An Inquiry into the Withdrawal from Writing of the Hebrew Poet Avraham ben Yitzhak


The Jewish Poet, Avraham Ben Yitzhak


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The Silence of Avraham Ben Yitzhak

By Dr Naomi Dison Kaplan

The poems of Avraham ben Yitzhak (1883-1950) are unique in Hebrew poetry and could never have been attributed to anybody else. Highly regarded, he was referred to by Benzion Benshalom as the "herald of a new epoch"1; by Aharon bar-Shmuel as a "highly gifted" poet2; and by Dr Lev Hakak as a miraculous stylist with spectacular poetry. Yet ben Yitzhak published very seldom – a total of 12 poems between 1908 and 1930.

A question frequently posed is why so talented a poet should have published so little. This article puts forward a possible solution. Although he never married, in conducting this research, the writer managed to locate certain members of the poet's family: his half-sister, Mrs Herz, who lived at the time in Switzerland; his nephew, the late Jacob Intrator (Washington), and wife, Rachel, now in Tel Aviv; and his niece, Anita Glazer, who lives in Haifa. She has also corresponded with his contemporaries and his associates, including Shin Shalom, former head of the Israeli Poets' Society; fellow poets Nathan Zach and Ada Zemach.

Avraham ben Yitzhak Sonne was born in 1883 at Przemysl, Galicia. He lost his father when he was young; his mother re-married and had nine more children. His grandfather brought him up and gave him a traditional religious education.

A keen Zionist, after studying Psychology and Literature in Vienna, and at the University of Berlin, he lectured at the Teachers' Training College in Jerusalem. He was on holiday in Vienna when the 1st World War broke out and all his writings, left in Przemysl, were lost when the town was taken by the Russians.

In 1917 he was selected to represent Vienna Jewry on the Western Council of Austrian Jews, and went to Copenhagen, where he met Louis Dembitz Brandeis, the first Jew to be appointed to the US Supreme Court, and the poet, Chaim Nachman Bialik. He was elected onto the Zionist Executive in London (1919–1921), and onto the Reorganisation Committee. At one time he advised Chaim Weizmann. On his return to Vienna he became a teacher, later principal, of the Hebrew Teachers' College. When the Nazis occupied Austria, he fled to Israel where he died in 1950, after a long illness.

In his memoirs of Vienna in the thirties, Nobel-prizewinner Elias Canetti describes ben Yitzhak as a "guru-like figure" who cast a spell over writers and artists working in the city. He was described by contemporaries as being well informed, charismatic, but not a good "mixer". He could communicate best with intellectuals, like Martin Buber, James Joyce, Arnold Schoenberg, Arthur Schnitzler, Hermann Broch, Elias Canetti and Popper Lynkaeus, but he could also communicate with simple folk and children, whom he loved.3 His closest friend was Leah Goldberg, Professor of Comparative Literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem4 from 1952 until her death in 1970, but he kept her also at a certain distance. She recorded, "He endeavoured to tell me that I too was a part of his life. He never actually told me this; he regarded me with a certain strictness, keeping the distance between us."5 Among his posthumous writings the following love poem was found:

    silken-winged, gold-hued butterfly,
    when I lack shore and I lack goal,

To "catch him," Canetti used to sit in the Café-Museum, and profess to be reading. "Only superficially did I bury myself in the paper," wrote Canetti, "I peeked out constantly in the direction of the door. He always came, a tall figure, thin, with a rigid, awkward way of walking, almost arrogant, as if he did not want to meet anyone, and so keep these garrulous creatures at a distance."7 Despite his leadership qualities and intellect, there was something in Avraham ben Yitzhak that did not allow him to give of himself, which caused a certain degree of alienation.8

Avraham ben Yitzhak started writing poetry as a child, but only published his first poem when he was 25.

Bialik wrote to Avraham ben Yitzhak in 1909: "Send new poems. There is much blessing in you. I see in the poems a synthesis of prophetic and modern poems, the only pearls of poetry in our day."9 Bialik called him the first creator "to taste the new wheel – ha galgal hechadash – and considered him to be the new change that would emerge in Hebrew poetry."10

Bialik wrote to Avraham ben Yitzhak in 1918 stating that one of his greatest desires was to see his poems collected and published.

That was not to be. Avraham ben Yitzhak never sent Bialik his poems. From about the First World War he maintained a self-imposed literary silence and published nothing except a few anonymous articles in the Viennese Jewish press, and an essay on the Yiddish writer, Mendele Mocher Sefarim, which appeared in Der Jude. After his death, however, several poems and fragments were found jotted down on slips of paper and in notebooks, some of them dating from a later period.11 His poems were only collected and published posthumously, "on behalf of the friends of the departed poet", by Messrs Tarshish Books in Jerusalem.

