Goldberg, Lea (1911–1970)

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Goldberg, Lea (1911–1970)

German-born Israeli poet, translator, literary critic and scholar who embodied major creative energies within modern Hebrew literature to become one of the best-loved authors in Israel. Name variations: Leah. Born in Königsberg, East Prussia, Germany (now Kaliningrad, Russia), on May 29, 1911; died in Jerusalem on January 15, 1970; daughter of Abraham Goldberg and Cilia (Levin) Goldberg; never married.

Grew up in Kaunas, Lithuania, then Kovno, Russia (until 1918); emigrated from Germany to Palestine (1935), where she worked as a journalist writing literary criticism; taught comparative literature at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem (1952–70); along with Nathan Alterman (1910–1970) and Yehuda Amichai (1924—), remains a representative poetic voice of Israel in the first phase of its cultural as well as political independence.

Selected writings:

(poems) three collections, Smoke Rings, Letters from an Imaginary Journey, and Green-Eyed Ear of Corn (1939–40); (for children) The Zoo (1941); From My Old Home (1942); (novel) It Is the Light (1946); (nature poems) Al ha-Perihah (1948, English translation by Miriam Billig Sivan titled On the Blossoming, NY: Garland, 1992); (translated by Shulamit Nardi) Little Queen of Sheba: A Story About New Immigrant Children in Israel (NY: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1959); (for children, with Anna Riwkin-Brick) Eli Lives in Israel (NY: Macmillan, 1966); (for children) Adventure in the Desert (1966); "Certain Aspects of Imitation and Translation in Poetry," in Proceedings of the IVth Congress of the International Comparative Literature Association, Fribourg 1964 (The Hague: Mouton, 1966); Three Stories and The Backpack of Poems (both published 1970); Remnants of Life (1971); (trans. and illus. by Ramah Commanday) Light on the Rim of a Cloud: Fourteen Poems (San Francisco: Didymus Press, 1972); Room for Rent (Los Angeles: Ward Ritchie Press, 1972); "Poems," in Ariel: A Quarterly Review of Arts and Letters in Israel (no. 32, 1973); (translated by T. Carmi) Lady of the Castle: A Dramatic Episode in Three Acts (Tel Aviv: Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature, 1974); (translated by Hillel Halkin) Russian Literature in the Nineteenth Century: Essays (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, Hebrew University, 1976); (translated by Robert Friend) Selected Poems (London and San Francisco: Menard Press/Panjandrum Press, 1976).

Although she is considerably less known than the Hebrew writer S.Y. Agnon who in 1966 won the Nobel Prize in literature, Lea Goldberg was a major figure in the literary and intellectual life of Israel for more than three decades. Multitalented, Goldberg was above all else a poet who knew how to create verse that showed sentiment without succumbing to debilitating sentimentality. One critic has argued that whether they are brief lyrics or elegant sonnets, Goldberg's poems often reveal points of resemblance to those of the American Edna St. Vincent Millay , effortlessly utilizing a conversational tone and an epigrammatic verve that is coupled with elements of satire and surprise. Underlying her poetic creativity was Lea Goldberg's immense erudition. One of the last Jews to be awarded a doctorate by a German university in the Nazi era, she earned it in 1933 at the University of Bonn, her dissertation being an investigation of the manuscript sources of the Old Testament's Samaritan Pentateuch. Ranging far beyond her deep knowledge of the Hebrew Old Testament, Goldberg had an immense knowledge of virtually all epochs and traditions of European literature, be they the works of Dante, Dostoevsky, or James Joyce.

Although born in Königsberg, German East Prussia, Lea Goldberg grew up in Kovno, Lithuania, then a part of Tsarist Russia. Her family survived World War I after many vicissitudes, and Lea received her primary and secondary education at the Hebrew Gymnasium in Kovno, which after 1918 became Kaunas, the capital of an independent Lithuania. As a teenager, she was already writing Hebrew poetry of considerable literary quality. She continued her education, with a specialization in both philosophy and Semitic languages, at the universities of Kaunas, Berlin, and Bonn. While studying in Germany, Goldberg was an eyewitness to the rapid rise of National Socialism with its violent attacks on Jews, liberals, and other groups demonized by Hitler's followers as being "un-German." These chilling experiences only served to deepen Goldberg's resolve to strengthen her Jewish identity, and she made a decision to adopt Hebrew as her mother tongue.

In 1935, she sailed for Palestine, then under British rule. Life in Palestine's Jewish intellectual community in the 1930s was economically precarious but intellectually exciting. Goldberg was acutely aware that she had chosen to cut herself off from some, but by no means all, aspects of the world of European culture when she moved to Palestine. She was now "coming home" to a Zionist homeland she had never seen before, a situation which inevitably placed her into a complex psychological role whose essence was summed up by her with: "I am here, totally here, in a foreign city in the heart of the great alien motherland." Rather than agonize over how to fit perfectly into her new environment, which included gaining what soon became her mastery of the Hebrew language as a living and flexible instrument of artistic expression, Goldberg chose to put pen to paper to address experiences large and small, thus creating what soon became an acclaimed body of distinguished poetry.

