“When I was 16 a neighbor made a remark that stung me,” Yonatan Berg told poet and Haaretz editor Eli Eliahu in 2012, when Hard Sails, his first volume of poetry, appeared. The neighbor “said, ‘You should know that the Israelis who come to the settlement Psagot … also see a refugee camp in front of their eyes.’ Suddenly I began to understand the tension between our lives here and the Palestinian population and I began to say what I thought about it”.
Berg remembers a happy childhood, “free, barefoot, innocent. When I got to the army, I saw how the system that allowed me to have such a childhood was an unfair one that created hardship and suffering for other people”.
The poet’s father emigrated from the former Soviet Union at the end of the 1970s. “He’s essentially an immigrant and that means his experience was complicated. He also became religiously observant although he wasn’t a product of the [Jewish] Orthodox establishment. My mother, in contrast, is clearly the product of the national religious stream [of Judaism]; her parents were among the founders of Sadeh Yakov [a cooperative farm community in the Jezreel Valley]. The marriage was based more on convenience than love. My father came here with two children from his first marriage. My mother was a single woman of 30, a socially and emotionally uncomfortable position in her observant community. It wasn’t a happy union. They divorced [in 2004]. She remained in Psagot and he moved to Maaleh Adumim".
My father is the fossil of a lost homeland.
My mother speaks of redemption,
a triad: nation, land, Torah,
all before the son. [from Hard Sails]
ELIAHU: Is that really how you felt? That the obligation to ideology came before parenting?
“Yes. It’s a very ideological society, the sanctity of the land, a Greater Israel. When you live in a closed community, and for sure in a settlement, ideological tension is high. Ideological noise is a blanket over the daily, human, personal dimension. I am not blaming my parents for anything, but it is impossible to ignore what goes on there, the sense of having a mission, the urgency, which conceals private life. Any ideology that becomes that total smothers existence itself, smothers the individual”.
[At the time of the interview], Berg had lived for six years in Tel Aviv and, in contrast to his family, had stopped observing Orthodox Jewish customs. “Until as a teen you enter a religious high school, religion seems more like folklore. I remember that [as a child] on the Sabbath we read psalms and then received a chocolate marshmallow cookie. These were pleasant experiences. Later I was sent to Nativ Meir, the flagship school of the national religious movement. There I began to feel the tension between myself and the strict, regimented system. At the same time, I began to be moved by curiosity, by language, [I was] searching. It’s the kind of moment when you [test] language and also wander in the external sense, to see the life beyond a religious framework. Apparently this is an individual matter, of character. Either it erupts or not”.
ELIAHU: And these impulses were not well received?
“The religious system has no place for this [kind of searching]. It threatens the mechanism, which is concerned about [losing] the rest of its followers, and attempts to destroy it. And as soon as the system opposes something, one begins to wonder about that system’s very foundations. I remember that before this I had entered into an intensive process, ethical and spiritual, in particular with the [18th century] text, Mesillat Yesharim [by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto], as if to give [religion] a last chance, to see if it could suit me. For a short time I became a very strictly religious young man. [Reciting] psalms, dancing after prayers, and then I finally realized that it did not. That it didn’t suit my nature. I can’t make do with only one kind of soul searching. There is something basically diverse about my soul. And I felt that I had suddenly given up inside [on this type of Judaism]”.
ELIAHU: And poetry replaced religion?
“I don’t know. I can’t avoid seeing poetry as a kind of spiritual search. Whoever divorces poetry from its religious aspect doesn’t really understand poetry and does it a disservice. Poetry is always a part of religious ritual. It embodies and expresses religious enthusiasm”.
ELIAHU: How were you exposed to poetry?
“Until I was 25, poetry was something very personal to me, private. I wasn’t familiar with the poetry world, or poetry journals and all that. I had read Pinchas Sadeh, Abraham Halfi. But all that surrounded poetry was still completely foreign to me. When I look at the notebooks I wrote then, I discover an abstract, hermetically sealed poetry, a holistic kind of attempt to decode what is called divine, spirit, the things beyond”.
Berg was expelled from his religious high school at the age of 16, after a series of disciplinary infractions. “I ran away to watch a soccer game by Israel’s national team, for example, and didn’t get up in time for prayers,” he explains. “I then arrived at a central religious institution meant to care for those who had dropped out of system’s schools. You can imagine what happens when so many young men, at the height of their development, curiosity and daring, are concentrated in one building. Of course I encountered young women, drugs, [and the beaches of] Sinai and the Sea of Galilee”.
All of these experiences, along with some from the army, may be found in Berg’s first book of poetry. “Whoever doesn’t see the thousands of men with various degrees of emotional distress due to army service wandering around Israel is simply closing his eyes,” Berg says. “Even though there is a necessity for security, the emotional cost is horrifying”.
Berg served in the army from 2000-2003, participating in the Israeli military operation in the West Bank known as “Operation Defensive Shield” in 2002. Two friends in his unit were killed in a battle in Hebron, about which Berg wrote AFTER A NIGHT IN THE ALLEY OF WORSHIPPERS.
“Hebron was significant for me,” Berg says. “First of all encountering the extremist side of [Jewish] religious nationalism, the [Israeli] settlers in Hebron. They shed light on Psagot, which is apparently calmer, saner. The settlers in Hebron are completely unable to see the Palestinians humanely. They are blind. They are so brainwashed by their sense of history that they are unable even to negotiate among themselves. This led me to understand where this ideology could lead”.