Avraham ben Yitzhak 's reticence at being published despite such demands is intriguing and different theories for this have been put forward. Leah Goldberg termed his reasons for ceasing to work a "mystery".12 Hanan Hibowsky suggested that it is futile to speculate on the reasons for the poet's withdrawal if Prof Leah Goldberg, who had a special relationship with him, was unable to explain the reasons. Some put it down to a carriage accident in Rothschild Boulevard, in which he incurred a back injury whilst coming from the station. Nathan Zach put his withdrawal down to melancholy in a tired world.13 Benzion Benshalom maintained that the rebuke and chastisement in some of Avraham ben Yitzhak 's poems published posthumously, eg. "Why have your flags faded?" and "For whom did the cock crow?," show that the poet feels ashamed of his own generation of the revival and that his disappointment and vexation led him to despair and to withdraw. Yet Benzion Benshalom wrote that other posthumous lines, "What is this that has happened?", indicated that disappointment did not alter Avraham ben Yitzhak 's generous spirit, his love of life and his faith in the future. Hearing the singing of children, feeling a new blossoming "under the suffering burden of the days", Avraham ben Yitzhak utters benedictions to coming days and coming youth, an impressive blessing, "the blessing of one who departs from under his guttering skies."14

Yitzchak Mann ascribed the reason to Avraham ben Yitzhak 's ever-present debilitating long illness, which led to his despairing of the world and reality. The early death of his father might have contributed to this feeling of hopelessness. He even regarded the ephemeral nature of flowers as a tragedy.15

Not only would he not agree to the publication of his poetry, Avraham ben Yitzhak would not even agree to sign his name. On one occasion, when he signed a poem for her, he told Leah Goldberg that it was only the second time that he had signed his name after an interval of many years.16 Another time she suggested that it would be a great loss if his ideas were not available to the public generally, and offered to send a stenographer to record them. He became angry and stated that he would not publish anything in his own name on any account. Similarly, when a scholar wanted to include some of Avraham ben Yitzhak 's ideas on music, shared in a discussion, in a book the scholar was writing, the poet agreed on condition that he was not named. Goldberg said his face showed revulsion and sorrow when his name appeared in print or when he received publicity.

Hever, in a radio programme, credited Avraham ben Yitzhak 's silence to a belief that he was unable to carry out the wise comprehensive aspirations that he had in the development of his poetic art.17 Other participants on this radio programme were Ada Tzemach, Lifshitz, a pupil of Avraham ben Yitzhak 's, Jeroham Tolkes and Idit Knoller. A number of other writers also expressed their opinions on Avraham ben Yitzhak 's ability and on what they thought were the reasons for his withdrawal. Amongst these opinions were those given by Rivner, Ungerfeld,18 Fichman, Aharon,19 Benshalom,20 Bar-Shmuel21, Gorpein22, Zemorah23, Shlomoh24, Sadan25, Friedman26, Pneuli27 and Shofman28.

These ideas, however, are not sufficient to explain so complete a withdrawal from any public recognition. Imperfections in his art might have been discouraging but could hardly have led to abandonment. As for his pessimism, this is symptomatic of his unhappiness and loneliness, but hardly provides an acceptable basis for his total withdrawal from literary publication.

His withdrawal is indeed exceptional in the literary world. Most artists would indeed hesitate before withdrawal fearing their work would be forgotten. The fact that Avraham ben Yitzhak was ill or discouraged would not necessarily lead to withdrawal and many artists have been creative despite major ill health.

A firmer philosophical basis for his withdrawal is required.29 His silence was a conscious decision, and not simply an emotive reaction to circumstances. The poet gives evidence to the world of his desire for silence, as in The Alone Ones Say30 (Bod'dim omrim) where the "alone/lonely ones" say "tomorrow we shall die" and "on few lips song is poised, held poised to stay". He was convinced and confident that silence was the only mode of self-expression.

This view is endorsed by Dan Pagis in his contribution to the Modern Hebrew Poem Itself.31 Speaking of Avraham ben Yitzhak , Pagis says that Avraham ben Yitzhak writes deceptively simple poems, which reveal a wealth of meaning, and seem to rise from the poet's insistence upon silence as the only possible means of self-expression. In his criticism of Happy Are They Who Sow (Ashrei hazor'im v'lo yiktzoru), Pagis again repeats Avraham ben Yitzhak 's "conviction and confidence in silence as the only true mode of self-expression".

In Avraham ben Yitzhak 's sparse work of only 12 poems it is surprising how many references there are in them to sounds – such as songs of storm (The Stormwind and I Never Knew) – and to silences. Nine poems out of the twelve refer to sounds and seven poems to stillness or silence.

The following poems include descriptions of noises:

    Psalm: "Trembling at the fiery roar…"
    Bright Winter: "… my blood sings within me with a ringing in my ears: …"
    I Never Knew: "The forest thunders and it roars, A song that is sweet", "Let the forest thunder, let it roar, Let the wind-waves beat and crash"
    Royalty: "… the sea moans ……Till I bid you: Rise and sing!"
    When The Nights Are White: "While fountains sound and sing their song of self."
    As I Sat Over My Books: "Seduced and listening intently to its melody"
    The Alone Ones Say: "… world sings once again of all its pain and plight."
    As Day Declines: "Throbbing and moaning as though upon black violins."

Thus three-quarters of his poems refer to sounds. The sensitivity to noise representing life and nature is in sharp contrast to his desire for silence, which symbolizes death, release from suffering, peace, eternity.

