70 Hungarian postcards to the 70-year-old Israel

Agi Mishol

By Rachel Korazim - 2018-04-15

Israeli poet, born in Szilágycseh, Transylvania as a child of Holocaust survivors in 1947. She arrived with her parents 1950 in Israel. She earned a Diploma in Literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Later she also worked as a high school and university instructor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and at the Tel-Aviv University. She was awarded, among others, with the prestigious Yehuda Amichai Poetry Prize. She is the honorary doctor of the Tel-Aviv University and the Weizman Institute. Her verses have been translated into many languages, including Hungarian.

 

Dr. Rachel Korazim was kindly assisting us in the presentation of the poet, and at the same time we would like to introduce her to the readers of our series.


Dr. Rachel Korazim was born in 1947 as a child of Hungarian Holocaust survivors in Palestine. She received her doctorate from the University of Haifa and worked as Head of the Distance Education Academy at the Sochnut [Jewish Agency for Israel] Education and Training Department, specializing in Jewish education in the Diaspora. Rachel is still traveling a lot in the United States, Canada, Latin America and Europe; she participates in the development and implementation of further training programs for teachers, in the preparation of teaching materials, and she also engages in consulting and teaching. In recent years, she has invested a great deal of her time and energy in helping to strengthen Jewish education, pedagogy and culture in Hungary. The Thököly Road synagogue, which had recently been burned down, received new Torah scrolls from America thanks to her help as well. Her lectures, which she holds in Hebrew, English, and flawless Hungarian, convey, not only her vast professional knowledge of contemporary Israeli and old Jewish literature, but as a true pedagogue with an enjoyable style and empathy, she also demonstrates her infinite love for the subject, which leaves a lasting impression in her audience.

The Four Poems by Agi Mishol that Make her my Favourite Living Israeli Poet.

Agi Mishol is a great poet. She is exactly my age, well, ten days apart, to be precise. We also share a Hungarian background.

Our parents were Holocaust survivors who made Aliya to Israel in the early years, forging a hardworking life for themselves and us, after their world had been turned into ashes.

Since she had started writing and publishing as early as 1972, we now have hundreds of her poems in some sixteen books or more.

Our greatest poets have praised her work; Haim Guri, had said “ Agi Mishol has a broad poetic spectrum: "All flora and fauna near and far, varied and colorful landscapes, love and romance, powerful eroticism, revealing and concealing, being the only child of Holocaust survivors who personally experienced the worse... It is poetry filled with rich metaphors and ongoing observation of the human condition”.

You can read all of this and more on-line, all the way from Wikipedia to many literary sites.

What I want to tell you about is how four of her many poems have touched my soul and keep resounding in my ears for years now. So much so that I sometimes think, she had actually taken my own words and thoughts and crafted them in her amazing art into poetic jewels.

The first one is called “About My Sister”

About my sister who went up in smoke

To heaven

I know but two things:

Her name

And my life in her place.

 

The beauty and pain gathered in these short broken lines, sum up the totality of what we simply call “Second Generation”. It gives this name we carry, its true meaning. We are not only “second” because our parents were “first”. We are second because there was a whole life before us that was destroyed so we could live. We would not be here had that “first” been left alone to live its life peacefully in their chosen European towns and villages.

 

Assuming his role, as Agi Mishol does in this poem, is never to be taken for granted in Israel. Especially at a time, when so many of our generation, wanted to alienate themselves as much as possible, from the shadow of the “Diaspora – Holocaust” life of our parents.

 

Once I have chosen this poem to start with, it follows almost naturally that the second one would be.

Singalong

The flutelike artery of feeling

Seeped into me

Its underground waters bubble up in Hungarian

Agi, Agnes, Agitza, Aginka

They gently wonder at me

In the language of Attila.

