One of the most inimitable, poignant, and often laugh-out-loud funny poets in contemporary Hebrew literature is neither Israeli nor lives in Israel. Robert Whitehill-Bashan grew up in Lubbock, Texas and currently resides in suburban Maryland. His acquisition of Hebrew was a feat of will and talent which I have described, in the March 2006 issue of Commentary magazine (paywall) and in the last chapter of my 2011 book, against the twilit background of the still little-known but marvelous history of Hebrew literature written in the United States.
A funny thing has happened since then. Not only has Whitehill-Bashan been more poetically productive than ever, but Israeli writers, critics, and publishers have taken note and embraced this one-of-a-kind voice. After a long poetic silence following his first two books, a third collection (entitled, appropriately, Aharei Hashtikah [After the Silence]) was published in 2007 by Israel’s Carmel Press, and a new collection, Steps Bahorim Shehorim (Tap-dancing Through Black Holes), has just been published by the major publishing house Hakibuts Hame’uhad. Whitehill-Bashan’s poems appear in Israeli newspapers and in avant-garde literary magazines such as Ho! (the title works better in Hebrew), whose editor Dory Manor has lauded him for “reminding us that Hebrew creativity is not limited by the geographical or mental borders of Israel” and for enabling Israelis “to encounter in a more intimate way–in our mother tongue–powerful and universal experiences.”
Which means that Whitehill-Bashan lives something of a schizophrenic existence at present. When he visits Israel, while not exactly a literary celebrity, he has a readership and a literary community. But for the moment his home is still in the United States, and here he continues his in some ways quixotic existence as one of the last of the Hebrew Mohicans. As he wrote a few years ago in Ha’aretz:
The center of American Hebrew poetry is now located on the second floor of my house, in my study. The famous [American Hebrew] newspaper, “HaDoar” (The Post), formerly published as a weekly, has passed from this world along with most of its readers, and in its current incarnation is published as an annual with the shrinking title “HaDor” (The Generation). American Jewry has not adopted Hebrew as a language of creation.
I’m used to insanity. I write between two and ten hours every day, except weekends and holidays, and apart from my two daughters and Israeli son-in-law and a professor in Oregon and a few occasional guests I have no readership in America. Even my audience in Israel isn’t large, but it exists.
The happiness caused me when someone I don’t know comes up to me and says “I read your poems and enjoyed them,” or “I’ve followed your poetry for many years,” is indescribable. To me these are signs that distance is not always a negative thing.
I come to Israel once or twice a year. Our daughter immigrated two and a half years ago to Israel, but now she will be living in Los Angeles for two to three years with her Israeli husband. When they return to Israel, we will also join them. I wanted to make aliyah when I was 22 and now I’m over sixty. So it’s a little late, but better late than never.
I come to Israel to see and be seen, attend poetry evenings, festivals and other events, but not to work. All my gear is in Potomac: computer, books, quiet. In Israel I run around, in Maryland I work. In Israel I sometimes feel like someone who has crashed a wedding party without an invitation. Most of the poetry competitions are restricted to Israeli citizens. This seems oddly provincial to me, but apparently the organizers are concerned that they may be overwhelmed by masses of Hebrew writers from abroad, and who am I to judge?
While the United States is yet home to a great native-born Hebrew poet, American Jews should celebrate the appearance of his latest collection. Tap-dancing Through Black Holes, which I hope to review when a copy reaches me in Diaspora, includes Whitehill-Bashan’s recent accomplishments in the technically demanding sonnet forms most associated in Hebrew literature with the early twentieth-century poet Saul Tchernikhovsky, as well as free verse poems marked by Whitehill-Bashan’s frequently dark and strange humor.
As a little taste, I translate here a free verse poem from his 2007 collection, After the Silence. In “Last Judgment,” the poet imagines–dreams?–himself meeting up in Paris with a fellow outsider, the seventeenth-century messiah Shabbatai Zvi. Coffee and heresy in the City of Lights.
by Robert Whitehill-Bashan
translated from the Hebrew by Michael Weingrad
I sat with Shabbatai Zvi in a Paris café.
He told me amusing stories in Ladino.
I laughed at them, despite my weakness in that language.
His stories amused him too.
I spoke to him in Mexican Spanish, and with some nods and some smiles, pretended to understand everything.
That always seems to work.
We sipped thick wine—kosher amontillado—I didn’t know there was such a thing–
Shabbatai Zvi whispered in a sort of mock fear:
“For the love of god, Montresor!”
The wine was extremely
Not bad, but it was mid-morning, with that strong coffee, all in all an overdose of acidity.
Jo Goldenberg would come up every now and then and pour us refills.
“Just like in the USA,” said Shabbatai Zvi.
I should have asked him to expand on that statement.
But I kept quiet. Wish I hadn’t. And then: the nausea.
My stomach did somersaults. I threw up on the table and on him.
Not such a wise career move, I thought, as he took the cloth napkin and wiped his embroidered gown that fit him like an old bathrobe or like a dress on a slovenly (and bearded) woman.
Maybe we try some salt, I suggested. It always does the trick with wine.
All kinds of uncomfortable thoughts crept into my mind.
What if, after all is said and done, this weirdo is in fact the Messiah?
Would a Christian, for example, dare vomit on Jesus?
What would be the fate of our unfortunate Christian, in the worse possible scenario, at the Last Judgment?
I commiserated with Biagio da Cesena, and how he stands there painted onto the wall of the Sistine Chapel, forever damned to remain on the county line of Hell, as donkey ears sprout from his head and a big snake wraps itself around his loins and takes a never-ending bite out of his private parts.
Such is the fate of those who dare insult Michelangelo and Jesus, who happens to be standing naked high on the wall next to his mother/consort.
This sad accident must have caused Shabbatai Zvi some consternation, or so I gathered from the preaching that he started directing toward me as he lay the soiled napkin on my poetry journal.
He spoke decisively, but also in a tone that was cheerful, and in easily digestible portions.
I thought: He has all the trappings of a graduate of one of the Tony Robbins or Dale Carnegie seminars.
Shabbatai Zvi gets that that humor plays a vital role in effective public speaking.
He must have been reading my mind, because he blurted out: “Not Tony Robbins and not Dale Carnegie! Would you believe: Dame Edna?”
He continued speaking for another fifteen minutes interspersing his comments with jokes.
I partly recall one of them:
“Jesus, Madonna and Shabbatai Zvi [he referred to himself as ‘moi, your humble Messiah’] walk into a bar…”
He also revealed the whereabouts of the Lost Imam.
“Would you believe: Philadelphia?”
Then suddenly he ended his speech. He smiled and said:
“Sorry. I’ve got to go over to City Hall right now and deal with a parking ticket.”
He got up and continued:
“But tell me. They’ve done this to me because I’m Jewish?
Or because I’m Muslim?
Or because I’m Sephardic?
Or because I’m from Turkey?
Or because I go around in a dress?”
Then he turned and left.
That was the first and last time that I saw him.
Such was my messianic banquet in the City of Lights.
I saw it all but didn’t really take it in.
I forgot to ask him for his cell phone number and email address.
I screwed up.