Goldberg was able within a few years to create a niche for herself in her new homeland's literary avant garde as an active member of the Yachdev (Moderna) experimental literary group. This circle of writers, which included Nathan Alterman and Avraham Shlonsky, was strongly influenced by Freudian theories as well as French symbolism. Although Goldberg's writings were enriched by these ideas, she never slavishly embraced literary modernism, always remaining elusive as to categorization. On a more practical plane, her collaboration with Shlonsky brought her work and allowed her to sharpen her skills as both an editor and translator.

Soon after her arrival in Palestine, Goldberg was hired by the Habima Theater School, both as a lecturer on theater history and as a dramatic advisor for the Habima troupe. Besides her Habima affiliation, she was a prolific writer in many genres. She worked for a number of years as drama and literary critic of the newspaper Davar (The Word), later joining the staff of another paper, Ha-Mishmar (The Observer). In 1952, Goldberg accepted an academic post as lecturer in comparative literature at Jerusalem's Hebrew University. Although she was never drily "academic" in the narrow sense of the word, Goldberg was a success in the academic world, eventually rising to the position of chairing Hebrew University's department of comparative literature. An indefatigable literary worker, she translated into Hebrew such classic authors of the Western tradition as Dante, Ibsen, Petrarch, Pushkin, and Tolstoy, books that all drew encomiums from enthusiastic critics and readers alike. Her translation of Tolstoy's War and Peace by itself represented an impressive achievement, and her 1951 anthology of world literature in Hebrew translation represented a first introduction to these treasures of world letters for many young Israelis. Another collection edited by Goldberg that became a popular favorite with Israeli readers was her anthology of classic love poems of the world, first published in 1956.

Lea Goldberg was an enthusiastic teacher who quickly earned an enviable reputation as a university lecturer. Among her most popular presentations were the five introductory lectures on the nature of poetry that became a classic statement for an entire generation of Israeli students, teachers and fledgling poets. Goldberg's lectures on Dante's place in Italian and world literature were faithfully copied down by her students and in time appeared in print with her permission. Besides publishing scholarly essays on the Israeli theater, Goldberg penned a book on the art of the short story and in 1968 published a collection of essays on 19th-century Russian literature and culture (this would appear posthumously in a 1976 English translation).

A special place in Goldberg's prolific literary output was set aside for the entertainment and enlightenment of children. In a fruitful collaboration with photographer Anna Riwkin-Brick (1908–1970), Goldberg wrote and published several books for children, including The Little Queen of Sheba (1956, English translation 1959), Adventure in the Desert (1966), and Eli Lives in Israel (published in Sweden and the United States, 1964 and 1966). In The Zoo (1941, published 1970), Goldberg used rhyming verses to present animals along with their personalities. But it was in her serious verse, which she wrote throughout her adult life, that Goldberg conveyed her deepest feelings and revealed the full range of her literary virtuosity. Her youthful poems, published from 1935 to 1939–1940 in three collections entitled Smoke Rings, Letters from an Imaginary Journey, and Green-Eyed Ear of Corn, are all experimental in varying degrees. While the imagery is bold and striking, some critics have viewed these poems as exhibiting little more than considerable technical skill that cannot in the final analysis disguise an "intellectual hardness," whose strategy was to shock readers with no other clear purpose in mind.

By the early 1940s, Goldberg was leaving this approach behind to seek out a more accessible poetic style. The result was her 1942 book of verse, From My Old Home. In this clearly autobiographical work, which presents a series of vignettes of life in rural Lithuania before the Holocaust, Goldberg was able to bring to Hebrew verse what literature scholar Robert Alter has described as "a subtle sense of beauty in small words and small things, a gracefulness and even playfulness of style." In "The Alley," one of the most charming poems in From My Old Home, she writes how:

The alley is narrow.
Pail bumps pail.
A girl's laughter.
Scarlet ribbon-tail.

Flitted past,
Barefoot best.
Gray stone

Yehuda Amichai, the major poet of Israel's 1948 War of Independence generation, recalled in a poem that during the 1948 war, everywhere he went, he remembered to take along in his knapsack a battered, taped pamphlet edition of Goldberg's From My Old Home.

In her only novel, It Is the Light (1946), Goldberg presents another work based on personal experience, this time set in a Lithuanian town in the summer of 1931. Spending the school vacation at home with her parents, the protagonist Nora Krieger, a sensitive and troubled young girl who has returned from her studies

in Berlin, struggles with her growing realization that she must find ways to live in a world that is filled with both specific terrors as well as evil in general. Having to choose between the escape mechanism represented by madness and the harsh realities of an adult life, the protagonist chooses the latter, having made the decision that "our lives will be life… in utter defiance of all the makers of history who torture children and murder their parents." As if it were a talisman, a remembered line from Moses Ibn Ezra serves to guide the protagonist out of her youthful nightmare into the world of light she yearns for. The same themes are dealt with in Goldberg's play, Lady of the Castle (1955), where the sensitive girl must choose between the pseudo-escape of madness and the harsh but ultimately necessary world of reality. She is able to find the strength to do so from a long-forgotten children's song.

