PART TWO: THE GLASS MOUNTAIN
CHAPTER 21: THE SIRENS OF CZERNOWITZ
In the last chapter’s account of my experiences that first year in Israel, one major strand was left out. So let me back up a bit.
Before I left for Israel in the 1979, Michal had given me several contacts, which I duly followed up. One of those contacts was the late David Seidmann, a professor of French at Tel Aviv, and a friend of Celan’s from Czernowitz.
David Seidmann – he told me that his Czernowitz friends called him Duniu, but for some reason I never did – lived in Ramat Gan with his wife Michal and their daughters Yael and Vered. He was a small, wiry man with sandy hair and very thick glasses and the smile of one who has seen a good deal of combat. Michal, a native Israeli, was quiet and dignified. I don’t recall her speaking German. But she remembered Celan from his visit to Israel in 1969. David said that she and Celan had understood each other. On one occasion the three of them sat in a café for a long time without speaking, and afterward Celan said, “Wir haben so gut geschwiegen” (we kept silence so well).
David Seidmann and Paul Antschel, later Celan, had met at the university in Czernowitz in 1940. It was just after the Soviets had occupied Czernowitz for the first time; they were to leave it to the Germans the following year and return in 1944. During this first Soviet occupation David was accused of Zionist activity and threatened with deportation to Siberia. Paul Antschel stood up to protest his friend’s innocence and inspired others to do the same. David was spared the trip to Siberia, and remained grateful to the end of his days. During the Nazi occupation, both young men were sent to a labor camp. David did not talk much about that. I just remember him telling about a Rumanian supervisor they had had at the camp, who had told them, “You’ll survive. Man is a tough animal.” But from the Transnistria death-camp, to which Leo and Fritzi Antschel were sent, few returned. The story of how Paul Antschel got separated from his parents was remembered differently by David from the version in Israel Chalfen’s biography. According to Chalfen, Paul had found a hiding-place for the family, but his mother had refused to leave the home; the son went to the hiding-place anyway, thinking his parents would change their minds and follow, but they did not and were taken away. According to David, Paul Antschel had just gone out on a trivial errand – to buy a toothbrush – and returned to find his parents gone.
David remembered the poet’s mother as a woman of great dignity. She was one of several women, he said, who between the wars had been looked up to by the youth of the city and had participated in their discussions. I pressed him for specifics, hoping he would be able to tell me something that Friederike Antschel had said, but he could not remember. The poet’s father, on the other hand – a lumber salesman, like my Grandfather Cameron at one point – had been a less impressive figure, an “Akakii Akakievich,” David said, referring to the downtrodden hero of Gogol’s “The Overcoat.” Relations between father and son had been very strained. Feeling unsure of himself, the elder Antschel had tried to compensate by harsh discipline. As a father, Celan had not been entirely free of such tendencies; David recalled him saying to his son Eric: “Tiens-toi droit quand tu es devant ton père!”
The two friends had kept in touch after going separate ways. David had visited Paris from time to time, and on his one visit to Israel Celan had stayed with the Seidmanns for several days. Over the years the two had many long conversations. I told David about my interview with Celan, the odd, checked style of it, and he said that kind of conversation “à bouts rompus” was frequent with him.
Early on I told David about my connection with Celan, and I think he believed me. He said to me toward the end of one of our first conversations, “I feel as if I have known you for a long time.” I think he recognized me as related to the poems. But he was also conscious of another side of Paul Celan, one that I had tended to overlook or relegate to the back of my mind. Celan, he said, was a leits, a mocker. He did not mean things seriously. Once, David had said to him, “Du Schweinehund weisst nicht, was du der Nachwelt hinterlässt (You son-of-a-gun, you’ve no idea what you are leaving to posterity).” And, David added, “Er hat es grinsend hingenommen (He took it with a grin)!” I heard the epithet leits from from other Czernowitzers too; sometimes it seemed that this trait, and his extraordinary good looks when young, were the main things they remembered about him. David was something of a leits himself; his specialty was Villon.
I was to learn again and again that I could not always expect confirmation from those who had been Celan’s real-world friends, acquaintances or intimates. They didn’t always pick up on his intuition, or he could not always share it with him, and perhaps sometimes he could not even always share it with himself. Something that his Hebrew translator, Manfred Winkler, told me, gave me a deep glimpse into what must have been a chasm in his mind. There is a poem in The No Man’s Rose where the noun or name Mandelstamm (all nouns are capitalized in German) occurs. During Celan’s visit to Jerusalem Manfred asked him, “Did you mean Osip Mandelstamm or the trunk (Stamm) of the almond tree (Mandel)?” Celan thought for a moment and said, “I don’t remember, but I think I meant the trunk of the almond-tree.” The No-Man’s Rose is dedicated “to the memory of Ossip Mandelstamm.”
David did confirm for me one thing that I felt strongly in those years, namely that The No-One’s Rose and “The Meridian” were Celan’s central statement. David told that when Celan was preparing for a poetry reading in Tel Aviv he looked through the books he had sent David over the years, only to find that unfortunately The No-One’s Rose was missing. Celan said that that had been the most important. On the other hand, David told me that he had not liked Simone Weil; he had said that Weil was very talented, but – . He did not fill in Celan’s reservations; perhaps they had to do with Weil’s attempt to dissociate herself from her Jewishness and her approach (though not conversion) to Christianity.
The reader will imagine how I envied David the memory of all those conversations with Paul Celan, and tried to get him to recall more of them, but without much success. Either he had a memory-block, or he could not bring himself to share more. One evening, after he had walked me to the bus stop, the following poem came to me:
STIMME zwischen den Blaettern,
hinter der Morgen‑
ich wintre gezwittert hier, zwiesam,
in der Tausend‑
brich mich los
(VOICE between the leaves,
behind the morrow-
I winter ingrafted here, twinsome,
in the thousand-
break me loose
I showed it to David, but the gates of memory remained shut.
With what, then, did we fill those long hours of conversation? I showed him the things I was writing, and we discussed literature and the state of the world. I remember one conversation about Israeli politics: “Labor is just as bad as the Likud,” I said. “Yes,” David replied, “but the Likud is still somewhat worse.” That was the Czernowitzer sense of humor. Naturally, we also discussed the endangered situation of Israel. And here he did relay me one comment of Celan’s. He said that one day they were looking at the map and Celan put his finger on the map and said, “Aber die Golan, die darfst du nicht zurueckgeben (But the Golan, that you must not give back).” David drew my attention to the fact that his friend had used the “du” form, the second person singular, making it David’s personal responsibility not to give back the Golan! David also showed me several books he had received from Celan, with dedications. One of the dedications read: “Fuer Duniu, zum Fruehstueck” (for David, for breakfast). Czernowitzer humor. Another was in Hebrew script, as elegant as his German script (I once showed a sample of his handwriting to a graphologist, and I think she fell in love with him on the spot). He had, after all, spent three years as a child in a Hebrew language school, at his father’s insistence. he wrote his last name as I had thought it would be written, like a triliteral Hebrew root (tsadeh-lamed-nun).
I shall always wonder whether Celan ever reflected on the meaning of his name in Hebrew, a name he’d chosen, according to his biographers, at the instigation of the wife of a friend, who noticed it was a possible anagram of Antschel (also be written Ancel). It had pleased him, they say because Tommaso di Celano was the author of the Life of St. Francis of Assisi (also, incidentally, of the “Dies Irae” hymn, though they don’t mention that). The combination tsadeh-lamed-nun is close to tsadeh-lamed-mem (tselem, the “image” in which man was created), except that whereas in Kabbala the mem (numeric value: 40) stands for this world, the letter nun (numeric value: 50) stands for the next world. It is said that humans may go through 49 gates of understanding but not the 50th. And of course Paul Celan only lived to the age of 49. As though it was impossible for him, in this world, to be what he was. Through one of the Czernowitzers, I forget which, a conversation between Celan and still a third person was reported to me, where Celan had said that through him new spiritual forces would flow into the world. The interlocutor had concluded that Celan was crazy.
David, of course, was completely secular. Yet he was aware, like every thoughtful Israeli, of the danger that the split between the religious and the secular posed for the future of the country. I believed that Celan’s teaching might close this rift (and therefore it was imperative to recognize it as a teaching, not just a literary production). But here, again, I came up against Celan’s “leits” side; David did not believe Celan would have wanted to be taken that seriously.
David gave me the address of another Czernowitz friend of theirs, Dr. Emanuel Singer, who lived in Bayit Vegan – the lower part of it, farther toward the city.
