl and a baby, could not work much, whereas Penn, who translated plays for the theater and wrote songs, did not bring home money and preferred to spend time at Sheikh Abrek (near Tivon in the Lower Galilee) with the legendary guard Alexander Zaid. Penn admired Zaid, whose mother was a Russian Subotnik, and Halperin claims that the myth of being a non-Jew began with Penn after the meeting with Zaid. There Penn wrote several songs. He wrote his famous song "Adama admati" (Land, My Land) for the third anniversary of the murder of his friend Zaid, who was shot by an Arab assailant in 1938.

It's a long poem and I will translate only a snippet, hastily:

My plain coat, a lamppost, on a bridge

An autumn night, on my cold lips the rain

That’s how you saw me first, remember?

And I knew then with the certainty of two and two

That bread and water I would be for you

And like to bread and water you will always return


Yes, it was no good, it was gloriously bad

But remember our meeting that night of nights

If it happened again let it not be any different

The same wretched and indignant love

In that tattered coat and that pathetic rosebud

In that plainest of dresses

If it happened again let it not be any different

Let it be so, just so, word for word ...

One has to wonder what motivated this poem. Was it a sense of guilt and an attempt at reducing his shame, by imagining his first wife's suffering was somewhat pathologically self-inflicted, even longed for?

Political Activism:

Penn was an avowed Communist who apparently could not make up his mind whether he was a Zionist or a bona fide anti-Zionist Bolshevik. Here is what the Haaretz article says:

A clash between him and the party leadership developed prior to the publication of his first book of poetry in Hebrew, "Le'orekh Haderekh" (Along the Road) in 1956. The heads of Maki, the Israel Communist Party, were opposed to the inclusion of poems of a Zionist-nationalist nature, such as "Adama admati." Penn fought the censors inside the party and the boycott imposed on him outside the party. Because of the boycott he was unable to find any non-Communist to write the foreword to the book. In the end, for lack of choice, he asked Michael Harsegor, a member of Maki at the time, to write it. When he finished editing the book Penn was so ill that he was hospitalized for several months. In March 1957, about a year later than scheduled, the book was published.

In 1959 Penn was invited to the writers' conference in Moscow and took his daughter Sinilga along. It was an exciting visit. He met with his sisters. He met Mayakovsky's sister. He met twice with then-prime minister Nikita Khrushchev. His poems were published in the Soviet Union during his visit, but the KGB did not stop following him and he became well aware of the atmosphere of repression.

In the conference in which he participated the Russian Jewish poet Boris Pasternak and his book "Dr. Zhivago," which had been smuggled to the West and published there, were condemned. Pasternak, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, was then under house arrest in his summer home. Penn asked for Pasternak's address and his request was refused. He found a way and reached his home and when he returned from there, said his daughter, he looked like "a man who had aged 20 years," and he cursed in Russian: "Damn them, let them burn." He was so angry that when he was honored with a bottle of cognac he didn't even touch it.

In spite of that, upon his return from his visit to Russia, Penn remained a devout Communist. During the split in the Israeli Party in 1965 he remained in Maki along with most of its Jewish members, but in July 1967 he asked to resign from the party.

After his death a surprise awaited his acquaintances. In his will Penn gave instructions that he wanted a Jewish funeral, that he didn't want eulogies, and that he didn't want the Communist Party to take over the event and appropriate it. He instructed that Kaddish be said over him and asked that his body be interred among his fellow writers, and if possible next to the grave of poet Avigdor Hameiri.

So, remained a devout Communist, in spite of what he had seen and heard in Soviet Russia. Not for him the Orwellian awakening from an illusion and the necessary heavy ethical legwork that had to be gone through. And whatever criticism he harbored in his heart for the politics he had adhered to, he chose it be heard only after he died.

Furthermore, he who disavowed Zionism and attachment to the land of Israel was an Israeli poet. He chose to write his poetry and polemics in the new/old language, the language that was given a second birth due to the Zionist dream and its implementation. He also composed one of the most patriotic love poems for the land, Adama Admati: A land my land, merciful till death, a mighty wind roiled your ruins, I have wooed you in blood, that was red and fell silent...


I am designing a course on Hebrew literature in the twentieth century and I have a few months to assemble the material. As I go about it, I am sure to find some interesting tidbits like this one which I will post here.


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