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VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2013
Number 79
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Unearthing Buried Treasures: Reading Leah Goldberg in Translation

A review essay by Philip Hollander

And This is the Light. New Milford, CT: The Toby Press
With This Night. Austin: University of Texas Press
By Leah Goldberg

Don’t try to keep up with the times,
They don’t need you kind.
The times are headed elsewhere
And you are not welcome there.

Don’t try to keep up with the times,
They don’t need your kind.
The times, they want to bury you,
And leave, for others, your share.

Poet Avraham Shlonsky greeted Leah Goldberg with a copy of her just-published Hebrew poetry collection Smoke Rings when she arrived in Palestine in 1935. Implicit in this gesture was an invitation to join the modernist literary circle he headed. Goldberg’s frequent presence throughout the late thirties, forties, and early fifties, in Tel Aviv’s Café Kasit alongside him and the masterful neo-symbolist poet Natan Alterman reflected the invitation’s enthusiastic acceptance. Goldberg’s circle membership provided her with a modicum of celebrity and aided in acclimation to her new home. Grateful to the circle and feeling a sense of affiliation, she soon adopted the metrical patterns, rhyme schemes, and imagery, typical of the verse of Shlonsky and Alterman, the circle’s leading poets.

Unfortunately, by the early fifties, when Goldberg assumed a teaching position in comparative literature at the Hebrew University, a new generation exemplified by Natan Zach and Yehuda Amichai revolted against the Alterman-Shlonsky circle’s poetic norms, and, as part of a struggle for stylistic hegemony in the new state of Israel, Goldberg’s poetry came under attack. This struggle didn’t always prove pleasant, and, despite her beloved status amongst Hebrew readers, young critics dismissed her as a glorified children’s writer whose outmoded verse proved clichéd and lacking in the rhetorical flourish of her more successful contemporaries.

The early sixties poem provided above from a cycle entitled “Portrait of the Poet as an Old Man” initially seems to express an aging artist’s sense of besiegement similar to one that Goldberg must have felt in the fifties and sixties, but closer examination reveals a focused artist confidently prophesying the longevity of his work unconcerned about passing trends. While a contemporary generation might label his poetry outdated and look to bury him and his work, such a burial process parallels the burying and temporary abandonment of a treasure. If contemporaries prove unable to recognize the merit of the poet’s work, future generations will not prove so foolish and will inevitably work to attain a share of this treasure.

This poem’s faith in quality writing’s ability to overcome the vagaries of reception has found confirmation nearly fifty years after its composition. Goldberg’s oeuvre has achieved a central position within the Hebrew literary canon thanks to critics attentive to the specificities of Hebrew women’s writing. Read on its own terms, rather than exclusively through the lens of the Alterman-Shlonsky circle’s modernist poetics, Goldberg’s work reveals an independent and compelling artist soberly tackling personal, national, and universal concerns. Nowhere is this more evident than in previously marginalized works such as Goldberg’s 1946 novel And This is the Light and her 1964 poetry collection With This Night that showcase her unique talents. Skilled translation of these works by Barbara Harshav and Annie Kantar respectively offer English readers an opportunity to judge for themselves.

And This is the Light tells the story of a young Jewish woman’s return home to Lithuania for summer break while studying abroad between the two world wars. When it was initially published, it failed to excite critics and readers who viewed it far afield of contemporary concerns. Yet careful examination reveals this lyrical novel making an important statement about contemporary Jewish life. Uncomfortable with East European Jewish life, its protagonist Nora pursues study in Germany and affiliates with Zionism. Selection of archaeology as her course of study reflects her desire to unearth a life free of the stagnation and sickness she feels overwhelming her in her provincial petty-bourgeois home. Yet her temporary homecoming will pushes her to address this seeming stagnation and sickness.

Her father Jacob embodies what Nora desires to escape on both a personal and national level. Following his arrest in 1919, during which the Bolsheviks line him up to be shot ten days in a row, Jacob Krieger suffers a nervous breakdown and never fully recovers. His mental illness raises problematic questions. Was it the consequence of his wartime experience or does it constitute part of an inescapable legacy Nora directly inherits from her father? Is this unavoidable legacy tied exclusively to her father’s family or does it validate contemporary racial scientific views of all Jews as sick?

These questions clearly trouble the aspirational protagonist and her difficulty addressing them finds poignant voice during her temporary homecoming. Consequently, when Arin, a parental friend who has spent decades in West, arrives for a visit, Nora falls madly in love with him and envisions him a potential lover and sane paternal replacement. Yet events reveal the delusiveness of her infatuation, as well as her desire to free herself from her past through foreign study and Zionism.

Rather than attempting to abandon or negate her heritage, Nora finally comes to terms with it. The novel’s penultimate scene portrays this reconciliation. Troubled by her father’s mental illness, Nora avoids meeting with him, but, shortly before her departure, they get together. She quickly notices his “tall, sturdy, and handsome” appearance, and, when he calls upon her to take care of herself and caresses her as he departs, Nora recovers a viable and long obscured part of her legacy. Accepting her inability to transcend her reality, Nora arrives at her calling — sublime expression of nuanced reality. Through the Hebrew language’s employment, her seemingly dark existence can be converted to light. Even in translation, such light fills Goldberg’s text.

Written during the interregnum between the Holocaust and the State of Israel’s establishment, a reading public conditioned by the abysmal sorrow of near genocide and impending national redemption’s euphoriafailed to recognize the novel’s subtlety. Yet more than sixty years later Hebrew readers tired of literature typified by intense emotion or exclusive national concern have rediscovered this novel and Goldberg’s poetry and revealed treasures. The present translations enable English readers to share them.


Philip A. Hollander is a professor of Hebrew and Semitic Studies at the University of Wisconsin and a contributing editor.

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