Natan Alterman (1910 – 1970)
The conscience of the people (David Ben Gurion about Natan Alterman)
Natan Alterman was born in Warsaw. In 1925 he moved to Tel Aviv where he attended the Herzl Gymnasia (high school). He studied agronomy in France and upon his return to Palestine he devoted himself to his career as a writer.
Although Alterman is primarily known as a lyricist, his literary talents extended to other genres as well: he wrote theater plays, short sketches, childrens’ books, newspaper columns and translated Shakespeare, Moliere and Racine into Hebrew. For his translations he received many prizes, and in 1968 he was awarded the Israel Prize for his contribution to Israeli literature.
Alterman’s work consits of two major categories: his contemporary political poetry, much of which was published in his weekly column, beginning 1934 in Haaretz and from 1934 in Davar. An example is an event which took place in 1935 when a freighter ran aground off the shore of Tel Aviv and drew hundreds of the city’s residents, who looted the cargo of apples. Alterman wrote: In New Zealand I have never been and also Korea I have never seen. No girl from Tahiti has bewitched me ever and her parents did not wish to eat me for dinner.” But there is something else he has never watched before: I have never seen savages loot a stranded ship. But, don’t despair, there’s hope! The storm carried me to the dune, and there it was like on stage.
His work confronts bluntly, and often harshly or satirically, the issues facing Israeli society, first in the Yishuv and then in the independent state. Considered the poet of the Yishuv and the literary spokesman of the nationalist movement, he expressed the people’s longing for independence; indeed, some of his lyrics, censored by the British, became anthems of the contemporary struggle.
1947 Alterman was inspired to the following famous poem by speech of Chaim Weizman:
The Silver Platter
“A State is not handed to a people on a silver platter”
Chaim Weizman, first President of Israel
The Earth grows still.
The lurid sky slowly pales
Over smoking borders.
Heartsick, but still living, a people stand by
To greet the uniqueness
of the miracle.
Readied, they wait beneath the moon,
Wrapped in awesome joy, before the light.
— Then, soon,
A girl and boy step forward,
And slowly walk before the waiting nation;
In work garb and heavy-shod
Wearing yet the dress of battle, the grime
Of aching day and fire-filled night
Unwashed, weary unto death, not knowing rest,
But wearing youth like dewdrops in their hair,
— Silently the two approach
Are they of the quick or of the dead?
Through wondering tears, the people stare.
“Who are you, the silent two?”
And they reply: “We are the silver platter
Upon which the Jewish State was served to you.”
And speaking, fall in shadow at the nation’s feet.
Let the rest in Israel’s chronicles be told.
In the aftermath of 1948, Alterman tackled social and political issues facing the country. Following the Six Day War, he became a proponent of the Greater Israel ideology.
The second category in Alterman’s literary work is the lyrical and meditative dimension. Influenced by French and Russian symbolists he became a leading imagist poet and an important model in the development of modern Hebrew poetry. An artist of language and rhythm, he created a canon of verse rich in images and variations of prosody. Chapters of Jewish history, particularly the Shoah, find expression in his work, as well as the conflict between original, pristine forces representing a paradise lost against the influences of the modern, urbanized and mechanized world. His love poems reflect the tension between women who are portraits of these opposite impulses.
The Third Mother
Mothers are singing. Mothers are singing.
A fist of thunder bangs down. Strong silence.
Red-bearded lamps are marching
in the empty streets in rows.
Autumn mortally ill, weary,
rain without beginning or end.
No candle in the window, now light in the world,
three mothers sing.
I hear one of them say:
“He was here but yesterday.
I shall kiss his every fingernail and finger.
I see a tall ship in a calm bay,
and my son from the topmast hanging.”
And the second one says:
“My son is tall and quiet.
I am sewing a holiday shirt for my dear.
He’s walking in the fields. He will soon be here.
And he holds in his heart a lead bullet.”
And the third mother says with her wandering eyes:
“No one was dearer or kinder…
Who shall weep when he comes if I cannot see?
I do not know where he finds him.”
And she bathed her eyelashes with weeping.
Perhaps he is only resting. Perhaps
in foreign places he measures
the paths of Your world, O God,
(Like a wandering monk) with kisses.