The following seven poems have references to silence:

    Happy Are They Who Sow: "Happy are they who know what their heart cries …… And on their lips the silence comes to bloom."
    I Never Knew: "Heard in your silent precious corner. …… Yet my soul drank its fill of the silence."
    Royalty: "Daughter of night, be silent as you come …"
    As Day Declines: "… And then all silent go down to the streams."
    When the Nights Are White: "… Within the stillness of your life …"
    Psalm: "When nights are still…",

Silence is often insinuated as in

    The Alone Ones Say: "On few lips song is poised, held poised to stay."

    Avraham ben Yitzhak 's poems turn "the face of the stillness towards us."32 His nature poems, which compromise the majority of his poems, are mainly songs of stillness.33 Thus silence is described as being happy when it "comes to bloom."

    This reverence for silence has strong echoes in Taoist philosophy, which emphasises renunciation instead of ambition, silence instead of aggression, stillness instead of activity. Taoism requires one to renounce knowledge, logic, reason and analysis in favour of perfect stillness, both internal and external, to permit the mind to penetrate all objects. Only in that way can one be liberated; only in that way can there be complete harmony.34 In the Tao philosophy, it is considered a prostitution to publish or sign your name. Pure and modest, abstract and direct insight was the order of the day. To someone steeped in Taoist philosophy, the suggestion that he be quoted on a certain subject or the thought of having his name published would be deeply distressing.35

    The Tao – the Way – is described as being found in inner stillness. Taoism eschews recognition or immodesty. Avraham ben Yitzhak 's deliberate decision to adhere to silence and to avoid public recognition seems to reflect these ideas.

    Yitzhak Mann said he was a man of silence all his days.36 Avraham ben Yitzhak started off silent in his soul, from his youth; worked through the different aspects of silence, and returned, in a committed way, in 1925, to the special "place" he had never left. Taoists believe they should obliterate the traces of their action, give up position and power and not aim at merit and fame. Happy Are Those Who Sow And Do Not Reap (Ashrei hazor'im v'lo yiktzoru) reflects the ideas of Lao Tzu who wrote

      Who loves large stores gives up the richer state.
      Who is content needs bear no shame;
      Who knows to stop incurs no blame.

    Lao Tzu also expressed it this way, stating

    This article argues that an analysis of Avraham ben Yitzhak 's poetry indicates that Avraham ben Yitzhak was influenced by Taoist theory. This can be observed in his withdrawal from writing, in his refusal to sign his name, in his anonymous articles in the Viennese Jewish press, in his revulsion at receiving publicity, and in his conscious decision to stop composing poetry.

    Is there any evidence to show that Avraham ben Yitzhak was aware of, or had been influenced by Taoist philosophy?

    Leah Goldberg recorded that Avraham ben Yitzhak had a very considerable sympathy for ancient Chinese culture.39 This interest was motivated in part because the poet felt that the Chinese would one day change the face of the world and people should understand their deep and ancient tradition. Avraham ben Yitzhak , however, also felt attracted to that tradition for its own intrinsic culture and had made a serious attempt to learn the Chinese language while in Vienna.

    Leah Goldberg devotes several pages to the topic of his interest in Chinese culture, and remarked that he used to spend hours telling her about it. He told her that "the Chinese culture was the salvation of the world."40 He understood, too, the exactness of the Chinese language and explained to Leah how it was possible to express in Chinese particular nuances, lacking in other languages. He spent much time unfolding to her his ideas on the subject, and very much regretted the difficulty of appreciating Chinese culture from mere translations, which however accurate, led only to a superficial understanding of their subject matter.41

    He used to speak to Leah Goldberg in the most appreciative way about Chinese calligraphy and pointed out to her the beautiful designs and the superb execution of the various letters and symbols. In London he visited Chinese galleries and knew people who were very much "into" the Chinese way of thinking. In Israel, one of his friends was Emmanuel Olswanger, an Oriental translator.42

    Years later Avraham ben Yitzhak told Leah Goldberg Chinese stories he had heard about dragons and such like.

    Canetti and he used to discuss Oriental religions43, of which Taoism is one. When Avraham ben Yitzhak was a student in Germany, the book, Tao Te Ching, The Way and its Power, by the founder of Taoism, the philosopher Lao Tzu (born approx 570 BC), was available there. It was probable that, given his interest in Oriental religions, Avraham ben Yitzhak would have purchased a copy.

    It is known that Avraham ben Yitzhak knew of the book. When discussing the Chinese language, he told Leah Goldberg about "The Way". He used the term, "The Way" (Haderech) by which Tao is well known. The Way and its Power is one of the most frequently translated books, second only to the Bible and teaches natural simplicity and humility as a way to peace and harmony. Its appeal lies in its simple and yet paradoxical ideas. It emphasises the way of direct insight.

    "Taoism is the mother of all things; it cannot be named or predicated; it manifests itself in form and disappears again in formlessness; it does not act; it does not talk; it is the fathomless and inexhaustible source of all life; it is imminent, and it operates in cycles by the principle of reversion, which causes the levelling of all opposites, making alike success and failure, strength and weakness, life and death, etc. From this spring all of Lao Tzu's paradoxes."44 Lao Tzu (Tao) is written only in paradox, and it is an eastern way of writing.

