Tel Aviv Diary - January 3-7, 2013 - Karen Alkalay-Gut

Tel Aviv Diary - January 3-7, 2013 - Karen Alkalay-Gut

January 3, 2013

oh the terrors of driving in Tel Aviv. It's so crazy I even have to concentrate at the wheel. Bicyclists use the sidewalks and ride across the street on the crosswalks without even pausing at the corners. Motorcyclists weave in and out of traffic and everything in general is way overcrowded. And yet I'm crazy about that city. Even the doctor's office today - the pediatrician with sick kids hanging from the chandeliers in the waiting room. We really didn't want to be waiting there and so stepped next door to the cafe. Ben Ami Cafe. Small, intimate, warm, and full of great cakes. How could I watch the kids when there were all these great conversations going on around us. And some of them brought us into their conversations - as if we were all in one big living room.

This happens to me all the time in this city, even though I'm not a particularly outgoimg person. A few days ago at the Cameri, I discovered I'd taken someone else's table at the cafeteria. She saved it by putting a program on the table and i didn't notice it. "Oh no," I said. And she answered, "why?" "Are you alone?" I asked again, thinking that if she had a crowd with her there might not be room for Ezi, but she obviously considered the possibility of my coming on to her, and asked again, "why." And that's when we got to know each other. turned out that we had much in common.

January 4, 2012

"What's going on with Israel?" friends abroad keep asking. And I'm at a loss to answer. So at the birthday party today I asked family and friends what's going on. "We have no idea." they said, almost in unison. Who are you voting for - would have been a key question but very few people know. It will be a last minute decision, I guess, based on the lesser of evils. Bibi, of course, is a problem, not a solution. Most people seem to agree that he has done some incredibly good things for the country and terrible things to morale, to foreign relations, to peace. But the others, how could they run the government?

January 5, 2013

Tonight there are rumors about the leftist parties getting together. Don't know if anything will come of it, but it would be very encouraging. The Likud seems to be advertising itself on the basis of strong leadership - Bibi - and not the collapsing party around him. There are signs of some kind of change, but I don't know what it will be or what it will mean. I've been considering how to vote as if the entire election was based on my ballot. A friend of mine is running in the Dam party and they sound pretty interesting, but in the end I'm afraid I'm going with Labor. Maybe it's just too late for me to change....

The rain came in the night, and we had no desire to go out today while it was so wet and windy - and then the sun came out for a few minutes so we changed our mind. All the little odds and ends of household management - a faucet, a plug, batteries, stuff like that. We raced off to the shopping center at Shfaim, got our stuff at Ace, some painkillers and nail polish at the pharmacy (I always make a point to spend more money on cosmetics than medicine at every visit to the drug store), bought a whole bunch of vegetables and fruits in the parking lot, and just made it to the car before the next downpour. (That's why I got the vegetables cheap - they knew they'd have to move everything out as soon as the rain started).

January 6, 2013

As I was watching my colleague sitting at her desk supervising a student who was taking a make-up exam, a strange memory came to me. There seemed to be no connection. My colleague was waiting with quiet patience while the girl, in a hijab and overcoat, took the extra time given her after the official exam was over to review her answer. My recollection was of my sixth grade teacher in public school #22 in Rochester, Miss Faye, warning us that no one would receive extra time – I don’t remember the context. Eventually the student finished and with shy ceremony thanked the professor and left.

As my day continued, Miss Faye continued to dominate my consciousness. She seemed to me in those days an elderly woman, almost fifty, with pointy nose and chin, Clairol red-brown curls piled on her head and a cupid’s bow painted on her thinning lips, so puritanical that when she read “The Highwayman” to us, she substituted the word “chest” for “breast,” and so anti-Semitic she would not call on any of the six or seven Jews in her class when we raised our hands. She carefully excluded us from every activity and made sure our grades were just a step lower then we deserved. For the class play at the end of the year we were not given speaking roles, but were taught a dance to perform in the back of the stage as atmosphere while the play’s real action took place in front of us, and we had numerous rehearsals while the others learned their roles elsewhere, so that I had no idea what the name of the play was, much less the plot. The year after, in seventh grade, our teacher was the genial Mr. Cruikshank, who encouraged general creativity all around, so that I wrote and directed the class play and made sure everyone had a speaking role.

