Tuvia Ruebner was born in Slovakia in 1924 to a German speaking Jewish family. A stellar student at the German gymnasium he attended, he was forced to stop his studies in the ninth grade due to the race-laws enacted in those years. In 1941, at the age of 17, he and eight friends left their families to set out for Palestine; although 72 years have passed since that leave-taking, Ruebner says that “that farewell still weighs on my bones.” Indeed, he was never to see his family again; though the necessary bribes were paid for their passage out of Slovakia, his parents, little sister and other family members were all killed in Auschwitz in 1942.
In Palestine, Ruebner worked on several kibbutzim (collective settlements), finally settling on Kibbutz Merhavia in the Jezereel Valley, where he lives until today. After years as a high school literature teacher and kibbutz librarian, Ruebner began an academic career that quickly flourished. He was eventually appointed a professor of comparative literature at Haifa University, where he continued his teaching, research and writing until his retirement.
Ruebner’s first poems were written in German, in an effort to continue the dialog with his dead parents and the lost world of pre-Holocaust Europe; however, in 1953 he began writing in Hebrew and has continued composing in that language until today. Ruebner published his first poetry collection in 1957 and has since published 14 more collections. His poetry has received every major award in Israel, including the Prime Minister’s Prize twice and the prestigious Israel Prize. In Europe, his poetry and translations have received extensive acknowledgment and many awards. In addition to his poetry collections, Ruebner has edited numerous poetry volumes (most notably the collected poems of pre-eminent Hebrew poet Lea Goldberg, 1911-1970), written many critical works, translated extensively from and into German, and published a moving autobiography (entitled A Long Short Life) in Hebrew and German both. His poetry has been translated into numerous different languages.
On January 30th 2013 – 80 years after the rise of Hitler – Tuvia Ruebner marked his 89th birthday. His 15th poetry collection, entitled Last Ones, was published one month later.
All the translations here are from As Long As: Selected Poems of Tuvia Ruebner, translated by Rachel Tzvia Back (forthcoming).
Tel- Aviv, a colorful city, is very white.
She changes all the time, staying always what she is.
Tel-Aviv is a clean, dirty city.
It depends on who’s looking.
Tel-Aviv is almost New York.
The sea in heat licks at her thighs and her heart
People here belong to no one.
Not even to themselves.
Tel-Aviv is a city of boxes and shutters.
There are theatres in Tel-Aviv, the opera, the philharmonic,
museums and Jaffa.
They say that the pimps want to sell Jaffa
but Jaffa, Belle of the Sea (wrote Agnon) existed
a long time before Tel-Aviv. A long, long time.
Even Andromeda knew Jaffa’s port,
bound there on her rock until Perseus came
and freed her. No Perseus
will come and redeem Tel-Aviv now.
Too many critics threaten
her streets, sleeping with women in her sweat-drenched
rooms. A poet wrote that
the love of women is between their legs.
That’s how it is in Tel-Aviv.
Who hears whom in all this noise?
Five minutes of rain and Tel-Aviv floods.
Old people who want to cross the street
have to wear the bottoms of their trousers rolled. Old people
hear the mermaids singing not for them in Tel-Aviv.
Losers sit motionless in fancy, peeling houses
staring at the ceiling until dawn.
Are there angels in Tel-Aviv?
Horrible things happened in Tel-Aviv.
Horrible things happen in Tel-Aviv.
Who ever imagined it would be this way?
Is Tel-Aviv really Tel-Aviv?
Who invented Tel-Aviv in any case?
But now green has been created
and it is good, it is good.
A wagtail in its grey coat and yellow vest
nods its own tail in agreement
as the prancing bird on picket posts
has returned and will return yet again.
Two lizards are here-and-gone
sun glimmer, fugitive bliss –
May he be blessed
for his creations’ glory.
Now the pecan tree sheds its leaves
green-verses punctuating the air
and mischievous clouds seduce
the soul of a stunned blue
and a poem brings back, also in its brokenness,
a heart to a heart, and to what is not.
On the Road to Tivon
(after a painting by Nili Shachor)
It’s magical, listen, it’s magic!
Not day not night.
Cypress trees, three
are tears that have darkened
the ruin that has become
fears become green pastures
a touch of something purple
here and there
purple skies, pools of light
the birds have folded away their voices
the landscape beyond has been gathered up
by the wind.
Is this Tivon?
Have we arrived?
Are you with me?
Are you still with me?
With Day Breaking
With day breaking in sun-light over the hills
and Gilboa mountain rising from morning mists as if it were the Anapurna
and the valley revealing itself all at once in its full spring beauty
and me sitting here and listening to the chaconne from Bach’s second partita
and gate after gate is opening with no guard worse than his predecessor at the
slowly I shed all evil will and human cruelties
and a kind of compassion takes their place, compassion for all that exists
and I wanted to say: also for what doesn’t, for we are all condemned.
Suddenly, the color of the hibiscus flower this year is a Red
I’ve never seen before.
Oh, all the lands I’ve seen from west to east
the little squares sweet with their secrets, the silent corners
never revealing who is on the other side, the bridges, small and large alike
and the waters flowing as slowly as eternity, as fast as in a game of hide-and-seek
or streaming torrential from the distant mountains, the Himilayas or Tartras.
And then there were the wars that quieted themselves entirely
in honor of this song which is a song of thanks
thanks that my love was answered with love and I wasn’t left alone in my old age
thanks for the great grandchild who carries my name which is my grandfather’s
thanks that not every face passing by has staring eyes
thanks for that and thanks I am still able to say all this.
I don’t want to say good-bye. Welcome to all
who come after me.
Passover Eve, April 2012
Notes to the poems:
A Postcard from Tel-Aviv
Line 14: Hebrew writer S.Y. Agnon wrote the following of Jaffa, the ancient port city abutting on modern-day Tel-Aviv: “Jaffa, belle of the seas, ancient city. Japheth, son of Noah, built it and gave her his name. But of all the Greek beauty of Japheth, all that remains is what human beings can’t remove from her…” (translated by Barbara Harshav).
Lines 16-19: Legend has it that an outcropping of rocks near the port of Jaffa is where Greek Andromeda was chained (as punishment for her mother’s boasting of her daughter’s great beauty). The Medusa-slaying Perseus rescued and wed her.
Lines 27-29: Ruebner is alluding to T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, “I grow old…I grow old… / I shall wear the bottom of my trousers rolled” and “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. // I do not think that they will to me.”
Line 2: “and it is good” – Cf. the Creation story, Genesis1:1-31. The phrase “and God saw that it is good” – ki tov – is repeated six times during the creation week.
Translations of Tuvia Ruebner’s poems on this post: © Rachel Tzvia Back
Published with the permission of Rachel Tzvia Back