    In the case of Avraham ben Yitzhak 's poetry, paradox is a central device. There are juxtapositions of contrary words, ideas, concepts and forces, which are irreconcilable, yet they make a complete entity, a "oneness" and technically they are indicative of each other. They are set against each other, to bring about sharply the contrast between them. The contrasts are complementary and co-operative. Opposites can transform each other. The basis of the transformation and transmutation is the acceptance of the whole with its negative and positive aspects.45

    Avraham ben Yitzhak steadfastly brings this device into play. He constantly places sweeping opposites in close proximity to each other in a close spatial relationship, which are marked by sharp, unmistakable contrasts and conflicts. There is a magnetic polar attraction between these, and they substantiate and enrich each other. Each one is only half an idea without the other, eg. birth – death; black – white; summer – winter. The one gives rise to the other. The opposites create a tension between the two interacting elements of forces. JC Cooper says "opposites have a vital need of each other just as the human being cannot live fully without relationships."46

    Paradox is used occasionally by almost all poets, but is used by Avraham ben Yitzhak frequently. Nathan Zach says that Avraham ben Yitzhak describes his nature poems with brilliant opposites.47 Examples of these are:

    The Mountains Gathered Round My City (Hecharim shechuvru misaviv l'iri)

      (it strewed its light round about) (hidden)

      Autumn In The Avenue (Elul Bish'deirah)

        The gentle breeze had "given its voice", followed by silence.

      I Never Knew (Lo Yadati Nafshi)

        In this poem, we have the storm without, and the calm within the house; storm clouds are dragged distances, and light is radiated from the earth. The winter storm is opposed to the spring. Also, the "I" and the "thou" are juxtaposed.

        The end of the first verse says:
          "B'libi sitrah
          Mipnei ha's'arah."
            In my heart is a hiding place from the storm.
            In the third verse
            "The forest thunders and it roars
            A song that is sweet
            Heard in your silent
            Precious corner."
            In the fourth verse
            "You and I –
            And over us
            The surge of seas.
            Hidden are we
            Like two pearls
            Within their tissues
            On the sea-bed."
            In the sixth verse, the tempest shrieks, but
            "At hab'rachah
            At ham'nucha
            You are blessing
            You are rest."
            From the two lovers, him and his soul (or sweetheart), there is a change-over to the whole universal soul, the great soul before the L—d in the tempest.

          When The Nights Are White (Leilot ki yalbinu)

            In this poem time stands still, and
            "While fountains sound and sing
            Their song of self.
            And past and future come to terms
            While present is tranquil eternities,
            Within the stillness of your life
            The stars are hushed
            As out of eternities there blows a breeze
            And your eyes grow wide."

          Royalty (Malchut)

            There is day and night, beauty and sorrow, white and black. Unlike the storm poems, this is a serene, tranquil poem, but underlying it is a deep-seated bated anxiety.

          Bright Winter (Choref bahir)

            The world is pure, but the dreams of mist are blind and stray endlessly, and obscure the pure vision. There is snow (white), and the shadows of mountains (dark).
            The river is in the shadow, but it has white, radiant snows upon it.

          Psalm (Mizmor)

            Standing at the top of the mountains and placing one's head among the great cold stars, everything else sinks to the earth and a "black forgetfulness descends but you are awake to terrors above the darkness", and a star falls because of the trembling fiery roar that goes from hell to heaven. There is this roaring noise, whereas before nights were still. The star "falls in your soul to be quenched in its abyss." The soul is in total blackness. This poem hovers between mania and depression, with greater emphasis on depression, yet
            "At very rare moments you sometimes raise
            Your soul within you like a crystal drop."

          As Day Declines (Kintot Hayom)

            Kintot hayam is an evening poem, indicating the evening of life. Here the festal wreath of its leaves and rose petals are withering and falling. There is a reddish flow of twilight. The poem ends with disquiet and dread. The poem is about youth and death.
            Here is an exquisite farewell ceremony accompanied by "black violins" and has in it music and death.

          The Alone Ones Say (Bod'dim omrim)

            This poem is based on Psalm 19, v 3 and 4. In the Psalm, the heavens declare the glory of G-d. Avraham ben Yitzhak 's poem, on the contrary, opens with a dirge. The world rejoices in its sorrow. In the second verse the heart is rejoicing, because G-d brought us near, and tomorrow we shall die, and the heart is glad.

          Happy Are They Who Sow (Ashrei hazor'im v'lo yiktzoru)

          Avraham ben Yitzhak was himself a paradox. There was a tearing in his heart. He renounced writing, but he still had poetry in his soul, and tried to keep it to himself. It continued for he did write a diary. He also recited unwritten poems and other works to Leah but no longer had the desire to share these with the world. He kept these works within himself.

