Not Yet: A Great Yiddish Poet Still Lives


Not Yet– A Great Yiddish Poet Still Lives

            When Avrohom Sutzkever died in January, 2010, word went out that “the last great Yiddish poet” was gone.  But there is a very different, very fine Yiddish poet who is still alive: Rivka Basman Ben-Hayim.  Twelve years his junior, a fellow poet and a true friend of his, Basman Ben-Hayim is still writing poetry.  She lives and works in Israel but is hardly known in the U.S.

            The twelve years that separated Sutzkever and Basman Ben-Hayim were critical years.  Sutzkever was a grown man who had been to the university and married by the time the Nazis occupied Lithuania.  Rivka Basman, on the other hand, was only a young teenager when the Nazis herded her first into the Vilna ghetto and then into the Kaiserwald labor camp.  In the camp, Rivka and two other young women attempted to lift the spirits of their camp mates.  At the end of every work day, one sang, one danced, and one, Rivka, recited a poem she had composed that day.  Although she was untutored and her poetry was raw, Rivka later felt that her poetry had succeeded in consoling her camp-mates.  As she said in her poem “Remembrance”:

I sang then

And my poem

Was itself our sun.

            When the Nazis liquidated the camp, Basman rolled these poems under her tongue.  She now feels these poems are “not sublimated enough” and so are not of esthetic value.  But because she feels they are of historic value, she plans to donate them to Yad Va-shem.

            Basman met and married Shmuel (Mula) Ben-Hayim after the war.  Together the two joined Berikha, the movement that helped send Jewish refugees illegally to (what was then) Palestine.  Once they reached Palestine themselves, the couple settled in kibbutz Ha-Ma’apil.  Life continued to be fraught with danger.  Mula joined the Haganah and fought actively in the War of Independence, while Rivka herself took up arms when the kibbutz was attacked.  Basman Ben-Hayim has never been willing to speak in detail about this period.  “We were attacked, so we defended ourselves”.  That is all she volunteers when asked about the war.

            Basman Ben-Hayim says now that watching things grow on the kibbutz was “therapeutic”.  But for her, as for many survivors, for all the apparent normalcy, the trauma of the war years lingers on.  Here is how she put in her poem

“The Depths”:

You’ve stitched

My ripped surface,

Pasted and gathered,

Until there appeared

A tiny light

And I forgot about myself.

I’m no longer broken

But the depths-

They haven’t yet spoken.

            In the 1950s, Basman Ben-Hayim was a member of Yung Yisroel, the organization of Yiddish poets living in Israel that Sutzkever spearheaded and encouraged.  Rivka continued to publish poems in Di Goldene Keyt, the journal edited by Avrohom Sutzkever as well as in Svive, the journal edited by Kadya Molodowsky, as she took a teaching degree and taught children on the kibbutz.

            From 1963 to 1965, when her husband was Israel’s cultural attaché to the Soviet Union, she taught the children of the diplomatic corps in Moscow.  Never one to shirk from danger, she maintained clandestine contact with Soviet Yiddish writers.  Her book of poems, Bleter fun Vegn, Leaves from the Roads, written after she returned home from Moscow, gave voice to her concern for Jewish life behind the Iron Curtain.

            Basman Ben-Hayim now heads the Yiddish writers’ union located in Bet Leyvik.  Like YIVO in New York, Bet Leyvik sponsors programs on Yiddish, the language and its literature, for the general public.  Occasionally it is Basman Ben-Hayim herself who speaks.  More often than not, the lecturers are drawn from the pool of researchers in Israel and abroad.

            Basman Ben-Hayim’s poems are personal and elegiac.  They tend to be short and they nearly always have rhyme.  She writes about her Holocaust experience, but always obliquely.  But that is by no means her only theme.  She writes of love, friendship, the natural world of Israel and human nature as she knows and understands it.  Here is her poem on friendship:

“Younger than Time”

There is an old friendship

Young looking

Which comes and speaks

Of cherry blossoms,

Preserves the sap

Which a honeybee has lost-

There is an old friendship

Younger than time.

It comes and inquires

About each separately.

A silence that’s concealed

Rejuvenates the mind.

There is an old friendship

Younger than time.

            In Israel when jacaranda trees blossom in spring they throw entire streets into a purple shower.  Here is Basman Ben-Haim’s poem on Tel Aviv in spring:


The jacarandas flooded Tel Aviv streets

And people drowned in the bloom.

Passersby­ smiled at the purple,

Poets­ didn’t understand, how

With no pencils, with no paper, such creation

With no erased lines of speech

Shows itself suddenly with such elation

And sings itself, all purple.

The jacarandas flooded Tel Aviv streets

And people drowned in the bloom.

Passersby­ smiled at the purple,

Poets­ didn’t understand, how

            Basman Ben-Hayim, who took on her husband’s name after his death, has written nine books of poetry, and put out two volumes of collected works.  She has won just about every prize known to the Yiddish world, among them the Hofstein prize and the Manger prize.  She has also written Yiddish translations of, and put out a dual language (Hebrew-Yiddish) book with, the Hebrew language poet Roni Somek.  Over the years, Hebrew translations of her Yiddish poems have appeared in Hebrew language journals, so she was not entirely unknown to the Hebrew-reading public.  This year, fourteen different well-known Hebrew translators put out a book of her poems translated into Hebrew.  Entitled “Al Metar Ha-Geshem”, “On a String of Rain”, it takes Yiddish poems she has written over sixty years and puts them into poetic, living Hebrew so Israeli lovers of poetry can see what they were missing.  It is time the English reading world got an equal chance to see what they are missing.

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3 Responses to Not Yet: A Great Yiddish Poet Still Lives

  1. Alyson Vogel says:

    Zelda, Thank you for introducing me to her and your new site! I was taken by the poem ‘The Depths’ as it has a strong meaning for me too and will be sure to spend time with some of her other works.

  2. myriam bryks-fuchs says:

    it was such an honor to meet Rivka Basman in Israel she is a good friend of my sister
    Bella Bryks-Klein.
    Rivka is a very humble and modest individual who is full of talent and I hold her in the highest esteem.
    She should be able to continue with her creativity and I wish her health and a long life

  3. Mendy Cahan says:

    a heartfelt thanks for those who created this public page for poet Rivka Basman. Her soft-spoken, clear-eyed poetry and personality are a jewel. We wish her biz hundert un tsvantsik – creativity, strength and as much yiddish nakhes as possible.

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