First Person, Identification, and Collective Guilt in Israeli Women's Poetry

The murder of the Dawabsheh family in an arson attack perpetrated by a Jewish terrorist (Duma, July 31, 2015) stirred widespread reactions of horror. Several Hebrew poems were published in the aftermath of the attack.1 I shall focus on a short cycle by Hila Lahav (b. 1985), “Songs on the Death of Children,” dedicated to the memory of Riham, Sa’ad, and Ali Dawabsheh, the parents and baby who perished in the fire. Considering the poetic response of an Israeli poet in the face of the murders, the cycle offers insights into modes of collective guilt, responsibility, and identification in Israeli literature and their development.

Lahav’s poem was published in her third volume of poetry, Gag Etz (“Wooden Roof,” 2019):

Songs on the Death of Children

In memory of Riham, Sa’ad and Ali Dawabsheh

Now the fire will rise like the sun. 
She should have had you 
blue-eyed. I see how she ran 
(they blocked the door from outside) 
the blanket nearly crushed against her heart, 
and your wise coal eyes aflame underneath, 
while she set on rescue, her legs failing. 
I haven’t said: No child in the blanket.

The altar is shaped like a fence. 
According to the seasons, 
it consents to accept sacrifices. 
God himself sits there, 
legs splayed. 
A few of the prayers are answered. 
Blessed are the children near the fence 
for they shelter in his light as in their mother’s home 
and he hides them under his sheltering wings. 

Your purple throat beats like a living child. 
The bag protects your shoulder. 
The strap, too long, sails the sea 
and is dragged to earth. 
The surface of the water is calm. 
The surface of the water is a mirror 
and on it your reflection is very long 
more serious than you were. 
The real strap tied to the reflected strap 
that never stops pulling 
simply cannot cease.

A moment before slumber someone faceless 
forces you out of sleep and asks 
if for sure you’re going to heaven. 
Indeed, to kneel is almost to pray.

Translated by Lisa Katz

Lahav’s poems borrow their title and opening from Gustav Mahler’s “Songs on the Death of Children” (Kindertotenlieder; lyrics by Friedrich Rückert). Her poems are woven with motifs from Mahler’s “Songs” such as the child’s flashing eyes, the mother on the doorstep, and the illusion that the child is still alive. It is the distance created between the poetic situation in each of the cycles that creates the gap between the different poems.

As in the Mahler-Rückert cycle, something terrible took place during the night, but the sun still wants to shine, as if nothing has happened. In Lahav’s poem, the fire substitutes for the sun (the fire rises like the sun); that is, for Lahav, unlike the Mahler cycle, the dichotomy between the horror of the death of a child and oblivious natural cycles is traded for an oxymoron: Indifference and the disaster are merged into one. In fact, it becomes clearer that indifference is and enables the disaster. The flames are light that should not have risen in the night; they are an aberration, pretending to be a sunrise. Rückert’s poems were written following the death of his children from illness, not in an act of terror. The poems Mahler chose to set to music follow a cycle of mourning, which ends with acceptance. In Lahav’s poems, the allusions to Rückert’s text do not follow this order and are devoid of faith, acquiescence, or comfort.

H.N Bialik’s Canonical 1904 poem, “In the City of Slaughter” is often invoked in earnest or by way of parody, in Israeli culture when confronted with atrocity: “God called up the slaughter and the spring together, / The slayer slew, the blossom burst, and it was sunny weather!”2 But Lahav chooses not to pursue the path which would create an analogy between the pogrom referred to in Bialik’s poem and Jewish victimization and the murder of a Palestinian family by an Israeli; rather, she places the horror 
in a different cultural reference point: that of a mother who has lost a child. Her choice is not a given.

At first reading, it may appear that the choice to write with the Mahler-Rückert cycle as a contextual frame is a form of depoliticizing the racist-nationalist attack. The German poems were written and composed by fathers, yet in Lahav’s poem, the father, whose name is remembered in the dedication and who reportedly managed to rescue his then-four-year-old son, Ahmed, before he himself died of his injuries, is absent.

The first poem addresses the baby Ali, telling him: “She should have had you blue-eyed.” Race, sex, body, and, it is implied, ethnicity and nationality, as well as the privileges or discrimination they are accompanied by, are ostensibly a choice a responsible mother makes. Blue-eyed (German) children have the alleged privilege of dying of a disease rather than being burnt to death in their beds. The speaker in this poem is very near the addressee: She is close enough to see the blanket crushed against the mother’s heart. She sees the baby’s “wise coal eyes aflame underneath” the blanket, again alluding directly to the second poem in Mahler’s musical work. In Rückert’s second poem, the speaker who cannot accept the child’s death still imagines his eyes aflame, as they were when the child was alive. In Rückert’s poem, the shiny eyes will become comforting stars in the night sky. The closing line of Lahav’s poem reveals that the speaker in the poem has the later knowledge, which was reported in the media, that Riham had mistaken the blanket to have held her child, whom she was trying to save. The conventional (“dead”) metaphor of “coal eyes” signifying black eyes becomes horrifyingly concrete in this context.

