Meet Elhanan Nir, a poet and The rabbi of the Siach Yitzhak Yeshiva in the Jewish settlement of Efrat, who is invited by leading Palestinian sheikhs to pray and also initiates by himself Joint Jewish-Muslim prayers: "These meetings are important to me personally, as the rabbi of a yeshiva and as a person who lives in proximity to Palestinians and meets them on a daily basis, on the roads and in shopping centers. There's great similarity between us and the Arabs, in our religiosity, in our belief in the divine presence and in our family structures, as well as a common aversion to the Western colonialist outlook. So both sides have something to learn from each other."
Published 05:54 01.09.11
When Elhanan Nir's first book of poetry was published, he showed it to his father. His father, learned in the Holy Scriptures, examined the book and asked, "Yes, but how do you know all this? On what are you relying? What are your sources?""The heart," Nir answered. "My source is the heart."
This dialogue teaches us a lot about the gap between modern lyric poetry and the religious world in which Nir was raised. At a time when poetry focuses primarily on the individual and his unique experiences of life, religious texts generally focus on a social group, rely on tradition and deal with practical matters.
"My family belongs to the religious Zionist community," Nir said. "My father is a rabbi, and I studied in institutions run by the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva, where the main emphasis and most of the work focus on religious subjects, especially Talmud study.
"While I was in high school there, I became exposed, on my own, to the possibilities of art, culture and creativity. At the same time, I began to explore the esoteric aspects of the Torah - kabbala [mysticism] and Hasidism. The society from which I came offered no encouragement to engage with Hasidic poetry; there was even difficult opposition. My parents, and even more so my grandfathers, whose roots were in the courts of important Hasidic rabbis, left the Hasidic world because they saw it as a Diaspora world."
Yet despite the opposition that Nir noted, and perhaps even precisely because of this opposition, several prominent poets have emerged from the religious world in recent years. Aside from Nir, who won the Prime Minister's Prize for creative work this year and whose second book, "Ha'esh Haregila" ("Ordinary Fire" ) has just been published in Hebrew by Hakibbutz Hameuchad's Rhythmos series, there are also Eliaz Cohen, Sivan Har-Shefi and Nahum Pechnik. Aside from the fact that they are religiously observant, these poets share another characteristic: They all live in West Bank settlements.
Has poetry ceased to be the bastion of the left? Does Uri Zvi Greenberg now have heirs? When speaking with Nir, one quickly discovers that although he lives on a hilltop in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc, it is hard to place him. It is also hard to situate his views on the right side of the political map. He canceled our first meeting, for example, because one of the leading sheikhs of Hebron had invited him to a joint prayer session in honor of the middle of the month-long Ramadan holiday.
Joint Jewish-Moslem prayers are not unusual for Nir. In his role as rabbi of the Siach Yitzhak Yeshiva in Efrat, he initiates many such activities, all aimed at getting acquainted with neighboring Palestinians and coming into direct, unmediated contact with them. He has taken his students to visit a mosque, and together with a group of ultra-Orthodox and settler rabbis he set up, he is in contact with leading sheikhs in the Hebron area.
As he wrote in one of his poems, "We're giving up our difficult history, / we want to leave it to the burning light of those days, / in which we hope peace will come to the region of our desire. / We pursue it fearfully all the way to Hebron."
"These meetings are important to me personally, as the rabbi of a yeshiva and as a person who lives in proximity to Palestinians and meets them on a daily basis, on the roads and in shopping centers," Nir said. "There's great similarity between us and the Arabs, in our religiosity, in our belief in the divine presence and in our family structures, as well as a common aversion to the Western colonialist outlook. So both sides have something to learn from each other."
How is this approach received by the yeshiva and your immediate environment?
"The Siach yeshiva is a well-known brand and people know where they are going."
Nir, 31, was raised in Ma'aleh Mikhmash in the West Bank. After studying at Mercaz Harav, and army service as a combat lookout in the Duvdevan unit, he began studying at the Siach yeshiva. When he was 22, his mother died and his father remarried. The rabbinical world in which he was raised had hoped he would continue his family's rabbinical dynasty, but Nir set out on a private trip to India and planned to study architecture when he returned.
When were you exposed to poetry?
