Letter from Jerusalem: A Poet Divided, Who Still Stands
Poet Haim Gouri’s deepest lesson is to affirm living with a civil war inside one’s soul.
Haim Gouri is an old man who as a young man swallowed history, whole epochs and migrations and wars, and it has been roaring and pounding inside him ever since. “We are divided between those with meager spirits and those with torn souls,” Gouri’s mother liked to say, and her son has never belonged to the meager spirits.
I realize I must speak about Gouri, most public of poets, in personal terms. He is 84, the age my father would be if he were still alive. Only after I began writing about history and came to Gouri as a source and found a friend, an aging cousin in Canada explained how Gouri was distantly related to me. It is the kind of relationship that must be diagrammed and that only Jews and other such tribes would regard as constituting family ties.
I realized that if my grandparents had gotten on a different ship and disembarked in Haifa rather than at Ellis Island, Uncle Gouri (even his wife, Aliza, does not call him Haim) would have been the raging presence of my youth.
On the eve of sukkot last year, I made a pilgrimage to Gouri. I arrived a minute before the time we had set to meet at his apartment, in a block of flats as standard as the prose in a wire-service news story. I found myself waiting outside his door, three flights up. There is no elevator. A minute later I heard the steady echo of his steps approaching in the stairwell.
He emerged slowly but not out of breath, his white shaggy hair combed to one side, his mustache gray, his voice as low and forceful as a big truck grinding across gravel. He invited me into the shadowed living room with the uncountable books. Waiting for me on the coffee table were moist dates still on the branch and a plate of honey cake. In a poet’s home everything is metaphor: Ripe Israeli fruit and cake as Jews baked it over there, in the lost Europe that haunts him. Later, he served me a glass of misty arak, smooth as Lebanon’s best, made in Israel by South Lebanese militiamen who took refuge here after the 2000 Israeli pullout. Even the liquor comes clouded with allusions.
I’m sorry, I’m ahead of myself. Let’s take care of facts: Gouri is the country’s best-known living poet, as canonically Israeli as Walt Whitman is American. He was born and raised in Tel Aviv when sabras were still an innovation. Gouri joined the Palmah, the prestate Jewish military, in 1941 and served till the end of the War of Independence in 1949. Actually, he missed the beginning of that war because the Palmah sent him to Europe for half a year to help organize young Jews who had survived the Holocaust. (These details of biography sound like clichés, in the way that Shakespeare can sound clichéd on first reading because you’ve already heard snippets so many times.) His first book of poems, Flowers of Fire, appeared when he was still in uniform and sold 3,000 copies in three months, a wild best seller in a country of a few hundred thousand people. His lyrics about the battle for the road to Jerusalem (“Bab el-Wad”) and fallen comrades (“Hare’ut”) became undeclared national anthems.
After belated studies, he went to work as a journalist for Lamerhav, a left-wing daily. He covered the trial of Adolf Eichmann. (His book of understated, overwhelming daily reports on the trial, Facing the Glass Booth, appeared in English in 2004, long after the Hebrew original.) He produced three documentaries about the Holocaust. He kept writing poems. He became, as I only recently understood as I sought to document a piece of Israel’s past, the one-man Greek chorus of the elite of the founding generation, a man turned inside out, history inside him and his soul outside on view. He has known, it seems, everyone who writes powerfully in Hebrew.
“Most of the writers of my generation have departed,” he said to me in his living room. “I work every day,” he said. On the desk next to his keyboard I saw his freshly smoked pipes.
In December 1975, as a columnist for Davar, the daily paper of the Histadrut labor union, Gouri covered a crucial confrontation between troops and thousands of young Orthodox activists of the radical-right Gush Emunim movement outside a village called Sebastia north of Nablus.
Gouri’s role in what followed, and the role of Shimon Peres—then defense minister, now Israel’s president and the same age as Gouri—are the subject of a lasting historical controversy, one of the reasons I originally went to interview Gouri.
The activists sought to establish a settlement at the spot, in defiance of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s policy of not putting new settlements in areas of the West Bank that had were densely populated by Arabs. Peres flew in by helicopter to negotiate with the leaders.
Gouri, invited to sit in on the meeting, feared bloodshed if troops were ordered to drag thousands of people from the fields. He suggested a compromise: A few dozen activists would stay temporarily at a nearby Army base, awaiting a cabinet debate on settlement policy, while the rest went home. Both sides accepted the deal.
But by the next day, after another meeting with Peres, the small group of activists became a group of families. Their quarters at the base became the bridgehead for settlement in an area that Rabin hoped to give up for peace. Afterward, Peres blamed Gouri. Gouri said, and still says, pained and angry, that Peres rewrote the compromise as a surrender to the settlers. In those days, Peres was at the right edge of the Labor Party and supported settlement throughout the West Bank.