The analogies to the Mahler-Rückert cycle and the intimate presence of the speaker in Lahav’s first poem may lead us to read them as a universalizing depoliticization of the attack. The second poem in the cycle, however, is overtly political.

This poem addresses no one in particular; neither does it expose its speaker, creating the semblance of neutral facts: “The altar is shaped like a fence.” The poem seems to stray from the reference to Mahler’s work, but the closing words echo the closure of its fifth poem: Here, too, the dead children are sheltered by God, “as in their mother’s home,” under God’s wings. In Hebrew, this idiom connotes the Jewish burial and memorial prayer, el malé rahamim. Only the children in Lahav’s poem are not dead; they live by the fence. In the Palestinian-Israeli context, the fence-shaped altar and the fence are recognized as the separation wall or barrier. Rather than the brutal weather in the Mahler-Rückert source, here the children do not need shelter from a raging storm but from the fence or from the people it represents.

“The altar is shaped like a fence” implies that the fence itself is an altar. The children near the fence are sacrificed to an indifferent god, who arbitrarily accepts or rejects their sacrifice according to the time of year. God sits with his “legs splayed.” The singular Hebrew expression Lahav used here — “mize’u-mize’” — connotes a discussion in the ancient legal text, Mishnah (kelim 15:6), about a musical instrument named erus, which professional women mourners or wailers play by sitting on it with their legs splayed. The discussion in the Mishnah debates whether or not the instrument is immune to impure contamination or requires purification. The Mishnah concludes that the erus is vulnerable to defilement because it is played by women, who are considered impure. By choosing the uncommon Hebrew phrase to describe God’s position, God himself becomes vulnerable to defilement, like the professional female mourners who play the erus.

The third and fourth poem change the relationship between the speaker and the addressee and use the second-person female, which could be addressing the imagined Riham. In poetry, however, the second person is interchangeable with the first, thus the speaker and the addressee become intimately close. The third enigmatic poem summons an image of a ceaseless reflection. Reflections depend on the constancy of the object positioned before the surface they are mirrored in, the light and the stability of the mirror (in this case, water). A continuous and eternal connection ties the object to its reflection. A woman stands with a bag possibly hanging by a shoulder strap that is too long. The poem addresses a woman who is no longer, yet her throat throbs “like a living child.” The image enables the woman’s body to contain the child. But it is only an image, and she herself is no longer, since only her reflection remains. We are led to see that the woman standing on the shore is reflecting the image of the woman who was killed. It is a surreal image that links the two women, the one who can speak and the one who cannot, to one another. They are inseparable. That is why, when we reach the final poem, we may wonder who was shaken out of her sleep: the murdered mother or the poet. Who is certain to go, or not, to heaven?

Far from the speaker in “Hovering at a Low Altitude,” a famous poem by major Hebrew poet Dahlia Ravikovitch that deals with collective guilt — and merits a separate discussion — here, in a process of poetic osmosis, the speaker becomes a victim, and her loss and mourning are expressed. As a victim, she herself is no longer subject to judgment, as Ravikovitch’s speaker was. The proximity she creates with the victim is an acquired helplessness, which ignores her privileged position as a Jewish Israeli Hebrew poet. Identification makes the poetic speaker vulnerable and detaches her from the perpetrators. This poetic position may be traced to the fatigue and despair prevalent in the Israeli left, which has become a miniscule minority, and to the growing detachment and lack of identification that left-wing Israelis feel toward their national community, given the continuous consolidation and fortification of the occupation, with little hope of its imminent demise. One may question the moral legitimacy of this self-pity or the sensation of vulnerability faced by horror which this position implies, but that would peg these complex poems and deprive them of the complicated images they 
stir. Poems may be exempted from serving us with a bottom line.


1 See for example Roni Somek’s poem, “I, Ali Dawabasha,” in which the speaker is baby Ali who warns the implied Israeli collective: “I will burn in your dreams.”

2 H.N. Bialik, "The City of Slaughter" in Complete Poetic Works of Hayyim Nahman Bialik, Israel Efros, ed. (New York, 1948): 129-43 (Vol. I)