Dr. Singer was a physician, an internist; his wife, Dr. Martha Singer, was a pediatrician. She was from Czernowitz too, or at least from that general region, but the two had met only after the war. Like most other Czernowitzers I met, they were short of stature and emanated warmth, dignity and a subtle sense of humor. Perhaps because their work did not lie in the realm of literature, the Singers were less sophisticated than David. Their literary culture was largely a remnant of their Czernowitz days, but this remnant they cherished. I remember Martha showing me a poem by Itzik Manger, a Yiddish poet with a Czernowitz connection. Dr. Singer had been with Paul Antschel in France before the war, when both were premed students. The friendship had never been as close as the friendship with David Seidmann; however, on his visit to Jerusalem Celan had stayed at the Singers’ apartment. Manuel remembered Celan saying of “The Meridian”: “Das ist mein Glaubensbekenntnis (that is my credo).” He also remembered him humming a stanza of the “Warschowjanka,” a revolutionary song that had often been sung in Czernowitz. Another person with whom I spoke in Jerusalem told of marching with Celan during the student demonstrations in 1968. But the revolutionary aspirations of Celan’s generation had long been crushed, and those of another generation were about to gutter out.
I became a regular guest at the Singers’ apartment; they would regale me with coffee and cakes and I would sing for them and show them my poems and we would talk about the state of the world. When my parents paid their visit to Israel in 1983 I brought them to the Singers for an evening. I think that to my mother the encounter with their humanity explained something.
The Singers gave me a copy of Israel Chalfen’s biography of Celan’s early years, which had just been published. The first chapter had appeared a few years earlier, and I had read it then, but it made a much greater impression now that I knew some of the poet’s fellow-survivors.
Celan’s poetry is not a poetry of explicit reminiscence or description. The closest he comes to describing his home community is when he says in the Bremen speech: “It was a landscape where books and humans lived.” Yet the interested generated by his work has led others to reconstruct his background, and Dr. Chalfen was first and foremost among them. He was a retired physician, born in Czernowitz ten years before Celan, whom he had not met until the poet’s visit to Israel. He seems to have known or gotten to know everyone in Israel who knew anything about Paul Celan; he also corresponded with the scattered survivors of the Antschel family. His book Paul Celan: Eine Jugendbiographie is based on his own memories of the city and the recollections of all these people and various letters in their possession. With all the discounts that must be made for the accuracy of people’s memories, from these memories an image arises, not only of the poet but of the community from which he emerged. A community in which Rilke was a popular poet. Reading Dr. Chalfen’s account I could almost hear voices of laughter and song and intense discussion, all the joyous feverish dialogue that had been so terribly stopped. It was not only the friends of Paul Celan who remembered it; in a book on the sculptor Bernard Reder I found a reminiscence by the sculptor of the vital synergy and creativity in that place and time. It was like Berkeley in the ‘60's, only on a higher intellectual level, and untouched by the drugs and the cult of brutality that had destroyed the Berkeley culture from within. On Czernowitz the blow had fallen from without.
The Singers gave me Dr. Chalfen’s phone number, and I called him up and went to visit him. Another small, plain-looking old man of infinite culture. In his simple living- and consulting- room on Keren ha-Yesod Street hung an original pencil drawing by Gisèle Celan-Lestrange, entitled “Toward a Center.” It consisted of a cloud of dots that seemed to be swirling around; amid them one could make out a shape that reminded me of Breughel’s Tower of Babel. Without the title you would not know whether the dots were converging into this shape, or scattering. There were also some drawings and sculptures by Manfred Winkler, a Czernowitzer poet who had translated Celan into Hebrew.
I don’t recall when Dr. Chalfen told me he had first encountered the work of Paul Celan. But he had already read him at the time he visited Israel. When they met, Dr. Chalfen expressed his fascination with the poems and the difficulty he had in understanding them, and asked Celan for hints on how to interpret them. “Lesen, immer wieder lesen (read them again and again)” was the poet’s reply. Dr. Chalfen’s experience was quite similar to mine: he had in a way fallen in love with the poet and in the effort to understand had expanded his own reading and knowledge in several fields. Celan had been the focus of another education. (There’s a story by Sarah Orne Jewett, “Martha’s Lady,” of which I am reminded: a servant falls in love with a lady who visits the house once and then keeps in touch with the family, and after she has left the servant reads about the various places where the lady is traveling and acquires, in this manner, a sort of education.) Dr. Chalfen wrote poetry now and then, and I remember one couplet of his, written after he had sat up reading Celan on New Year’s Eve: “Ich hab die Sylvesternacht/ Mit Paul Celan verbracht.”
Through Dr. Chalfen I met still another Czernowitzer, Manfred Winkler, of whom I had heard before coming to Israel. Someone had sent me a clipping from HaDoar, a Hebrew magazine published in the States, with two poems by Paul Celan which he had translated.. A collection of his translations was published in 1983; it was the first book of Celan’s poetry in Hebrew. Manfred, a few years younger than Celan, had come to Israel in the 1950's and had begun writing Hebrew poetry while still in ulpan, the Hebrew language schools which the state runs for new immigrants. He also went on writing poetry in German. In his work there is a sensuousness and sensitivity that is combined with a deep melancholy and despair which in turn is tempered by humor. He is also a sculptor and graphic artist; some of the visual works reflect the horrors of the Holocaust more directly than the poetry. Like most of the Czernowitzers I have met, he is a very kind person. I remember, in the spring of 1980, meeting him in a little café, Café Hermon I think it was called, not far from Dr. Chalfen’s apartment. It was one of those cafés where there was no music, just tables, and you could sip a cup of coffee and talk for long hours. The greatest entertainment ever devised.
Toward the end of the spring of 1980, Dr. Chalfen came up with the idea of starting a discussion group on Paul Celan’s poetry, and we agreed to begin meeting upon my return in the fall.
And that spring another encounter, long awaited, finally took place.
I learned from David Seidmann that Gisèle Celan-Lestrange was going to visit Israel. David gave me her address, and I wrote her a letter in French. I showed it to David, who corrected the French, and sent it off. Did I receive a written reply from her? I don’t remember. At any rate, for several days I knew that she was in Jerusalem, but she had not yet called. A poem got written that reflects the suspense I was in.
Has then the night no messengers for me?
Is there no voice to go to her and say
what my too trembling hand perhaps obscured,
no angel to appear behind locked doors,
saying "fear not"? Is the hand closed that strewed
my path with signs, to warn and reassure,
and cannot set before her one small thing
to speak of me? Has this holy city,
fille dwith a thousand generations’ love,
no stones to cry out as she passes by?
And you, whom I felt move behind this world,
the echoes of whose footsteps I have followed
beyond the mortal gate, who spoke to me
when I despaired, to say you were still there?
Can you not go and gently touch her life,
tell her that you are more than a remembrance,
speak to her of me, as of some comfort?
O G-d – I speak , at last, that ultimate Name,
G-d of deserts and of parting seas,
G-d of mountain-thundering decrees,
and of the still small voice within the heart,
of all our loves the finish and the start,
sole author of our being and our pain –
could You console me, if I’ve called in vain?
I grieve that hates so easily conjoin,
and evil wills soon reach an understanding,
while love is fenced from love by its own will,
and hands that yearn can seldom join to save.
I, an unheard lament, dwell in the world,
and pray with every breath for a miracle
splitting the darkness of men’s separate hearts
and showing them, as once on Sinai’s slopes,
eternal Presence and eternal Will.
The scattered tokens of a single love
of this let all the stars of this night sky
that holds this city slo close against itself,
this land’s stones, weathering with sun and tears,
the air of this spring in Jerusalem,
Not long afterward she did call, and we met. I remember walking with her on Strauss Street, near Mea Shearim of all places, sitting with her at a café in nearby Geulah. Did I show her that poem? I’m not sure. In any case I certainly conveyed the gist of it to her. Probably I showed her the “Invitation” (I seem to recall that she could read English), and for a certainty I showed her a poem written in French, that fall, inspired by one or the other of Michal G.’s French-speaking contacts.
She was a small, slim, straight-backed woman, with strong, handsome features and an air of French sophistication. I could see that she had been, and was still, a very attractive woman. (Before or after that, David showed me a photograph of her from the 50's that was not only attractive but breathtakingly lovely.) Oddly, as I reach for terms of comparison for the person I met in 1980, my friend Nadine from Berkeley comes to mind. It made my heart sink a bit, for of course this is a kind of charm, a kind of electricity, which I have never possessed. A weapon I was scared of and did not want to learn how to wield. And I felt that she saw this, with a tinge, however courteously and kindly concealed, of the successful woman’s amusement at spinsterish romanticism. And on the other hand I felt that there was something she was still trying to understand and not succeeding altogether, for in the end her magic had failed to keep him in the world. It seemed to me that at times she tried to employ the language of his poems and didn’t get it quite right. How arrogant that sounds! But I can think of someone else who has undoubtedly been deeply affected by Celan and whose way of writing about him always grates on me in a similar manner. Perhaps that feeling – as though someone played a beloved melody out of tune – is a symptom of the difficulty we have in really sharing what is dearest to us. Or maybe it is that neither of these two individuals, the widow and the scholar, quite understood the breadth of Celan’s outreach. And yet I remember clearly her saying, when we touched on Celan’s trips to Germany, “Mon mari avait une grande generosité (my husband had a great generosity)” – he could never imagine that the particular individual to whom he spoke in Germany had had anything to do with what had happened. There’s a posthumous poem (“Wolf’s Bean”) that shows he did at times imagine it: “Whose hand did I shake, Mother/ when I traveled through Germany?”. But she glimpsed at least this vast hope that couldn’t accept what happened as the final word.
