Something Always Lurks Beneath Perfection \ Elchanan Nir, Makor Rishon, 2009

Elchanan Nir / Makor Rishon 2009


Hava Pinchas-Cohen crosses borders while never ceasing to test them. Between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, between faith and philosophy, between motherhood and poetry, she is relentless in her personal quest for precision.


Afternoon in Jerusalem. The winter has already permeated those walking along Shai Agnon Street – their faces, their expressions, the trees that bow to them as if upon command. Something motions inward, like water trickling towards the earth. The blustery weather beckons the hilly city’s residents indoors.


I press the intercom button for the large apartment building in the Katamon neighborhood, but there is no answer. As my despair begins to mount, ready to hoist a white flag, Hava Pinchas-Cohen suddenly appears like a gust of wind. A pile of poetry books – Pinchas Sadeh, Haviva Padia and Rivka Miriam – peeks from under her arm, nearly slipping. “I’m coming back from a class at the Shechter Institute,” she blurts, short of breath. “The course I teach is about religious poetry. But on one hand, I feel that I am drawn to the topic and curious about it, and on the other hand, I fear that it isn’t fully defined and it hasn’t yet been researched,” she says breathlessly in the elevator, refusing to stop even for those few forced moments of waiting.


The house overlooks the beauty of Jerusalem. The government compound, the Knesset, the Valley of the Cross, the Botanical Gardens and Shaare Zedek Hospital. This is a house after my own heart: she doesn’t bother trying to defend the friendly chaos that greets us on entry – the chaos of endless books: poetry, philosophy, Judaism and art.


We are meeting in honor of the publication of Shvi’it – All of the Poems So Far, which encompasses the six volumes of Pinchas-Cohen’s poetry published in recent years, and also includes an additional collection, I Have No Place, which debuts in this volume. A well-known poet, Pinchas-Cohen has won quite a few prizes and has attained something rarely achieved at a relatively young age: her poetry has served as the subject for several doctoral works, and she is widely considered to be one of the standard bearers of poetry that is religious or faith-based or Jewish – the exact delineations to be hammered out in the course of our conversation.


First of all, how does it feel to publish all of your poems?

“Before the book was published, there was fear, trembling and anguish. A feeling of retrospection. Turning seven entities into one was a huge amount of work that demanded very precise editing on my part. I didn’t want it to look eclectic, like the cars of a train, so it required a lot of splicing to also integrate sketches by Miriam Gambord and Simion-Blue Faineru, design works of Nechama Golan, two works of Hava Raucher, including a sketch of my daughter, Shira, and details from an oil painting in which my daughter, Kineret, was a model.”


First Generation “Sabra-ness”

“Where were you born?” I ask 54-year-old Pinchas-Cohen who sits opposite me, as we move from the living room, with its intoxicating view, to the kitchen, where we eat crackers and avocado she’s served. It’s easier to eat in the kitchen, she declares, sharing a practical train of thought that goes through her a moment before she enters her childhood and poetics, while simultaneously answering her cell phone which intrudes nonstop.


“It doesn’t matter where I was born and where I lived,” she says. “What’s important is that in the reality of this country, I belong to a specific generation, the first generation of ‘sabra-ness.’ My parents came from Bulgaria with the founding of the State of Israel, first to Jaffa and then Tel Aviv. The first experience I encountered was of formation, of multiple languages, of ‘there’ and ‘here,’ from before and after the war. This issue was internalized into the subconscious, and part of the problem of this kind of reality is that you don’t have a specific place where you belong. You have a childhood, but you don’t have a place – everything begins and everything is in a constant state of formation, and language is at the heart of childhood.


“But more than that: not only is there not a place, there isn’t a language, either. I got broken Bulgarian from my parents, and from my grandmother I got Ladino. My parents talked to me in Hebrew, but it was a very weak and matter-of-fact vocabulary.  I brought home Hebrew from kindergarten, school and the street. I have a very strong memory of my grandmother, who didn’t know Hebrew, apologizing every time we were together about how she was too old when she arrived in Israel and couldn’t talk to me in Hebrew. Only after that would she start to speak to me in fluent Bulgarian or Ladino.


“The neighborhood at the time was a neighborhood of the children of immigrants, and that’s how I was exposed to different languages: Ladino and Romanian, Russian and Hungarian. Ever since then, I have had the feeling that I will never completely succeed in conquering Hebrew – it always evades me like the beloved in the Song of Songs, and I’m constantly discovering additional, unending possibilities that I was not aware of previously.


“From the moment I learned to read, I read everything. Every book that could be borrowed from the library or from friends: adventure stories and encyclopedias, Oliver Twist, Tom Sawyer and Victor Hugo.  Everything. In elementary school, I was already reading War and Peace in Leah Goldberg’s translation, and no one said a word.”