What do you have in common with “The Sea of Corn That Surrounds Us”?*

 

While the first poem is self-explanatory to all readers, this one may need some support. Israelis love singalongs – especially in the earlier years, but even today. A lot of our poetry is set to music. Did you know that in Hebrew the song and poem are the same word? שיר

Many of our songs have Russian origins and even those that were created in Israel like the famous one about “The Sea of Corn” sound like Russian ones, describing rural vistas of endless fields…Not only that, but this particular song was made famous by the legendary “Gevatron” – the singing ensemble of the Kibbutz I was born in.

When in her poem, Agi, reclaims the music of the Hungarian; language, sights, sounds – she needs a lot of courage and Chutzpa to say they are way more meaningful to her then the local prevailing culture. Oh how I longed to have this courage as a child. How my rolling Hungarian “R” I had by imitating the way my mother spoke, had caused me ridicule and shame. Agi Mishol’s clear voice had literally given me words to speak out for my background.

As a grown up, when I could already speak freely about lovers and making love, I fell in love with this third one.

Map of Budapest

Poring over the map of Budapest:

On the left of the blue  

Duna

Is Buda

On the right is Pest.

I ponder how, were it not for

My wanderings from there to Remez, twenty five in Gedera

I would be stretched out there

Now

At Filer thirty, for example

On a hunched evening like this one

Alongside a penultimate cat

Describing lovers with names like

Bela or Janos.


By then, I already knew Budapest, I even happened to know where Filer st is. Can you imagine the joy of fantasy of the “What if…” that we all have about crucial decision-making moments in our lives or in the lives of our parents.

Could I, like she says in the poem, also be that other woman, who grew up in Budapest, who had lovers with funny Hungarian names instead of the Yossis and Danis of my life? I am not sure especially since I do not like cats, but what if…?

The forth poem I want to introduce to you is very different and has nothing to do with our Hungarian background. It has a lot to do with humanism.

TRANSISTOR MUEZZIN
                                                                                                    
The transistor muezzin rises from the orchard—
Hussein barefoot and bound to my land
kneads the evening dough from Jewish flour
too fine, ya Hagi -- I
close my sorting eyes after a day’s harvest,
crouch with him over the fire he kindles.

We plan tomorrow’s peaches
over Europa* and a hand rolled cigarette.
Ya Hagi, his Arab sigh slithers forth
supported by the consonants of my castrated Hungarian name.

In these photosynthesis twilights his hands
run over the tin
casting a spell with pita.
Hussein castles me legends
Gaza’s Thousand and One Nights,
his body a supple viper,
his eyes an answer to the fire.


* Brand name of an Israeli cigarette.

You may need a little bit of help to read this one. Sometimes when I teach it outside of Israel, there are people who do not know what a Muezin is – it is the man who calls the Muslims to prayer five times a day. If there are young people present, they may not know what a transistor radio is, because music for them comes on cellphone apps.

If you have never worked in an orchard it may be hard for you to visualize, this end of workday hour, when the speaking person in the poem, the orchard owner, probably Agi herself, is standing at the entrance to her field. From the other end comes Hussein, who works for her, with her, all day. You cannot see him first, only hear the voice of the muezzin on his transistor radio. You can feel how connected he is to the land by walking it barefoot. Can you also sense the whole Middle East conflict in this short statement about whose land is it?

And then comes this scene of a man and a woman, tired at the end of a working day. She closes her eyes, he makes her pita bread. She watches his hands making magic with the dough. Could she be also thinking about other magic his hands could do?

This intimate moment touches me deeply. I never had an intimate moment with an Arab man. I will probably never have one anymore, being over seventy. In the complexities of our country and society, it is so rare to find works of art that see and show the “other” as just a human being; a man, with a name, who can make wonderful pita even when he complains about the flower quality. A woman who knows all there is to know about the Israeli Palestinian, conflict and can enjoy this lovely hour of bread and fantasy at the same time.

Do not trust my choices, go ahead and read Agi Mishol’s poems on your own. Enjoy.

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