She had come to Jerusalem – why? For the same reason, doubtless, that I had come there, because it was a place where he had thought it important to go, and where, perhaps, something of him might be retrieved. “Say that Jerusalem is.” She had been visiting the holy places and was surprised to learn that I wasn’t that interested in them. “Oh,” I said, “I suppose I’ll see all that someday, but that isn’t what is important to me here. Jerusalem to me is a meeting place for people who have come here from such different places, by such different ways.” Of course, I could have added, I had been to the Wall a few times, had murmured Celan’s “Psalm” with my forehead against the stones.
Mme. Celan-Lestrange and I met a second time, this time in the restaurant at the King David hotel, and from this meeting I remember most clearly her telling me about reading the first chapter of Genesis with their son Eric. She said that he had asked her, “Is that true?” and she had answered: “I don’t know.” When she had said that we looked at each other for a moment, the great puzzlement spread out between us.
Perhaps in the end it really did all come down to that question of faith. Me, I believe in the Cambrian, the Ordovician, and the Silurian; I even have toward those divisions of time a certain feeling of natural piety. And yet my life has been touched by a different order of causality, that had brought me to Jerusalem, a city founded on the assumption that Genesis is in some sense true.
I believe we also spoke of Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger, a cousin of Paul Antschel, four years younger, who perished, like Leo and Fritzi Antschel, in Transnistria.
Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger: she began writing poetry in 1939, at fifteen. On the eve of her deportation three years later, she managed to send a handwritten book, Blütenlese, containing 57 poems, to her friend Else Keren, with instructions to give it to Lejser Fichman, the young man to whom the book is dedicated. Lejser Fichman, who survived the Nazi occupation in a labor camp, kept the notebook with him for several years and then gave it back to Else Keren in 1944 before taking ship for Palestine, to keep "in case I don't make it." He didn't make it; the ship was sunk by the Soviets. Another friend, Renee Abramovici, brought the book to Israel. In 1968 someone found copies of two of the poems in Bukarest and printed them in an anthology ‑‑ Welch Wort, in die Kaelte gerufen (What Word Cried out in the Cold) ‑‑ of German poems by Jewish victims and survivors of the Holocaust. The anthology also included two poems by Paul Celan. On his visit to Israel he spoke of the anthology with Hersh Segal, who had been one of Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger's teachers. It was Hersh Segal who eventually arranged to have a first edition of Bluetenlese printed; it came out in 1979.
Strangely, I had seen the anthology, Welch Wort in die Kaelte Gerufen, before coming to Israel. Sometime in the 1970's, wandering through the stacks of the University library , I had noticed the large grey book with a star of David on the binding, and the title, and had taken it out, though I can’t have read it all. For I don’t believe I could have read the following lines and forgotten them:
Ich moechte leben.
Ich moechte lachen und Lasten haben
und moechte kaempfen und lieben und hassen
und moechte den Himmel mit Haenden fassen
und moechte frei sein und atmen und schrein.
Ich will nicht sterben. Nein!
I want to live.
I want to laugh and lift loads,
I want to struggle, to love and to hate,
I want to grasp heaven with my hands
and be free and breathe and cry out.
I don't want to die. No!
That is from Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger’s longest piece, an irregularly-rhymed poem of 90 lines called, simply, “Poem.” The other poems are more restrained, though deeply felt; they are well-crafted and melodious; they experiment with various forms, mostly rhymed. Love and nature are the main, but not the only themes. One hears the influences of Verlaine, Rilke; there is a poem to Stefan Zweig. Evidently this was a serious poet in training. In the back of the book there is a photograph that shows her standing on a street in Czernowitz, in 1940, with her friend Else Keren. Both smile at the camera, but Selma's smile is the more intense: it radiates a joy that I couldn’t remember having seen on a living face. Perhaps it is no longer possible. If I am remembering this right, Gisèle Celan-Lestrange said that she had the same photograph, enlarged, hanging over her work table.
I ask myself now: what did I want of her? Well, I guess I wanted her to help me to establish that to read Celan’s work is to enter into a kind of human covenant, the terms of which we have to make clear among ourselves. The same thing I have asked of every other reader. But she had experienced him on very different terms. I always knew I could not blame her for not understanding or accepting. I blame her still less, of course, now that I have read the book of their correspondence. I think I wrote to her after our meeting, sent her some more things. But she did not write back.
Thoughout most of my Jerusalem years, I went on pursuing the retreating image of Czernowitz. I was privileged to meet Hersh Segal and his brother, Gershon, who still lived in Rechovot; over the next couple of years, until Hersh Segal's death, I visited them several times. Hersh Segal was a large and large-hearted man who emanated an aura of goodness and quiet authority. He must have been an amazing teacher. Hersh Segal spoke to me of the young girls in Shomer Ha-Tsair, to which Selma had belonged. He had thought highly of them, and “very few of them came back.” From the Segals I also learned about another movement that had been popular in Czernowitz, a movement based on the philosophy of Konstantin Brenner, who tried to work out a practical application of Spinoza's philosophy. I think it was Gershon Segal who had been involved as a youth with this movement; he lent me a book or two. Hersh Segal spoke of the good feeling that had existed between the adherents of various groups in Czernowitz; the Orthodox and the secular differed without bitterness. After I had known him several years, David Seidmann confided to me that as a youth he had been interested in Esperanto, the "universal language" invented by an Eastern European Jew in hopes of furthering world peace. David remembered that Paul Antschel, whose idealism had taken the more dangerous form of membership in the Communist Party until word about the 1937 purges got out, had been skeptical about Esperanto.
Just recently I found on the Internet an article by someone, apparently a non-Jew, who remembered the “dialog culture” of Czernowitz. He said that in Czernowitz the leaders of the different faiths were on good terms, and it was considered bad manners not to know about one’s neighbor’s holidays. I dare say that was possible because in that area the Jews were in a leading position, due to their role as colonists of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Due to this historic accident, the language of German high culture was, in that region, a Jewish language. Perhaps the Rumanian settinge also contributed to the Czernowitz character. My informants told me that Rumania before the war had been a prosperous agricultural country; they mentioned the beauty of the landscape, the easygoing temper of the inhabitants; Dr. Chalfen said that during the war the Rumanians had not been as bad to the Jews as some other peoples.
The Jerusalemer Celan‑Arbeitskreis, as it eventually came to be called, began meeting in the fall of 1980 at Dr. Chalfen's apartment; the founding members were Dr. Chalfen, Manfred Winkler, I, and Mary Zilzer. Mary was the widow of a Hungarian painter, Gyula Zilzer; she was a small woman with a mournful, musical voice and a strong Russian accent; she knew Russian English and German literature well, and though she never admitted to writing anything herself, she was an exquisitely sensitive reader. She had a spacious apartment in the Rehov Narkiss, decorated, as she herself dressed, in reticent good taste, with the works of her late husband (a fine draftsman and colorist who worked in a variety of styles) displayed on the walls; there, too, I could be sure of coffee, cakes and conversation. After a year or two the circle was joined by Magali Zibaso, a German-born philologist and musician who eventually began to write poetry herself and has become well known in German poetry circles. And eventually Eva Avi-Yonah, the Vienna-born widow of the archaeologist Michael Avi-Yonah and a poet and painter in her own right, became a regular participant. Others came and went: a poet from the Ukraine, Moshe Fishbein, who had translated Celan into Ukrainian; a visiting professor from Germany; someone who brought and article about Chernovtsy, formerly Czernowitz, where no Jews are living now. I could never get David Seidmann to come to a meeting; the Singers may have come once or twice.
The circle met ‑‑ how often? once a week? once a month? I am no longer sure. The form of the meetings was simple ‑‑ someone would suggest a poem to look at, and we would then discuss that poem, each one giving his or her interpretation, sometimes bringing in other poems. I wish now that I'd taken notes, but perhaps the main thing was just the experience of figuring it out together. At the end of the discussion we all generally felt that we understood the poem better. The circle continued to meet throughout most of my time in Israel, dissolving only when Dr. Chalfen's health failed. The poems were inexhaustible. One thing that the discussions did for me was to sharpen my perception of the humor in the poems, the subtle, Czemowitz humor. At one point I thought of writing an essay on it and bookmarked the poems in which I had detected this humor. But I didn't get around to it and one day shook out the bookmarks, to my regret. I'm not sure I could see it as clearly now.
