On Erez Bitton's Poetry

Two Hebrew articles I worte about Erez Bitton's poetry now published in English in Poetry International, thanks to Lisa H Katz for the translation:

Out of the past, something new


Erez Biton ‘inserts the oral tradition of Moroccan Judeo-Arabic literature, transmitted by women and therefore a feminine tradition, and one that did not exist in Hebrew, into the poetry written in Israel’.

The publication of Erez Biton’s fourth book, Timbisert: A Moroccan bird, is a very moving event. Biton is not very prolific, and each poem that appeared in recent years in a newspaper or a literary magazine is like a hidden treasure.  The new book collects most of his output over the two decades that have passed since his third volume, Intercontinental bird. His two first books,Moroccan offering (1976) and The book of mint (1979), marked a new path, one to which contemporary Hebrew poetry has responded to only partly in the meantime. [Biton’s oeuvre] has the potential to be a major focus for the Hebrew poetry being written now, and that will be written in the future, as well as a focal point for reading the Hebrew poetry of recent times.

Biton may be depicted in a number of ways, some of which are contradictory, and this is no accident. He rebelled against [ . . . ] new Hebrew poetry, and also returned to the tradition against which new Hebrew poetry itself rebelled. He is the founder of a new poetry tradition, as well as a descendant of and one who continues within existing traditions. Biton is the founder of the new Mizrahi* poetry in Israel, with its unique mix of Hebrew and Arabic, restoring the continuum of memory via stories about his family and the figures of his parents as an alternative to the grand narrative that rejected them.

Biton conducts a dialogue with the oldest tradition in Hebrew poetry,piyyut (liturgical poetry), which persisted until the 20th Century, and dedicates one of his poems,  ‘To speak at the moment of illumination’ to Rabbi David Buzaglo, the greatest Moroccan liturgical poet of modern times, a payytan(poet, composer and performer of piyyut). Biton speaks in the language of his family, Moroccan Judeo-Arabic, and in this way rejects the dichotomy between high culture and folklore. He inserts the oral tradition of Moroccan Judeo-Arabic literature, transmitted by women and therefore a feminine tradition, and one that did not exist in Hebrew, into the poetry being written in Israel. And he dialogues with the literature of his ancestral land, in literary Arabic, for example, dedicating the poem ‘A friend who became a brother’ to the memory of the Algerian poet Rabah Belamri.

Biton is also in dialogue with the new Ashkenazi Hebrew tradition of poetry, that of  Chaim Nachman Bialik, which he learned at school, and the personal-existential current, under whose influence he wrote his first poems. Inside this dialogue he has fashioned an alternative, one that does not discount various earlier Hebrew practices stemming from the Mizrahi experience. In this way Biton shaped the loveliest protest poetry within the new Hebrew poetry and in opposition to it. From the encounter of these traditions, a compelling intricacy emerges between the sacred and the profane, between Hebrew and other Jewish languages, between Judaism and Arabness, West and East, and between the periphery and Tel Aviv.

Parents hold center stage in [Timbisert] as in Biton’s earlier works. They appear for the first time in a story of his childhood, ‘My mother, her children did not live’:


My mother,
her children did not live,
my mother.

The first
for her he didn’t live, the first,
who was called David,
after her father.

The second
he didn’t live for her, the second,
who was called Meir after Rabbi Meir the miracle maker,
and didn’t receive the miracle of life.

The third
lived for her, the third
who was called Yaish
which means life
and that was me,
and I lived for her.

what kind of life did I live for you,
my mother.

The movement [from the mother to the child-speaker] is especially surprising, as the speaker is the first child to live, and thus emotion is unleashed in the penultimate line, which switches from the third person used in most of the poem, to direct address.

In another poem, Biton visits ‘The Cemetery in Lod’, enumerating those among whom he lived during his childhood in that city, and who now rest in their graves:

Here is old Rabbi Yitzhak
and his wife, the blind Aisha
with whom I used to come to this very cemetery
to pick figs and carobs… at sunset, when we returned with a full basket
she generously gave me
two or three figs
and I was filled with joy at the day of pure pleasure . . . and here is Haroun Ben Hammo
who fell in the Six Day War,
and with whom we used to pray
in the small synagogue
named for Mother Rachel.
would stand up on the New Year
and read the sacrifice of Isaac in tears
and didn’t know
he was reading his own sacrifice. [ . . . ]

The poem is a sort of memorial, [ . . . ] Biton’s attempt as in all his books is to tell the story of his childhood in Lod before he was blinded, and the story of his mother, the village of her birth and her life before [it was disrupted by the move to Israel].

Now we are confronted by dead of Lod, distant in time, and so it is highly suitable for the poem to end with an image of his parents, and then a glance at the poet himself:

And here is my parents’ cracked grave
that each year we say we’ll fix
and we don’t fix
and rain falls now and seeps in
my mother who couldn’t bear the cold
and always wore
her sweater year round
and here I’ll be buried
I want to be buried here
among the living
in the 1950s
in the city of Lod.

The Israeli past is filled with longing gone missing, but out of this the son creates something new.

© Almog Behar (Translated by Lisa Katz)Source: Excerpted from Almog Behar’s review in Haaretz, 30.10.2009, and an extended version on his blog.

למקור המאמר בעברית


Biton meets Buzaglo: a riff


A sort of paternal relationship is established, in which the son, who has distanced himself from his father, suddenly sees, in a moment of enlightenment, their inevitable resemblance in the mirror.

