The poet Yona Wallach burst onto the Tel Aviv literary scene in the 1960s, drawing attention as much for her erotic magnetism and wild behavior as for her poetry. She had been a lonely and misunderstood kid from Kfar Ono, a rural town founded in the 1930s by a group of Zionist pioneers including her father, who died in the War of Independence when Wallach was a little girl. Her mother ran the local movie theater, in which Wallach spent a good deal of her childhood. Expelled from high school, and an art school drop-out, she took up residence, first in Jerusalem and then in Tel Aviv where she not only explored the most deviant edges of the then rather staid city’s bohemia, she also helped to create them, experimenting with hallucinogens and sex, consorting with, as she put it, “drug dealers and burglars and pickpockets,” disregarding all conventions save those of the poète maudite.
Wallach is usually grouped with the other “Tel Aviv poets” of that generation, such as Meir Wieseltier, Aharon Shabtai, and Yair Hurvitz. These writers pushed Hebrew poetry in directions even more radical than those of their immediate elders such as Natan Zach and David Avidan. In Wallach’s case, her poetry seems to probe the very conditions of language, of sexuality, of creation, drawing expression from frighteningly primal places in which the self erupts like rashes with multiple identities, switched genders, stammering rushes of new creation that fall back again into chaos. Her first collection (Things, 1966) opens with the poem “Yonatan,” an unnervingly surreal scene of cruelty and tenderness in which a boy is being chased across a bridge by a group of children who decapitate him “with a gladiola / stalk” and wrap his head in paper before apologizing to him: “forgive us really / we never imagined that you were like that.” (English translations by Linda Stern Zisquit.) Her second collection brings us into Bosch-like orchards in which the fruit communicate with each other via tubing and Eve tells Adam “If raisins grew on you from head to toe / I’d pluck them off one by one with my teeth and leave your smooth / white body naked.”
And then there are Wallach’s most notorious poems, the often brutal sexual scenarios, including “Tefillin.” In response to that poem the orthodox poet (and up until then a friend of Wallach’s) Zelda refused to have anything more to do with the literary magazine in which it first appeared in 1982. Israel’s Deputy Minister of Education called Wallach “disturbed . . . an animal in heat” for publishing such a thing. The poem’s graphic depiction of a sado-masochistic sex performance using phylacteries (“put the tefillin in my mouth bridle reins / ride me I’m a mare”) still has the capacity to shock, though today the crude obviousness of its transgressions makes it far less interesting than the best of Wallach’s unsettling, hallucinatory poetry.
Given Wallach’s scandalous life and rock-star persona, “The Seven Tapes of Yona Wallach,” the riveting new documentary on her life and work, might have been an exercise in countercultural voyeurism. But filmmaker Yair Qedar, while never shying away from the most controversial aspects of Wallach’s career, does not exploit his subject or wallow in the sensational. On the contrary, he gives us a deeply serious, measured study, one which implicitly asks to what extent Wallach’s genius was compromised by poorly treated mental illness and the after-effects of LSD experimentation. To what extent was Wallach a poetic visionary and what extent was she, more tragically, schizophrenic, paranoid, megalomaniacal? “Listen, after Jesus, there had to come Yona,” she says, “that’s obvious.”
The film is diligently attentive to Wallach’s own words, and slows down and freezes footage of the poet to allow us to gaze on her expressions, her gestures, in a manner more empathetic than lascivious. Much of the film lingers over a series of recently rediscovered interviews (the tapes of the title) conducted with the poet by the editor and translator Helit Yeshurun in 1984, while Wallach was hospitalized with advanced stage breast cancer. (Wallach died from the disease the following year at the age of 41.) Yeshurun especially, both in the skeptical resistance she brought to those interviews, and in her reflections on Wallach a quarter century later in the film, injects into the documentary a note of melancholy regret that challenges the romantic myth Wallach created of herself.
“The Seven Tapes” is accessible without lapsing into the boring conventions of a typical documentary about a dead writer: i.e., slow pans across photographs interspersed with academic talking heads. Not that there isn’t fascinating commentary by literary figures such as Wieseltier, Gabriel Moked, and Menachem Peri. But Qedar shapes the material into a film that is cinematically and literarily satisfying. Especially notable is the film’s dazzling use of animation which runs as visual commentary to Wallach’s words and verse, capturing the synaptic explosions of her unique mind.
Qedar’s success will not be surprising to anyone who has seen his previous film, a luminous treatment of the poet Lea Goldberg which similarly combined animated sequences, music, archival footage, and interviews to great effect. (Teachers of Hebrew literature especially should take note: I have used the Goldberg film in my university courses and know of no other film that similarly welcomes American viewers into the context and career of a Hebrew writer.)
The forty-three year old Qedar was a founder of the Israeli gay journal, Hazman Havarod—pink times—which is also the title of his first film, a quirky documentary about lesbian and gay life in Israel. More ambitiously, his Goldberg and Wallach documentaries are part of what he hopes will be a series, collectively titled “The Hebrews,” each focusing on a different major poet from the late nineteenth century to the late twentieth. Qedar sees this period as marked by a unique literary culture nurtured by twin sources: a conviction of the transformative power of the Hebrew word, and Zionism.
Wallach’s death, in Qedar’s periodization, brings the era of the Hebrews to an end: since then, changes in technology, media, and society have eroded faith in both Hebrew literature and in Zionism, though Qedar is deeply concerned to show to Israelis how relevant that literature and the cultural principles that informed it remain. He is now working on the next film in his series, about the figure who inaugurated that era: the poet Haim Nachman Bialik. Given his success with Goldberg and Wallach, one awaits his Bialik film eagerly.