by Len Lear
Poet Rachel Tzvia Back, an American by birth and an Israeli for the majority of her life, who has written brilliantly about grief and mourning, among other subjects (her father and older sister, Adina, died within one year), will speak about her highly acclaimed work on Tuesday, Oct. 7, 7 p.m., at the Big Blue Marble Bookstore, 551 Carpenter Lane in West Mt. Airy.
Back will share her work on the poetry and poetics of pre-eminent Hebrew poet Tuvia Ruebner. In “The Illuminated Dark: Selected Poems of Tuvia Ruebner,” translator Back brings into English Ruebner’s eloquent voice. Personal loss and the historical devastation of the Holocaust inform all of his work. This first-ever bi-lingual edition gives readers in both Hebrew and English access to stunning poetry that insists on shared humanity across all ethnic groups and other divides.
Tuvia Ruebner, who is now 90, was born into a semi-secular, German-speaking Jewish family (his father was a member of the Freemasons) in Bratislava, Slovakia, in 1924. After Jews were forbidden to attend school, he worked as an apprentice electrician. Ruebner immigrated to Mandatory Palestine in 1941, eventually settling in a Kibbutz. He continued to write in German for more than a decade and published his first (of 15) poetry books in Hebrew in 1957. Ruebner lost his family in the Holocaust, and later lost his wife and son to what are usually considered individual, unhistoric tragedies: his first wife was killed in a car accident, and his son disappeared in South America while traveling. All these tragedies surface often in his poetry.
Rachel Tzvia Back, born in 1960 in Buffalo, NY, but now a resident of a village called Ya’ad in the Galilee, is the 7th generation of her family in Palestine. (Her great-great-great grandfather settled there in the 1830s.) Her grandfather left Palestine in the 1920s, looking for the “golden medina” on America’s shores. In the 1980s, Back returned to Israel to make her home there. She studied at Yale, Temple and Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where she wrote her PhD dissertation on post-modern American poetry. She has lectured widely in the U.S. and is the recipient of numerous awards.
One critic, Sarah Wildman, when she was a visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins University, had this to say about Back’s work: “In ‘On the Ruins of Palestine,’ she narrated the years of suicide bombings in Israel in stark language — ‘when we no longer care/who or how many/are dead/our own/running through sprinklers/in the still/ablaze/afternoon’ — and graphically described the heavy losses endured, on both sides. But even the deaths of her countrymen and women; even the deaths of others’ children, painful and bloody and horrifying; even her own political wrestling can’t quite come close to the experience of loss so personal, so profound.”
Back told us last week in an interview, “I lived in Mt. Airy for two years, from 1988 to1990, while doing the MA writing program at Temple. I had a tiny flat on Boyer Street. I loved the area. I’m coming back to Mt. Airy also because of the (Big Blue Marble) bookstore’s generous offer to have me read/speak.”
The poet, who served in the Israeli Defense Forces from 1982 to 1986, knows from first-hand experience about the rocket attacks by Arab terrorists that led to the two invasions of Gaza in recent years by Israeli military forces. “In the summer of 2006,” she told us, “with Hezbollah rockets coming from Lebanon, we spent an entire month in the secure room (a kind of indoor bunker). The sirens were constant, and a rocket fell in the valley just under our house. It was a frightening summer. This summer, we were well out of range. However, my son is a combat paramedic, and he participated in the ground battles (as first medical care). It was a terrifying three weeks for us all…”
When asked if she has hope that there can be any solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in our lifetime, Back replied, “Hope, yes. I cannot let go of hope. It is often all we have. My second son will be drafted in November. When my sons were little, I thought, even believed, the conflict would be resolved by the time they were of soldier age. That this is not the case is a great, even overwhelming, sorrow. But hope, yes. I still have hope.”
As mentioned earlier, Back has written a great deal about personal loss and tragedy. We asked if she could tell us about the circumstances of her sister’s passing. “I’ll pass on this one,” she said. “I will say that my poem to her, ‘Elegy Fragments,’ is a grief offering to everyone like me, those of us who have lost a beloved, those of us who will be grieving for the rest of our lives…”
For more information about Back’s appearance in Mt. Airy, call 215-844-1870 or visit bigbluemarblebooks.com. For more information about Back’s books, put her name in Wikipedia.com or Amazon.com.