One of the national poets of Israel, Natan Alterman (1910–1970) was widely considered the literary spokesperson for pronationalist Israelis in the years just prior to and following Israel's statehood.
Natan Alterman was born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1910. His parents were both teachers, and his father, Yitzhak, was one of the founders of the Hebrew kindergarten in Warsaw. Alterman received a traditional Hebrew education beginning at a young age. The family fled Warsaw at the start of World War I, moving to Moscow and then Kishinev. They finally settled in Tel Aviv in 1925.
Alterman attended Herzliya Gymnasia, a college preparatory school, in Tel Aviv, and then moved to France, where he studied at universities in Nancy and Paris. He graduated with a degree in agricultural engineering in 1932. A year earlier, he had begun publishing politically oriented pieces.
Became Zionist Spokesperson
Returning to Palestine in 1934, Alterman decided to make a career of writing. His literary talents would prove to be wide ranging, but he started with poetry. After joining the staff of the newspaper Ha'aretz in 1934, he started a weekly political column called "Moments." The column became a showcase for his poetry, in which he used satire to discuss the tumult surrounding Israeli's settlement in Palestine (called Yishuv), which then was controlled by Britain and, later, its quest for statehood. Alterman soon became known as the poet of the Yishuv and the literary spokesperson for the Zionist (nationalist) movement. Although often censored by British officials during the final two years of Britain's mandate in Palestine (1946–1947), the poet's works, which he collectively called "Poems of the Time and the Tabloid," became anthems for the Jews' struggle.
Far from being merely a political writer, Alterman showed an astonishing range of talent, regularly publishing theatrical works, children's books, and plays. He was also a highly skilled translator and transformed works by Shakespeare, Racine, and Moliere into Hebrew in translations that were unsurpassed in their sensitivity and nuance.
Poetry Expanded Beyond Politics
Alterman's lyrical poetry is among his most highly acclaimed work. Publishing his first book of poetry, Kohavim BaHutz (Stars Outside) in 1938, he received strong reviews for his meditative work. The book was a collection of poems he had written between 1935 and 1938, but he assembled them into a cycle using common elements. A second collection in 1941, titled Joy of the Poor, spoke of the torture of love and the tension between life and death. Some reviewers suggested that the Holocaust, which killed millions of Jews and other innocent people, might have inspired the work.
Alterman married an actress, Rachel Markus, in 1935. In 1941 they had a son named Tirzah. By this time, he had consolidated his poetic style into a unique form. Alterman's lyrical work was influenced by the French and Russian symbolists and contained complex references to Jewish history. Descriptive and symbolic, many pieces also featured a tension between natural forces and the increasingly urban, mechanized world he saw evolving around him. Love played a prominent role in Alterman's lyrical poems, often centering on women to whom he assigned opposing roles in the conflict between man and nature. He wrote a popular song called "Shir Ha'amek" (Song of the Valley), a haunting, lullaby-like piece about the Jezerel Valley. Written from the viewpoint of a pioneer, the song was typical of the popular Land of Israel genre that developed in the 1930s and 1940s.
In 1943, Alterman moved from the Ha'aretz to a competing Hebrew daily newspaper, Davar. He continued to use the press to engage in skilled polemics about the issue of Israeli statehood. He also published several more books of poetry in the 1940s, including Shirei Makkot Mitzrayim(Poems of the Plagues of Egypt), in 1944. The book employs the biblical narrative to suggest the repetitive and cyclical nature of sin and judgment.
Also during the 1940s, Alterman became strongly affiliated with and influenced by Avraham Shlonsky, a Hebrew poet living in Palestine. Together, they led what became known as the second radical wave of artistic expression in Hebrew poetry. They scoffed at the figurative hyperbole popular in earlier forms of poetry and avoided idioms and religious allusions as passé. His affiliation with Shlonsky gave rise to speculation that Alterman sympathized with the Arab quest to keep Palestine. Alterman was a man of myriad contradictions, and neither his supporters nor his critics could ever pin him down for certain on many issues.
Focus on Israeli Statehood
When Israel declared independence in 1948, Alterman's work began to focus more closely on the political and social issues facing the country. One of Alterman's most famous poems, "Silver Platter," was published soon after Israel achieved statehood. The poem suggests that miracles are not the result of divine intervention, but rather human effort, and it provided the image of Israeli soldiers and fighters as "the silver platter upon which the Jewish state was served" to its people. The vision stirred controversy in some circles, since being handed something on a silver platter usually connotes that the receiver did nothing to earn it.
Beginning in the 1950s, Alterman wrote a column, known as "The Seventh Column," in Davar that became a key gauge of the political atmosphere in the new country. He was so much a part of Israel's political scene that Defense Minister Shimon Peres dragged Alterman out of bed late one night in 1956 to show him shipments of French weapons being secretly unloaded at Haifa Port to support Israel in its new offense against the Palestinians. Alterman later wrote of the event in Davar, recalling his impression of a cargo container dangling from a crane: "With the first touch of the land it becomes the expression of the Jews' power."
Alterman wrote Wailing City, for which he won the Bialik Prize, in 1957 and—in another example of his astonishing diversity as an author—produced an anthology of children's verse in 1958. The 1960s were productive: he published his collected works in a four-volume set in 1961–1962; released a collection of works, Summer Festival, in 1965; wrote five plays, staging four of them in Israel with great success; and published a satirical prose narrative, Hamasikhah ha'aharonah, which targeted the ideological failure of Zionism and the Israeli state, in 1969.
Alterman's political involvement remained intense even in his last decade. After the Six-Day War of 1967, triggered by conflict over territory between Israel and its Arab neighbors (Egypt, Syria, and Jordon), Israel occupied the Gaza Strip and began creating Jewish settlements in former exclusively Palestinian areas. Alterman became a member of the Land of Israel Movement and was closely involved with the Israeli settlement campaign, visiting the settlers on several occasions.
Recognition for Literary Work
For his contributions to Hebrew literature, Alterman received the Israel Prize in 1968. He died in 1970, but more than 30 years later his work was still among the most widely read in Israel. In 2001, director Eli Cohen made a film about him, Altermania, which won the prestigious Wolgin Award at that year's Israeli Film Festival. In the promotional materials for the film, Alterman is described as a "double personality" who was by turns "charismatic, clever, rational, and bright" and a "gloomy skeptic," a man perhaps "bedeviled by a death wish," a fighter "for justice" who nonetheless abused "those closest to him." The film asks the question, "Did he fight for the rights of Arabs or did he believe in a Greater Israel?" calling him a "tortured man full of contradictions." The only answers lie somewhere in the works Alterman left behind.
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