Toward the end of 1980 I set myself to write an outline of my own overall interpretation, giving it the form of a letter to the poet. It felt more natural to say "Is this what you meant?" than "This is what he meant." The result was a longish essay entitled "Paul Celan, Dichter des Imperativs." Naturally the interpretation centered on those poems by which I felt most directly addressed; I wrote as a representative of the readership and emphasized those passages that appear to envision an assembly of the addressed. I made copies for the members of the group and read it at one of the meetings, and they heard me with great good will, even though they did not necessarily accept all of my conclusions. This, of course, was a source of frustration to me, for I was always hoping that from these conclusions, if it could be agreed upon, a way of action could begin.
It was far too late for that; I know, I know. All of the Czemowitzers and honorary Czemowitzers, Dr. Chalfen, Manfred, the Singers, the Segals, Mary Zilzer, and Ilana Shmueli and Else Keren and Renee Abramovici-Michaeli and Celan's cousin Edith Huberman and another friend named Eli Pinter, all of whom I also eventually visited, were older people haunted by terrible memories. For them prewar Czemowitz was a distant dream which they kept alive among themselves but without much hope of transmitting it to a future generation. At one point I wrote a song for the Czernowitzers, called “City of the Dreamers”:
On the city of the dreamers fell a night of hardest rain,
Laying waste the fragrant gardens that may never bloom again,
And the dreamers scattered, silent in their grief and pain –
Only one remained.
In the city of the sleepers someone woke and heard a call.
When at last she rose to open there was no one there at all.
But the voice kept sounding through the midnight’s solid wall,
Teaching her to call.
Voice that called me, hand that held me, far beyond the darkest sea,
In the future those that answer build the city of the free.
We will not forget you, dreamer –
Somewhere someone sings this song with me.
I sang this for the Arbeitskreis, and they seemed to like it. I think they were touched by my interest, by the curious phenomenon of someone whom Celan's word had lured from so far away. But they could only share their memories with me; they could not go with me toward the future I was still trying to envision.
And yet my involvement with the Arbeitskreis led to many things. First of all, “Dichter des Imperativs” got published. Someone suggested I show it to the editor of the Bulletin des Leo Baeck-Instituts, and he accepted it. I offered to rewrite it in conventional essay form, but he said that would not be necessary. Partly on the strength of this publication, and thanks to the good offices of Manfred, I was invited to take part in two colloquia on Celan that were held in Haifa during the time I was there. The first was held in 1984 or 1985; it was the first colloquium on Celan to be held in Israel and all the participants were Israeli; for this I wrote a paper in Hebrew called “Language and the Inhuman,” which was eventually published in an English version by a journal called Dappim (Pages). The second colloquium was held in 1986, and about half the participants were scholars from Germany. My presentation for this colloquium was called “Das Dunkle und das Helle (The Obscure and the Clear).” It took aim at scholarly equivocation, at an obscurantist “hermeneutics” that produces interpretations less intelligible than the poetic text, and affirmed the possibility of an unambiguous interpretation of what Celan was trying to say, in “The Meridian” particularly. The proceedings to this colloquium were published in a German scholarly journal, and one of the participants, Hans-Michael Speier, edited a journal called Park for which I eventually wrote a brief account of my interview with Celan which found its way into a German critical anthology. Thus I appear in a few bibliographies, at least, and the date of our interview – August 4, 1969 – is in the record from 1987 on. I am glad of this, for a reason that will appear later.
Another thing that came out of the Arbeitskreis was my participation in the Jerusalem “Voices” group. As the most continuous English poetry group in Jerusalem it would doubtless have come to my attention somehow or. But the way it happened was that a German-and-English poet named Fredy Brandler, who lived only intermittently in Israel, came to a meeting of the Arbeitskreis, and it was he who urged me to attend a “Voices” meeting.
“Voices” was then a larger group than it is now; even then, most of the participants were middle-age or older. There were poets from the U.S., Israel, England, South Africa, South America, Europe. Most of the poetry was in English, but some was in Hebrew or other languages. There were several poets whose native language was German, like Fredy and the elfin Rolf Radlauer and Eva Avi-Yonah, who became English poets in order to communicate with the group. On the other hand Lami Halperin, an American living on a kibbutz, brought in Hebrew as well as English poems. The Hebrew poet Assi Degani translated and was translated by several members. Stylistically, too, the offerings were diverse. Anyone who could wield a pencil could come and present three poems, preferably after handing out copies. Accordingly, the group did not have a reputation of being first-rate, and the English-speaking poets who taught at the Hebrew University and published in the United States looked down on it. They missed a lot of fun; the tolerance of the group allowed strong, individual styles to flourish. When I think of the group I see the various homes in which we met: Jean Kadmon’s loft; Eva Avi-Yonah’s library; Ruth Finer Mintz’s apartment near the Israel Museum, with works by Agam and other contemporary Judaica; Daphne Dostrovski’s little stone house where the walls were hung with her fine landscape paintings (realism with an Impressionist touch). As with every group of poets I have joined, I wished for a fusion of visions, in the kind of “Sabbath-day” recognition that Celan had projected as his last poetic act. I read them poems like this one, written down after the Sabbath in December 1984:
THE UNWRITTEN POEM
The poem I have not yet written
whose first line would be the doorsill
to another space
The poem I have not written yet
whose form would be that space domed for meeting
filled with its own darklight
like the shine from invisible candles
The poem I have not written
whose words would be humans met
The poem not yet written
whose voice would be the inner voice of all
I would send you
But while we seemed to energize one another, each poet remained in his or her own microcosm.
The sore point in my work with the Voices group was represented by a poem entitled “Beatrice in Jerusalem,” which I wrote shortly after joining. It was long, but I hoped they would hear it, as a serious work worth making room for, and they only let me read a couple of pages. (So why, Cameron, did you not read it to them in installments, instead of getting mad at them?) To the next meeting one of the other poets brought a poem addressed to the Holy Spirit and concluding with words like “We can no longer receive you; go away.” It was the same story as with the Arbeitskreis: tired survivors of terrible events seeking only to preserve a little of the music of their youth, without the strength for new quests. But who else could have heard me at all...
All the same, again, various things came out of the group. In 1983 Eva Avi-Yonah decided to publish her own magazine, Seven Gates, and invited me to serve on the editorial board, which I did for several years. Lami Halperin, Hadassah Haskale, Caryl Bulmer and Eva Shaltiel were also on the board, all mature, strong-minded poets. There were many terrible fights (again a major sore point was “Beatrice in Jerusalem,” which I begged them in vain to publish), but the product was in my opinion a beautifully produced and illustrated magazine of very high quality, though, again, the university people didn’t agree. A couple of years later Eva started an offshoot group for German-writing poets, the Lyris (Lyrik Israel) group, and eventually also another magazine, Lyris. Manfred Winkler participated in this group, and I also joined and wrote a number of German poems for it.
In the Voices group I found a number of good friends. The first was Hadassah Haskale, who lived in Kiryat Yovel in a small, sparely-furnished apartment overlooking a wadi. Hadassah had been to India and back by bus and had studied in Pondicherry, at the ashram founded by Sri Aurobindo and “the Mother.”. Hadassah was and is a devotee especially of Aurobindo’s epic poem Savitri, which, like the Divine Comedy, is a variant of the Orpheus myth: Savitri’s husband dies and she goes to the other world to retrieve his soul. Unlike Orpheus she is successful. As in the Divine Comedy, the journey is a pretext for a survey of the cosmos. Though Aurobindo’s poetry is often quite competent, I found Savitri hard going and preferred his prose essay on the Mother. It was some years before I realized that the Mother was a Jewish woman named Mira, trained in Kabbala. Hadassah was supportive of my work, beginning with “Beatrice in Jerusalem,” and she had an understanding for my connection with Paul Celan, though we argued over my attempts at “recruitment” and also over the “peace process,” in which she believed and which I mistrusted.
Another poet I met in “Voices” was Lea Tanzman, who lived downtown. Lea’s family got out of Poland and came to Israel just in time. Though Orthodox, she had majored in English literature and during most of my years in Israel was writing her doctoral thesis on William Golding, as well as poems from time to time in a stark, minimalist style. Lea’s mother, now widowed, lived just a couple of blocks from Lea. After Lea's mother died, Lea and I became close friends, and eventually I moved into Lea's mother's apartment in Rehov HaMa'alot, paying rent by the month. It was easier than coping with the Israeli housing situation, which I could never bring myself to face. I did some typing and editing for Lea over the years, and I could almost always go to Lea and Ben-Tsion's for Shabbat if no one else invited me.
At Voices I also met Hamutal Bar-Yosef, a poet and scholar who had grown up on a kibbutz. Hamutal read Beatrice in Jerusalem and translated "Invitation," which I'd included in the longer poem; later she translated the first chapter of The Consciousness of Earth. And she introduced me to Ruth Blumert, a poet and the author of a novel, The Tower. Eventually I translated The Tower and some of Ruth’s poems, and Ruth translated c.