And how was the transition from the intensive reading that was part of you to the other side – writing?

“I remember myself as a girl, reading in all situations – even after the light was turned off in my room. I understood that a book could stir emotions. It seemed to me then that the most wonderful thing possible was how a book could make someone else share your excitement. Books could make you concentrate, enter other worlds, identify with heroes, be afraid, cry and laugh. With a young girl’s intuition, I thought that was absolutely the most wonderful thing, and I wanted to do it.”


The subject of languages is almost intrinsic to your profile; it’s possible to say that it pursues you. In your poems, and outside of them as well, you beat it unmercifully.

“A world that has multiple languages is, in my eyes, a richer world. I’m talking about the presence of several languages, but also the awareness that within the language that you speak there are several levels of languages, which simultaneously coexist.  Look – this past Shabbat I was walking quickly, and in front of me a young woman was walking, dressed meticulously for Shabbat. The woman was pushing a stroller with two little girls at her side, and she called to someone, “Mevaser, Mevaser, Mevaser Shalom (Harbinger of Peace) where are you?” And suddenly, I saw a small boy running to her, and she said, “Oh, how wonderful that you’re here! Who is Mommy’s tzaddik (righteous one)?” And he said to her, “Me.” “Who is a pure soul?” And he said to her, “Me.” Out in the open, on Palmach Street in Jerusalem, a secular stronghold with a very military name, there is a woman walking and talking in a language that is quite esoteric for the people of this street. There was no gap or dissonance between the esoteric language she spoke and the street itself, and that is a gate to a different social existence that was suddenly opened to me. And it was all within the same Hebrew, in the same multi-lingual Israeli-ness.”



I asked about language and I’ll get more specific: do you accept the widespread perception about you that views you as a religious poet?

“Yes, in Israel, such a personal question can be considered legitimate. As if the way to become familiar with the works of a poet has to involve labeling and sociological definitions whose sources and subtexts are political. However, I have been involved in crossing lines and shattering stereotypes. Among others, I crossed from the world of Tel Aviv of the 1970’s to Jerusalem — from the world that was then the heart of

 “Israeli-ness”– to Jerusalem, a world whose concepts and commitments are Jewish by nature. My life is a long, slow process into the Jewish world, which, from my perspective, was cut off from me by World War II and its aftermath. The fact that I chose to change my lifestyle and my work, and I chose friends from different social and cultural worlds, dictated my image.  Yet, in my opinion, the reality and my experience of existence are more complex than the question of which tag is appropriate or not appropriate to categorize, compartmentalize or illegalize.


“In the Israeli discourse, ‘religious’ is a sociological definition, not a definition of belief. I do not accept any sociological definition upon myself. My primordial sin lies in the fact that as a young couple, we opted to become founders of the Anatot settlement, which is a mixed community, but the fact that it lies beyond the Green Line decreed a political identification, which for my generation was not perceived as legitimate. No one asks the real questions, what led to the decision and to this locale, what was the situation of a young couple such as ourselves, at the beginning of the 1980’s in a country that was torn asunder by the first Lebanese War, at the dawn of the era of inflation. What is the significance of the search for a society that is not homogenous and traditional in its nature.


“Yet, perhaps I succeeded in being labeled primarily through the Dimui (“image”) publication that I created within Ma’aleh, the Center for Religious Zionism. It was defined as a publication for literature, art and Jewish culture—with emphasis on the words ‘Jewish culture’ – which was published for a religious-Zionist audience, with the intention of speaking to the center of Israeli culture. This was an innovation. Until that point, no contemporary literary magazine had been published for the broad segment of the religious public which had the pretense to reach and influence the central stream, or be part of the literary and cultural discourse in Israel. Dimui’s mandate was that although it originated from within the religious population, it had to be open to the entire Israeli cultural gamut and transcend sector-related boundaries. However, in answer to your question, I say quite simply: if my language pattern combines contemporary spoken language and Jewish language with an affinity for sources in a search for holiness, exaltedness and the metaphysical within the overt, accelerated world, then apparently it’s possible to call my poetry religious poetry.


“But that relates to the poetry. I am a personality who does not fit sociological categories. I am very Jewish in my definition and identity, I am a woman who believes, but my religious practices are no one’s business. To the best of my knowledge, Avraham Halfi, Miriam Baruch-Halfi, Pinchas Sadeh or Uri Zvi Greenberg didn’t live as religious people, but I see the height of religious expression in their Modern Hebrew poetry.


“At a certain age, I was absorbed by my yearning to understand the Divine order in the world, to touch the secret of Jewish nationality. Yet at a later stage, I rebelled with all my might against every traditional explanation and turned to philosophical thought as a means of understanding something about the world.”