Miss Faye was my only direct educational experience of racism. Of course there were other incidents, but none influenced me face-to-face like she did. And I was not even terribly aware of her, more concerned with my social life and my classmates than my religion in relation to others. But now as a teacher with 50 years of experience behind me, I wonder how any educator can take their responsibility so lightly. My students this year are 50% Arab, and each one of them receives as good an education as my colleagues and I can give them. It has nothing to do with Miss Faye.

I'm plagarizing from last month's Haaretz because apparently the links are closed to subscribers:

Meditation and mischief: Poetry that combines comedy and tragedy Two collections of poetry by Anglo-Israeli writers offer pleasures large and small. Rachel Tzvia Back’s verse focuses on mourning and the healing that follows; Karen Alkalay-Gut finds joy and meaning in the small events that make up life.

By Nadja Rumjanceva | Dec.10, 2012 | 12:47 PM

Karen Alkalay-Gut and Rachel Tzvia Back.

A Messenger Comes by Rachel Tzvia Back. Singing Horse Press, 120 pages, $15

Layers by Karen Alkalay-Gut. Simple Conundrum Press, 95 pages, NIS 54

Rachel Tzvia Back and Karen Alkalay-Gut are authors who live in Israel and write in English. Both have a geographically and culturally mobile past that has influenced their writing: Alkalay-Gut was born on the last night of the Blitz air raids over London, in March 1945, and raised in the United States, from where she immigrated to Israel in 1972, with a luggage of education in, among other things, English poetry, Yiddish and Hebrew.

Rachel Tzvia Back was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1960, to a family of sixth-generation Israelis, and returned to Israel in 1980. And for both, their new collections of poetry mark milestone numbers: “A Messenger Comes” is the fifth collection of original poetry by Rachel Tzvia Back; “Layers” is, if one counts translations, the 25th volume by Karen Alkalay-Gut. Distinctly different in their themes and style, these works represent not only a numerical achievement, but offer the pleasure of poetic accomplishment.

Back’s earlier works, such as “The Buffalo Poems” (‏(2003‏ and “On Ruins and Return” (2005‏), are especially memorable for her treatment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the theme of political protest is also the essence of the English-language edition of “With an Iron Pen: Twenty Years of Hebrew Protest Poetry,” which Back edited in 2009. But Back’s newest collection strikes a more personal note: “A Messenger Comes” is a meditation on grief, dedicated to the author’s late father and sister. When the presence of loved ones is abruptly removed, our world has no choice but to temporarily fall apart, Back seems to suggest. But the unavoidable alienation of loss is also a magic mirror, in which the individual shards of existence appear in a new light, bringing us back to the primeval state of discovery.

Introducing a string of carefully crafted and arranged poems, the theme of brokenness and mending is set in motion by an epigraph from Leon Wieseltier’s “Kaddish” (1998‏), an exploration of the Jewish laws of mourning: A messenger comes to summon a mourner, who replies that he cannot come ? his spirit is broken. “That is why you are needed,” retorts the messenger. It is in this paradox-filled mode that the journey of a broken-spirited mourner unfolds.

The first sequence of the collection, “The Broken Beginning,” is an allusion to the divisions made during creation and to the kabbalistic concept of the shattering of vessels: Unable to contain the divine light, seven out of 10 mystical vessels broke to pieces, thus introducing discord and fragmentation into the world. The text is saturated with the image of symbolic fragments that pierce the texture of life - “the surging noise/ of sharp-edged objects/ slashing into the first-born text”; one observes them from a distance, like a meteor shower: “shards falling/ in a torn-light hail/ of violets gold/ slender indigo.” The lines are short, broken off like their message.

The following five sequences are dedicated to Back’s late father. In “Lamentation” and “Last Morning Poems,” snippets of memories bob up in an associative mode: a book of poetry, tucked into the father’s tallis bag, the tight binding of the tefillin ? the latter a Wieseltier-like attempt to strap the mind to the body and the body to life. It is in this mode of reminiscence and meditation that the boundaries of consciousness unravel to take in the world once again: “I undream myself/ Angled alleys abandon/ their houses shed/ maroon shutters and arched/ door to wander off/ alone as I watch/ unmoored/ unworded” ‏(“Notes: From a Foreigner’s Diary”‏).

