Ravikovitch, Dalia (1936–2005)

views updated

Ravikovitch, Dalia

Dalia Ravikovitch was one of the most influential Hebrew poets of her generation and, at the time of her death, perhaps the most acclaimed poet writing in Israel. Her work has appeared in translation in twenty-three languages, and she remains an abiding presence in contemporary Israeli culture.


Ravikovitch was born on 17 November 1936, in Ramat Gan, Palestine, a suburb of Tel Aviv. Her father was killed by a drunk driver when she was four, an event whose traumatic impact often appeared in her work. She spent the rest of her childhood on a kibbutz, and afterwards studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She lived mostly in Tel Aviv, where she worked as a teacher and journalist, and published ten volumes of poetry, three short-story collections and five children's books; she also translated Edgar Allan Poe, T. S. Eliot, and W. B. Yeats into Hebrew. She was awarded numerous prizes including the prestigious Israel Prize in 1998. She died in Tel Aviv on 21 August 2005, and is survived by a son. A major English-language edition of her work is forthcoming.


Ravikovitch belongs to a generation of Israeli poets who began publishing in the 1960s; their work is generally viewed as a rebellion against an earlier generation's thematic and stylistic concerns. Whereas much poetry of the pre-state and early state period was characterized by more collective, even overtly nationalistic themes, the poems of Ravikovitch and her contemporaries Natan Zach and Yehuda Amichai seemed to embrace a more individual and independent sense of poetic voice. Their work focused on the private lives of private individuals, often in the face of public "noise" or interference. Furthermore, both the tone and language of their work were generally more colloquial than their predecessors, in keeping with the growing use of Hebrew as the vernacular language. However, Ravikovitch's earliest work is also marked by a more formal, almost baroque style, a poetics that appeared at odds with the more overtly free verse of her contemporaries; in fact, her early work often hearkens back to an earlier generation of Hebrew poetry marked by more regular verse forms. The uniqueness of Ravikovitch's work was thus clear from the start.

Her first volume, Ahavat Tapuah Ha-Zahav (1959; The love of an orange), was embraced by readers and critics alike, and hailed for its fine use of traditional forms and Jewish sources. The oft-anthologized "Mechanical Doll" touches on themes of gender, society and power that strongly inform Ravikovitch's later work:

     That night, I was a clockwork doll
     And I whirled around, this way and that,
     And I fell on my face and shattered to bits
     And they tried to fix me with all their skill
     Then I was a proper doll once again
     And I did what they told me, poised and polite.
     (Kaufman, et al., p. 143)

Within the confines of this sonnet—a verse form with regular meter and rhyme—Ravikovitch's poetic speaker strains against stereotypical expectations of femininity. This tension between a tightly wrought form and a more unexpected, even audacious poetic voice is typical of Ravikovitch's early work.


Name: Dalia (Dahlia) Ravikovitch

Birth: 1936, Ramat Gan, mandatory Palestine

Death: 2005, Tel Aviv, Israel

Family: Divorced; one son

Nationality: Israeli

Education: Studied at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem


  • 1959: Publishes first volume of poetry, Ahavat Tapuah Ha-Zahav
  • 1976: The first English-language edition of Dress of Fire is published in London
  • 1987: Awarded the Bialik Prize; publishes the poetry collection Ahavah Amitit which expressly treats the Israeli war in Lebanon
  • 1998: Awarded the Israel Prize
  • 2005: Dies in Tel Aviv

A sense of personal responsibility and obligation emerges in the poet's earliest poems, expressly tied to the sudden childhood loss of her father:

    Standing by the side of the road at night this man
    Who was long ago my father.
    And I must go to him in the place where he stands
    Because I was his eldest daughter.
   And each and every night he stands alone in his place
   And I must go down and come to his place.
   And I wanted to ask the man until when must I.
   And I knew beforehand that always must I.
   (Ravikovitch, 1995, p. 24 [translation by Bar-Bara Mann])

The necessity, even obligation, to metaphorically revisit the site of her father's death prefigures one of the essential motifs in Ravikovitch's subsequent work—an obligation to witness events both large and small.


Originally published in 1987, this poem remains one of Ravikovitch's most powerful statements about the poet's obligation to witness.

