The celebrated poet Erez Biton cradles memories of sight: the vividness of the color blue, two golden-haired girls leading a cow down the street, and the city of Lod, sparsely inhabited, in the early morning light, draped in snow.
The visual world, in his mind, is a paradise lost, “a treasure” that he can no longer unlock.
And yet, deprived of his sight at age 10, this outsider — a blind man among the seeing, an Algerian-born poet in a country practically forged by the verse of Ashkenazi wordsmiths — has risen to the summit of the Israeli literary world.
Biton, who said during a recent interview that were he not blind he would probably be working at Ben-Gurion International Airport tossing luggage onto conveyor belts like so many of his peers in nearby Lod, was awarded the Yehuda Amichai poetry prize earlier this year and, on Sunday, the Bialik Prize’s lifetime achievement award.
A longtime editor of the poetry journal Apirion, and a social worker who once said he never confused writing poetry with making a living, he sat down with The Times of Israel recently and discussed the art of writing verse in the absolute dark. He also described his journey: from a “wild child” in Lod to a man who, as he wrote in a recent poem, asks his son to learn “to play on the edges of my eyes” without the fear “of a cavernous gloom. And I, in exchange / Will teach you to walk with the dark / As with friends / And you will not be sorry / My son.”
Erez Biton was born “along the coast of the seas,” he said, with the name Ya’ish, meaning Chaim, or life. That was in 1942. His parents, both Moroccan Jews, had emigrated from small towns on the edge of the Sahara to the big city of Oran, in Algeria, where Albert Camus set his great novel “The Stranger.” In 1948 or 1949 – family history and the official documentation clash – he arrived, age 6, in Israel.
The family lived for a year in the immigrant camp built alongside the town of Ra’anana and then moved to Lod, which had been emptied of its Arab inhabitants during the War of Independence. His father, whom he described in one poem as a man who welcomed the Sabbath with pure arak and as the most versed in the laws of the synagogue, was forced, in the land of the Jews, into manual labor. He worked on the railway and in the salt mines. “He was very bitter, tired, engaged in a daily struggle to survive,” Biton said.
He and his siblings, though, were elated. They played in the orchards and the fields. They snuck into the movie theater and, though they felt the sadness of the vacant Arab houses, avidly searched for treasures that their erstwhile residents had allegedly buried in the earth. Although he was enrolled in an ultra-Orthodox school, Biton remembers his childhood as barefoot and carefree.
On a Friday afternoon in 1953, during the Sukkoth holiday, he found an object on the ground. He doesn’t remember what it looked like, or perhaps doesn’t want to. It likely had been planted or left behind by Arab infiltrators from Beit Nabala, he said. At the time, though, it snared his curiosity. He tried to open it. His friend, impatient and thirsty, went off to get a drink of water. Biton, 10, got a hammer, struck it, and it exploded, ripping off his left arm, scarring his face, and leaving him blind.
Suddenly, he was alone. Once a social child, always surrounded by friends and often outdoors, he was confined to his room, to the perpetual dark, with scant companionship, his curiosity guillotined by his blindness.
Luckily, his parents heard about the Jewish Institute for the Blind in Jerusalem, which, he said, “in essence saved my life.”
The experience, in both his re-telling and in verse, was bittersweet. The teachers changed his name from the Arabic Ya’ish to the Hebrew Erez, meaning cedar, an uncommon name at the time. They introduced him to Bach and Beethoven and gave him what he called a haskala, meaning both education and enlightenment, but also cut him off from the food and language of his youth.
In “Families at the Jerusalem School for the Blind,” he wrote about children brushing up against one another “under the guise of jostling” but actually in search of bodily warmth; “And I’d call out to a certain girl: ‘Sister, my sister Rachel’ / And to a boy: ‘Brother, my brother Yossi’ / And so we put together families of make-believe / And we are children / At the Jerusalem School for the Blind.”