“Elegy Fragments,” dedicated to the author’s sister Adina, who passed away “in the middle/ of the night, in the middle/ of her life,” is the last movement in Back’s mediation of fragmentation. Drawing a parallel to Adina’s work as a historian who specialized in oral narratives, the sequence adopts an experimental mosaic approach, incorporating a variety of voices ? Walt Whitman, Christina Rossetti, Edmond Jabes ? in its literary retelling. Yet it is the very inclusiveness and multiplicity of voices that seem to suggest that some barriers cannot be breached by words, and one can but circumnavigate the perimeter and probe at the outline of silence: “You left the room in mid-/ sentence./ There is only everything/ left/ to tell you.”

If you only have 10 minutes to leap out of the ordinary, there are two eye-openers among the poems: “The giving of names,” from the cycle “The Broken Beginning,” and “At the last funeral my father attends,” from “Last Morning Poems.” Parts of larger sequences, they can also be beautiful stand-alone pieces. “The giving of names” is a tenderly erotic recreation of the giving of names in Genesis 2:18-25, where Adam, the first man, is given the task of naming newly created animals and birds, and having named them all, notices the absence of a “helpmeet,” who is then created from one of his ribs.

Incorporated in the opening sequence, Back’s “The giving of names” plays on the theme of Adam’s discovery and the introduction of sexuality, describing an intimate code of words that emerges between two lovers.

“At the last funeral my father attends” recounts a comically absurd episode: After the chanting of psalms at the funeral, the mourners, who had removed their footwear for the ceremony as a sign of giving up worldly comforts, discover that a boy has run off with all their shoes.

“A Messenger Comes” is like a gentler version of “The Waste Land.” Wandering through the scenes of loss and fragmentation, the speaker nevertheless manages to find a kind of implicit healing, a new perspective within alienation through the medium of love and affection. It is the passing of the loved one that shatters the whole and reveals the void; it is affection that picks up the unraveled threads again ? “love’s ragged relics on the page:/ what remains in the world wrestling/ word and image.” Intricately worded, Back’s collection conjures an important station on the course of life.

Leap of Nijinsky

If “A Messenger Comes” is an elegiac meditation on loss, Karen Alkalay-Gut’s “Layers” is a milestone of poetic mischief. Endowed with a keen eye for detail and a poignant sense of humor, Alkalay-Gut makes her writing feel effortless and fresh, like the leap of Nijinsky, whose image is invoked in the first pages. Not unlike her previous volumes, such as “In My Skin” ‏(2000‏) and “So Far, So Good” ‏(2004‏), “Layers” offers a reflection of how life can be experienced on multiple levels at once.

Dedicated “To all those/ Who have their/ Own layers/ And multiple lives,” the volume opens with a logbook of strange encounters. From his present-day Jacuzzi, Shylock from “The Merchant of Venice” comments on the state of the contemporary world, and a wrong turn in a rest home leads us to the mad genius of a retired dancer. In an almost Brechtian manner of alienation, biblical characters like Ruth and Batsheva are transported into the present day, providing a new and amusing treatment of familiar motives. “Sometimes you just can’t be subtle with these/ Jewish boys,” says Naomi to Ruth as she coaches her in the ways of local courtship. “Forget the ways of the Diaspora/ the flirty eyes, a glimpse of stocking,” the Biblical character suggests with a highly contemporary aplomb. Many of the episodes can be easily imagined as cartoons from The New Yorker ? for example, Little Red Riding Hood, no longer the hop-along brat with a fancy for bright colors, and a scraggy wolf, sharing memories of the good old days over a salami sandwich.

The perspective is that of an observer apart. In one of the poems in the early part of the book, the speaker describes herself as an apikoros - a heretic in rabbinic Hebrew ? who as a child, refused to read from the Haggadah at the Passover seder, only joining in during the “goat song.” And it is indeed the ability to critique received wisdom that marks the speaker: Alkalay-Gut operates on the distinction between deeds and doctrine, mitzvot and marketing strategies.

Though often satirical, Alkalay-Gut’s work does not leave a bad aftertaste of aggression or cynicism; one is given the chance to arrive at one’s own conclusions as one goes through the journey. In the poem “A Guided Tour of Jerusalem,” the speaker points out “the laminated prayer/ hanging on the entrance/ to the toilets, praising/ the Lord who has made for us/ holes and entrances.” At the same time, in “C-c-c-c-c-c-c-c” a prescient Moses suddenly stops stuttering and confesses to his impatient interlocutor, whose identity is open to interpretation, that it is not the speech impediment that hampers him ? it is the fear of his words being interpreted in some extreme direction.

