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«by Riki Ophir A dissertation submitted in partial satisfaction of the requirements for the degree of Joint Doctor of Philosophy with the Graduate ...»

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Why Read Poems in Such Hard Times? Sociopolitical History and Aesthetic Commitment in

Modern Hebrew, Yiddish and German Poetry


Riki Ophir

A dissertation submitted in partial satisfaction of the

requirements for the degree of

Joint Doctor of Philosophy

with the Graduate Theological Union


Jewish Studies

in the

Graduate Division

of the

University of California, Berkeley

Committee in charge:

Professor Chana Kronfeld, Chair

Professor Robert Kaufman Professor Robert Alter Professor Naomi Seidman Fall 2013 Why Read Poems in Such Hard Times? Sociopolitical History and Aesthetic Commitment in Modern Hebrew, Yiddish and German Poetry © 2013 All rights reserved by Riki Ophir Abstract Why Read Poems in Such Hard Times? Sociopolitical History and Aesthetic Commitment in Modern Hebrew, Yiddish and German Poetry by Riki Ophir Doctor of Philosophy in Jewish Studies University of California, Berkeley Professor Chana Kronfeld, Chair This dissertation focuses on what art in general and poetry in particular can reveal about sociopolitical history, and on the possible significance of such knowledge or understanding for human subjectivity and ethical-political agency. Following Marxian- inflected theory my claim is that the assumption that poetry and the other arts do not differ, first from already-conceptualized, purpose-driven thought, and then from actual action, is not only dangerously delusional, but also ignores the most radical potential of poetry. Poetry is an imaginative construction that is felt to be as if it were already an objective truth, als ob, in Kant’s terms, but is in fact something not yet actually proven to be objective. This in turn makes aesthetic experience imaginatively and affectively available to us without the conceptual constraints that delimit objectively-oriented thought and action in the real, empirical world itself. It is in this sense that art allows for the activation of subjectivity and agency not already known and stipulated.

More specifically, this dissertation identifies the role that Jewish poets ascribed to modern Hebrew and Yiddish poetry from a perspective wrought through a rich engagement with German literary culture. I show how both Yiddish and Hebrew modernist poetry provides and records unique evidence of historical experience. This study also examines how and why modern Hebrew Israeli poetry is haunted by the possibility that the newly established state of Israel might be moving away catastrophically from the imperative to achieve a genuinely democratic configuration. Finally, it examines how and why this legacy of critical examination of the sociopolitical reality still suffuses the aesthetic vocations of Israeli poetry today.

This project follows three main routes. The first is an exploration of the work of the Yiddish poet Moyshe-Leyb Halpern (1886-1932), read in light of its engagement with the poetry of Heinrich Heine (1797-1856), the poet Halpern admired most; the second is a comparative study of David Avidan's poetry, and to a lesser extent Natan Zach's, with the 1 poetry and thought of Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) and, through Brecht, Heine again; the third route is a study of the concept of poetry promoted by the American-born contemporary Israeli poet, Harold Schimmel (b.1935), in light of both Frankfurt School aesthetics and Halpern's poetics.

The complex constellation of poetic works and histories that this dissertation undertakes reveals how poetry emerges out of self-other relations, and in what ways these dynamics facilitate an agency effect, that is, an agency that is never already established, but is always coming into being. It is this notion of felt-agency, I further show, that is vital for the establishment a non-violent public sphere, one that is urgently needed today.

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Chapter Two: All that Was and Wasn’t Said: Zach, Avidan, Brecht 34 Chapter Three: Harold Schimmel and A Poetry That Is Born Out of Poetry 70

–  –  –

I feel extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity simply to be a student, that is, a full-time student, not least at a place where learning is appreciated and encouraged. In our world, such an opportunity cannot be taken for granted, and I'm truly and deeply grateful for all that I've received throughout my studies, and to the many people who have made this journey possible.

First, I wish to thank Prof. Chana Kronfeld for all her warmth, support, and endless encouragement. Chana's keen and rigorous reading of poetry and theory has always guided me in my own reading. I especially wish to thank her for her immense generosity and kindness, and for all that she has done, in so many ways, to help me throughout my studies and the writing of this dissertation.

The pathbreaking work of the other co-chair (de facto) of my dissertation committee, Robert Kaufman, is a source of constant inspiration for me. I cannot thank Prof. Kaufman enough for his intellectual generosity, constant encouragement, and support.

