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Tuvia Ruebner Never Stops Mourning the Lost

New English translations of the 90-year-old’s Israel Prize-winning work remind us why he’s the doyen of postwar poets

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Tuvia Ruebner on April 17, 2014. (Mel Freilich)
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Although long recognized for his lyric poetry in Europe, Tuvia Ruebner has spent most of his creative life in Israel laboring in relative obscurity, cast into the shadows of Yehuda Amichai and other modernist poets who enjoyed top billing among the “Statehood Generation.” Though of their generation Ruebner, now 90, was always an outlier—both literally, since he lived on a northern kibbutz far from the cafés of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and creatively. His work focused on loss and destruction, topics out of favor with the generation of newly smelted Israelis.

But these days, Ruebner is enjoying a new buzz in Israel. In the past decade, the accolades have been stacking up—the Anne Frank Prize, the Jerusalem Prize, the Israel Prime Minister’s Prize for Literature (twice), and finally, in 2008, the coveted Israel Prize.

Since 1957 he has published 15 poetry collections, most recently in 2013, and two new books of his poems in English translation are poised to come out: In the Illuminated Dark: Selected Poems of Tuvia Ruebner, translated and introduced by Rachel Tzvia Back—who accompanied me on a recent visit to Ruebner—and Late Beauty, a book of Ruebner poems translated by Lisa Katz and Shahar Bram.

Ruebner is old enough to both appreciate the newfound fame and realize that it changes nothing; he is still haunted by the past and grateful for the present. For a man whose life and work have been overshadowed by loss—of his parents, his beloved little sister, a young wife, and an adult son—Ruebner has a remarkably bright presence. Hard of hearing, he listens intently and has a sense of humor and playfulness that belie his age. In his poem, “Postcard from Pressburg-Bratislava,” Ruebner writes:

I was born in Pressburg. I had a mother, a father, a sister.
I had, I believe, a small and happy childhood in Pressburg.

All the sadness and displacement expressed in his poetry seem to rest on something solid, secure, even joyous.

***

Outside the Ruebner home on Kibbutz Merhavia, I was greeted by Galila, Tuvia’s wife, and was immediately struck by how starkly beauty can express itself in an 82-year-old woman. Galila, a former concert pianist, led me inside where her husband was seated at the computer, wearing a long brown jalabiya and a colorfully embroidered Nepalese cap.

Ruebner likens the seduction of territorial expansion to that of a mythological siren

The living room is tiny, on the scale of most old kibbutz apartments, its walls almost entirely obscured by works of modern art, shelves of books, family photographs, and Ruebner’s own body of photographic work. In January 1924, when Ruebner was born to a prosperous Jewish family, Pressburg—or Bratislava, as its Slovakian speakers knew it—was home to German, Hungarian, and Slovakian-speaking communities. Picturesquely situated along the Danube, it was sandwiched between Austria and Hungary and passed to Slovakian control just before Ruebner was born.

He grew up in a traditional but largely secular household (“We were a little more observant than Kafka,” he noted wryly), where he and his father would sneak their bacon off paper plates in the hallway. He attended the Neolog synagogue with his parents on the High Holidays and his grandparents on Passover and was educated in a Protestant Evangelical school until fifth grade. The principal was a Masonic brother of Ruebner’s father at the local lodge. For religion lessons, a rabbi was enlisted to instruct the Jewish students in Bible stories and religious rituals.

Though he’d compose the occasional poem for a family event, it was prose that captured Ruebner’s imagination as a boy. In grade school, his teacher sent a short story of his to the renowned Prager Tagblatt. It was about a mountaineer who, upon cresting the top, catches the sunrise and promptly tumbles down the mountain. The paper declined the submission, claiming, “This can’t be the story of a 10-year-old.”

Ruebner’s formal schooling ended after only a year of high school, when anti-Semitic laws banned public education to Jews. A counselor at his Hashomer Hatzair youth movement group arranged for him to join a Hachshara to train for life in Palestine, where he wrote stories for the publicly posted newspaper. One of his counselors, partial to poetry, suggested that Ruebner begin to write “expressionistically.” Pressed for an explanation, the counselor replied, “A corn leaf is a comma,” and advised Ruebner to read Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus. It ignited in him a love of Rilke and a lifelong passion for poetry.

Because of his membership in a Zionist youth group, Ruebner’s family was able to buy him an exit visa, and in 1941, when he was 17, Ruebner bade a halting farewell to his family and made his way to Palestine. Sent to Kibbutz Merhavia, he enjoyed the work outdoors but found the flat, parched terrain ugly, and longed for the lush and gently rolling landscape of his childhood.

The yearning for home was compounded by the harsh welcome the new arrivals received. In explaining why he continued to write poems in German for 12 years after his arrival, Ruebner erupts in a torrent of painful memories, “We arrived during the war, Rommel was at Alexandria; we weren’t wanted. They took all our possessions and divided them among the kibbutz members. My separation from home had been a difficult one. I was a stranger; I felt I didn’t belong here. I didn’t want to change my name, I didn’t want to become a sabra.”

In 1944, he found out why, two years earlier, he had stopped receiving replies to his allotted 24-word, Red Cross postcards home: In June of that year his parents and his 12-year-old sister, Alice (Litzi), had perished at Auschwitz. In his grief he sought the solace of another Slovakian émigrée: a woman named Ada Klein, whom he married. They had a daughter in 1949, but within months the young parents were in a bus accident that killed Ada and left Ruebner seriously wounded with burns covering much of his body.