So in spite of all this, why did you tie your destiny with the religious establishment?


“It was the right opportunity at the right time. I became attached to people, not establishments; to personalities from realms of culture and art for which the question of religious identity is an integral element. They didn’t seem to be co-opted by that public, but rather they wanted to express the special ‘voice’ that had no presence nor platform, and I, like my friends, thought it held something special, new and refreshing.


“My problem is with the religious establishments that take upon themselves to be the guardians of religious society, as the chosen ones who have been given possession of the one and only Truth. But this society is changing. It is in a constant state of paying attention to Israeli culture and general culture, to attempts of personalization, of individuals seeking their own way. Within its deep roots, it is attached to political concepts that fear change, and not to social concepts.”


And what is happening now with your Dimui publication?

“Today, Dimui is on hold, awaiting an entity to take it over. But I can say that I am actively negotiating and hoping to find it a proper home.”


But still, why did you insist, and still insist, that Dimui be published by a religious entity, if the ‘match’ between them doesn’t go so smoothly?

“In the past, up to the mid-1990s, it was the singular, proper expression for Israeli discourse. Today, there are new voices and platforms that have mastered the lesson, and most important, this particular audience was extremely important to me. Today I no longer see this as a requirement. The message has been conveyed, and we can move forward.”


And how do you see the new religious generation, which has elements that are very different from the institutions that you describe?

“This generation is effervescent, creative, searching. It is a healthy partner to creativity. They are busy with their maturing process, with their sexuality and their religiosity. They want to be a presence. Through Dimui, we taught the young generation to ask questions and test boundaries. Writing workshops began to be established in yeshivot only after Dimui was created. Whether or not this was coincidental is for someone else to say. I find Nahum Pachnik’s book of poetry, Horse of Faith, to be fascinating. From the dialectic point of view of personal experience that is critical and freethinking, he knows how to differentiate between writing an article and a poem. A poem is not intended to represent a person, but to be right for itself and its time. Poetry is art that should be examined by the criteria of art.”



Do you think that the cultural creativity that is taking place here in Israel is responsive enough to what is happening in the outside world?

“I myself entered a niche, about which I developed curiosity and sensitivity, and with time, knowledge as well. That is the niche of ‘Jewish literature.’ I deal with artists who live in Israel and write in foreign languages, and with Jews who write literature in their respective languages in Europe, America, South America and Australia. Everywhere I went, I searched for members of my ‘tribe’ – Jewish writers. Slowly, I learned that those who write today are from a generation that was born in the latter part of the Second World War or afterwards, and if so, also after the establishment of the State of Israel. Moreover, there is something very similar between what they are experiencing and writing about and what we are experiencing here. Maybe the place and languages are different, but there is a closeness that is hard to express, but it is essential—and possible—to identify, to feel.


“After many interviews, I found the need for a meeting that transcended the languages and locations of Jewish writers, so I created ‘Kissufim,’ which was a conference in Jerusalem for writers from around the world. It convened some 100 Jewish writers and poets who speak nine languages. That allowed us to test whether there is a common denominator among the different languages; if the Holocaust is indeed a recurring theme in Jewish writing, regardless of the definition of the writer; what place Jewish biography and history hold within literary creativity, or if it is more Jewish or more Czech or American. I found that the mutual curiosity was strong indeed.”


How did you get to everyone?

“A network gradually grew over the years. I also had direct consultants for each language, who broadened the circle of knowledge and our connections. In addition, many Israeli authors are connected to other Jewish writers in the world. Author Aharon Applefeld, who served as president of the conference, opened several doors for us. During the search, I heard about and reached Miriam Anisimov, the French-Jewish writer, who wrote the biography of Primo Levy. She came to the conference and became part of the editorial board of ‘Kissufim.’”


So what’s next – what about the second “Kissufim” conference?

“With the assistance of ‘Beit Avichai,’ I hope to find a suitable organizer and we’ll start again. This coming time, I would like a broader place to be created for the younger generation from here and abroad. I would like Jewish authors – like Naim Kattan, who was born in Baghdad and lives in Canada; Henry Michonick, a poet, critic and translator of the bible to French, who was born in Poland and lives in Paris; David Albachari from Belgrade who now lives in Calgary, Canada; Jonathan Rosen from New York and Milan Richter from Czechoslovakia – to become part of the pantheon of Israeli literature by transitioning to Hebrew. That is essential to us.”


But I don’t see the ruling literary hegemony accepting your contribution.

“Correct. There was a kind of anger at my bringing a new entity into the arena. But it has to be understood that we are part of a world that is greater than our Israeli-ness, and that is an overflowing treasure that shouldn’t be dismissed.”



Let’s talk about your new book. It has a sort of wandering motion, wandering between innocence and very pointed realism.

