Kas buvo tai nebus

In the last couple of years i fell in love with Israeli literature, especially poetry – from Y. L. Gordon, H. N. Bialik and S. Chernihovski, through N. Alterman and J. Amihay all the way to the present days’ M. Arad and D. Manor. Because of this – among some other things – i decided to study for a minor degree in Hebrew and not in Chinese.

In school i learned about Israel’s poetry like this: There was a literature teacher. We started to study Bialik. She said: “There are common meters – amphibrach, anapaest, iambus, dactyl, and so on, and according to the program you are supposed to study them now, but it is hard for you, and i am not in the mood, so we won’t do it.” She hardly even mentioned Chernihovsky, Shlonsky, Alterman and Avidan – they are, according to her, also “hard, and you can do fine without them”. And so i received the reasonable 75 grade in the matriculation exam in literature in an Israeli high school, but in fact hardly studied any Hebrew literature at all, and for nearly ten years after the school didn’t read a single Israeli book, and not much foreign ones, either.

So now i am replenishing this. At the university i was quickly taught the basics of poetic meters and devices, and suddenly realized what a terrible crime that teacher committed. Without understanding these mostly simple rules it is very hard to read poetry. And he who learns them a little, becomes more educated and opens for himself a new exciting world.

The complete collected works of David Avidan are being released these days. I saw the book in the shop and thought – to buy or not buy? Previously, Avidan seemed very hard for me. I looked through a few pages and understood – now i’ll be able to enjoy it. I looked at the table of contents and all of a sudden saw a title of a poem in Latin letters, and not in English – “Kas buvo tai nebus”. It seemed familiar, i thought that it was Latin, but no, obviously not Latin. And after a moment i realized that it was in Lithuanian: “What was, shall not be”. Here is an attempt in translation:

Two Lithuanians, remembering their mother tongue
Less than they remember
Their mother, meet in a cool evening
In an open coffee house and begin
Remembering. How does one say
The past in Lithuanian? Really, how does one say
The past in Lithuanian? Very awkward, indeed
Very uncomfortable. Maybe there is
Someone here in this nice environment, within a radius of a
Kilometer or two who will be able to fix
This depressing linguistic short circuit? But
The time is very late, and all
The Lithuanians, who arentdeadyet are already asleep.

How does one say sleep in Lithuanian?


(The poem may have been already translated into English, maybe even by Avidan himself. As for “arentdeadyet” – Avidan often stuck words together as a literary device.)

I don’t know what prompted Avidan to write such an unusual poem. Lithuanians, as far as i know, preserved their language much better than did most peoples of the USSR. But perhaps he spoke of the Lithuanians in America or in Israel.

But i bought the book, of course.


3 thoughts on “Kas buvo tai nebus

  1. What you described about high school literature is emblematic of Israeli education in many areas – you learn only what you need in order to pass the bagrut. When I was studying Hebrew grammar, about halfway through 10th grade the exact curriculum for the bagrut exam (the mikud) was given, which eliminated pretty much anything we were going to learn for the second half of the year. So I never learned in high school about nikud and open/closed syllables, etc. It’s really a pity that the goal of education has become to pass the tests – not to actually learn the material.

    1. I did my bagrut in Hebrew in 1995 and the teacher told us that studying niqud was canceled altogether a few years before that. Was it restored, but canceled in your miqud? (By the way, he was a very good teacher. Not all Lashon teachers are as good as he is.)

      Niqud is not hard at all. I learned it this year in the university. I don’t know it perfectly yet, but i would with just a little more practice. Not teaching it in schools is a CRIME. And i already started fighting against this crime – see my Hebrew blog.

      Many subjects in Israeli schools are taught very poorly. For many years now the Ministry of Education’s only concern is keeping the teachers’ wages at a level that will get them through the year without a strike – and they fail repeatedly even at that. Nobody gives a fuck about the actual curriculum – sorry about the harsh words, but that’s the sad truth.

      1. Your harsh words are appropriate. The results of not caring about one thing lead to another and another – and then students do things like throw chairs at their teachers, and are not punished. Speaking of which, I recently saw that there was a suggestion by the Council of Cities (my attempt at a translation for ועד השלטון המקומי) to require students to stand when teachers enter the classroom. Good first step, in my opinion.

        Speaking of lashon curriculum – I am not certain that it was niqud that was eliminated, I just assumed that was part of what we were to study. I know there was something about the history/background/development of Hebrew, but like I said – we never got to it, and just jumped into reviewing for the Bagrut. By the way, I know they are few and far between, and I had an excellent teacher, too (with an actual background in linguistics), but the system pushes them to teach to the test. I can only imagine how my fellow students would have reacted had she insisted on teaching the rest of the originally prescribed curriculum.

        Regarding niqud, I’ve done some research online, and my biggest problem is differentiating closed and open syllables. I haven’t gotten to hatafim yet. I will get back to it soon, I hope.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.