Trading Anna Karenina for Golda Meir
MYTH HAS IT THAT FOR ZIONIST PIONEERS—men and women—the hard manual labor and collective effort of building the State of Israel were met gladly and willingly. But for some women, who left behind them, or knew as their heritage, the richly complex, urban, sophisticated cultural life of Eastern Europe or Russia—who were pregnant with their own burgeoning creative literary ambitions—the personal sacrifice of clearing the swamps and making the desert bloom was enormous, even crushing. One such woman was Aviva Dayan Geffen, born in Afula in 1922 and died, a suicide, in 1967, five months after her brother, General Moshe Dayan, triumphantly recaptured the Old City of Jerusalem in the Six Day War. One of her daughters, Nurit, also took her own life at the age of 26. Following are excerpts, translated by Naomi Danis, from Isha Yekara (Lovely Lady), a heartbreaking memoir by Aviva’s son—the poet, lyricist, playwright, children’s book author, and Maariv columnist Yehonatan Geffen.
Afterward, for years, Father would try to persuade us that she hadn’t committed suicide. Even those who were thought to be her very best friends would try to protect her from that terrible word. Suicide was a dirty word among that generation of ideologues in the land of heroes. Unless, of course, you committed suicide for your country.
My mother, and most of the members of her generation didn’t ask questions. They lived for nationalist goals and the idea of the collective. Even if they read Camus and Dostoevsky, personal salvation didn’t concern them, it only killed them—slowly and not gently.
My mother, in my opinion, didn’t even live. She just passed through here. She just stood here quietly for forty-something years and waited for it, whatever it was, to pass. It should finish and be behind her. No one collected statistics to count the exact number of suicides among members of the generation of my parents, those children of the twenties who were born directly into an almost religious sense of being national emissaries. But many of them, at a relatively young age, looked and behaved as if they were dead. They didn’t have time to rebel and to fulfill themselves…
In my youth, and still today to some extent, my mother’s suicide was perceived as romantic, almost arousing respect. For years I was certain that one day we would find, hidden in one of her underwear drawers—where she usually hid her sleeping pills—thick notebooks that would contain a creation like War and Peace, or at least diaries like those of Kafka, because they always said “Mother wrote when no one saw.” But Mother didn’t leave anything behind.
Grandmother, like Mother, wanted very much to be a writer, but she at least actually was published here and there, and did more than just talk about it. But it was not enough for her, and today we can determine with certainty that we lost a great Hebrew writer and in her place we got a mediocre Zionist party worker.
Grandmother’s stories were printed, in Russian translated into Hebrew, in Dvar Hapoelet but she wanted to be Tolstoy, not a writer for a pedagogical newspaper for women given out free by the demagogic workers party. All the years she lived in this country Savta [Grandmother] Dvora was openly jealous of “my wise soul mate, Dvora Baron,” as she referred to her. Dvora Baron [see review by Helen Motro on p. 36] the distinguished and clever Hebrew writer, and perhaps the first feminist writer in the Hebrew language, decided one day that she wasn’t feeling well, got into bed, and began to write.
“I come to visit her,” says my grandmother, “and she doesn’t even get out of bed to greet me. And her daughter, a submissive soul, hovers around her, arranging her pillows and serving her tea. In short, the life of a queen.”
In spite of her ironic comment, both Savta Dvora and Mother thought that Dvora Baron won out over the times, and did the right thing. After all, in our country, in which there is always a “situation” (matzav) that demands the deployment of all physical and spiritual resources to elevated national goals, if you don’t get into bed and pretend to be sick, you will immediately be asked to rise and take a hoe, to pave a road, to build the land quickly…to protect the homeland, to realize a pioneer dream, to die or to conquer the valley.
Even today, every time I write personal prose or a poem for children that isn’t a direct assistance to this afflicted nation, I feel a little guilty. That is why, perhaps, I seek to travel to write outside Israel. I know that there I will not be called to wave a flag, to protest at a demonstration, the association for peace, the national organization of abandoned cats, etc.
Yes, yes, I too have been trained to be a faithful son of my country and homeland, and faithfulness to myself can certainly wait.
Oy, how sad she felt, an intellectual young woman full of dreams, to part from Anna Karenina in order to meet up with Golda Meir. To give up the movies of Eisenstein for the films of the Jewish National Fund documenting those who “sow in tears” and the Hebrew laborer eating olives. To leave the world of the Bolshoi Ballet and join the barefoot hora around an ugly swamp…
[My grandmother] Dvora Zotolovski was 15 during the [Russian] revolution of 1905…Already as a student at a Soviet university, she wrote short stories, wonderful ones, about a sick friend, the travails of her people, and most of the heroines of her stories were women. She was a feminist before the word was invented. And suddenly she arrives at this chauvinist puddle in the Middle East. She only just arrives and realizes immediately she didn’t come to the right place.
What is she doing here at all? Draining the swamps? Fighting mosquitoes? Gorky didn’t write a thing against mosquitoes. Tolstoy fought for the betterment of a more moral humanity, you won’t find a single word on paving roads and chasing away Arabs, and you will certainly never find Dostoevsky dancing on the threshing floor or composing a tune about conquering the desert or love songs to the land. Alas, Grandmother arrived at a literary and idea wasteland. Imagine what it is to leave a giant literature like that when you are a young woman aspiring to be a writer! Imagine what it is to be a young revolutionary and to leave the revolution, and that with someone like Grandfather Shmuel, who makes a myth out of a stupid hoe, from a plow that scratches furrows into the fields of the valley.
