Saturday, December 29, 2007
From The Heart of Union Square, Somerville to the Heart of Israel
Up until this December (2007) I had never been overseas. I’m not a kid. At 52, I have arrived at the second half of the roller coaster ride, or as Camus put it by now I am “responsible for my own face.” I have never been the adventurous type. I have been content to travel back and forth to my ancestral grounds of New York City, or to my favorite isle in Maine, or perhaps the rare trip to the heat and swamps of Florida to visit an old friend. I was well traveled in Somerville of course: from the tony environs of Davis Square to the hinterlands of Sullivan Square. But when I had the offer to judge the “International Reuben Rose Poetry Award” sponsored by the “Voices Israel” literary organization, and to travel to Israel to run workshops and read from my own work, I was like a dog on a meat truck. I knew my time for travel had finally arrived. Mind you, for my maiden voyage, I was not traveling to a relatively benign England or France; I was heading to a part of the world that has seen its share of strife. But I never really had any doubts that I would undertake the trip, and I am glad that I did.
Say what you will about Israel’s foreign policy, it is none-the-less surrounded by countries hostile to its existence. Traveling the country from the mountains in the north, to the south and the Mediterranean Sea, there is a strong sense of a country under a siege. Soldiers, young women and men, with M-16s slung over their shoulders are a ubiquitous sight. Conducting workshops in Haifa, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem, it seemed that everybody had been intimately and recently affected by violence. I often stayed in homes or apartments complexes that were hit by SCUD missiles in the last Lebanese incursion. Security checks are common in restaurants and shops. But in spite of this the people I met were vibrant and alive.
The city of Jerusalem where I spent a little time in is a mosaic of ethnicity, architecture and intrigue. While in the “Holy City,” I was guided by “Voices” member Adrian Boas, a senior lecturer at Haifa University in Archeology. He was an expert guide who gave me some of the history of the city, took me to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and the Wailing Wall among other places. I placed a book of my poems “ Poems from Boston and Just Beyond: From The Back Bay to the Back Ward” in one of the many cracks and crevices in the wall. It kept company with the many folded notes people slip in. It was my own message in a bottle drifting out to sea.
Mike Scheidemann, the president of Voices, and one of the co-founders of the “World Congress of Poets,” sponsored by UNESCO, ferried me to many of my destinations, and I stayed on the kibbutz he resides in called "Yizre'el." "Yizre'el" is located about 60 miles outside of Tel Aviv. A kibbutz is an Israeli collective community. It combines socialism and Zionism in the form of practical Labor Zionism. The original kibbutzim developed as a pure communal mode of living.
"Yizre'el" is one of the last purely socialist kibbutzim. I ate some of my meals in the communal dining hall. The food was nothing fancy, but they had excellent produce, sardines, eggs, etc… A lot of their food is grown on their own farm. I was also told the kibbutz has its own fish farms, and produces internationally acclaimed pool filtration equipment in their factory. Schiedman told me that everyone on the kibbutz has their own house, everyone from plant manager to dishwasher gets the same pay, and they all share a small fleet of communal cars. Each resident is required to have some type of job in this community.
Later in the trip I stayed in Metula, the most northern city in Israel. Metula is right next to the Lebanon border, and the neighboring town was hit over 100 times by Katyushas rockets during the Lebanese conflict. I stayed in the home of Helen Bar-Lev and Johnmichael Simon. Bar Lev is a well-respected landscape painter in Israel and abroad. She used to own a successful art gallery in Jerusalem. She is the current editor- in -chief of the “Voices Israel” anthology. Her partner, John Michael Simon is a published poet, and a collaborator with her in many projects. Recently Bar Lev and Simon published a poetry collection “Cyclamens and Swords” with the Ibbetson Street Press.
There was an informal poetry workshop at their home. It included a female Rabbi, an art therapist, and an English teacher—in short an interesting mix. Like all the workshops I ran I found the participants as passionate about their poetry as they were about their politics.
