At the time of her death in 2005, Dahlia Ravikovitch was revered as a champion of Palestinian rights and respected as Israel’s greatest
poet. As her translators and biographers Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld note, ‘‘No other Hebrew poet, with the exception of the late Yehuda Amichai, was so universally embraced by Israelis, whatever their political convictions.’’ Ravikovitch’s poems have long been a fixture in Israel—being an important part of the school curriculum, adapted for theater and film, integratedfor musical performances and art exhibits, and used for scholarship in several books, articles, monographs, and dissertations.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Trauma and Despair Dahlia Ravikovitch was born on November 17, 1936, in Ramat Gan, Israel to engineer Levy (Leo) and teacher Michal Ravikovitch. By the age of three, young Dahlia was able to read and write. At four, she was designing patterns for sewing. On September 9, 1940, Ravikovitch and her mother were out doing errands on Pinsker Street when Italy bombed the city of Tel Aviv. As her mother would write to a friend a week later, according to scholar Dalia Karpel, the four-year-old screamed at the sound of what she determined was ‘‘Thunder!’’ Mother and daughter were trapped on the streets, witnessing the deaths of more than one hundred people and the wounding of many more.
In 1942, when Ravikovitch was six years old, her father was killed by a drunk driver. She moved with her mother to live on Kibbutz Geva, a cooperative agricultural community in Jezreel Valley. At age thirteen, Rav-ikovitch left the kibbutz and lived in several foster homes over the next few years. Air raids, death, abandonment, loss, and displacement came early to her, and she soon came to incorporate all as a writer attuned to despair. Such early traumatic experiences appeared in her poetry as late as the 1970s, with works such as Death in the Family (1976).
Higher Learning and Employment The region Ravikovitch called home was originally a part of Palestine, as defined by British mandate at the end of World War I. Between the two world wars, the area saw substantial waves of immigration from Jewish people wishing to return to what they considered their ancestral homeland. The brutal treatment of Jews by Nazi Germany during World War II—which resulted in the deaths of millions of European Jews—led to increased calls for an established Jewish homeland. In 1948, after approval by the United Nations, Palestine was split into two regions, one of which became the nation of Israel. The area of Ravikovitch’s youth became part of this new Jewish nation.
In the 1950s Ravikovitch studied English
literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. By the end of the decade she had published her first volume of poetry, The Love of an Orange (1959). The debut work was well received by critics and established her, according to Bloch and Kronfeld, ‘‘as one of the leading voices of the post-1948 generation, alongside her elders Yehuda Amichai and Natan Zach.’’
Working through the next years as a journalist and critic, a teacher, and later an editor of poetry translations, Ravikovitch produced nine more books of verse—among them two books of poetry for children—and three short story collections. She also worked translating several volumes of poetry, including those of
Edgar Allan Poe, William Butler Yeats, and T. S. Eliot, among others.
The Bell Jar Shatters In 1982, when Israel invaded the nearby nation of Lebanon, Ravikovitch’s personal poetry took on a political weight. In an interview with Bloch and Kronfeld, Ravikovitch explained what impelled her to write political and war poetry: ‘‘Till the invasion of Lebanon, I managed somehow to go on living inside a bell jar. But then suddenly, all at once, when the invasion started, the bell jar shattered. Now there’s no wall between the political and the personal. It all comes rushing in.’’
Increased Social and Political Activity The invasion prompted Ravikovitch to use her poetic voice as a political tool. In her poem titled ‘‘You Cannot Kill A Baby Twice,’’ Ravikovitch describes the massacre of Palestinians in refugee camps: As the Christian Lebanese army massacred women and children in the Palestinian camps, the Israeli soldiers guarding the camps did nothing to intervene. Ravikovitch, however, could not keep her silence. In another poem, ‘‘Get Out of Beirut,’’ she describes how war reduces the enemy ‘‘to people who don’t count.’’ Though showing favoritism for neither side, Ravikovitch’s work was viewed as harsh and unpatriotic. In addition to writing, Ravikovitch also participated in organized protests against the displacement of Palestinians.
Highest Accolades Though Ravikovitch’s later poems were overtly political, expressing her stand about the oppression of Palestinians and women’s rights, she received multiple awards, including the esteemed Shlon-sky, Brenner, and Bialik (1987) prizes; the Israel Prize (the highest national honor, 1998); and the Prime Minister’s Prize (2005). The same year she was awarded the Prime Minister’s Prize, in August, Ravikovitch died suddenly in her Tel Aviv apartment. Initial findings suggested she had committed suicide; however, subsequent investigation and autopsy reports now attribute her death to the likely possibility of ‘‘acute heart failure.’’
Works in Literary Context
Influences on Classic Style Ravikovitch scholars Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld explain that the poet’s early works make use of traditional forms and are highly stylized. The language is ‘‘archaic’’ and resounding with biblical tones. Some of her experimental verse ‘‘draws upon surrealist parable and avant-garde opera.’’ Raviko-vitch’s early verse contains Jewish undertones and reveals such influences as that of ‘‘modernist Anglo-American poetry, particularly Eliot and the early Yeats.’’
Ravikovitch’s later verse is less adorned with figurative elements, according to Bloch and Kronfeld, in order to ‘‘make room for a stark poetry of statement.’’ The result, her translators suggest, ‘‘is an emotionally-charged simplicity and an enhanced focus on lyrical narrative and portraiture.’’ The emotional range is wide in this poetry, ‘‘from savage sarcasm, self-deprecating humor, and pointed irony to restrained pathos and prickly ambivalence.’’
The Marginalized and Dispossessed The early poems of Ravikovitch are filled with sorrow, grief, and feelings of loss. But once her voice took on a political tone, she focused on the themes of death, brutality, and violence. An article in The Progressive notes that the themes Ravikovitch explored include ‘‘the parallels between the plight of the Palestinians, the suffering of Jews in the Diaspora, and the constraints on women in traditional Jewish society.’’ Bloch and Kronfeld add that besides her political themes and themes on the human condition, ‘‘many poems explore questions of ethics, aesthetics, and metaphysics.’’
Works in Critical Context
In the introduction to a 1995 collection of Israeli war poetry, No Rattling of Sabers—in which Ravikovitch’s poems are included—editor Esther Raizen writes that anthologies of translated Hebrew poetry ‘‘often tend to minimize the inclusion of political poems, considered by many to be an inferior branch of the art.’’ This is because, Raizen explains, their social messages eclipse the artistic value of the poems. ‘‘Because their work is popular with the general public,’’ Raizen continues, ‘‘and possibly because many of their poems were set to music, as is very often the case with war poetry or poetry of protest, these writers have been frequently referred to in Israeli literary circles as ‘versifiers,’ in an apparent attempt to distinguish them from ‘real’ poets.’’ Raizen adds, however, that political poetry is nevertheless a ‘‘legitimate, compelling manifestation of human experience.’’
Beloved Israeli Voice From Ravikovitch’s first published work, The Love of an Orange (1959), critics were praising not only her content but her style and aesthetic power. As Haaretz writer Dalia Karpel reports, critics such as the demanding Baruch Kurzweil determined Rav-ikovitch’s poems ‘‘bear the seal of originality.’’ Raviko-vitch scholars Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld also assert that she was a ‘‘much-beloved poet, widely honored for her artistry and her courage, [who] enjoyed canonical stature from the beginning of her career and was considered a cultural icon in Israel.’’
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