After spending days in the inland hills, we come to the flatlands and farmlands south of Tel Aviv to the home of Agi Mishol, one of Israel’s best-known poets. She and her husband run a farm here, growing peaches, persimmons and pomegranates, for sale locally and for export to Europe. As we walk among the peach trees – some have just started to flower – she tells me that from here she could hear bombs going off in Gaza, only about 30 minutes away. It’s so peaceful here that it’s hard to contemplate both the peaches and the chaotic conflict nearby.
For Mishol and most Israelis, of course, this mix is normal – or what passes for normal. (I remember one young woman along the way who said she thinks that only when Israelis are abroad do they notice what kind of a strange reality they live here.) Mishol was born in Hungary in 1947 to parents who survived Auschwitz. She came to Israel as a young girl and says that having to learn a new language, being so conscious of language at such an early age, is one reason she became a poet. Her parents, though, never learned Hebrew and were never able to understand her poetry.
I recite to Mishol the first two lines from “Look There,” a new volume of her poetry translated into English:
“In the beginning were the words.
After that I heard the boom.”
Where did that come from? “Every time something happens like an explosion or suicide bombers,” she says, “when we watch television, somebody, a witness, always says, ‘and then I heard the boom.’ Being a poet, I want to ‘taste’ this sentence. I must put it in a poem.”
As we talk, sitting under a tree in her front yard, one of Mishol’s three large dogs comes over and gnaws on my shoe. We continue the interview until I feel my leg being licked. All dissolve in laughter and the dog is sent indoors. Mishol is unsure that she is expressing herself well enough in English (she is) – the dogs feel no such hesitation.
In the early years, Mishol tells us, a Palestinian family from Gaza worked the farm with her family. She felt close to them, but at a certain point it became too difficult for the Palestinians to come – “very sad.” After that, Mishol and her husband had workers from China helping, then Romania and now workers are here from Thailand. All of this – the farm and its history, the child of Holocaust survivors, the "normal" life balanced against everyday violence – “my personal story, it’s like the story of Israel.”
A few days earlier, in a very different rural setting, we had visited Eliaz Cohen. Cohen is a boyish looking 35, with long hair and a very big and ready laugh. As a poet and editor of a literary journal, he’s part of a group of religious writers and artists emerging as an increasingly stronger presence in Israel’s cultural life.
Cohen, his wife and four children live in Kfar Etzion, a settlement that lies very much in the heart of territory that is variously described as either “occupied” or “disputed” – we are south of Jerusalem, near Hebron. The increasing number and size of settlements throughout the West Bank has been one of the most important and controversial aspects of the conflict here for many years. Cohen uses the ancient terms, Judea and Samaria. He rejoices in walking lands that Abraham walked and being part of a renaissance of the Hebrew language. This settlement, he says, was actually founded in the 1940s and then left outside the 1948 borders of the new state of Israel. Following 1967, many of the children of the original settlers came back and, Cohen says, “We had a reestablishment of justice here…This is the very source, the fount of Jewish history.”
At the same time, Cohen seems to delight in playing with any preconceptions we might have of a young religious poet. (“I write about how I feel about the land and there are really erotic feelings here.”) He tells me how he got in trouble with some Orthodox rabbis for some of his poetry. He gives a big laugh when I ask about the "role of poetry" in Israel today, saying this is too "grandiose." But later he agrees that after the shock of the Intifada, he began to write poems that spoke to a lot of people, “the people who didn’t have words to express their distress to talk about their feelings about the people who were dying.”
Cohen takes us for a long walk around the kibbutz and we visit his young daughter at the community kindergarten. We climb to the roof of a building and he points out a Palestinian village across the valley and speaks hopefully of finding a renewed “brotherhood with Ishmael.” A few days later, I wake to read the news that a settler from Kfar Etzion has been found dead. Police reports say he was stabbed by Palestinian militants (from the village Cohen had shown us) while taking a walk in the hills. That night, Cohen sends me an e-mail: “After his death, his last journey in these hills, I thought a lot of my dreams of renewal of the lost brotherhood … In such moments it seems to be far away, but I still feel that it is possible. After all, what choice have we?”
A final note: Journalism, and television journalism in particular, is a group effort. My hardworking and delightful colleagues on this trip have been producer Mary Jo Brooks, cameraman Jim van Vranken and soundman Kevin Sanchez. In Washington, Mike Melia was a big part of the early thinking about this project and then helped with much of the reporting and planning. Sandi Fox, as always, provided quick and thorough research. My thanks to all.