Meir Ariel and Hebrew Culture

This weekend’s Haaretz has an interview with Aminadav Dykman, who is a translator and literature expert, in which he discusses, amongst other topics, the current state of Hebrew culture (he insists on the term Hebrew culture as opposed to Israeli culture). Dykman is scathing of the current state of the Hebrew culture. He says that it is “a terribly retarded culture”: “We Hebrews. It wasn’t part of our game for most of our existence. I always tell my students to check out how far back our books go. Suddenly there are black holes. Nothing for 300 years.” (Dykman is chair of translation studies at the Hebrew University). I quote at length:

“For us [Israelis], translation occupies a place that it does not occupy elsewhere, because we are still awfully ignorant,” he says. “Any time you make a list of canonical books, you’ll either find that some things haven’t been translated into Hebrew, or you’ll find yourself saying, ‘What took so long?'”

The Russian-Jewish linguist Roman Jakobson would regularly pose certain questions when he met people from other cultures, according to Dykman. “He would speak with some Albanian, and ask seven questions. For example, ‘Has Homer been translated?’ If it hasn’t been translated, that’s a sign that your people are not civilized.”

Dykman cites Shakespeare as an example of Israeli ignorance.

“They still haven’t translated all of his writings. How can this be? Theaters have not put on productions of everything, and anything that hasn’t been translated for theater, who will pay for it? The complete works of Shakespeare have not been translated into Hebrew yet. There are lots of translations of his sonnets, but where are all the plays? Where are the poems? Nowhere. The same goes for Pierre Corneille. Or regarding Elizabethan theater, is anyone going to commission Meir Wieseltier to translate Ben Jonson? No.”


“The literary community isn’t all that collegial either,” he says. “There have always been two forces at work: private initiative and collective initiative, and you could hope that within the framework of general cultural engineering, the organized initiative would come out on top. But not in the shtetl.’ That means that there is no longer this thing called a literary republic, and that is serious.”


“[The money for] One training session for the Artillery Corps and I’ve got four Shakespeare plays. And yes, I too want a strong army to protect me. If [Mayor Ron] Huldai gives NIS 400,000 a year to Tel Aviv writers for translation projects and postpones renovating a street for four years, that doesn’t strike me as terrible.”

You’re part of the elite. People who live on that unrenovated street may not be so enthusiastic.

“I have a question for them: Are you willing to make a deal? They’ll pave your street in gold, but your son will never go to university. Would you take it? No concerts, no books, nothing, but the street will be gorgeous. That’s the deal. I think that the number who’d agree to this would make a for very small neighborhood.”

I’ll leave commenting on the extent to which the above is true to another post because I’d like to note an exception to the state Dykman sees the Hebrew culture to be in. Meir Ariel, whose photo is above, is one of those poets and musicians whose idiosyncratic and whimsical use of language is all but impossible to translate. (I have thoughts that are slowly solidifying into plans to translate a collection of Meir Ariel’s poetry into English. I will post some translations when they are done.). (There are some tentative translations and discussion of Meir Ariel here).

Meir Ariel was a paratrooper in the Six Day War (1967), at the end of which there was a country-wide euphoria and ultra nationalism and arrogance from the high echelons of government down to the children at play. Israel had won a resounding victory. It was at this time that Ariel released his first song: “Jerusalem of Iron”. Ariel wrote the song with the same structure and melody as that of the famous song “Jerusalem of Gold” by Naomi Shemer that celebrates Israel’s victory. Ariel’s song, however, is very critical of the victory (video here):

In your darkness, Jerusalem, 
we found a loving heart, 
when we came to widen your borders 
and to overwhelm the enemy. 
We became satiated of all his mortars, 
then suddenly dawn broke, 
it just arose, not yet even white, 
and it was aready red. Jerusalem of iron, 
of lead, of darkness, 
haven’t we set your wall free? 

The strafed battalion broke forwards, 
all of him in blood and smoke, 
and a mother came, and another mother, 
in the congregation of bereavement. 
Biting his lips, not without toil, 
the battalion continued fighting, 
till, at the end, the flag flapped 
above the house of bitterness. 

Jerusalem of iron, 
of lead, of darkness, 
haven’t we set your wall free? 

The king’s army dispersed, 
the sniper his tower is silent, 
now it’s possible to go to the Dead Sea 
by the way of Jericho. 
Now it s possible to the Santuary Mountain 
And to the Western Wall, 
here, you are, in the twilight 
almost all of you, gold. 

Jerusalem of gold, 
and lead, and dream 
Will forever be Peace, between your walls.

It is difficult to exaggerate the place that the original song (“Jerusalem of Gold”) held (and still does) in the patriotic heart of Israel, and so Meir Ariel’s rewriting the song and releasing it the same year that the 1967 war ended is even more admirable.

Another famous song of his is called “Pain Song”, which has the famous line: “At the end of every sentence you say in Hebrew there sits an Arab with a Nargila, even if it starts in Siberia or in Hollywood with Hava Nagilla.” (video here).

More translations to come…


One comment

  1. Which idiot thought you could translate Shakespeare out of Elizebethan English? Even Anglos learn him in his original rather than by translation!

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