     I am not here.
     I am on those craggy eastern hills
     streaked with ice,
     where grass doesn't grow
     and a wide shadow lies over the slope.
     A shepherd girl appears
     from an invisible tent,
     leading a herd of black goats to pasture.
     She won't live out the day,
     that girl.
     I am not here.
     From the deep mountain gorge
     a red globe floats up,
     not yet a sun.
     A patch of frost, reddish, inflamed,
     flickers inside the gorge.
     The girl gets up early to go the pasture.
     She doesn't walk with neck outstretched
     and wanton glances.
     She doesn't ask, Whence cometh my help.
     I am not here.
     I've been in the mountains many days now.
     The light will not burn me, the frost
     won't touch me.
     Why be astonished now?
     I've seen worse things in my life.
     I gather my skirt and hover
     very close to the ground.
     What is she thinking, that girl?
     Wild to look at, unwashed.
     For a moment she crouches down,
     her cheeks flushed,
     frostbite on the back of her hands.
     She seems distracted, but no,
     she's alert.
     She still has a few hours left.
     But that's not what I'm thinking about.
     My thoughts cushion me gently, comfortably.
     I've found a very simple method,
     not with my feet on the ground, and not flying—
     at a low altitude.
     Then at noon,
     many hours after sunrise,
     that man goes up the mountain.
     He looks innocent enough.
     The girl is right there,
     no one else around.
     And if she runs for cover, or cries out—
     there's no place to hide in the mountains.
     I am not here.
     I'm above those jagged mountain ranges
     in the farthest reaches of the east.
     No need to elaborate.
     With one strong push I can hover and whirl around
     with the speed of the wind.
     I can get away and say to myself:
     I haven't seen a thing.
     And the girl, her palate dry as a postherd,
     her eyes bulge,
     when that hand closes over her hair, grasping it
     without a shred of pity.

Language and Persona

Ravikovitch's poetry is characterized by a variety of linguistic registers, blending biblical Hebrew with contemporary diction and slang, often to startling effect. As is generally true of modern Hebrew poetry, her poems often rely on traditional Jewish sources, such as the liturgy or the biblical psalms, to create a subtext and background against which the poem unfolds. Her work also draws extensively on images and motifs from world literature and ancient culture such as Hamlet and the Greek figure of Medea who, in "The Burning Dress" (1969) is rewritten to serve as a figure who debunks both conventional depictions of women as scheming, and the storytelling tradition responsible for creating those images.

The poetic persona in Ravikovitch's subsequent volumes is often defined by an exotic (in relation to Israel) geographic locale—for example, Zanzibar, Chad, Cameroon, and Hong Kong. In "Tirzeh and the Wide World," the speaker asks to be taken away and left "among other people, / the likes of whom I've never met, / there I will eat a strawberry confection from the forest, / and gallop on the train in Scandinavia." In Australia, the speaker will "teach the kangaroo / reading and writing, Bible and math," the rudiments of Israeli elementary school. This express desire for connection with "strangers" is undercut by a sense that the speaker is also somewhat in need of rescue: as she floats in the "heart of the ocean," she asks that a net and life vest be tossed to her (Ravikovitch, 1995, pp. 94-95). The voice that emerges over the course of Ravikovitch's early volumes—at once wounded and wearily resilient—is entirely unique and resists any normative assumptions about "women's poetry" or "a feminine voice." "The End of the Fall" reflects on the almost existential loneliness that underlies all human experience, whether personal or communal, local or global:

    If a person falls out of a plane in the middle of the night
    Only God himself can lift him up …
    If a person falls out of a place in the middle of the night
    Only God knows the end of the fall
    (Ravikovitch, 1995, pp. 128-129 [translation by Barbara Mann])

The loneliness at the poem's conclusion is made only marginally more bearable by the thought that God himself shares in it, that God is also in need of human deeds and companionship.

While it seems the poet herself had an ambivalent relation to feminism per se, many of her poems treat feminist issues such as gender roles, societal power relations, and a focus on the weak or more vulnerable members of society (women, children, minorities). Furthermore, several of Ravikovitch's poems expressly trace a female poetic tradition of sorts, especially in relation to the work of her predecessor Leah Goldberg (1911–1970) and contemporary Yona Wollach (1944–1985). This delineation of what feminist critics call an alternative literary tradition of women's writing is all the more crucial within the sphere of modern Hebrew writing, given Hebrew's normative association with the patrilineal domain of liturgy, tradition, and rabbinic scholarship.

