"In the Illuminated Dark," the first bilingual edition of Tuvia Ruebner’s poetry (translated and introduced by Rachel Tzvia Back), has been published by Hebrew Union College Press. The following passages have been excerpted with permission.
Taken from the introduction by Rachel Tzvia Back:
Born in 1924 into a semi-secular Slovakian Jewish family, Hebrew poet Tuvia Ruebner was also born into the catastrophe that was soon to come. Not long after the race laws which banned all Jewish students from school ended his formal education in the ninth grade, permission papers to leave Slovakia were purchased for Ruebner by his family. At seventeen, he set out for Palestine, bidding farewell to his parents and little sister in the Pressburg-Bratislava train station – a farewell that he describes as “still weighing on my bones” decades later.
“Our dead live among us,” writes Ruebner, “if we don’t hide from them. Sometimes it seems to me I see them in the shadows of the air, more and more in the last years. No, I don’t see them – I feel them.” [Litzi] is closer to me now than she has ever been,” wrote Ruebner in 2006, sixty-five years after he said farewell to his little sister.
Ruebner wrote exclusively in German for the first twelve years of his life in Palestine/Israel. His adherence to his native tongue was an anomaly in the literary landscape of the day, where immigrant writers more commonly adopted the newly reborn Hebrew – a choice that was often charged with ideological and nationalistic fervor. Ruminating aloud in a video documentary on his life as to why he continued composing in German for so long, Ruebner suggests a two-fold reason: German was the language in which he spoke to his lost beloveds, and German served as a protection from the overwhelming strangeness of his new land and life.
However, in 1953, Ruebner began composing poems in Hebrew – a Hebrew he had learned “from the new Hebrew, the Bible and Agnon” (94) – and from then on he wrote his poetry (fifteen collections) exclusively in Hebrew.
For many years, Ruebner’s work was situated at the margins of the Israeli literary mainstream. Various factors likely contributed to this position, from his rural locale in a Jezereel Valley kibbutz (away from the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem literary centers), to his refusal to identify fully with the new Israeli culture and his continued focus on the lost European world. Ironically, his poetry, prose and translations all were lauded and celebrated in Germany long before they were recognized by the Israeli literary establishment. As early as 1955, Ruebner began receiving European literary awards, and has continued receiving such awards, including most recently the Konrad-Adenauer Prize (Austria, 2012).
At the very end of the twentieth century, Ruebner’s work enjoyed a renaissance, and the demands of the Israeli literary establishment shifted as well; as a result, Ruebner’s books began to garner in Israel greater critical and popular attention and acclaim. This acclaim and acknowledgment has resulted in his poetry receiving, in the last fifteen years, every major Israeli literary award, including the Prime Minister’s Prize for Hebrew Writers (twice) and the most prestigious Israel Prize (in 2008). This “Elder of the Tribe” (as he’s been named), having just marked his ninetieth birthday, has outlived by many years most of the Hebrew poets of his generation (for example, Yehuda Amichai, Dan Pagis, and T. Carmi); his compelling poetic voice and vision usher us elegantly from the devastations of the twentieth century into the unknowns of the twenty-first..
Although poetry, Ruebner admits, has an ever-more marginal place and status in the modern world, he believes that we may very well be lost without it. Poetry’s attention to the details of language, its insistence on distilling, presenting and preserving life’s essence, may, Ruebner suggests, “strengthen the stand against the lies and the liars that have engulfed us, and may encourage the search for truths.” The truths of words finding their destined forms, and the testimony of an unfailing gaze toward what is and what was, propel Ruebner’s poetry. In a tone of wonder, Ruebner notes that “after the complete Destruction of World War II, everything that exists is a kind of miracle, and one can sing a song of praise in its honor.”
Selected poems from "In The Illuminated Dark," reproduced with permission:
Old King David
My eyes have seen too much.
Too many nations have overwhelmed my spirit.
Through the warp and weft of destinies I am woven.
Fumbling, my unquiet hands
which once knew the sword’s slaughter, the strings’ quivering –
mumble now in the silent darkness.
I am freezing cold. To the depths of my soul
I am frozen. Will I raise myself once more
toward the light warm and breathing body
of the Shunamit so it may keep my death at bay
one more night drenched with the spirit of the dead?
The moon floats in the mist of its slumber
and in my head resting
on her living hair will beat
again the blood of words which
were once long ago sweet psalms in me.