Being the urban and hopefully urbane man that I am, I was anxious for more of a taste of the cities. One night I stayed at the home of Voices members Susan and Richard Rosenberg who have an apartment in Haifa. Susan is the secretary of the Voices organization. It is situated high up on a hill above the city, with a striking view of the Mediterranean. Wendy Blumfield, a journalist with the Jerusalem Post, and her husband David, were my guides around the city the next day. They showed me the old Arab Quarter, and the Jewish section that was peopled with many Hasidic Jews in full traditional garb.
Haifa is the third largest city in Israel. It is situated in the Carmel Mountains, and it has a terraced landscape with some breathtaking panoramas of the sea and the city. I had the chance to see the Bahai Shrine—a golden-domed spiritual center for the Bahai religion. The Bahai Garden around it is artfully manicured, making a striking picture for a legion of tourists’ cameras.
From Haifa the Rosenburgs escorted me by train to Tel Aviv. I had judged the “Voices” poetry competition so I was expected to help present awards, make a speech, and read from my own work at a venue in the city.
Tel Aviv is the second most populated city in Israel after Jerusalem. It is located on the Mediterranean coastline. As we took a cab and traversed the downtown I got the impression of a sleek, modern city with little of the traditional trappings of Haifa. The award ceremony was held at the ZOA House. ZOA House was founded in the 1950’s. by the Zionist Organization of America. It has established itself as a cultural center for the city that operates 24 hours a day. In this center there are three auditoriums for theatre performance, a movie theatre, workshop, course facilities, an art gallery, etc…The ceremony took place in of all places “Douglas Hall” and was well-attended. The award-winning poets Zvi Sesling and Celia Merlin were announced and Merlin read from her work. The honorable mentions also read from their selected poems.
The last part of my trip was in the seaside resort of Netanya, on the seashore between Tel Aviv and Hadera. There is a long stretch of beach along the seemingly placid blue/green waters of the Mediterranean that I had a chance to jog on. There are a bunch of cafes, with relatively cheap food on the beach. I love hummus so I savored this creamy delicacy while enjoying the balmy weather and the ocean view. In fact it was so warm in this southern city that a few folks were swimming. What a contrast to the chilly environs of Jerusalem! Many Russian immigrants hang out at the beach, playing chess, cards, and down more than a few shots. There was a huge influx of these immigrants in the 1990’s I have been told.
The Hotel I was staying at was named the “Residence Hotel” It overlooked the beach, and my room had a tremendous view of the ocean. I ran two workshops at the hotel during Friday and Saturday. In attendance were a number of fine poets from Voices, many of whom won awards and honorable mention in the contest, including Celia Merlin the author of the second prize-winning poem: “Paris Unsaid.” It turned out that Celia’s sister Peri works at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., the very place I have worked at for the past 25 years. I used to work with Celia’s sister in the early 80’s, on the inpatient ward of McLean; which is world-renowned psychiatric hospital outside of Boston. For you poetry aficionados out there Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton, were all hospitalized at the hospital at one point. Sexton was most noted for the poetry workshops she ran at the hospital. Other poets in attendance at the workshop were Donna Bechar (who grew up in a neighboring town on Long Island, NY around the same time I did), Rena Nevon, who won a record of four honorable mentions in this year’s contest, and noted literary critic, Saul Bellow scholar, and peace activist Ada Aharoni. Aharoni, 74, has taught Comparative Literature at Haifa University, and she founded the group: “ The International Forum For Literature and Peace” of which she still is president.
Also in the workshop was actor/poet Amiel Schotz, who wrote a groundbreaking book for theatre training: “Theatre Games and Beyond: A Creative Approach for Young Performers.” Dara Barnat, a poet and faculty member of the English and American Studies Department at Tel Aviv University where she teaches creative writing and poetry was also an active participant.
I had my fears traveling across the world to the Middle East, especially in these troubling times, but I faced them. I was challenged on many fronts: the jam-packed schedule, finding relevant and helpful things to say about scores of work-shopped poems, and dealing with an unfamiliar culture and environment. But I am glad to say I have arrived back at my usual seat at the Sherman Café (and occasionally Bloc 11) in Somerville in one piece, and I am a much better man for the experience.