I have been fortunate to have Robert (Uri) Alter as a teacher in the years I spent at Berkeley. If I may say so myself, I believe Uri sees me for who I am, namely first and foremost for the person I am, and this is a wonderful gift one can rarely hope to receive. I especially appreciate Prof. Alter's intellectual integrity and genuine love for the language of literature.

Last but not least, I wish to thank Prof. Naomi Seidman, who has constantly encouraged me to make my arguments clearer, and who has also been a generous and hospitable friend to my family during the time we've lived in the Bay Area.

I also wish to extend my warmest thanks to two friends who have assisted me in varied ways: Yonatan Touval, who unfortunately has lost any hope that we'll ever reach a just and sustainable peace in the Middle East, but who still believes in real friendship; and the writer, journalist and translator from the Yiddish and French, my dear friend Benny Mer (Majersdorf).

Both of them supported me throughout this work.

Two people have made it possible for me to file while being faraway: E. Arnon, and my diligent friend Hanna Tzuker-Seltzer. I heartily thank them both.

To Zehavit, the bravest, most generous, truthful, and loving person I've ever met, who worked on this dissertation almost as much as I did, I am willing to forgive for making me take leave from Berkeley so early.

I would like to dedicate this dissertation to the memory of my beloved parents, Sarah (n.

Polat) and Kalman Ophir (Aufrychter). Not long before my mother’s sudden, painful death I confessed to her my desire to attend graduate school and write a dissertation, to which she responded that she would rather see me getting married and work as a cashier in a supermarket than complete a Ph.D. I've loved both my parents nevertheless, and miss them greatly (especially now that I have a family of my own), and can only say that, luckily, we don't always live up to our parents' expectations.


In a departure from recent studies of the meanings of Hebrew and Yiddish culture, which by and large tend either to criticize Israeli poetry’s voices for their alleged cooperation with Zionist ideology, or hail those which appear to have challenged mainstream ideological thinking, my dissertation identifies the role that Jewish poets and critics have ascribed to modern Hebrew and Yiddish poetry from a different perspective—one, I argue, intimately wrought with a richly textured engagement with German. First, I show how certain Yiddish poetry takes advantage of the fact that the Yiddish language has had no literary heritage to form a unique language of poetry. I also argue that it is a language that finds in self-other relations its ever-changing point of departure. I later show that, through its echoing of progressive romantic and modernist German poetry, as well as Yiddish poetry, modern Hebrew poetry expresses a sense of something being lost now, in the project at hand, that is, the establishment of a Jewish nationstate. Indeed, as I demonstrate through close readings of the poems of David Avidan and Natan Zach, modern Hebrew poetry is haunted by the possibility that something, as it were, is going wrong, is being catastrophically thrown by the wayside. In political and cultural terms, I suggest that that terribly fragile, endangered something is also the perception of the eroding status, within the Jewish community of Palestine and then Israel, of the imperative to achieve an ethnically mixed, genuinely egalitarian, democratic political configuration or state. I also show how and why Avidan understands that poetry provides and records a unique mode of evidence of the historical experience. Finally, through close readings of Harold Schimmel's poetry and poetic tracts I examine how this legacy which up until now has not been adequately articulated by the critical literature still suffuses the aesthetic vocations of Israeli poetry today, and indeed still gestures toward the most difficult but necessary tasks facing both poetics and ethics in Israel, and elsewhere, today. Put more boldly, the dissertation excavates a history within poetry —a history that also comes from outside the art, and that then gestures back toward the possibility of a different history. It is a history in which the echoes of otherness that might at first seem only to be about a German or Yiddish past urgently tell also of a present whose languages of mutual engagement would be Hebrew and Arabic. In short, and strangely enough, here German and, especially, Yiddish constellated with, or heard inside, Hebrew, signifies Palestinian Arabic, and signifies also, desperately, that the very ability to “hear” this “inside” other is being forgotten, lost, muted.

