Nathan the Wise

By Tsur Ehrlich

Natan Alterman, poet of Zionism, offered a bold new vision of Jewish national identity.

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t is often said of Walt Whitman that all American poetry may be divided into two camps: That which flows from him, and that which strives to reject him. The same may be said of Natan Alterman, Israel’s revered national poet. Whether through emulation or subversion, allusion or parody, rare is the writer of modern Hebrew verse who has not struggled with the legacy of Alterman in some way. Rarer still is the Jewish Israeli who has not at some point encountered Alterman’s work—his lyrical, political, or nationalist poetry; his popular songs and theatrical sketches; or even his children’s verse—and felt that it touched him on some level. Thus may Alterman claim victory on two fronts: Recognized by the Israeli literary community as one of the country’s two or three most important poets, he is also the nation’s most popular.1
There are several reasons for this double achievement. First among them, of course, is the quality of Alterman’s work: Its style, content, and beauty, and its ability to arouse the senses, stir the imagination, and touch both one’s emotions and intellect. Another reason is the varied modes of writing he employed to speak to different audiences—sophisticated readers of modern poetry, readers of newspapers, and consumers of popular culture. Many readers, for example, arrived at Alterman’s more literary verse by way of their acquaintance with the poems he published in the newspaper Haaretz, and later, in his famous weekly column for the newspaper Davar—poems that, in the 1940s and 1950s, were known to capture the mood of the public, and sometimes even to help shape it.2 Moreover, in even his most complex and cryptic canonical work, he managed to retain a light, entertaining, and facetious tone that creates the illusion of comprehensibility.
To these two pillars of Alterman’s success—his poetry’s quality, and its appeal to a variety of audiences—may yet be added a third: His nationalist sentiment. For in many ways, Alterman’s appeal to Israelis derives, perhaps unconsciously, from the centrality of the role of the nation—in particular the Jewish nation—in his poetry and thought.
Alterman’s nationalism, like most other aspects of his craft, is multifaceted and many-layered. It manifests itself, inter alia, in his poetry’s veneration of authentic popular culture; its overt affection for Sephardi Jews and Jews of other, non-Israeli cultures; its staunch opposition to the obliteration of diverse cultural traditions in a national “melting pot”; and, above all, in its identification with the Jewish collective, its use of Jewish values as political guides, and its tendency to judge current affairs within the context of Jewish history. In fact, it was this context to which Alterman referred repeatedly in articulating a vision for the new state, a vision that included its ethnic and political character, its relationship to diaspora Jewry and Israeli Arabs, its immigration policy, and, toward the end of his life, the idea of Greater Israel.
Today, more than three decades after Alterman’s death in 1970, his poetry still reflects a rich ideological rubric with enduring relevance to the public life of the Jewish state. This rubric may be distilled into four distinct yet interconnected themes: First, a preference for enduring moral values and cultural continuity over revolutionary fervor and the desire to overthrow world orders; second, a profound appreciation for Judaism’s religious legacy, and the belief that secular Jews can and should view Judaism as their cultural heritage; third, a historical approach that sees the Jewish national collective as the subject of an unbroken and ongoing narrative; and fourth, the complete identification of the State of Israel with the Jewish people. Taken together, these themes amount to a worldview that is Zionist, secular, and conservative—a combination that is rarely, if ever, seen in today’s intellectual debates in Israel. Yet the worldview of this poet, known as “Nathan the Wise” by his contemporaries,3 holds out promise for a stronger and more unified Jewish nation than any of the ideological alternatives that dominate Israeli discourse today.

Tsur Ehrlich is a staff writer for the Hebrew weekly Makor Rishon.

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