Writer Benjamin Shvili is hard to classify. He is, according to scholar Nili Gold, a collage artist, “a Jewish, Israeli postmodernist par excellence, whose poetry – at least in the eyes of its creator – is a medium for his religious and spiritual quest”. This quest goes far beyond the borders of Israel’s state religion, Judaism, and seeks among the world’s great spiritual trends. Shvili, Gold notes, “is far removed from the Israeli religious establishment . . . His unique voice has conquered new territories in Hebrew spirituality with its confessional verse, which merges eroticism and spirituality.”
One clearly sees this combination in the poem ‘God has touched me’, translated by Joseph Dan, a noted scholar of mysticism, who remarks that Shvili’s interest in religious and mystical texts extends to “Christian, Moslem, Hindu and Buddhist” ones as well:
God has touched me with your fingers my beloved
looked at me from your eyes
hummed at me from your throat
wetted my face from your lips and tongue
clung to me from your womb
Shvili’s poetry is at other times incomplete and puzzling, and yet it can also be concerned solely with the everyday, such as the need to make a living (see, for instance, ‘Have pity on me’).
According to novelist and critic Amalia Rosenblum in a review translated for Poetry International, “Shvili wants to be understood. Wants to and doesn’t want to. He builds a secret language, but just before the reader gives up and moves on, he takes it back, gives in and chooses to speak clearly.”
The poet’s grandmother on his mother’s side can be traced to a Sephardic family that lived in Greece for generations and is associated with kabbalistic movements. Shvili was born in Jerusalem in 1954 and lived as a child in a neighborhood on the border with Jordan near the Old City, a physically and spiritually marked location which made a deep impression on him, and about which he writes in in all genres: poetry, fiction, memoir and travel writing. In addition to five books of poetry, for which he has been awarded the Bernstein, Agnon and Prime Minister’s Prize, he is the author of three (at times autobiographical) novels, a book of personal essays tellingly named Library of the Heart, and another about his travels to Poland. He teaches at Alma College, a secular, non-degree granting institution of Jewish Studies in Tel Aviv.
Mishpaha shora (Black Family), Jerusalem, Maraot, 1983
Yeled meheef afifon beh-mea ha-shva-esray (A boy flying a kite in the 17th century), Jerusalem, Ihut, 1988
Shiray gagueem l’mecca (Poems of longing for Mecca), Tel Aviv, Tammuz, 1992
Shiray ha-tie-ar hagadol (Poems of the great traveler), Tel Aviv, Schocken, 1999
Milon hadash shel yesoreem (A new dictionary of suffering), Jerusalem/Tel Aviv, Schocken, 2004
Kastoria, Jerusalem/Tel Aviv, Schocken, 1998
Hayerida min ha tslav (Descent from the cross), Jerusalem/Tel Aviv, Schocken, 2001
Shvil he-halav (The milky way), Jerusalem/Tel Aviv, Schocken, 2005
Po lan ha-lila (Here night sleeps), Jerusalem/Tel Aviv, Schocken, 2002
Sifriat halev (Library of the heart), Or Yehuda, Zmora-Bitan, 2011
On the mystical poetry of Benjamin Shvili: excerpts from Nili Gold’s ‘Merciful Father Abraham’. From Religious Perspectives in Modern Muslim and Jewish Literatures ed. Glenda Abramson and Hilary Kilpatrick, Routledge, 2006.
The Sweet Voice of the Lord: four of Shvili’s mystical poems in English translation. From Joseph Dan’s The Heart and the Fountain, Oxford, 2002.
Travel Writing: ‘What shall I say to the marvelous crocodile?’: Shvili on a journey by sea from Haifa toward Poland
Video of Shvili reading his poetry in Hebrew at The Poetry Place's annual One Square Meter Festival in Jerusalem