“There is complex motion in my poetry: there is longing for harmony and searching for a better world, but also sobriety that underneath all apparent perfection lurks something that threatens to overturn it. And I am in a position where I am responsible for maintaining the balance between the two – the yearner and the destroyer. I think that mothers occupy that exact place – because on one hand, mothers are responsible for growth and development, but that comes together with continuously battling fears, possible failure and uncertainty. Nevertheless, we continue to bear children. As Jews, we sanctify time, say blessings over our food and dream of continuity. In reality, to carry out these ceremonies we need to work very hard, and sometimes we are left with the question of whether it’s worthwhile, if it is all right to stop making the effort. Whether the authority comes from within or from without.”


You have chosen the name “Shvi’it,” which means to release, to loosen one’s grip and leave. Do you feel that you have succeeded in releasing in your poetry?

“The compilation of the six books is a kind of release and letting go of the entire process of the past thirty years, and I say: from here on and henceforth, there’s a limit that I can’t totally delineate. But there is an existing limit.”


So what territory does poetry cover for you?

“Poetry is private territory in which the rules that apply to one’s family and public life are not applicable.  In poetry, I create a world and I create a language. I am not beholden to objective truth. The tension is between the real world and the world that I am observing, and between the pattern within the language; in the meeting of the elements within the language. There are unceasing encounters between the mythical world and the realistic world, and the points where they meet form my poetic language. Thus, ‘messiah’ can be a mythical-literary figure and also a beloved family member, a close friend or a computer-based character. What is shared by the mythical messiah and the private image is that both know how to speak the same intimate language to me. Yehoshua ben Yosef Haglili (Joshua, son of Joseph of Galilee) speaks much more than the Jewish messiah. We have no text from the Jewish messiah; he didn’t leave us a note. Only when I collected the poems in this book did I pay attention to the frequent meeting of plastic art and poetry. Our visual culture begins with the culture of the Ancient East and the culture of Christianity of Europe and the Land of Israel. For me, visual icons hold a significance similar to the Bible story.”


With whom do you share the publication of this book?

“This time, I share the publication with the late Tzippora Luria. From the start of my career, Tzippy–a very close friend and sensitive listener, for whom talking to her was like talking to myself in a certain elaboration– saw my books as manuscripts and gave her opinions on them, and her opinions were very valuable to me. In most cases, she helped me move from the unknown to the known. Now, with her grave still fresh, I miss her very much regarding any future thought to creativity.


“It was important to me that the book would also reach Yisrael Eliraz, Menachem Loberbaum and artists Chaya Raucher, Nechama Golan, and Miriam Gambord. We have walked a long road together in reading and writing. My daughters were the first to celebrate with me, and I dedicated it to them, but I try not to burden them too much. It is burdensome when a mother publishes a book of poetry. They are partners in the book via the two drawings of them, which is a different kind of presence. But it is complicated because it is exactly the fine line between ‘me’ and ‘us,’ between being a mother and breadwinner and a poet. When my husband, Yossi, was still alive, he was my first partner and I shared the book with him, but we trod upon the fine line between being Hava Pinchas-Cohen and Hava Cohen. Between sharing a joint experience to his seeing, later, personal reflections unfamiliar to him in the writing. That wasn’t easy for him.”


Do you ever think of being like Yona Wallach, without children and without worries?

“I can’t see my existence without my family. It was a conscious and complicated decision. It’s not a good recipe for life, but my family is my home.”



What, in your eyes, is the relationship between the new book I Have No Place, and its older brothers?

“No book is an eclectic platform for poems, but has a core motif, a topic that leads it. A book is a coordinated, independent creation and not a volume that is bound by force. I Have No Place deals with facets of the Land of Israel, with observing, with uncovering the dialectic relationship that encompasses belonging and not belonging, permanence and transience. There is a movement in Israel that is enveloped in much pain and alienation. It is an attempt to define to myself the difficulty I feel in relation to the Land of Israel, which is the most natural and beloved place for me, but at the same time, the most denied.


“Another section of the book deals with the body as a place. In the book, I have ‘The Body Cannot Be Quantified,’ a written exchange with Lucien Freud, grandson of Freud, who draws very figuratively and expressively. Through observation of the individual body, he exposes its mental status, its existential loneliness, and its beauty and anatomy. Over the years, I studied his work and one day I found myself ready to carry out a poetic dialogue with them. Writing in the Hebrew language is also research of the Hebrew language. Whether you want to or not, you join together words that are not expected to be linked. You reveal possibilities to the language itself, and as such, you reveal yourself. When you discover that ‘to know’ and ‘alienation’ have the same root, you discover how close recognition is to alienation. That is what the language reveals to you. Poetry gets closest to that place. It reveals the roots of the language, and the person who speaks it.”



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