Descent from the Cross
Moldy sack of flour, white
wineskin, swollen, the Savior
is removed from the stained wood, his head-
not-head fallen, drooping like
a small hot-air balloon
airless. One man clutches his arm
this ugly rag-doll,
staring at it in wonder,
in pity and fear. Others hold him
passing him one to the next their gazes
straying up and down.
A fat man adorned in a turban
stands to the side and observes,
satisfied with his own living belly.
Against the backdrop of the gloomy skies
another stoops over, letting
the sheet slowly drop.
Everything around is dark. The trees too.
Only the body shines.
No, not exactly. Try again. From the beginning.
Soft white flesh. As though
living, breathing, moving its arms,
even loving. Outside the frame,
one guesses they’ll put him to rest in the ground.
Put him to rest? Will he rest? Eternal rest.
No. Not exactly.
A Postcard from the Hebron Region
Hebron is a very ancient city.
Abraham our father with Sarah his wife are buried there
so they say. A sacred thing in a land that lives on its dead.
In the morning in Hebron they eat pita and olives and labane drenched in olive oil.
On feast days they slaughter a lamb.
The people of Hebron like the slaughtering.
Did they learn it from Shimon and Levi the sons of Jacob?
has passed since then.
Also in Nablus they ate pita and olives this morning, though things were different in Dura, near Hebron.
In Dura today three fathers are missing.
The Hebron region is notorious: stiff-necked and stubborn.
In 1929 sixty-eight Jews were murdered in Hebron, man woman and child.
Oh, the grave of our forefather Abraham (they say), our father and their father.
Oh, the soldiers, young and frightened. Oh the tenth of March 1998.
Almost a full moon night, but there was still the light of day.
Laborers from near Hebron traveled home. On the Hebron road, at
Tarkumiyah, there was a roadblock.
Near the roadblock the soldiers stood. The driver lost control. His
car sped toward the roadblock. The commander of the roadblock
was hit and thrown to the opposite side.
There are other versions told.
His friends surmised that they wanted to run him down.
It’s hard to know who to believe, and what.
In a split-second, the soldiers opened fire.
Following the protocol. Following their orders.
How fast it all happens. How fast
one form is stripped off, another put on:
Unmoving, mask faces, glass eyes.
Or later, slackened arms, again words in their mouths, no shouting.
Yesterday more pita and olives in the early morning, maybe love-making.
Yesterday more logarithms, history, girls on the beach. Then suddenly
the road is stained red. The moon is almost full, bone white.
Rushing around here and there, calling out, let’s get on with it, then stones.
Are the stones multiplying? Slowly, unstoppable, the stones are being fruitful and multiplying.
But now green has been created
and it is good, it is good.
A wagtail in its grey coat and yellow vest
nods its tail in agreement
as the prancing bird on picket posts
has returned and will return yet again.
Two lizards are here-and-gone
sun glimmer, fugitive bliss –
May he be blessed
for his creations’ glory.
Now the pecan tree sheds its leaves
green-verses punctuating the air
and mischievous clouds seduce
the soul of a stunned blue
and a poem brings back, also in its brokenness,
a heart to a heart, and to what is not.
A Wondrous World
Even if you find a thousand reasons to protest – the world is wondrous.
Say: We are born to die – what wickedness!
But until then – what a wondrous world.
Wondrous in what is reveals and in what it conceals.
Wondrous in its creation day after day and wondrous in its destruction night after night,
in the sun breaking through the chilled, thin skin of dawn
and in its setting in all the rainbow colors.
Wondrous that you wake up alive in the morning and wondrous that your body
has reached this illustrious age.
Wondrous that the teeth of the predator fasten precisely on the flesh of his prey
and blessing and curse embrace each other.
And the first rain, already in early September, like a wall of air – isn’t that wondrous?
And you’ve seen how the ladybug (a wondrous lady, there’s no denying)
climbed to the top of the hyacinth (as though she ascended the peak
of El Capitan in Yosemite or the northern wall of the Eiger
in the Bernese Alps) and didn’t lose even a single spot from off her back.
Isn’t it wondrous how clumps of fire and ice from a trillion years ago
peek at you like the eyes of actors through a hole in the backstage curtain
sparkling and sparkling?
And wondrous, wondrous that from out of the earth burst slender green stalks
that in the end will be bread you and I eat
on the edge of a knife.