"The first poet I read was Zelda. I left a boring yeshiva lesson in the middle, wandered around the school, found a book on one of the shelves and was captivated. Afterward I discovered Pinhas Sadeh. On school vacations I worked as a house painter, and then I bought poetry books by Amir Gilboa, Yair Hurvitz and Dahlia Ravikovitch, with whom I was in touch later."
When did you start publishing poetry?
"When I was 16, I met [writer and critic] Moshe Shamir and asked whether I could send him poems. He agreed, and after I did, he asked to publish them in the magazine he edited at the time, 'Nativ'. For a long time, I published poems in various magazines and daily newspapers, but friends at my yeshiva, and the rabbis who taught me, didn't know at all. [Poetry] simply didn't exist in this society."Since then, a few things have apparently changed: Nir was one of the founders of the writing workshops now held in the yeshiva, and for the last seven years, he has edited a literary column in the Makor Rishon newspaper.
Of love and marriage
Though he has been publishing poetry since he was 16, his first book appeared only when he was 27. "Only after I was married, and living with someone, did the desire to publish develop," he said. "It's as if the partnership and daily conversation encouraged me to share what I had written with the world."
Nir's wife, Sara, is a video artist and teacher in a pluralistic school with both secular and religious students. She is the daughter of Emuna and Benny Elon.
"One day I visited the book fair and met Emuna Elon, who had just released her first novel, 'Simcha Gedola Ba'shamayim,' [literally, 'Great Joy in the Heavens'; published in English as 'If You Awaken Love']," he said. "We talked a little and she mentioned my name to Sara. Afterward, because of a friendship with Sara's brother, I met her. It began with 'great joy in the heavens' and continued with great joy on earth."
They now have two young children, and, he added enthusiastically, have also adopted a dog.
He and his wife recently returned from two weeks in Japan. Nir was invited to speak to members of the Makoya movement, Japanese lovers of Israel who believe that the return of Jews to their homeland, after 2,000 years of exile, is a genuine divine miracle. "It was very moving," he says. "Thousands of Japanese standing and singing 'Ana bekoach,' 'Am Yisrael Chai' and 'Mahar' with devotion and enthusiasm I've never seen before."
Nir's second book of poetry closes with a short story, a fantasy with a man and a woman at the center. The woman is about to give birth, but the birth is delayed, and in fact never takes place. The man is in despair, but his wife is tranquil and comes to terms with her fate. Only after the man dies, close to the time of the son's bar-mitzvah, does the unborn child emerge and run to the synagogue to read from the Torah.
"It's from the genre of fables that began in Judaism with the writing of the Talmud and the Zohar and was greatly developed by Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav. It is not merely a classic story, since the characters are obviously archetypes who undoubtedly represent all of humankind."
As the writer, was the moral of the allegory clear to you?
"I wanted to deal with the family and tradition. What disturbed me is that the religious world really wants to know how to pass on this ancient and wonderful tradition from father to son; it thinks about this all the time and with all its might. But sometimes, in this great desire, the yearning and the passion disappears, and then it's terrible. Often, due to an excess of desire for something, it can't be attained. Beyond this, I wanted the story to express that women, and not men, pass the tradition on."
What difference do you see between your first and second book?
"To me, the difference is obvious and begins with the titles. The first, 'Tehina al Intimiut' ['A Plea for Intimacy'], was totally a request for an encounter - with God, a mother, and love. 'Ha'esh Haregila' hints that there is already some acquaintance. We've met, nice to meet you, and now the question is about life after the encounter, in the midst of habit and routine. How do you keep the flames going at home after an exhausting day of work?
"From the point of view of poetry, the first book had a tendency toward monologue and the abstract, while the new one is more visual, more figurative. Perhaps in some way I have moved from the influence of Latin American poetry, Cesar Vallejo, Octavio Paz and Alejandra Pizarnik, to the influence of Polish poets like Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert and Wislawa Szymborska."
Most of Nir's poems, in substance, form and tone, are based on the foundation of prayer, but it is clear that the spirit of prophecy also runs through them. Otherwise, how can we explain these lines, which end "Piyyut [liturgical poem] for the middle of summer"?
"Remember how in the tent we spun innocent dreams / and spoke about children and the potent upheaval of the heart / and now we are trapped in weak and ambiguous silences. / So for heaven's sake, bring back the madness and frenzy."
|Liveleak on Facebook|