          The influence of Taoist ideas reverberates in Avraham ben Yitzhak 's poetry. His poems, like Chinese poems, were atmospheric poems. He is at one and "alone" with nature. The spirit of nature reveals its character and is mirrored in his work. He describes the landscape, which in turn describes him. His poems generally give the feeling of an "evening mood", of alienation, an insecurity and fear of old age, and an anxiety about death, even from a young age. Ideas were conveyed by suggestions, symbols, empty spaces and transparencies. He tries to resolve the difficulty through visualisation of vast, limitless cosmic ideas, making use of nature – mountains, forests, trees and streams, the sun and the sky, falling stars, dark, light, autumn, spring and nature in its entirety, large nature and insignificant man.

          In Avraham ben Yitzhak 's work the echoes of eastern or Chinese culture can be picked up and shown to be interwoven into his poetry, first in a hesitant way, and then becoming more obvious and stronger, until Avraham ben Yitzhak 's final poem, Happy Are They Who Sow (Ashrei hazor'im v'lo yiktzoru) which is the preparation and explanation that excused Avraham ben Yitzhak to the world, which told that he is not going to write any more. This is the opposite of the Biblical Psalm 126:5 which says, "who sow in tears will reap with joy." Avraham ben Yitzhak is going to throw away all material things and conform to a "constant wordless portion". He does not wish to reap from his writings and wants to live in a spiritual world, shedding trappings along the way. His desire is to "wander afar" and "exceed the frontiers of his soul."

          We read in The Way (Lao Tzu)

            "Free of self-display
            He is seen by all
            Cleansed of pride
            He is honoured."


            "To be lowly is to reach the highest."

          In Happy Are They Who Sow (Ashrei hazor'im v'lo yiktzoru), Avraham ben Yitzhak confides

            "Happy are they who know what their heart cries
            In the wilderness
            And on their lips the silence comes to bloom.

            Happy are they for they will be gathered
            Into the heart of the world
            Swathed in the mantle of the unremembered
            As their constant wordless portion."

          This was his last poem. After that Avraham ben Yitzhak did not write any more, although he only died twenty-one years later, in 1950. As it is said

            "To convey the lesson without speaking
            That is the sage's rare achievement."

          Through reading his poems, one can try to understand his moods and establish an idea of why he stopped writing completely and totally in his prime. Each of his poems is as one in a conglomerate of keys which open up a treasury of "silence", which silence Avraham ben Yitzhak adopted for himself as a way of life.

          In common usage Tao means "Way", the Way to be followed, and by extension, a code of behaviour and a doctrine. The philosophical notions of Tao expressed religious sympathy and solidarity. Tao designated the magical feat of bringing Heaven and Earth, the sacred powers and man into communication with each other. In this sense, Tao was an art and a power. What Lao Tzu calls the "permanent Tao" in reality is nameless. Tao is the imperceptible and indiscernible, about which nothing can be predicated but latently contains the forms, entities and forces of all phenomena. It was from the Nameless that Heaven and Earth sprang. Emptiness realised in the mind of the Taoist who has freed himself from all obstructing notions and distracting passions makes the Tao act through him without obstacle.51

          Most of Avraham ben Yitzhak 's poems have a nature title and nature atmosphere; light and shade, silence and noise (always emphasising) the silence; mountains, the gleamy forest; all in paradox, "the restless tree" – as opposed to "the gentle resting light" (The Mountain Gathered Round My City). The small self is discreetly hidden somewhere within the huge cosmos.

          Taoism aims at renunciation of one's self and one's identity. In an early poem, As I Sat Over My Books (Al ha'sfarim yashavti), written in 1912 in Przemysl when the poet was 29 years old, Avraham ben Yitzhak describes in detail an awareness of renunciation of his identity and his own ego that he obtained one night when he was engrossed reading a book. Thus while still a young man he wished to be able to lose himself in contemplation.

            The world is empty and forgotten."

          The poem, As I Sat Over My Books (Al ha'sfarim yashavti), could be a prelude to the poems The Alone Ones Say (Bod'dim omrim)

            "… no utterance be with us …"


            "… song is poised, held poised to stay."

          as is Happy Are Those Who Sow But Do Not Reap (Ashrei hazo'rim v'lo yiktzoru), the poem Avraham ben Yitzhak described to Leah as being a poem of renunciation and confession of silence.

          As I Sat Over My Books (Al ha'sfarim yashavti), depicts a man reading. He distances himself from his body and joins in a spirituality with the book, as though all the physical parts of his body have died, even his hands. The hands are important as they represent his own actions. He suddenly feels distanced from his daily activities. A reader holds his books with his hands. That is why "the hands" are mentioned; the hands identify with the book, but they are almost "dead" because he himself, his physique, is "dead". The hands are "awake", eirot but pale, chavru l'fanecha, and damav azavan, - the blood has left them. His spirit is alive, totally immersed, in unity, with the book.