One of the main points that “Layers” seems to make is that life should not be approached with preconceptions. It is often the chance meetings and small moments snatched out of the ordinary that tip the balance of the day in favor of joy ? figs bought on the dusty roadside, the private hearth of a burning cigarette or the sight of “a holy man” rushing down a busy Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv on roller skates, his earlocks streaming behind. In simple and sharp language, Alkalay-Gut arranges these images into a verbal scrapbook of the life of a Tel Avivian.

But not all layers offer joi de vivre. In an equally captivating way, Alkalay-Gut approaches the more difficult subjects of Jewish history. What can possibly be a fresh perspective on the lives of the survivors of the Holocaust, when the sheer amount of literary descriptions and the strong emotions associated with the aspects have made us wary of kitsch and melodrama at the expense of ungraspable tragedy? As with the scenes of city life, Alkalay-Gut chooses to approach the subject through details and individual scenes, using black-and-white photographs and snippets of dialogue as anchors. The real photographs ? a suspicious old woman on the street of Lida, the Lithuanian hometown of Alkalay-Gut’s parents, the tattooed chest of a woman spelling out “Feldhure,” German for “field whore” - appear next to the poems as silent monuments. One steps into the shoes of an observer, looking back in time though the dispassionate eye of the camera, and it is the feelings of the speaker with which one can easily identify.

While most of the poems are short and center around a single epiphany, the second part of the book features several longer poems and sequences, including “Postcards to Palestine,” “Alter Ego” and “The Sheikh.” Like a journal of a time traveler, the eye of the poet captures scenes, picks out details that become stations on the map of space and time. For instance, “Postcards to Palestine” lingers on the collection of family photographs and postcards received by a family living in Jaffa between 1900 and 1920 - a panorama of a spa in Karlsbad ‏(today Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic‏) where the grandfather restored his health in the hot springs or a strange “Jewish New Year card/ with British Soldiers in gas masks guarding a trench.” “The Sheikh” describes a comical episode during a visit to a renowned Bedouin healer near Rahat, where the speaker is disappointed by the wrong diagnosis given by the Sheikh: “‘You are strong,’ said the Sheikh, slowly, and Nissim translated,/ ‘but you suffer/ from dizzy spells.’”

Great, however, is the speaker’s subsequent joy when she discovers that the translator has substituted “dizzy” for “ditsy” to spare the embarrassment ? a symptom that, in a self-ironic way, appears to be real, confirming the Sheikh’s powers after all. The speaker is neither a sated cosmopolitan, nor an open-mouthed tourist ? it is the “humility/ of words/ before the mystery/ of life” that characterizes the fascination of the author with her subjects and that allows for transformation of mundane details into small revelations.

Very different in their form and sentiment, both “A Messenger Comes” and “Layers” possess a strong power to touch the reader, to communicate something valid to both the mind and the soul. A poetic mediation of grief and a thought-provoking, often mischievous excavation through the layers of life, these new volumes are fine works by all standards ? and definitely among the best recent works of English poetry in Israel.

Nadja Rumjanceva is a translator and a junior lecturer at Tel Aviv University.

January 7, 2013

It was a dark and stormy night. hmmm. It was only 5 in the afternoon but it seemed like night as it always does around here in winter because we don't have daylight savings. In fact, we should have extra daylight savings like the do in France because we have so little daylight and so much to do, but now we're stuck with a strangely religious government that has little to do with religion and less to do with rational government. The storm rages and we drive in darkness or sit at home wasting unnecessary electricity because of the need of the religious-based Department of the Interior to flaunt its power over us and make the early morning convenient for those who pray before work.

There. I have done.

We have central heating in our building but we need to agree on when to turn it on and who is or is not involved. There are 18 families in the building but only 7 want to participate, and that is because they don't use the heating, or aren't home most of the time, or they don't like the added expense. Anyway, I went with my neighbor from door to door yesterday to find out who wants to be a part of the heating business. Because of the layout of the apartments the possibility of arranging furniture is very limited so the only major differences between the living rooms is where we place the television. But each one told us a completely different story about what the other neighbors had said about the heating. It was like Rashomon. Anyway now I've got to go and pick up the checks. Ugh, an ugly task. And I must be prepared for new stories, new gossip, and new complaints.

To Karen Alkalay-Gut Diary

To Karen Alkalay-Gut home