The focal problem of this dissertation is what art in general and poetry in particular can reveal about sociopolitical history, and the possible significance of such knowledge or understanding for human subjectivity and ethical-political agency. The received literary histories past 1947-1948, perhaps especially those of the Left, seem to miss art’s abilities to illuminate what is not known, or not known enough about our sociopolitical world. These familiar histories try to uncover the power struggles in which art is understood merely to play a role as an undifferentiated ideological discourse within social or political reality. Following a rather different sort of Marxian-inflected aesthetics and critical theory, and especially Robert Kaufman's explications of Frankfurt School aesthetics, my claim is that there is little to gain in inquiries that ask how art should affect politics or society, now or historical; instead, I argue that art has a unique power to achieve a provisional independence not from material sociopolitical reality, but from the concepts that delimit human action in the actual world.

iii Although I am interested in the the relationship of artworks to forgotten or repressed pasts, my main concern is the sad present and perilous future as they relate to the ongoing national conflict in the Middle East. I believe that—to use the key term inherited from Walter Benjamin’s and Theodor W. Adorno’s critical theory, a key critical notion they associate with the history and practice of art itself—“constellating” Israeli Hebrew, American Yiddish, German, and international trends of both poetry and thought enables a deeper investigation of what poetry actually makes available to us today (and not least, what it may, in surprising ways, show us about the history of Palestine and Israel that might otherwise simply go missing). This introduction tracks the main themes and ideas that my dissertation engages with in the order that they are discussed in the pages that follow. But first, let me examine a clear indictment of Statehood Generation Hebrew poetry made by a poet who is largely considered among the more progressive voices in Hebrew poetry, Avot Yeshurun (1904-1992). This revealing charge will

assist me in illuminating my own stance in relation to these prevalent views of art and poetry:

!"#$%&' !( ')"%) / !"*"+%,"#%3!/. $# %,*!&2. $$4. !*&)+ 5*,+.,1/ !"# '6*-. !*6.,!%"$ 6*0%1& '%1*!2#.,&#* '# %+2! $( *&,4 '%1*"#!. […] %$$4. $#—'.$" %"%#. %1#. '(3+ *1/—'%!%().

.'%%+)( '%+2! $( '%&,*4 $#!"% 7!# %%&!( $" '%8%92:$.,$/+$* ;*%..(%+" %6(./*!%#& %6*.%. '(. $".%!#.,$/+$,,*+6-*+. '%!"(.,*1"& '%)*$2 *$( !"#,'.%,*&#.'.%!%"& 6..%. #$.$# $4$.*%..%%#! %6( *6%+(. #$* *!/%; #$* *+%$(. 5#.'%6*.%.,# #/*!%#&,'".!- !"#,#,.#*". #*&&,'.$ *!/%;

,2# '%%1%&,#%!-.(+"1 #$.$# $4+.'%&!($,'.%1%($,#4 (!%#".+ $( ',(6 $( ',*#.'1%#* *%.."%/#+—,!2+$*,"%+"+.,# '.%,*&*,4$ '%#%&+ '%&!(. *%. $*+,# 6*(.'.%!%"& 1.'.%!%"&,'.%/+.$#".#& #$.$# $4$ [Avot Yeshurun: A posthumously published excerpt After the War of Independence some circles of young poets appeared here and there in Israel, who, unlike the poetry of the previous generation, which addressed the private from the within aggregate of the collectively social—they, these young poets— addressed the general on behalf of their own personal “I” […] The former wrote about the pity of mother and father, the latter are writing about their own self pity.

To the lion’s-carcass2 of the Jewish people in Europe they were earwitnesses; and to the jaw-bone defeat of the Arabs of the Land of Israel they were eyewitnesses. All that had no echo in their poems. Their fathers, who had arrived as pioneers in the early twenties, told them, when the Shoah came, what happened there, in Europe, to the Jews. But concealed and did not tell and did not enlighten them as to what happened here, in front of their eyes, to the Arabs. Of all this not one heckling 1 See Mita’am: A Review of Literature and Radical Thought 9 (March 2007), 6. The editors of Mita’am did not specify when this draft was written. Mita’am is Hebrew for “in the interest of,” “on the part of,” or “on behalf of,” supporting the notion of biased information dictated by the authorities. However, literally the word ta’am (accent on the first syllable) means taste, flavor, or meaning; mi means “from” or here “of.” Thus, the journal’s name may suggest both criticism of hegemonic discourse, and a concept of taste.

2 Yeshurun is obviously alluding here to the biblical story from Judges 15:15 where Samson kills a thousand philistines with a cheek (or a jawbone) of a donkey.

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