Poetry and Politics

Since the 1980s Ravikovitch's work has increasingly been viewed within the context of political poetry. Hebrew poetry has always been intimately connected to national identity, since its inception as a secular poetic idiom in Eastern Europe in the late nineteenth century. Even before that, the biblical prophets historically played a central role in the articulation of an ethical, often oppositional, point of view regarding national concerns. Ravikovitch's volume Ahavah Amitit (1987; Real love) appeared after a decade-long poetic silence. Many of the book's poems initially appeared in the early part of the Israeli war in Lebanon, a period marked by the poet's public protest of the war, alongside other Israeli writers such as Natan Zach and amos oz.

Ravikovitch's late work continued to address themes of power and powerlessness, in an increasingly bold and clear poetic idiom. Her work increasingly included images of diasporic Jewish life, with a special focus on women and a matrilineal tradition. For example in "We Had an Understanding" (1986), a poem addressed to her "European grandmother," the poetic speaker says of their shared "story":

    There are details in it better left untold,
    Better to leave patches of forgetfulness on what happened in the past.
    But the definite resemblance
    Between us
    Produced understanding without sympathy
    (Kaufman, et al., p. 151)

The reader should not mistake this poem for a sentimental or nostalgic attempt to connect with an ultimately irretrievable past. Indeed, the cool irony of a pose which is "understanding" but not sympathetic defines the absolute distance, finally, of the speaker from her grandmother. For Ravikovitch, this distance is both crucial to any aesthetic contemplation of the world, as well as morally suspect. Indeed, the difficult responsibility of "witnessing" in the face of suffering emerges as a major theme in Ravikovitch's later work (see Sidebar: "Hovering at Low Altitude"). "Issues in Contemporary Jewry" (1987) includes a portrait of a destitute "exilic Jewish woman," an image that conflates historical notions of Jewish wandering with more contemporary images of Palestinian refugees. The question of place, and of the relation between a people and a place, is paramount in these later poems, as is recorded in her dystopic, affectionate ode to Tel Aviv, "Lying on the Water": "A rotten Mediterranean city—/ how my soul is bound to hers" (Kaufman, et al., p. 152).


The status of Ravikovitch's work abroad has only grown in recent years, as more translations of her work have been produced; her work is featured in academic conferences and regularly taught in university courses on Hebrew literature, and translations of her work have appeared in such prestigious magazines as the New Yorker. In 2007 a comprehensive English-language edition of her poems will be published by W.W. Norton, a leading American trade publisher. This publication signifies the high critical regard for Ravikovitch's work; it will also help introduce her poems to future generations of readers.


Ravikovitch was hailed as a major poetic voice within Israeli literature, from the appearance of her very first poems. Her work has been consistently admired both by critics and a wider, popular readership; her poems have appeared in the weekly newspaper literary supplements, and editions of her poems regularly sell out in bookstores. Her influence and stature were enormous in her lifetime, in spite of the poet's relatively low-key lifestyle. It is perhaps too soon to assess Ravikovitch's final legacy, as her passing is still mourned by lovers of Hebrew poetry.


Gold, Nili, Barbara Mann, and Chana Kronfeld. "'Hovering at Low Altitude' by Dalia Ravikovitch." In Reading Hebrew Literature: Critical Discussions of Six Modern Texts. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2003.

Kaufman, Shirley, Galit Hasan-Rokem, and Tamar S. Hess. The Defiant Muse: Hebrew Feminist Poems from Antiquity to the Present. New York: Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 1999.

Ravikovitch, Dalia. Dress of Fire. Translated by Chana Bloch. London: Menard Press, 1976.

―――――――. The Window: New and Selected Poems. Translated by Chana Bloch and Ariel Bloch. Riverdale-on-Hudson, NY: Sheep Meadow Press, 1989.

―――――――. Kol Ha-Shirim Ad Koh [The complete poems so far]. Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1995.

                                       Barbara Mann