Let me settle the controversy simply: virtually every document I’ve found shows that Gouri’s version is correct. The minutes of Peres’s second meeting with the Gush Emunim leaders, which I recently discovered in the Israel Defense Forces archive, sealed the case: Peres clearly changed the shape of the compromise to fit the settlers’ wishes.
In fact, investigating that affair demonstrated to me two remarkable qualities of the poet, qualities that run through his writing and his soliloquies ranging back to his youth in 1930s British Mandate Palestine in a far-left youth movement infatuated with a Whole Land of Israel stretching into Jordan and Syria.
First, Gouri’s memory is immense, accurate, cinematographic. He can recite David Ben-Gurion’s precise words to him, in the founding prime minister’s study, in 1949, when the young poet asked why Ben-Gurion hadn’t let the Army conquer the West Bank. He declaims conversations with Nathan Alterman, undeclared laureate of the early state, as easily as he remembers Alterman’s poems. Normally, when an interviewee repeats a conversation, he remembers his own words best, especially a final, decisive comment of his own to which no answer need be recorded. Gouri remembers what the other person said last.
In October 1973, near the Suez Canal, three days after the start of the Yom Kippur War, Gouri, again called back to serve, wrote a poem called “Poison” that ended:
Our true biographies are formed of all the things that we would forget, would hide….
Strangely, I find this more true of myself, of everyone else I know, than of Gouri himself. Most of us have an internal Ministry of Truth that rewrites what we once believed and did to fit who we are now. (Peres’s flawed, selective accounts of Sebastia are fine examples.) Gouri’s words earlier in the same poem—“In the expanses of my body, inquiry commissions/ day and night/ open hearings, within me taking testimony…”—better describe his own self-investigation.
Second, when his inquiries reveal wrestling beliefs, feelings and identities, he does not smooth out the conflict. One of his best-known early poems begins “I am a civil war….” The sequel is a 1990s poem, “Like Beirut,” in which he places all the battles of that city within himself, writing “I was the combat in the built-up zones.” Then he writes, as if citing a distant rumor:
And so I’ve heard that from extremes in living souls rises the hidden force that mainly makes for beauty.
His poems are endless skirmishes between what is personal and what is national. In “The Woman From the Telephone Café,” he remembers the lonely young man he once was, in a nameless European city with a nameless woman whose scent was mixed out of “cologne, summer sweat, and Palmolive soap,” dancing a tango, “that makes two into one/ to the very limit allowed in a public place.” But the memory is also of knowing only Hebrew and bits of English and Arabic, nothing in which he could ask if she would come to dance the next night—a memory of being a Jew from Palestine, of who he was and what made him alone there.
Another poem, “Wager,” begins as a rowdy scene of off-color male camaraderie, a bet made in a bar about a waiter’s manhood. There is a sharp transition: This is a story he heard from a witness, from the last days of the Weimar Republic. The witness left the bar and in the rain found a Jewish Communist friend, beaten, badly wounded. The two pieces of the story are like two ripped photos pasted over the other, a rough collage of the torn soul.
The journalist and poet wrestle, like two brothers from Genesis. His sabra disdain for the diaspora lives next to his awe for the Jewish Europe whose remains he met, struggling with guilt for arriving too late, after the war in Vienna and Budapest. The Palmah veteran has written:
I am filled with abandoned
villages, abandoned objects
gaping shoes, ripped blankets,
an anklet longing till now for
This is a lament for the deserted Palestinian villages of 1948. The lament in no way displaces his Israeli patriotism.
After he wrote such lines “there were friends who wouldn’t speak to me,” he tells me in a long monologue set off by just one question. “I said, ‘Friends, I haven’t come to talk about the Nakba [Catastrophe],’” the Palestinian version of 1948. “We had no choice” but to fight, but those villages “were also part of my world.”
Again, as in previous times we’ve talked, he tells me how difficult it was after 1967, after Israel’s conquests of pieces of the homeland that had been out of reach, for him “to give up the dream of the Whole Land of Israel, which turned out to be a false vision, something impossible.” By the time he went to Sebastia, he had let go of that dream. He still speaks of it in the tone of remembering a passionate love affair. (In telling a small part of his story, I have said nothing of his love poems.)
“This is the sentence I want to tell you,” he says. “Live in a set of contradictions. Because you have no choice…. Don’t castrate elements of your identity. You don’t know what the cost will be.”
In second person, he is talking to himself. But I am also in the room, and he is speaking to me. Along with poems and precise memories, this is my gift from raging Uncle Gouri, and I am grateful.
Haim Gouri in English
– Facing the Glass Booth: The Eichmann Trial in Jerusalem (Wayne State University Press).
– The Chocolate Deal (Wayne State University Press).
– Words in My Lovesick Blood (Wayne State University Press).
– Holocaust trilogy (Hebrew and Yiddish with English subtitles): The Eighty-First Blow, The Last Sea and Flames in the Ashes.
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