The Hebrew of Dizengoff Street [in central Tel Aviv]; the Hebrew of the poor suburbs; Moroccan Judeo-Arabic; and the hybrid nature of ‘Bach’s short masses/ in Moroccan Hebrew’, do not exhaust the types of language Erez Biton addresses in order to resolve the conflict in which he finds himself immersed, and there is at least one more type of Hebrew. If the Hebrew in peripheral areas populated by Mizrahi Jews is taken by most of the dominant culture for an inferior Hebrew of the streets, the broken Hebrew of immigrants, well, here comes a fifth kind of Hebrew: it is Mizrahi, [Hebrew for ‘eastern’, denoting Jews from the Arab world and adjacent, mostly Moslem-majority countries] with a continuous history, and includes the languages of the sages, prayer, midrash, law and piyyut [liturgical poetry]. It feels sure of itself.

One of the poems emblematic of this Hebrew is ‘To speak at the moment of illumination’, appearing in Biton’s third book, Intercontinental bird in 1990. [ . . . ] It is one of Biton’s most optimistic, in which the two great Moroccan Jewish poets of the 20th Century, two blind men, meet in an illuminating moment, in a great light.

Biton’s path in search of himself, to discover a new poetic identity, Israeli and modern, brought him back to the paytan [writer, composer and singer of piyyut] Rabbi David Buzaglo, and revealed to him that his own self could be found in Buzaglo: the two of them originating in the same ‘honey dipper’. Such peacemaking and restful words are relatively rare for Biton, who mostly expresses the upsets of migration.

[ . . . ]

Biton approaches Buzaglo and invites him (twice) to ‘the center of the stage’. What stage? The platform of the newspaper’s literary supplement? That of Café Roval on Dizengoff Street, recalled in other poems? The bima in the Moroccan synagogue? Biton seeks to return Buzaglo to the center of new Hebrew literary awareness while knowing that the invitation is twofold at least. It is not only Buzaglo that he wants to bring out of the corner of the obscure synagogue to the literary supplement. He would also like to propel himself from the back page of the literary review toward the lively synagogue stage.

[ . . . ]

What is special about this moment is that Biton does not want to skip the recent past, and consign it to oblivion, in favor of the classic period of Moroccan piyyut bathed in splendor. Instead, Biton seeks to conduct a dialogue with [with the recent past now . . . ]. He calls attention to the continuity of piyyut in the 20th Century in his approach to Rabbi David Buzaglo, who lived most of his life in Morocco, and the final decade in Israel. He conducts a dialogue with the real, live figure of Buzaglo, who has to this day not been recognized as a classical [poet], and [has been associated] with a period that the academic imagination considers inferior.

In the face of the rejection of sacred tradition by the new Hebrew literature, and the rejection of diasporic Mizrahi traditions, in effect the rejection ofpiyyut writers who reached Israel, Biton invites Rabbi Buzaglo, calls attention to him within the new Hebrew literature, while also painting himself in Buzaglo’s colors.

[ . . . ]

One of the repeated lines in this poem is ‘following myself I reached you’. The search for self, the dominant Romantic ideal of the creative artist is something that the new Hebrew literature adopted from European tradition, and it is exactly what leads Biton to Buzaglo, inevitably. A sort of paternal relationship is established, in which the son, who has distanced himself from his father, suddenly sees, in a moment of enlightenment, their inevitable resemblance in the mirror.

[ . . . ]

Biton here reaches beyond the dichotomy through which Mizrahi art in Israel is often viewed, as between protest [ . . . ] and folklore (the ‘documentation’ of experience), a dichotomy that provides a meager sustenance for Mizrahi artists, somewhere between politicization and nostalgia, [ . . . ] without any opportunity to bridge the fracture between past and present.

Buzaglo’s central position in the poem also allows for the use of a more complex language when discussing Moroccan Jewish or other Mizrahi cultural traditions. It is the tendency of critics to speak of the silencing of first generation immigrants, and to say that their descendants are completely cut off from their heritage, lacking the tools to become acquainted with it (and thus unable to return to the place where they could learn about it). But the figure of Rabbi David Buzaglo reminds us that this isn’t necessarily so, and that to talk about silencing, without making an attempt to approach the tradition itself, and the way it continued to survive despite its repression, is an additional form of silencing. Buzaglo was not silent in Israel. As soon as he arrived in 1965, he began to travel among the development towns north and south [where Mizrahi immigrants were settled by the government], among various Moroccan communities, at a moment of rupture, in order to strengthen people who were wounded by the immigration process, and felt marginalized geographically and socially in Israel. During the decade that he lived in Israel, Buzaglo was a major factor in the revival of the Moroccan Jewish tradition of supplicatory poetry there. He wrote many poems in Israel. He did not keep silent and he was not silenced, and many of his poems live on in synagogues and communal events.

© Almog Behar (Translated by Lisa Katz)

Source: Excerpted from Haaretz, 20.10.2014

למאמר המקורי בעברית



A morning prayer for Rabbi David Buzaglo, a great Moroccan liturgical poet

1st version
I’ll allow myself to say
something springs inside me when I hear your name
I’ll allow myself to say
the nectar of my love overflows your doorstep
come out of the corner
to the center of the stage
Rabbi David Buzaglo
something inside me springs toward the echo of your notes
following myself I reached you
Rabbi David Buzaglo.

2nd version
Come out of the corner
to the center of the stage
Rabbi David Buzaglo
in my memory of you
my heart is a tree planted besides streams of water*
following myself I reached you
then found my face in yours
and the esteem in all my dreams about you
you and I out of the honey dipper
you I met at the moment of illumination**.

אודות almog behar

"צִמְאוֹן בְּאֵרוֹת", "אנא מן אל-יהוד", "חוט מושך מן הלשון", "צ'חלה וחזקל".
פוסט זה פורסם בקטגוריה english, בקורת שירה, עם התגים , . אפשר להגיע ישירות לפוסט זה עם קישור ישיר.

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