An Eretz Yisrael Jew

by Barry Davis

There’s an old adage that suggests that you can take a person out of a place but you can’t take the place out of the person. That certainly rings true for 83-year-old Hanoch Bartov, who will receive the Israel Prize for Literature on Independence Day.

“Everything I write, all my creative work, comes from Petah Tikva,” says Bartov when we meet in his Ramat Aviv apartment. “It all comes from where I grew up, in a very different Petah Tikva than today’s.”

Part of that Petah Tikva was the Sapir Library he frequented, on the corner of Hovevei Zion and Montefiore streets, which opened up a world of imagery, landscapes and colors to which Bartov the boy had no physical access. “In those days we didn’t go anywhere ourselves. No one got up and just hopped over to New York for the weekend. My windows onto the rest of the world were the cinema – mostly westerns – and books in the library. I remember when the first talkies got here. The poster of the talkie said: ‘Talks and sings 100%’ with the percentage sign.”

While it may sound like Bartov had something of a deprived upbringing, he begs to differ. “I was in the British Army in World War II, and one day in the fall of ’44, when I was in Italy, it started pouring. I couldn’t believe it was raining so heavily at that time of the year. That never happened in Petah Tikva. We didn’t know about the world around us, but that had its advantages; it allowed us – the Jews who lived in Palestine between the world wars – to develop our own identity. I never identified with the Canaanite approach [which believed in a deep-rooted presence of a Hebraic civilization in the Middle East], but I was an Eretz Yisrael Jew who knew very little, other than what I read in books, and I read everything I could lay my hands on.”

That combination of books and silver screen evidently did the job. The young Bartov eventually blossomed into a journalist – by way of several years of manual labor on kibbutz and as a diamond polisher – and ultimately an acclaimed author, producing such well-received tomes as The Brigade (Pitzei Bagrut) written in 1965, The Dissembler (Habadai) from 1975 and the saga-like Hand in Hand, Locked for Life (Mitom Ad Tom) written in 2003.

CONSIDERING HIS illustrious résumé, it is surprising to hear that Bartov’s literary career began by way of jest, in an effort to offload an annoying colleague. “It was at the end of the war and we were stuck in Belgium with very little to do. There was one guy who wrote obsessively, and read his stories to us, and it got on my nerves. One day I said to him that I was going to write a story and that if it was published, he would have to stop writing. He laughed at me and agreed.”

The trick worked. The 19-year-old Bartov rattled off a short story in double-quick time and sent it to the Israel Radio publication Hagalgal. “It was about some emotional turmoil I had gone through – I called it “Tzel He’avar” (“Shadow of the Past”). It was about how I met a former girlfriend in the street in Antwerp. Of course that didn’t really happen, but that motif stayed with me throughout my career, up to Mitom Ad Tom – that imagery.” The story was run by Hagalgal and the obsessive writer kept his side of the bargain.

Bartov also learned to improvise during his stint with the British Army. “I liked [jazz trumpeter and band leader] Harry James but we didn’t have powerful radios and sound systems to allow everyone to hear the music. We used to listen to the music on a two-way radio, but it didn’t have a speaker, so I put the radio in a mess tin and the tin amplified the sound, so everyone could listen in.”

Even after all these years and kudos, Bartov says he is delighted to become an Israel Prize laureate. “I don’t belittle any award I’ve received over the years. A prize is a sort of milestone. I received, for example, the Bialik Prize, that’s an important award. And the Agnon Prize I received from the Jerusalem Municipality is also an important award. I received the Yitzhak Sadeh Prize for military history, for my work on Dado [the late chief of General Staff David Elazar]. I was very honored to receive an award for military history.”

But the Israel Prize is in a different league. “Nothing is like this prize in one respect: It sort of constitutes recognition by society, it’s recognition by Israeli society, by the state.”

Despite his satisfaction at receiving the country’s ultimate award, Bartov is not one to blow his own trumpet and self-deprecation is never far behind any self-backslapping. “I don’t know if giving me the Israel Prize is a mistake but, if it is, it’s certainly not the biggest mistake the country could make.”

Prior to becoming a full-time author, Bartov was a columnist for various publications, including the Labor Party’s now defunct Lamerhav, followed by Ma’ariv, when he made his bread expressing his reasoned opinions on the political situation of the day. While still a political animal by nature, Bartov says he has left all that far behind him. “I got to the age of 65 and I felt it was time to leave politics to others. I had reached pensionable age and, anyway, to tell you the truth, expressing my political opinions in a newspaper column didn’t really change anything.”

Still, it’s hard to leave a habit of a lifetime behind, and Bartov’s view on the political scene filters through, even if only indirectly. “The country’s leaders make much bigger mistakes. Awarding a prize to someone who may or may not deserve it does not constitute a threat to the country’s existence. They [the leaders] make mistakes that put the country’s very existence at risk.”

While it may not frequently come through in his writing, Bartov talks with a twinkle in his eye and often has a humorous anecdote at the ready to illustrate some point. “There’s a joke, from the days of communism in Poland, about a journalist who began to display some worrying deviations from the party line,” he says by way of describing his take on politics in general. “When he was called to order by the party leader and asked for his opinion on various events, the journalist kept on citing articles that appeared in various official publications. Eventually the leader got annoyed and asked the reporter: ‘Don’t you have any opinions of your own?’ and the journalist replied: ‘I do, but I don’t identify with them.’ There are quite a few people here like that too, but I do identify with my opinions and I express what I believe.”

Writers in all genres follow different approaches to the nitty-gritty of their work. Some stick religiously to “office hours,” even if the muse is not with them. Bartov says he feeds off specific events or moments in his life that spark him into action.

“I can go several years without writing anything at all, if I am not inspired to put pen to paper. Generally, I am moved to write by some highly emotive event, which is normally something bad, something that evokes strong, difficult emotions.”

Bartov’s mixed cultural childhood nutrition, of the written word and the visual elements he took from the movies, continues to inform his work – that and some maternal attributes he absorbed.

“My mother was not a great talker, but she had an absolute pictorial memory, and my late wife and I would cajole her into telling us stories of her past in Poland. She’d relate things like they were part of a movie. She wouldn’t talk too much about what she thought at the time, she’d stick to the actual scenes. I think I took something of that from her.”

Since his geographically insular childhood in Petah Tikva, Bartov has traveled extensively, spending a couple of years each in the US and Britain. During his time in America, he worked as a reporter for Lamerhav, and even got the opportunity to see some of his childhood heroes from close quarters and get an eye-opener in the bargain.

“My wife was studying at UCLA, so I used to hang out in Hollywood and I met some of the stars, like Peter Ustinov and Jerry Lewis. It was wonderful to be there, but I soon realized that it’s all the same wherever you go, only in Hollywood the façade is more pervasive.”

Bartov does not appear to have a façade, or pretenses. What you see in him is what you get. That also applies to his take on modern usage of Hebrew and contemporary street culture. “I am not an ultraconservative, but when I hear the mistakes people make in Hebrew, including radio and TV presenters, that for me reflects shallowness. Nothing comes from nothing. You have to be aware of where things come from, and be aware of the roots.”

from The Jerusalem Post

The original text of the review may be found here.

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