Poet Erez Biton first Sephardi to win top Israeli literary award

Blind, Algerian-born wordsmith to take home prestigious Israel Prize, amid spike in ethnic strife surrounding election

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Erez Biton, a celebrated Israeli poet, at the Sharon Hotel in Herzliya on November 19, 2014 (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/Times of Israel)
Erez Biton, a celebrated Israeli poet, at the Sharon Hotel in Herzliya on November 19, 2014 (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/Times of Israel)

For the first time in the history of the state, the Israel Prize for Poetry and Literature has been bestowed upon a Jew of Sephardic origin, the trail-breaking poet Erez Biton, who said Monday, a day after the announcement was made public, that he represents Hebrew poetry and not the Jews of the east.

The jury, headed by Professor Avner Holzman, called his five collections of poems “an exemplary, brave, sensitive and deep grappling with the wide range of personal and collective experiences, revolving around the pain of immigration, the travails of rooting oneself in Israel, and the establishment of eastern identity as an inseparable part of the full Israeli profile.”

The announcement came weeks after that same Israeli profile was torn along the ethnic seam line that, at times, appears to divide Israel and, at other times, seems to have dissolved into the fabric of society here.

In advance of the March 17 national elections, Yair Garbuz, a painter and former kibbutznik from the heart of the left-wing intelligentsia, castigated, at a pro-Left rally, “the kissers of charms, the worshippers of idols, those that bow [before], and prostrate themselves [upon], the graves of the holy.”

Speaking in central Tel Aviv, and wondering how it was that “this minority managed to rule us,” he also included in that list, creating a sort of equivalence, “the destroyers of democracy,” the “rapists,” and “the sexual harassers.”

It was clear to all who heard the speech that “the kissers of charms” referred to Israelis of Sephardic origin, a majority of whom cast their votes right of center. MK Ofir Akunis of the Likud Party said it “revealed the true face of the Israeli left: the condescension, the belittling of the other, the negation of any opinion” that does not fall in line with its own.

There was a time when Biton, a native of Algeria who was blinded in his youth, felt similarly. “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 told the Times of Israel in a December profile, “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.

More recently, in the 2013 collection entitled “Eye-Bandaged Landscapes,” he explored the inner, emotional landscape of his blindness.

Although he felt the work was esoteric, the result has been dramatic. “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.”

Adi Keisar, an Israeli poet and founder of the poetry group Ars Poetica, told Army Radio on Monday that the crowning of Biton with the Israel Prize is the “opening note,” enabling the entry of other populations into the heart of the literary establishment. “It’s not Erez Biton who won the Israel Prize,” she said, “so much as it’s Israel that won Erez Biton.”

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