          As I Sat Over My Books (Al ha'sfarim yashavti)

            "Al ha'sfarim yashavti
            Nidach u'makshiv l'man'gi'natam
            Vayakuma kochotai bil'vavi
            Va'ani nidach harcheik mei'cha'yai anochi.
            V'chi hashachar hilhiv v'hich'chil
            B'vo or hayom rishon l'aviv
            Ha'or mishtomeim ba'olam hareik v'harachav
            Va'y'chal et labat neiri

            Vayit'rachaku misaviv li k'lei habayit
            Ba'afeilah raba b'vo hayom
            U'sh'tei yadai ha'eirot chavru l'fanai
            Al shulchani
            Daman azavan
            U l'fanai shachvu kivdot nisayon va'azuvot
            B'or hayom b'or hayom.
            V'hinei tzivchat tzipor hecheridatni
            Tzivchat tzipar tzivchat tzipor
            Ma ha'olam, ma ha'olam
            V'ha olam reik vnishkach
            Lifnei bo aviv
            Lifnei bo aviv."

          The poet is transported into another world by the books. Avraham ben Yitzhak writes how literature and philosophy influence him as a reader. He is captivated by his readings, so that he cancels his own self and becomes silent because he likes reading. We see how he could be influenced by other cultures; the moment he takes a book he loses himself. It is as if he declares that he is losing his "self", because he has found something in which he is deeply interested and is carried away. The light of his own ego is absorbed into the light of the world, through the book he is reading and his ego is eliminated. He ignores the world outside ("And I am thrust far from my own life"), and enjoys the books, distracted from life, engrossed. He sits through the night reading.

          Why are the hands poor? Because they are poor of deeds. Hands are important, but for him they are instruments. In themselves they have little power and little control. The other parts of the body he does not mention. ("My hands are paling in front of my eyes because on my desk the blood has left them.") In this we can see a renunciation of writing. He would rather have the yadayim, the hands to hold the book, but not to hold the pen and be active and write; he does not accept this any more; chavru, they (the hands) have become pale. There is a conflict between writer and reader. He prefers to hold the book and be rivetted. He loves reading; reader and book become one.

          The ego is transformed into a higher attainment of being.

          Avraham ben Yitzhak was perceptive; he took in as much as a sponge. Canetti said, "he has a library, but he has no books, the library is in his head."52

          The last word in the poem is aviv. It is spring and the birds are ready to chirp but he is ready for silence.

          In his last two poems, The Alone Ones Say and Happy Are Those Who Sow, we find the influence of Taoism at its strongest.

          The Alone Ones Say (Bod'dim omrim) – written in 1918 at the age of 35 years

            While night laments for night
            And Summer follows Summer as the leaves are swept away
            And the world sings once again of all its pain and plight.
              Tomorrow we shall die, no utterance be with us
              And as at starting out shall face a closing gate.
              But when the heart is glad 'tis G-d who brought us close
              And then repented, fearing some treachery of fate.
                Day bears a flaring sun to coming day
                Night after night pours forth its stars in turn,
                On few lips song is poised, held poised to stay.
                On seven paths we part, and by one we return."

                In this poem there is the cycle of life – day after day, night after night, summer after summer, and the world sings of its pain and suffering; and then there is a release in the death and silence and the heart is glad. The "closing gate" could be an allusion to the Ne'ilah prayer at the end of the Day of Atonement where entry into the book of life is sealed. He is suddenly afraid of his unknown destiny, which he calls the "treachery of fate". This is followed by a recurrence of light, flowing sun and nights of stars – and complete silence, a oneness with the universe.

                This poem deals with opposites (yin and yang), with day and night mentioned more than once. There is continuity with one day leading to another, creating a fullness of the universe.

                In The Alone Ones Say there is movement in nature, a singing of pain and plight, leading to silence, "song is poised, held poised to stay", and in silence we return, one by one, to the oneness and nature.

                Silence, as noted, is a predominantly important feature of Taoism, as is wandering far and returning.

                In The Alone Ones Say Avraham ben Yitzhak reflects and contemplates, and comes nearer to his goal, that is of his ego aligning itself with the universal principles of cosmic understanding, and coming nearer to attaining union with the universe and thereby of some degree of peace.

                This is a cyclical poem.

                  "Day leaves a flickering sun behind for coming day, while night laments for night …",
                  "Day bears a flaring sun to coming day, night after night pours forth its stars in turn."

                Encompassed by the cosmic cycle, the speaker and his silent companions know that they are about to return to their source.53

                Cyclical time takes the emphasis off individualism and places it on the cosmic. The plural use of the word (the lonely ones) could be speaking of all the "alone" ones of the universe. The poet could be speaking of most of mankind. All go alone.

                Aloneness is a source of pride in Chinese culture. In Tao, the kings and princes in speaking of themselves use the terms lonely, alone, friendless, of small account,54 "a going out of the spirit into solitude, unafraid and exulting."55

                Some choose loneliness: "alone as if adrift on the lonely sea."56

                This poem is flooded with silence and loneliness. Most of Avraham ben Yitzhak 's poems are songs of loneliness and isolation and solitude. "In the poetry of Avraham ben Yitzhak, the grief of the lonely and the anguish of isolation found full expression."57

                In this way the "alone ones" become unified with the cosmic sense of time. Past and present and future become one in silent eternity.