In the last years of her life, Lea Goldberg became one of the most respected and most beloved Israeli poets. Although she had been associated with the Hebrew literary modernist school in the 1930s, she preferred to use traditional verse forms. The conversational style of her verse was based on a conscious rejection both of the rhetoric of many of her predecessors and the considerable bombast found in the work of her contemporaries. Drawn to simple things, Goldberg consciously limited her symbolic vocabulary to the familiar, and was thus able to endow even everyday words and phrases with often stunningly fresh images and rhythms.

In her book of nature poems, Al ha-Perihah (On the Blossoming, 1948, English translation, 1992), Goldberg inhabits a very different world from that of the artifice and intellectual posturing found in some of her youthful verse. Harkening back to the world of feeling and beauty that had fired the imaginations of the 19th century's Romantic artists, she enters into the mysteries of nature. She compares the stone to the stream to point out that, "I am change, its revelation." Accepting the constant transformation that is nature, the poet emphasizes the positive aspect of change, which is a process of renewal in which "every day shall not be like yesterday, and the day before it, and life shall not become trite and habitual." The seductive musicality of Goldberg's best verse has appealed not only to other poets and ordinary readers but to a number of composers as well. Those who have set her poems to music include Yehezkiel Braun, Robert Starer, and Joachim Stutschewsky.

In 1969, Goldberg was honored when she received one of the most prestigious awards in the world of Hebrew letters, the Irving and Bertha Neuman Literary Prize from New York University's Institute of Hebrew Studies. At the end of her life, this important writer remained better known in Israel than elsewhere, despite the profoundly universal themes found in her works. This unsatisfactory situation was remedied only slowly; while English-language translations had appeared from the 1950s onward, it was only in 1971 that a Polish translation of a selection of poetry was published in London, and in 1985 a French translation of her 1957 volume The Chatelaine appeared in Tel Aviv. After she died in Jerusalem on January 15, 1970, three posthumous works appeared in print: Three Stories and The Backpack of Poems (both published 1970) and Remnants of Life (1971).

By the end of the 20th century, literary scholars were in the process of rediscovering the rich legacy of Lea Goldberg's poetry and prose. While remaining popular in Israel, her writings also began to take on a genuinely global embrace with the appearance of accessible English translations of important works like Lady of the Castle, as well as translations into other foreign languages including French, Korean and Spanish. At the start of a new millennium there were growing signs that one of the most sensitive and distinctive voices of modern Hebrew letters was ready to find her place of honor within the permanent edifice of world literature. Israel honored Lea Goldberg by depicting her on a postage stamp issued on February 19, 1991.


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Goldberg, Lea. "Certain Aspects of Imitation and Translation in Poetry," in Proceedings of the IVth Congress of the International Comparative Literature Association, Fribourg 1964. The Hague: Mouton, 1966, pp. 839–843.

——. Lady of the Castle: A Dramatic Episode in Three Acts. Translated by T. Carmi. Tel Aviv: Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature, 1974.

——. Light on the Rim of a Cloud: Fourteen Poems. Translated and illustrated by Ramah Commanday. San Francisco, CA: Didymus Press, 1972.

——. Little Queen of Sheba: A Story About New Immigrant Children in Israel. Translated by Shulamit Nardi. NY: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1959.

——. On the Blossoming. Translated by Miriam Billig Sivan. NY: Garland, 1992.

——. "Poems," in Ariel: A Quarterly Review of Arts and Letters in Israel. No. 32, 1973, pp. 45–51.

——. Room for Rent. Los Angeles, CA: Ward Ritchie Press, 1972.

——. Russian Literature in the Nineteenth Century: Essays. Translated by Hillel Halkin. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, Hebrew University, 1976.

——. Selected Poems. Translated by Robert Friend. London and San Francisco: Menard Press/Panjandrum Press, 1976.

—— and Anna Riwkin-Brick. Eli Lives in Israel. NY: Macmillan, 1966.

Guy, Hanoch. "Themes and Symbols in the Poetry of Leah Goldberg." Ph. D. dissertation, Dropsie University for Hebrew and Cognate Learning, Philadelphia, 1973.

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Lieblich, Amia. El Leah. Tel Aviv: ha-Kibuts ha-meuhad, 1995.

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Penueli, Shemuel Yeshayahu, and Azriel Ukhmani, eds. Anthology of Modern Hebrew Poetry. 2 vols. Tel Aviv: Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature, 1966.

Ruebner, Tuvia. Leah Goldberg: Monografyah. Tel Aviv: Sifriyat poalim, ha-Kibuts ha-meuhad, 1980.

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Vardi, Dov, ed. New Hebrew Poetry. Tel Aviv: Women's International Zionist Organization, 1947.

related media:

Goldberg, Leah. Songs of the Jordan River. Los Angeles: Everest Records 3273, 1969.

——. Songs of the Land I Love. Tel Aviv: CBS Records 81240, 1976.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia