70 Hungarian postcards to the 70-year-old Israel

Avigdor Hameiri

(Ódávidháza, September 5, 1890 – Tel-Aviv, April 3, 1970)

By Zsuzsa Shiri - 2018-04-12

Translated from the Hungarian original: Bea Sara Goll

In the ancient New Homeland, literary writing in Hebrew was a tough challenge for at least the first generation, since this was not their mother tongue, and at that time it was not commonplace either, to spend time on the "luxury" of art instead of constructing roads, creating kibbutzim and founding a new State. But rendering Hebrew a living language, building an intellectual environment was at least as important to the creation of a new, shared home, Israel, as the roof overhead. Avigdor Hameiri, alias Avigdor Feuerstein, one of the first significant authors of Hebrew literature, has secured his place, not only among the 70 influential Hungarians, but also in the halls of the creators of Israeli culture.

 

He dropped from the Transcarpathian Hasidic region into the bustling coffee-house world of the turn-of-the-century Budapest, thereby into the highest standard, cutting-edge cultural world, into the circles of the Nyugat [Western] journal and Endre Ady. After the yesivah, he studied in the Rabbinical Seminary of Pest and somewhere along the move he became a Zionist, and while reporting to his paper from the New York coffee-house, he turned to the Hebrew language.

 

His first Hebrew poem was published in 1909, and his first volume of Hebrew poetry in 1912 in Budapest. But at that time, almost all Hungarian Jews around him tried to be more Hungarian than the members of small nobility with an ancestry back to Töhötöm, and so they did not pay attention to his efforts and he did not have a readership. Thus he sent his poems to Russian and Polish Jewish literary circles writing in Hebrew, where his work was published and appreciated the more enthusiastically.

 

He was among the first to enlist in the k. u. k. army, where, after two years on the Galician front, he landed in a Russian prison. In 1917 the Russian Revolution broke out, his captivity ended, and he began to wander through the Russian-Ukrainian steppe, first going to Kiev and then to Odessa. There he joined a Jewish creative community working in Hebrew, and together they moved to the then Palestinian Mandate in 1921, where he soon changed his name to Avigdor Hameiri.

 

He settled down in Tel-Aviv, and although there were hardly any modern Hebrew words, he wrote expressionist poetry and, of course, newspaper articles, to make a living. Later, he also founded his own journals Lev Hadas (New Heart) and Hamahar (The Tomorrow), where, in the journalist's eternal role, he steadfastly criticized all the vicissitudes of his era. The greatest literary echo of his work was achieved by his first novel in Hebrew about the World War, The Great Madness (Hashigaon Hagadol) in 1929.

 

Meanwhile, as a versatile artist, already two years earlier, in 1927, he had also opened the first satirical theater in Israel to transplant the advanced bourgeois tradition of the Hungarian cabaret into his new home. In the HaKumkum theater, named after the water kettle, he wrote everything: cabaret scenes and songs, skits and jokes. Kumkum also included Eliezer Donat and four actors from Pest, and the set, the playbill and the posters were made by Pessah Irsaj (István Irsai) in the Cubist style of the 1920s.

 

The first premiere took place after a four-month rehearsal period in Tel-Aviv at the Sulamit Music School's main hall, in front of, according to some people, only 50-60, according to others a crowd of 160 people. In Kumkum, everything was very European by Tel-Aviv's standards at that time: men in tuxedos, elegant women, and Eliezer Donát hosting in a bow tie. They made fun of everything and everyone according to the most sacred traditions of the genre, but with their first show they did not have much success. This genre was still unknown in Tel-Aviv, and at first the audience did not understand their humor. But soon they became more popular and found a permanent home in the grand hall of Beit Haam, and they even went on tour to Jerusalem. The first program was presented twenty times, which at that time counted as a great success; for most of the Hebrew audience of only a hundred and forty thousand of the yishuv [Jews living in the territory of the Palestine Mandate], were barely able to understand their ancestors’ language and could not attend the theater in Hebrew.

 

Kumkum has put together eight more productions during less than two years, which suggests an extremely intensive work pace. New actors and authors joined, but Avigdor Hameiri continued to be responsible for most of the scripts.

 

In addition to his own writings, he has left a significant life-work as a translator. Thanks to him, the greatest of the Nyugat, Ady, Karinthy, Babits and Kosztolányi have become known in Hebrew, but beside them Hungarian classics, Jókai, Petőfi, Arany, were also introduced into the pantheon of poetry in Hebrew, and his translation of the Ember tragédiája [The tragedy of Man] by Madách was particularly successful : it was first published in Hebrew in Warsaw, 1924.

 

Two years after his death, in 1968 he was rewarded with the highest recognition of the country, the Israeli Prize, but by now his life work has been largely and undeservedly neglected in Israel.

Title photo: Avigdor Hameiri in May 1936 - photo: Zoltán Kluger

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