                One of the poems in Lao Tzu's The Way states

                  Before the earth or sky began to be,
                  So silent, so aloof and so alone,
                  It changes not, nor fails, but touches all;
                  Conceive it as the mother of the world.
                  I do not know its name;
                  A name for it is "Way"
                  Man conforms to the earth;
                  The earth conforms to the sky;
                  The sky conforms to the Way;

                  Avraham ben Yitzhak 's final, vital renouncing poem is

                  Happy Are They Who Sow (Ashrei ha'zorim v'lo yiktzoru)

                    "Happy are they who sow but do not reap
                    For they shall wander afar.
                    Happy the large of heart whose glorious youth
                    Added to the daylight and its largesse
                    Though they have shed their trappings at the wayside.
                      Happy the proud whose pride exceeds the frontiers of their soul
                      And grows into the humility of whiteness
                      After the rainbow rises in the cloud.
                        Happy are they who know what their heart cries
                        In the wilderness
                        And on their lips the silence comes to bloom.
                          Happy are they for they will be gathered
                          Into the heart of the world
                          Swathed in the mantle of the unremembered
                          As their constant wordless portion."

                        It would appear that Avraham ben Yitzhak was planning for this moment of renunciation for a long time even though not consciously so. This renunciation is a confession. To try to know one's greater self, it seems one has to give up some of one's ego. "Renounce we must, and through renunciation, gain – that is the truth of the inner world". "In our soul we are conscious of the transcendental truth in us, the Universe, the Supreme Man; and this soul, the Spiritual Self, has its enjoyment in the renunciation of the individual self for the sake of the Supreme Soul. This renunciation is not in the negation of self, but in the dedication of it."59

                        The poem starts:

                        Not to seek reward is an eastern concept. "Neither let your motive be the fruit of action."60

                        Avraham ben Yitzhak himself regarded Happy Are They Who Sow But Do Not Reap as a farewell poem. In this hymn he praises the generous souls who scatter their glorious youth for others, those proudly humble who know that they are forsaken and that "the mantle of the unremembered" will cover them, and that they "sow but do not reap"; and this evolves the enunciation of a conclusion which he reached after inner conflict and inner search, at his journey's end. After eleven years of silence he saw fit to appear once more in order to sing the song of those happy ones "who sow but do not reap".61

                        Avraham ben Yitzhak told Leah Goldberg that his last two poems were by way of a vidui, which means "renunciation" or "confession". In this case both meanings would be accurate. He confessed to the world what his intentions were and that he was in fact renouncing his ego and thus gaining a sense of upliftment for himself.

                        This renunciation and confession were powerful and poignant, in that he was giving up all ambition as a poet for the future. He was a reserved person who kept his secrets to himself;62 this was a surprising decision. It is as if he is disclosing his soul to the public and that is his last act of communication, once only and no more.

                        JC Cooper, a scholar of the Chinese Tao in the United Kingdom, having read Avraham ben Yitzhak a number of times, stated that Avraham ben Yitzhak "certainly has absorbed the spirit of Tao."63

                        Avraham ben Yitzhak bears a message, and his message and his poetry (and his devices) are a part of the enigma and riddle that is Avraham ben Yitzhak .

                        A Chinese saying states that a person who does not understand a writer's silences will not understand his words either. The writer of this article hopes that this analysis of Avraham ben Yitzhak's silence will enable his words and his greatness to be better understood. All through Avraham ben Yitzhak 's poems he seems to be seeking something, a quest for human salvation. The novelty of Avraham ben Yitzhak 's poetry "lay in the fact that it burst the bonds of convention and helped to blaze a new trail. In it there was a kind of move towards different instruments of expression, and more than a hint of new horizons."64

                        As the sage, Lao Tzu, said

                          Open the being to G-d.
                          Abide in stillness,
                          Life arises and passes,
                          Birth, growth and return.
                          A rhythmic arc from Source to Source
                          In the life rhythm is quietude,
                          A tranquil submission;
                          In the soul's submission is peace,
                          Absorption in Eternity.
                          And so, the Great Light."

                          "Careless of greatness
                          The sage becomes great."


                        These poems were analysed in the original Hebrew, but for the benefit of non-Hebrew scholars, the beautiful translations of I.M. Lask in Benzion Benshalom, Avraham ben YItzhak Poems, have been used (JerusalemYouth and Hehalutz Department of the Zionist Organization, 1957.) Other translations studied were those of Wayne Myers, the writer, musician, cartoonist and Hebrew scholar, London. ( )

                        1 Benzion Benshalom, Avraham ben Yitzhak Poems, Translated by IM Lask (JerusalemYouth and Hehalutz Department of the Zionist Organization, 1957), 40

                        2 Aharon bar-Shmuel: "Bishvilei Hapanteion", Al Hamishmar, 2.6.50

                        3 Elias Canetti, "Dr Sonne" in Play of the Eyes (New York, 1986)

                        4 Israel Ben-Yosef and Douglas Reid Skinner, Contrast (Winter 1988) Vol . 6, No 3. "Approximations", Translations from Modern Hebrew, 20