Before she got that look of frozen totem on her face, in the land of Israel, she had, as one can see in the old yellowing photos, a lot of future in her eyes. She was joyous and beautiful, with bracelets and a gold chain on her white and pleasing neck, someone who knew she had something to look forward to.
My mother’s favorite poem was “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” by Oscar Wilde. As a boy, that poem gave me the chills: “Yet each man kills the thing he loves…,/The coward does it with a kiss,/ The brave man with a sword!” A poem about a man who is taken out to be killed, and he philosophizes: “For each man kills the thing he loves,/ Yet each man does not die.” There is nothing wrong with loving poetry. There is nothing I myself like better than reading poetry. And more than that, writing poems. I certainly tend to agree with the poet Anne Sexton (another distinguished suicide) who said, “the wonderful feeling you have after writing a poem is more wonderful even than the feeling after sex, and that says a great deal.”
But my mother’s love for poetry was not just a passing fancy, it was almost a way of life. If you ask me, the sickness of my mother and of many of her generation of reciters and declaimers was this: they didn’t only love the poems, they believed them.
To believe in poetry is to be already caught in a small cloud of craziness, estranged from reality. Poetry, at its best, is always a metaphor, the opposite of reality, an alternative to reality. My poor mother took poems as an option, as a way of life. She quoted endlessly and believed in rhymes and in her notebook the way a religious person believes in mitzvot and bible stories.
If she only wrote herself, I sometimes think to myself, poems that were actually her own, as I write, this could have been her therapy, her cure. But to relate to the poetics of other poets, no matter how distinguished they are, as a way of life, is already a sickness from which you can sink into visions and lose all connection to the daily prose that helps to guard our sanity.
The poet Natan Alterman was to my mother as the author Leo Tolstoy was to my grandmother Dvora. When we were children, my mother used to cut out his weekly column from the Friday edition of the newspaper Davar. Once, in a shortlived burst of vitality, when she was on the cultural committee of the moshav, she chose me to recite his chilling and terrible poem, “Mikol Haamim” [“From All the Nations”] at the Independence Day celebration. A Holocaust poem, that says that on purpose, from all the nations, God chose the Jews to die, to be destroyed in the gas chambers of Europe. I was twelve years old, and I remember that [the recitation of] this poem, under my mother’s direction, squeezed tears even from the tough audience of farmers [assembled] on the concrete yard opposite the old dairy
A small boy, a skinny dwarf in blue pants and a white shirt, standing on a big wooden box. Mother in the first row, piercing me with her proving look. And I recite: “And as our children march to the scaffolds/ Jewish children, wise children,/ they know that their blood is not considered bloodshed/ they only call out to the[ir] mother[s]: ‘Don’t look.'”
And what a miracle. I was a stutterer, but when I recited something, I had perfect diction. I remember that mother said to me: “If you always just read poems, you won’t stutter anymore.”
Several years after she died, I had the great honor to meet with Alterman, arranged, of course, by my uncle Moshe [Dayan], so that he could read some of my early poems and say that he rather liked them, and I will never know whether he really liked my poems or was instructed from on high to like my first fruits, and poets of death never refuse the requests of national heroes.
I remember that when I sat with him, I didn’t think about myself, but about Mother….
Mother brainwashed me against betrayal and was afraid of being betrayed, and here, two men [Mo she Dayan and Natan Alterman] that she worshipped more than anyone on earth were compulsive betrayers of their women. Alterman didn’t say much. His brain is in a stupor of cheap cognac, his fingers are drumming on a red and white plaid plastic tablecloth on the table at the Kaseet Cafe, and he is trying to hum a Hasidic song. One moment I exist and am having a conversation with him, and one moment I don’t exist, I’m not there, and he is entirely immersed in his cognacked world of humming. From time to time he glances at Tsila [Binder, his not so secret lover and an artist herself, sitting at a nearby table], as if to say, “What are you waiting for? It’s not my fault that you love me. Go home already.”
I felt his impatience, and when he said, “I have to go,” I felt obliged to follow him for one more moment, I had to tell him about you. Mother. I said to him, stuttering, because I wasn’t reciting poetry:
“You know, Alterman.”
“My mother worshipped you.”
“Ya-ba-bam-bam, Ya ba-bam…”
“For my mother, just the name Alterman…”
“Please, call me Natan.”
“Natan, she used to copy your poems into her special notebook.”
“And every Friday, your column in the newspaper Davar.”
“Nu, yes. I once saw Aviva,” Alterman said. “At Moshe’s house. She was, how shall I say it, a very…a lovely lady.”
And there you go Mother, even he, the most copied and recited poet of yours, renewer of the language, the great linguistic acrobat, couldn’t find a meaningful or exact sentence to describe to me the shadow that gave birth to me. Just two arbitrary words that they say about every dead woman that you have nothing to say about: isha yekara, a lovely lady.
Translated with permission from Isha Yekara by Yehonatan Geffen (Dvir, Tel Aviv, 1999).