While in the hospital he was visited by Lea Goldberg, already a renowned poet and a close friend. Though he generally claims to have written exclusively in German until 1953, Ruebner told Back and me during our visit that he dictated his first Hebrew poem to Goldberg on that occasion. It reveals the depth of his pain and continued sense of estrangement (translation mine):

first Hebrew poem in Davar

Ruebner’ first Hebrew poem in Davar.

I am not who I was,
I am not who I am.
I am neither here nor there.
Living between water and air.
Haltingly, I live in fire.
My eyes are scorched.
My hands are scorched.
My lips are scorched.
Scorched are these words.
He who whispered them
lives in an open coffin.
Watching a square of sky
drift by.

Goldberg quickly jotted down the poem and submitted it to the newspaper Davar, which published it on Oct. 6, 1950.

A few years later, Ruebner met Galila Jizreeli when she came to perform a concert at Merhavia; she had grown up on the neighboring kibbutz of Ein Harod. After their first date, she declared, “I left with the feeling that I’d follow him to the ends of the earth.”

They were married in 1953, and that’s when he began writing poems exclusively in Hebrew, the language in which he now spoke to his beloved, but also one in which “I stuttered, became silent, I begged and I whispered.” In her exegesis of “Hebrew, My Love” in which this line appears, Back notes that in his evocation of Moses and his stutter, “the hot coals of the midrashic story [which caused Moses’ stutter] become in Ruebner’s life the burning coals of the Holocaust.”

His poetry, often fragmentary, propelled by rhythm and sound, is governed by a strict formalism, internally driven and dictated by the demands of an individual poem. “The distinction between poetic language and prosaic language is the distinction between the Sabbath and the secular,” Ruebner has written. “Just as the Sabbath is said to emit its aura over the everyday, so should art serve as a type of radiating corrective over reality.”

As a respected teacher and prolific poet, Ruebner was part of the émigré community of artists and intellectuals emerging in Israel in the 1950s, and he was particularly close to the writer Werner Kraft and to Lea Goldberg, among others. Though part of the circle that included fellow poets Yehuda Amichai, Dan Pagis (to whom he taught poetry), and Natan Zach, he remained on its fringes.

Asked to define the difference between his work and theirs, Ruebner said: “I come from a German tradition; they, though native German speakers, were formed more by an Anglo-Saxon/British one. We read different poets. I wasn’t an [Natan] Alterman groupie. He has rich imaginative powers, but no soul, no Innigkeit, [interior depth]. I like Goldberg because she’s closer to the Russian/German tradition of Innigkeit—like the pianissimo of Mahler.”

The next day Ruebner wrote to say that his answer had been only a partial one: “I saw everything through the prism of Auschwitz, and they didn’t.”

In continuing to write poetry in German long after arriving in Israel, and in his refusal to engage with a triumphalist present, Ruebner was much closer in practice and spirit to his mentor and close friend, noted poet Ludwig Strauss, than to his contemporaries. Though he insists he never attended any of Strauss’ famous lectures at Hebrew University, the two émigrés formed a bond so intimate that Strauss was soon addressing Ruebner in German’s informal “Du” form. It was not only his marriage in 1953 that led Ruebner to switch from writing in German to Hebrew, but Strauss’ death that same year, not long after the publication of his only volume of Hebrew poetry.

Like Strauss, Ruebner has been unflinchingly critical of Zionism’s failures. Already in 1948 Strauss was writing poems like “Kfar Shadud” (“Plundered Village”) to condemn the massacre of Arabs by Jewish paramilitary forces at Deir Yassin. And Ruebner says that by the time the Six Day War ended in 1967, it was clear to him that ruling over another people “would be the disaster of the country’s youth because it would corrupt them.” In an excerpt from “Soldiers’ Memorial Day” Ruebner likens the seduction of territorial expansion to that of a mythological siren:

Oh, beautiful country, pursuing
us from one end of the world to the other
in yellow and green fields in cloud shadows.
Even with thorn and thistle, with nettle and briar, you seduce
to enter you, to penetrate deep deep within you
body into body to no end.

Having been expelled from one home and uneasy with the nationalism of another, Ruebner declares poetry to be his only homeland and says it has been his salvation. “The essence of my life is a poem,” he asserted to me, before lamenting its decline as an art form. It was once the measure of a nation—“Russia meant Pushkin; Britain meant Shakespeare. What would you say today?” So, he applauds the work of young poets.

These days Ruebner seems to draw strength from his work and from the poetry and consolations of everyday life. Miriam, Ruebner’s daughter from his first marriage, lives in Iceland with her children and grandchildren; they visit regularly. Idan, his older son with Galila, long ago became a Buddhist and moved to Nepal, yet Ruebner and Galila remain close to him. Their younger son, Moran, tragically disappeared without a trace on a trip to Ecuador over 30 years ago.

Ruebner never stops mourning the lost but seems to have learned to negotiate his way among the dead and the living, the present and the absent. At the end of his poem titled “My Father” he writes:

Today he gazes at me from the wall and asks me with his eyes
if I know, do I really know, that one cannot separate
life from death, and that language is sometimes nothing more than
the mourning of lost tenderness.

***

Translations from the Hebrew © by Rachel Tzvia Back unless otherwise noted.

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Tuvia Ruebner Never Stops Mourning the Lost

New English translations of the 90-year-old’s Israel Prize-winning work remind us why he’s the doyen of postwar poets

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