                        5 Leah Goldberg, P'Gishah Im M'shorrer (Merchavyah: Sifriat Po'alim, Hashomeir Ha'tsair, 1952), 56

                        6 Benshalom, Yitzhak Poems, 43

                        7 Canetti, "Dr Sonne"

                        8 Goldberg, P'Gishah, 56

                        9 Ungerfeld: Avraham ben Yitzhak, Al Hamishmar, 3.7.70

                        10 Dr H. Hever, Reishito Hasagah, Jerusalem (Doctoral Thesis), 411

                        11 Benshalom, Yitzhak Poems, 44

                        12 Encyclopaedia Judaica: sub.nom. Ben Yizhak, Avraham.

                        13 Nathan Zach, Lifnei sha'ar Im Ne'ilah, Davar

                        14 Benshalom, Yitzhak Poems, 43

                        15 Goldberg, P'Gishah, 14

                        16 Goldberg, P'Gishah, 64

                        17 Radio Programme, Jerusalem, organised by Hever, Maran and Mitler, 1989

                        18 M Ungerfeld: Bialik and Avraham ben Yitzhak, La Merchav, 11.12.64

                        19 David Aharon: Im Shirim Um'shorrim: Shira to shel Avraham ben Yitzhak, 1983, 563-569

                        20 Benzion Benshalom, Avraham ben Yitzhak, Seifer Shirim, Nidpas m'ta'am chever rei'av shel hameshorrer (Elul Tash Yav)

                        21 Aharon bar-Shmuel: Al Hamishmar, 2.6.50

                        22 Rivkah Gorpein: Shnei Shirim – Shnei Dorot, Davar, May 1970

                        23 Zemorah: Yisrael Hapiyut shel Avraham ben Yitzhak, Mar'ariv, 11.6.59

                        24 Tanai Shlomoh: Mishorrer Dagul, Ne'eman Lishtikato, Ha'aretz, 10.7.53

                        25 Dov Sadan: Ichur, Davar, 20.11.53

                        26 DA Friedman: Eglei Bidolach, Davar Hashavua, 22.6.50

                        27 Sh Pneuli: Shirah Umachshava, La Merchav, 16.6.61

                        28 Geirshom Shofman: Yediot Achrornot, 1950

                        29 Dr L Hakak: Al Shirat Avraham Ben Yitzhak v'al s'fatam, tifrach hadumia, 21 Nov 1975

                        30 Benzion Benshalom translates Bod'dim omrim as Some Few Who Say, but the writer is of the opinion that a truer translation would be The Alone Ones Say.

                        31 S. Burnshaw, T. Carmi, E. Spicehandler "Avraham ben Yitzhak" in The Modern Hebrew Poem Itself, (New York, 1966)

                        32 Benshalom, Yitzhak Poems, 40

                        33 Benshalom, Yitzhak Poems, 40

                        34 Catharine Hughes, Shadow and Substance, Taoist Mystical Reflections, A Crossroad Book (New York, 1974), iv of Introduction. (Note: For the purposes of this article, the spelling Lao Tzu is used. In other publications it is spelt Laotse or Lao Tze.)

                        35 Goldberg, P'Gishah, 5

                        36 Yitzchak Mann, "Avraham Ben Yitzhak" in Orlogin (Merchavyah, 8 May 1953), 113–120, particularly 119

                        37 Hughes, Shadow and Substance, 10

                        38 Lao Tzu, The Canon of Reason and Virtue, translated by DT Suzuki and Paul Carus (1913)

                        39 Canetti, "Dr Sonne", 142

                        40 Goldberg, P'Gishah , 22-25

                        41 Goldberg, P'Gishah, 22

                        42 From a note in ABY's notebook, in the archives in Jerusalem

                        43 Canetti, "Dr Sonne", 142

                        44 Lin Yutang, The Wisdom of Laotse (London, 1958)

                        45 JC Cooper, Yin-Yang, The Taoist Harmony of Opposites (Northamptonshire, 1987), 16

                        46 JC Cooper, Yin-Yang, 15

                        47 Nathan Zach, Lifnei sha'ar Im Ne'ilah, Davar

                        48 Burnshaw, Carmi, Spicehandler, "Avraham ben Yitzhak", 53

                        49 Hughes, Shadow and Substance, 105

                        50 Hughes, Shadow and Substance, 87

                        51 William Benton, Encyclopaedia Britannica (London), 17:1037

                        52 Canetti, "Dr Sonne", 139

                        53 PJ Saher, Eastern and Western Thought (1969), 284

                        54 RB Blakney, The Way of Life: Lao Tzu, A Mentor Book (New York) 92, poem 39

                        55 JC Cooper, Taoism: The Way of the Mystic (Northamptonshire, 1972) 93, quoting L Binyon, Chinese Art

                        56 A Chinese saying

                        57 Benshalom, Yitzhak Poems, 45

                        58 Hughes, Shadow and Substance, 16

                        59 Tagore Rabindranath, The Religion of Man (London, 1931), 112 and 123

                        60 JC Cooper, Yin and Yang (Northamptonshire, 1975), 95

                        61 Benshalom, Yitzhak Poems, 46

                        62 Canetti, "Dr Sonne", 140 and 141

                        63 Private correspondence between J.C. Cooper, world authority on Tao, and the writer of this article.

                        64 Benshalom, Yitzhak Poems, 40


                        from the November 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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