Another thing to which the Arbeitskreis led was my acquaintance with the late Professor Simon Halkin, to whom I am forever indebted. In the winter of 1980-81 Manfred Winkler showed my translations of Paul Celan to Halkin, and Halkin indicated to Manfred that he would like to meet me. We met first at the Savyon, as the cafe at the corner of Azza and Ben Maimon, not far from Dr. Chalfen's house, was then called. The place has changed hands several times; in 2002 it was the scene of a terrible suicide bombing, of which the victims were all young students. At the time when I met Prof. Halkin the Savyon was frequented mainly by older academics and literati; it had a kind of library atmosphere.
Halkin was one of the last survivors of the founding generation of Israeli writers. He was born in a shtetl in Russia in 1897 and received an intense Talmudic education from the widowed rabbi of the community, who took him into his home. As a young man he came to the United States and studied at Columbia University; he showed me an essay in English on Shelley that he had written at that period. Then he had come to Israel. He had been close to Agnon, to Gershom Scholem, to Yocheved bat Miriam. (I remember him saying to me: "With Agnon you could share feelings like with a rock.")
He was a lean, ancient-looking man, already walking with difficulty; the narrow face with the high forehead made one think of the skull beneath the skin, but inside that skull burned an unquenchable fire. Despite the impression of great age one could still see, somehow, the beauty that shone in his youthful portraits, as well as in his grandson whom I saw one day. Once he showed me a manuscript that he had written, so he told me, without corrections. It was like printing, vertical, with long strokes, a stark calligraphy. There was in him a combination of sensitivity and iron will. He had more religious passion than faith; one of the things he pointed out to me in his collected poems was a sequence of poems on the prophet Jeremiah. One theory he mentioned to me was that G-d is unconscious, or only gradually coming to consciousness. I remember his saying to me at the Savyon, the eyes beneath the skull-forehead flashing terribly: "Someday humanity will grow up."
There is a saying that I remember hearing for the first time from Michal: “Everyone has their own Shulchan Arukh (code of Jewish law).” Halkin’s Shulchan Arukh must have been a complex document. It comprised a fierce, but not sectarian loyalty. He told me once that he decried the divisions within Judaism and quoted with approval the saying of someone he had known in Europe: “I’m Orthodox – and I eat [a substance referred to in many Orthodox texts as ‘something other]!” It was not, of course, the dietary deviation that Halkin approved of, but the view that there is only one Judaism, however lax or strict one’s observance of it. Halkin’s own main deviation from Orthodoxy was his bitter pessimism (“It is a great command to be always in joy.” – Rabbi Nachman of Breslov). When Halkin looked at his country he seemed to see above all the effects of a relentless pounding from without – “You must realize that this is a country that has lost generation after generation of future leaders in war” – and of internal flaws as well. It often seemed to me that he was attracted by my hopefulness yet at the same time felt compelled to attack it.
After we had met several times at the Savyon, he started receiving me at his apartment in Radak Street, as he no longer felt up to walking the two or three blocks. His wife Minnie would open the door and show me into the study, where he would be sitting behind the desk. The study was a high-ceilinged room, and all four walls were lined with books from floor to ceiling, and I do not doubt that he had read them all. Besides the immense corpus of the Hebrew writings he knew Greek, and of course all the modern European languages. His poetry was formal and laden with allusions; and yet he had translated Whitman's Leaves of Grass, and he nearly threw me out when I dared to hint at reservations about Whitman. But in most of our literary tastes we agreed, insofar as I could follow him. I remember reading with him a poem by Millay, "Feast." He said yes, she was a great poet; the attacks on her reputation, and the mindset they represented, were scandalous. “It’s a dastardly, bastardly situation!” He did not much care for the current generation of poets: "They're so self-centered -- and the center is so small!"
He did not much like Paul Celan, though. He said that my translations had given him some appreciation for Celan as a poet, but not as a person! Halkin, with all his universal culture, was a Zionist, with a passion rooted in a sense of general justice as well as ethnic loyalty. For the enemies of Israel he had no apologies and no use. I guess writing in German after the Holocaust seemed to Halkin like truckling, and of course committing suicide was finishing the work of our enemies. Although it was to Paul Celan that he owed the pleasure of my acquaintance, I am not sure he ever quite forgave me my attachment to the quasi-renegade.
But to my work he was a friend. I showed him Alien Earth and the manuscript of c, and he spoke warmly of both. He encouraged my attempts at Hebrew poetry, and got one of my Hebrew poems inserted in a Hebrew newspaper, with himself credited as translator, because, he said, they wouldn’t have accepted it otherwise. (Years later, the anthology Rav-Kol printed a Hebrew poem of mine and assigned it a translator whose name I had never heard of!) But the vision that my poems expressed met mostly with his exasperation. I'm not sure what he thought I ought to be. Perhaps if he had still been writing poetry he could have told me, but he had stopped writing poetry some years previously. He would say to me things like: "You are a grande poétesse, you are a completely self-centered artist, and yet you want to be like one of those pious women with a scarf on her head!" Once he also said that I had not one soul but a group of them.
One day in the spring of 1981 he opened his collected poems to one of the earliest things in it, "Beyn Sla'im (Among Rocks)," a blank verse monologue addressed by the speaker to his own soul. It begins:
How dear you are to me, O outcast soul of man,
how lovely in my sight, here in this exile,
It goes on for nine pages, talking about the soul's exile in the body and in the world, its struggle and yearning for redemption. The soul has inherited something of its Maker's vision but not its Maker's power; it strains against its limitation and separation from other souls, but eventually its redemption will arrive,
the eternal spring when every single soul
will open to become a tabernacle
for the living God, will widen to contain
the waters of the ocean of His dream,
full to the vast horizon's edge for ever.
Not long after I had read “Among the Rocks,” the internal voice that dictates the beginnings of my poems pronounced the following lines:
Among these stones, both ancient and new-quarried,
one substance underneath the dark and light
of varying time, bespeaking the one source
to which I have returned (I say returned,
though I know none whose blood is in my veins
that walked here, yet here certain words were written
from which, though mingled and transformed, descended
this more-than-life) I, Beatrice, pass,
living and yet a shade, a dream undreamt,
like her whom Faust waked from unfathomed sleep
to hear her own life told, a stranger's tale,
And I knew this was to be a poem called “Beatrice in Jerusalem.” Over the next week or so it came out, a monologue a bit longer than Halkin’s. While writing it I had a sense of Celan’s presence, to a degree I cannot remember with any other work. In this poem the speaker remembers her past (literary) lives, recounts her present incarnation (i.e. my history with Paul Celan) and questions why she is in the world. The poem recapitulates not only literature and theology but also Darwinistic evolution (so that this poem, my first extended effort in blank verse, is also a kind of study for The Consciousness of Earth). In the end the speaker accepts that she will not be recognized, but prays to be able to go on living in Jerusalem and for the safety of that city. I gave copies to the Arbeitskreis, and Dr. Chalfen surprised me by saying that he could hear Celan’s voice in it, even though the poem is in iambic pentamenter, a form Celan never used.
Halkin did not care for “Beatrice in Jerusalem.” "A little light is better," he said. But he still wanted to help me, and and late in 1982 he decided to translate a chapbook of my poems and use his connections (Zerubbavel Gil’ad at HaKibbutz Hameuchad) to get it published. "That should bring a smile to your sad face!" he said. He made the selection from Alien Earth. Like Ismene back in Berkeley, he liked the short, early ones best. He included two rhymed poems but did not try to translate the rhymes; he said that he never translated in rhyme. But the translations had a radiance that I’d never seen in the originals. “So, Hebrew is the holy tongue,” I thought. But of course not every translation into Hebrew makes one feel this! The collection, Or Mudrag (A Gradual Light), was published in 1983.
Not long afterward Mary Zilzer brought to the Arbeitskreis an issue of The New Yorker with the first installment of Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth. “This is something you must read,” she said to me.
Schell’s book impressed me as a milestone in our thinking, not only about the nuclear threat but about human survival generally. In the first and second parts he meditates deeply on what it means for humankind, spiritually, to be faced with the prospect of extinction. He analyzes the effects on the culture, on human relationships, on the soul, and begins searching for a spiritual solution. But in the third part he turns outward toward political solutions, leaving the spiritual quest hanging. Immediately upon reading this, I began writing a prose sequel to the second part. I called it “The Consciousness of the Earth.” To counter “fate” with “consciousness” is, of course, a response inspired by the Jewish tradition. Already Bluma Goldstein had stated as a Jewish belief that human problems could be solved by conscious thought. Rashi talks about Avraham’s freedom from the determinism of the stars. Rabbi Faier had emphasized this point in our conversations. And I also thought of Rabbi Akiva’s statement in Avot 3:14: “Beloved is man, for he was created in the image of God. It was an act of special favor that it was disclosed to him that he was created in God’s image,” etc. Consciousness as the great privilege of existence.
This first version of my response to Schell did not come together. After about eighty pages of amorphous prose, I abandoned it. But then, that spring, I was invited to contribute an article to a special issue on Celan of an American literary magazine, Sulfur. Jerry Glenn, with whom I had had some communication in the States, and with whom I had reconnected through Dr. Chalfen, was editing the magazine. I decided to write about the image of the earth in Celan’s poetry, and an article called “The Distant Earth: Celan’s Planetary Vision” was the result. Among other things I noted that the image of the earth as seen from space, which appeared on the first Earth Day posters and also forms the subject of Schell’s meditation, appears quite distinctly in Celan’s poetry, especially after Sputnik; furthermore, this vision has a predecessor in the 22nd canto of the Paradiso, where Dante looks down on the earth from heaven. Shortly after I had finished “The Distant Earth” and sent it off, the soundless interior voice began dictating:
For many seasons I have sat and pondered
the omens of this wonder-perilous time,
and most of all that image all have seen,
the earth, that cloud-veiled jewel of blue and green
upon the black and lifeless infinite,
caught in our far-sent instrumental eye.
And so on for one hundred and thirty lines, in which the speaker undertook to summarize
all that I know of nature’s laws, the laws
that shpaed the human heart such that it seems
to war against the earth’s and its own life;
and then what sources in it, or beyond,
still flow with wisdom and the encouragement
to harbor, even now, a hope of turning,
of some discovery or revelation
to free it from itself, and give it peace –
a wakeful peace.
The speaker envisages a “Consciousness of Earth” in the sense both of the objective and the subjective genitive:
an outward knowledge, bent upon that object
of which we are a part, articulate,
an inward knowledge, flowing from our oneness
with all that is, and with that deeper Inward
by which alone Creation is sustained
That last line, again, derives from a well-established strain of Jewish theology holding that G-d did not merely create the world in the beginning but sustains it with a constant inpouring of the Divine abundance, without which it would crumble to nothing. (Judaism has long known about entropy.) Finally, the speaker comes up with a rationale for writing this exposition in blank verse:
Know, reader, what the elder poets knew
and what the distant disk of Earth now tells us:
that all things have their limit and their term
and in that term and limit is their form,
their beauty, and the laws which give them life,
shaping the energy which otherwise
would lose itself in boundless dissipation [...]
Who would not know the end can never know
the whole; but, knowing it, one’s thoughts cohere,
This, again, I would connect with the Jewish respect for laws and limitations.
According to the program dictated to me, I started out to read about the origins of the universe, the solar system, the evolution of life. I tried to infuse my retellings with the “natural piety,” that was my parental inheritance. Zvi Faier, whose quest for “unified reality” resonated with my own, provided me with some theories like that of the “anthropic principle,” which were attractive to him and others who were working to reconcile Torah beliefs with the discoveries of natural science. I knew that I could hope to distill only an approximate and provisory summary of scientific knowledge. Not only the simple belief in Genesis but also the permanency of the artistic work were challenged by the constantly-changing map of scientific discovery. But I had to believe that the program dictated to me was executable, so there was nothing for it but dogged persistence.
Four chapters were on paper in the fall of 1983; then the work was set aside. Haim Goldgraber, a scholar I had met while on a temporary secretarial job at the University, had spoken of me to his friend Prof. Paul Mendes-Flohr, who in turn had arranged for me the job of translating Buber’s mystical anthology, Ekstatische Konfessionen. That assignment struck me as especially providential, because I had seen a copy of that book with Celan’s underlinings. Ilana Shmueli had shown it to me.
I must have met Ilana Shmueli, the addressee of Celan’s Israel poems, early in 1982. Again the connection was made through David Seidmann. One day I took the bus to Tel Aviv, to visit her at the light, spacious apartment she shared with her husband, the musicologist Hermann Shmueli, a tall, quite handsome man with a quiet charm and humor. Ilana felt, I think, a little awkwardness at our encounter but could manage to be amused by it; and she took me also with a certain humorous seriousness.
Alone among the Czernowitz survivors I met, Ilana disclaimed any nostalgia for the setting of her youth. “Czernowitz was not good, it was false,” she said, giving herself a shake. Back then, she and Paul Antschel had not been particularly close, but still she had liked him because he would never call her by a comical nickname that others had been fastened on her. Ilana showed me the letters that he had written to her, letters that have now been published. I was struck especially by one piece of paper that just had one sentence on it, something like “I want you to become all that you can become.” It was Ilana who told me that he had probably ended his life on the night of the Passover seder. During the seder she had suddenly had a terrible feeling about him. She had set off for Paris the next day, only to find that he had disappeared.
Perhaps it was this experience that gave her an understanding for the way in which I had been affected. I felt that she listened to me with an open mind. She told me that he had spoken of me once, saying to her something like, “You have no idea how seriously I am being taken. This summer I was visited by a young lady from America. ‘Come from afar...’ I felt quite young.”
I was struck especially by the self-quotation “come from afar (gekommen von weit).” That is from “Colloquy in the Mountains,” Celan’s only short story, written two years before “The Meridian,” in which two Jews, “Great” and “Small” each one “come from afar,” meet and engage in a conversation that is frustrating precisely because each one already knows what the other has to say. Nevertheless the Jew named Small had sought out the meeting because he needed to speak to some human other and not just with his stick to the stone (by which, I guess, he meant writing poetry).
The effect of the self-quotation in this context is peculiar; I hear in it the note of recognition, but also of mockery and self-mockery. It is the note that one hears when an elevated passage is quoted in a somewhat less elevated context. In “Colloquy in the Mountains” the two speakers are both masculine. In the end Celan wanted very much to reach and affect “great” men, men of power (like that dreadful Heidegger whom he vainly tried to move to repentance), even though the poems most often address themselves to women and, accordingly, are most readily understood by women.
My encounter with the Scholems also illustrated this point. Gershom Scholem, the great scholar whose work on Kabbala so inspired Celan: he was still alive when I reached Jerusalem, I saw him once from a distance, a tall, sharp-nosed old man whom, somehow, I did not feel I could approach. Shortly thereafter he had died, and I, from the sense of a missed encounter, wrote an essay called “The Footprints of the Shekhinah,” gathering experiences and sources on a concept I had first seen explained in his work. Later I met his widow, Fanya. She told me that her husband had not known what to make of Celan’s poems. She herself had felt much more of a connection with them. But it was not her understanding that Celan, in giving his books to the Scholems, had sought. And again, in writing to Franz Wurm after the reading in March 1970 at which he had felt rebuffed by his audience, he mentions a couple of women who he thinks understood. But it was not enough. One can see a similar pattern in Kafka’s Castle, where K. is obsessed with trying to win the approval of the Castle officials, but talks mostly to women..
Perhaps that is partly why Ilana shared the view of Celan as a “leyts.” She said to me, very seriously: “Celan would have admired all that you are trying to do, but I don’t think he could have participated.”
I showed her Folie à deux, and she appeared impressed by it. We also spoke of Sylvia Plath; she said that she had read Plath in the ‘60's and had spoken of her to Celan, but he had not read Plath and she did not know if he ever did. But she agreed with me in seeing an uncanny correspondence between Plath’s “Night Dances” and Celan’s “Esther” poem, as though the two had been corresponding on that level where their poems came from. And, as said, she showed me the copy of Ekstatische Confessionen which Celan had given her, with his underlinings (they were all in the first excerpts, not the medieval passages). Naturally I did my best to recruit Ilana; but a kindly irony in which self-irony was included was the farthest she could come toward me.
As the reader sees, much of my time in Israel was spent à la recherche de Paul Celan. Not that anything the Czernowitzers told me could change what he had been to me. But I had to know the rest, as well.
After Or Mudrag came out, Halkin and I continued to meet, our conversations not always peaceable. He was filled with a sadness that often made him harsh, and he was not one to spare himself or anyone else. Once, after the funeral of a close friend of his, Manfred reported him saying, “Hu hayah rash’a merush’a (he was a wicked, wicked man)” even as the tears streamed down his face. And I think sometimes I angered him just because he saw my case as hopeless and took out his sorrow for me on me! By way of reciprocation, I translated “Among the Rocks,” but that translation has never found a publisher; the work was felt to be too old-fashioned. In the spring of 1984 I returned to Beruria for a course or two. The main result was my first Hebrew sonnet, which I called “Alien Fire.” It ended by saying approximately: “If my vision is untrue, then all my thought is in vain; if true, then G-d must be a beggar, since he had to make use of a beggar like me.” Some of the rhymes of this sonnet are folk rhymes, not the super-exact ones demanded by the Hebrew literary tradition; but the meter is smooth and the thought is expressed with the help of Biblical allusions in the approved manner. I showed this to Halkin; he read it, and reached across his desk to grip my hand – a moment that has been good to remember.
In the summer of 1984, as most summers, I went back to Madison for a prolonged visit to my parents, during which I rewrote The Web of What Is Written for the second time. On my return I heard that during the summer a sort of jubilee celebration for Professor Halkin had been held at the Hebrew University. Many writers and scholars had spoken in his praise, and he had been greatly moved. A few days or weeks later, he had suffered a stroke, from which he never fully recovered. He lingered after that for nearly three years, speaking little, although I heard that he still studied his Mishnah every day. I went on going to see him, not wanting to abandon him yet uncertain of doing good. I confess that even in that time I wrote him a poem – in Hebrew blank verse – that was like an attempt to wrest from him a final blessing.
In the spring of 1985, when I was feeling very discouraged, three hopeful signs appeared.
First, Paul Mendes-Flohr brought my work to the attention of Professor Zwi Werblowsky, who administered the Peter Schwiefert Prize, a grant awarded every few years to a writer not yet widely known. The grant had been entrusted to Prof. Werblowsky by the family of a young man who had fought with the French partisans, only to be killed in the last days of the war. I submitted Or Mudrag, Beatrice in Jerusalem, a few Hebrew poems, and the first chapter of The Consciousness of Earth, as work in progress. A committee headed by a well-known Hebrew poet was convened and awarded me the prize. Zvi Faier: “There is some justice in the world!” he said.
The second good thing was that Ruth Finer Mintz offered to put up some money for the publication of c by HaKibbutz HaMeuchad. It would come out in 1987, about the time Prof. Halkin’s last solitary vigil ended.
The third good thing was that the third version of the Small World, here known as the ‘Olam Katan, began to come together.
The award ceremony for the Peter Schwiefert Prize was held in July at Mishkenot Shaananim, a guest house where famous writers often stay. There was wine and good food, almost all my Jerusalem friends were there, Ilana came from Tel Aviv, and the well-known Hebrew poet who had headed the prize committee – I’m not mentioning his name because in the event his statement remained semi-private – gave a glowing encomium that ended with the words: “In Esther Cameron’s poetry there is a map that one could follow and not get lost (be-shirat Ester Qameron yesh mappah she-efshar lalekhet bah ve-lo lit’ot).”
This was so much what I wanted people to say of my work that I was stunned. After the speeches I said to the poet, “That is what I would like written on my tombstone!” It just came out like that. He was taken aback.
At that moment, when it seemed I was finally getting a “break,” my self-destructive streak showed up distinctly. In my acceptance speech I spoke of both Providence and universalism, thus managing to say something wrong to both the literary and the religious contingent. Chaim Goldgraber offered to obtain the text of the well-known poet’s remarks for me, but instead I went to see him, and a short nervous meeting ensued, in which again I said all the wrong things, and I never did get the text. Worst of all perhaps, I scheduled the second meeting of the ‘Olam Katan as a continuation of the prize ceremony, and everyone was tired. I had hoped that the intensity of the prize ceremony would continue into the meeting, that my personal literary triumph would broaden out into the start of a movement. It didn’t work.
But my real failure at that moment only became known to me eighteen years later. Among the attendees at the ceremony was the late Reuven Ben-Yosef, as a previous recipient of the prize. I saw a youngish man with an unassuming demeanor. He gave me a book of his poems. I glanced at it, but it did not speak to me immediately, and I never read it through, nor did I attempt to contact him. Probably, too, what I said at the ceremony put him off. My remarks were based partly on the letters of Peter Schwiefert, a young man who identified as a Jew but who also had the “assimilated” Jew’s sense of global humanity. Reuven Ben-Yosef, born in 1937, had grown up in an assimilated American family, and at twenty-one had already published a book of poems in English. Then a tour of military duty in occupied Germany made him aware of his Jewishness, whereupon he moved to Israel, learned Hebrew from scratch, and made himself over into a Hebrew poet. He lived nine years on kibbutzim before settling in Jerusalem. He managed to become learned in the scriptures and in the Hebrew literature of all ages. The rhymes in his Hebrew poems are classic rhymes! He strove to hold the middle ground between “religious” and “secular”: he kept Shabbat and kashrut but did not wear a kippah. A veteran of three wars, he was also relatively isolated by his patriotism in a literary milieu that was increasingly “post-Zionist.” Of all the poets of my generation, he was the one I should have connected with. He may well not have understood from my speech that for all my sense of a global consciousness I had accepted Rav Kook’s view that a global consciousness must be grounded in Zionism, as the great is rooted in the small. But in any case, after he had given me his book of poems, the ball was in my court. And I dropped it. Whether we could really have become allies, cannot be known for certain; but in any case the fact that I did not recognize him tells something about my spiritual level at the time. I was not what I would have had to have been.
The Peter Schwiefert prize carried a grant that intended to support the recipient for a year. I did not touch it immediately; I wanted to use it to finish The Consciousness of Earth, and I had first to condense c. When that was done, I began going to the library, reading all that I could about the next stage – the evolution of humankind. When I’d reached a kind of saturation point, I started writing. I made myself write fifty lines of blank verse a day. At first the verses were lame, wooden. But I persisted, and at a certain point began to feel a “quickening.” The verses acquired a pulse, and at the same time the chapter got organized and gathered momentum and finally was done. The process repeated itself for the next chapter, which was about the history of our species – early culture, civilization, technology, up to the present crisis. For the chapter after that I drew on my own experience of the movements that had tried to respond to the crisis – the debacle of the ‘60's and ‘70's. The perception of failure led to the contemplation of terrible prospects at the end of the seventh chapter. It was clear now that we had reached a dead end and why. The question was how, if at all, do we get past this. I had some ideas, had been putting them forth in a scattered fashion for years, but to give them a form that would correspond to the global consciousness that impinged on mine was not easy. I found myself back at the starting-point, and remained stuck there for a long time. In 1986 I went back to my parents’ house for the summer months and spent the entire summer writing the second half of the poem. But what I wrote that summer had no poetic quality, and I never used a line of it. Once back in Jerusalem I decided to start over with a chapter on the holes in the deterministic world-view and the evidence for the spirit. The second, more difficult half of the book began to take shape.
Meanwhile the ‘Olam Katan was meeting. I wrote an essay explaining the aims of the organization, its hope of establishing a meeting ground between the “religious” and “secular” worlds, of spelling out desiderata that might eventually guide the political process and arrest the cultural decline which no one disputed was going on. (Azriel Schreiber said to me over the phone one evening: “It’s not the Generation of the Flood, and it’s not the Confusion of Tongues, and it’s not the Captivity in Egypt, it’s baruch ha-Shem all three.”) In this version I laid down a couple of procedural rules for the meetings: after the reading of “Invitation” people would speak in turn, without interrupting one another, and each person would speak (or, if they preferred, be silent) for exactly five minutes, measured by a visible timer. One of the participants found a timer that contained a blue and a red fluid, one heavier than the other, and if you turned it over the light fluid would take five minutes to displace the heavy fluid on top.) When these rules were followed, a sort of relaxation ensued, in which people brought up interesting associations, and there were moments when the spirit I was trying to invoke was felt. Judy Moses captured it in a poem written after a meeting at which there were just six participants (a good number, as I’d experienced on earlier occasions:
WE SIT HERE
Like this star of David
In spite of
Or because of
Its infallible design
These two triangles
Seemingly staring in opposite directions
Independently arching into space
In this circling star
With but one center
But unfortunately, most of the energy of the group was wasted by arguments over whether the rules should be imposed and whether there was any hope for its enterprise at alll. The participants had allowed me to gather them, I suppose because they felt the same need as I did; but then they spent most of our time fighting me! The group lasted for several years, but did not grow.
In the summer of 1988 I was again in Madison, working on not one but two books. The winter before, in Jerusalem, I had written a book-length draft of a commentary on “The Meridian,” entitled The Impossible Way. So in the mornings, that summer in Madison, I labored over the second half of The Consciousness of Earth. It was the hardest work I’ve ever done; toward the end the sensation was like drowning. But finally the last chapter, the fourteenth, was written.
The Consciousness of Earth was an all-out attempt to reconcile my parents’ scientific heritage with my own experience of the spirit: to show a universe in which Darwinism and Kabbala could both be true. Although the speaker is only an anonymous voice, and although there is no direct allusion to my personal experiences, it is in its way as personal as “Beatrice in Jerusalem,” it is written from a personal identification with the planet.
In the afternoons, that summer, I rested from my labors by typing away at the final version of The Impossible Way. There I didn’t have to struggle for form, it was just an editorial job. In the evenings my parents and I would play auction bridge, and on Shabbat I would play solitaire – Canfield – at the kitchen table. I played it the strict way, where you only turn over the pack once, and in general it rarely comes out. But it often came out for me that summer. One afternoon it came out four times, including twice in a row. I have never been particularly lucky at cards before or since. In the fall I returned to Jerusalem with two books.