In another poem he wrote: “The child would sit in corners / Gathering with his remaining sight / Last rays of light / To turn them into suns / In a time yet to come // At the School for the Blind / The child with the runny nose / Would collect / Echoes of sounds / To turn them into symphonies of love.” [Translation of these verses and all that follow by Tsipi Keller]
He wrote his first poems at age 13 on a Hermes 2000 typewriter, listening to the sound of the type bars smacking the page and imagining the black and white architecture of his verse. They were all about love, “written bashfully” and not shown or read to anyone.
Several years later, though, still feeling “an immense internal urge” to write, he showed a collection of poems to the piano teacher at the school, Elisheva Kaplan, who had quit playing piano in order to translate for the students as many books as possible into Braille. She brought the poems to Professor Shimon Halkin, the longtime head of the Literature Department at Hebrew University and the Hebrew translator of Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” “and he crowned me a poet,” Biton said.
For years, while working as a social worker and as the head of the Israeli Terror Victims Association, he zeroed in on the ethnic divide among Jews in Israel and the sidelining of Sephardic culture.
“I felt that the Moroccan part, the Algerian, the Mizrahi part [of me], was defective, superfluous… irrelevant, anachronistic, and I tried all of the time to distance myself from it,” he said, “but you cannot distance yourself from it, from elements that you were raised with: food, music, names, memories of neighbors.”
He decided that he would investigate that side of himself, because “only then will I be able to feel myself to be more whole.”
His first two books of poetry, released in 1976 and 1979, were a radical departure from the norm. In his debut collection, “Minha Marokayit” [Moroccan Offering], he wrote of shopping on Dizengoff Street in central Tel Aviv, of the polite, fashionable Hebrew necessary there, how it is unsheathed upon demand, and of his return, toward darkness, to the periphery, and “to the other Hebrew.” He wrote of Moroccan weddings and of winter mornings “against broken blinds”; he spiced his poetry with his mother tongue, Arabic, and wrote often of Jews and Arabs living their lives together in Morocco.
The most evocative and jolting poem for its time was called “Zohra El Fassia” – the tale of a Jewish Moroccan singer about whom “It is said that when she sang / Soldiers drew knives / To push through the crowds / And touch the hem of her dress / Kiss her fingertips / Express their thanks with a rial coin.”
Biton met her when he was a social worker in Ashkelon, happening upon her in the Atikot Gimmel slum of the city, and his depiction of her home and her predicament – “Near the welfare office / The odor of leftover sardine tins / On a wobbly three-legged table / Splendid kingly rugs stacked on a Jewish Agency bed / And she, clad in a fading housecoat / Lingers for hours before the mirror / Wearing cheap makeup / Saying: ‘Muhammad the Fifth, apple of our eyes’ / And we do not understand what she means.” – captured a sentiment about the losses of Sephardic Jewry that was not yet acceptable in mainstream Israeli society.
He became, as Yale University’s Hannan Hever wrote in a recent collection about his work, “the founding father” of Sephardic poetry in Israel.
In 2013, he released a new collection, “Nofim Havushei Einayim,” which can be translated as blindfolded, or eye-bandaged, landscapes – a collection revolving around blindness.
He was in his youth, he said, “a child of the light,” the sort of child whose pupils are assaulted by the different colors, clamoring to enter his field of vision. Today he is, to a certain extent, like the man in the more recent “The Poem of the Cane”: “When the children cross the road with me / I tell them / I’m a gentle man / The cane in my hand / Is not made to strike / And when they leave me / Down the winding street / Only I remain / A child afraid of the cane.”
That transformation — from Ya’ish to Erez, from the seeing boy who would perhaps have gone to work as an airport cargo loader to the vulnerable blind man prized for the warmth and insight of his verse — was an exploration that, he thought, would be “very esoteric – who could identify with that?”
But “like with the Moroccan-ness, as soon as I started writing about it, it was easier on my soul. I felt more whole,” he said, “less embarrassed of myself in the world.”
And the local world of letters, in turn, has embraced him. “As a writer, I used to think that the literary hegemony did not adequately acknowledge my contribution, my unique style, my poetic achievements,” he said. “Now I feel more accepted, more belonging, no longer skipped over.”