But things were not going well for me there; the literary generation to which I had ties was passing, and it was hard to envision a literary future. The Arbeitskreis was aging, Dr. Chalfen’s health was failing. Dr. Manuel Singer died of a heart attack late in the ‘80's; Dr. Martha Singer followed him a year later. Both funerals were largely attended, with words that showed how many people had been touched by their warmth and conscientiousness. David Seidmann also died of a heart attack, a little later. His daughter Yael was the only young person I met in Israel who had a real feeling for Celan’s work. At the time of his visit she had been old enough to remember. While in the army she worked with the radio station and put together one program about him, which I listened to. For a musical bridge she used Satie’s “Gnossiennes” – the same piece that I had played over and over in 1972, and to which my brother Don had written his poem. But during my visits to David I saw her only briefly; she never stayed long in the room. It was never easy for me to talk to young Israelis. They had their own hard stories; and to them Western humanism was a fatal delusion of generations past. The secular culture was getting more and more brutal. And the religious culture was getting more and more narrow. There were no more breaks. Economically things were getting harder, and particularly for writers. My parents had always helped me a bit since 1981, and now they had to increase their help, even though I now had a part-time secretarial job. And my parents were no longer happy supporting me in Jerusalem, my mother, especially, wanted me back home. If they hadn’t been there to help me and if they hadn’t needed me, perhaps I would have found some desperate strength, an answer to prayer; on the other hand if things had been going well in Jerusalem they would have felt better about my staying there. I felt caught in a vortex of forces, pushing me away, pulling me back.
The forces: looking back, I can see how much was against my being “absorbed,” as they say, into Israeli society. I had come to Israel at an unfortunate juncture. Ten years earlier, I might have been able to establish myself. In my first years there people would reminisce about a time when they had not had to lock their doors. People were less wealthy than in the U.S., but almost everyone seemed to be content with relatively little, living in simple apartments, riding the bus, sleeping on hard beds. But I gathered that the comradely way of life had already started to go out in the 1950's. Dr. Martha Singer said that one thing that changed the country was reparations money from Germany, which was given to individuals, not to the country as a whole. It made some people wealthier than others, and thus brought bad feeling. The younger generation on the kibbutz tended to opt for careers in the cities. The influence of the United States, on which Israel depended for military help, seemed also to be a factor; it was the Reagan era. Commercial culture operated in the Israeli milieu as elsewhere, teaching people to be foolish and wasteful and cruel, emptying out their lives, making a void they would try to fill with junk. Suddenly one could work full-time and not make the rent. I had trouble understanding how Israelis managed to survive at all. A woman from whom I learned some Ladino songs she had heard from her mother – not a particularly religious woman – told me that where she had come from people had been kinder to each other, they had had a sense of humor, she could not understand the way people were changing.
It was not just in Israel, of course; it was something that happened to the world during the mid-80’s. I remember hearing the word “monetarism” from the first time from a fellow-poet named Eva Shaltiel, who told me about how the gains of labor were taken back. I formed the impression that the fall of the Soviet Union had something to do with it; dreadful as the Soviet Union was, perhaps its presence kept capitalism in line, forced it to pretend that it was good for people. Now, suddenly, I felt as though the world had become completely out of proportion to the human being; I felt like an ant on a skyscraper.
And then there was my own character. The reader may have noticed, along with persistence and industry, a streak of passivity. Ester kark’a de-‘olam, Ester is the ground of the world, as the rabbis say; you remember that she does not ask for any special ornaments for her presentation to the king but just takes what the chamberlain picks out for her. In the same way I had never formed much of a strategy in Israel, unless the ‘Olam Katan could be considered such. I had just taken what came along. There are people I now wish I had tried to see, but didn’t, because it was my way just to move from one contact to the other. This passivity may partly explain why I did not take the most important piece of practical advice that was offered me while in Israel, which was to buy an apartment. Lea Tanzman, who had my interests at heart, was especially emphatic about this. But “The more property, the more worries,” as it says in Pirkei Avot, and perhaps a preference for the epiphytic mode of life is part of poetic nature. Afraid of making a wrong move, wanting to concentrate on my work; I refused to be “practical” (ma’asit); and this in itself separated me from other Israelis, who had no choice but to be practical. Then in the mid-eighties rents and property values climbed steeply and I was stuck. So in retrospect my “aliyah” looked like an adventure undertaken without that utmost commitment that would have been necessary to carry it through.
And then, there was also the problem of the teacher I was following – of Paul Celan, who was my “rebbe” for better or for worse. Again, reflecting on the gesture of semi-teshuva that gave us those last poems, I think of Kafka. Offending even in the act of seeking contact, he was as one who pounds on a door and simultaneously slams it in his own face. I had always to cope with the fallout from his ambivalence. And while suicide may be almost an acceptable gesture in some artistic circles, it does not inspire confidence in the rest of humanity and especially not among believing Jews, who hear themselves commanded to “choose life.” There is a sense in which I believe Celan did choose life – his language after all is preternaturally alive – but not even everyone who can read him perceives this. I thought of myself as trying to atone for him by offering counsel that would prove life-saving if taken; but it did not find favor. It would have needed something like a miracle. But for miracles, of course, one needs G-d.
If only I had stayed in the Torah community. I might have, if only I had been able to abandon the Western culture that had been the ground of my encounter with Paul Celan. It may wel be that in the end I mistook the garment for the essence.
Toward the end of my time in Israel, I had one more revelation about him that might have helped if I’d ponbdered it more thoroughly. I visited another Czernowitz survivor, the painter and Yiddish poet Freed Weininger, who read me his Yiddish translations of Celan’s early poems. I was electrified. Suddenly I understood the source of the strange music I had heard in those early poems. It was nothing other than the echo of Yiddish! I wrote a Hebrew poem that ended:
A wild violin is playing in the twilight
The melody of Rabbi Pesach Antschel
Whose Torah wandered forth among the goyim.
– As I was about to do again.
It is not that I had ever lost touch with the Torah world. I was keeping mitsvot, benefiting almost weekly from the Shabbat hospitality of my friends in the Orthodox community, attending shiurim sporadically, writing poems inspired by the teachings. And there was at least one moment when the barrier between Jewish and poetic identity seemed to vanish completely.
It was Shabbat, and the day of circumcision of the Schreibers’ seventh child. Something prevented my going to Sanhedriya Murchevet to be present for the event, and early on Shabbat morning I thought up a poem instead. I had the sense of descending or going out into a kind of oceanic space:
From Sabbath to Sabbath
you have waited
nameles in the shadow
of the knife. Only the number
of the day of covenant
inscribed amid your stars.
Can you see to the end of creation?
The name will come, and the pain.
May the pain be swift and slight,
the name true,
the fire unveiled in you
as a pillar of light
in this darkness
or as a pillar of heaven
in the light
of the seventh day.
After the Sabbath I wrote this down. Then I called the Schreibers and learned the name of the child: Moshe.
Once, in a second-hand bookstore near the market, I made the acquaintance of the proprietor, a man in a black skullcap who still looked his countercultural background. (He claimed to know Bob Dylan, and I once gave him a message for Bob Dylan, but he didn’t deliver it.) Somehow it came out that we were both born on the same day – September 10, 1041 – and he told me that day was the 18th of Elul. The birthday of the Baal Shem Tov and of the Alter Rebbe, the founder of the Lubavitch branch of Hasidism. But the pair of us weren’t sages, obviously. Over the years I talked to and learned from various teachers, but never really found a teacher. The original impasse remained.
Perhaps I was too much in love with something that was not rooted in any religion or ideology. With Czernowitzism. It was related to the culture of my parents’ and grandparents’ homes, worldly, tolerant, rich with all the wonders of enlightenment, and yet still imbued with a mutual feeling that was after all rooted in religion and did not long survive the demise of faith. A transitional phenomenon, it lacked a code of transmission. Often a saying of Simone Weil comes back to me, like a mournful consolation: “What is beautiful is not rooted in the universe.” My writings were a struggle to give Czernowitzism a constancy, a foundation, the power to endure. And to this day I can’t regret a single conversation with Manfred or Halkin, a single insight into Celan’s poetry gleaned at the Arbeitskreis.
And I also can’t regret the belief and hope that in Jerusalem if nowhere else, a voice from beyond all the divisions could be heard. In 1983 I wrote a song that was a plea for the hearing of the female voice as the voice of Earth: “Close your eyes and listen deep inside you, You will hear the night wind moaning for the trees,/ You will hear a sigh that’s deeper than the seas,/ It’s our voice that’s pleading for release.” The song concluded with a verse in Hebrew from Psalms: “Hear my prayer, O G-d, and let my cry come unto Thee.” It was an attempt at bridging the gap; but the gap remained.
By January of 1990 I was feeling very discouraged, and it happened just then that my father fell dangerously ill with pneumonia, and I paid an out-of-season visit to Madison to be with my parents during his recovery. One day while as I was agonizing over my future course, my mother said, “Would you like to go to law school?”
It was a moment when any suggestion was welcome. I went to the University of Wisconsin Law School, got an application, and took the LSAT test. Then I went back to Israel, struggled for a few more months, and finally decided to leave.
One of my last memories of those years when I was privileged to live in Jerusalem, is of trying to sell some books. The second hand bookstore proprietor would not take them; he was selling mostly thrillers and romances. A week or so later, passing through Rehavia, I saw a long row of old books just left out on top of a wall.