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Nathan Yonathan: A poet of peace has died

03/12/2004

Nathan Yonathan, Israel's uncrowned poet laureate of peace, died on Friday at the age of 81. Those of our readers who are not Israelis, and not interested in literature, will forgive me for indulging my grief. A friend has died, a friend and a great man, and I would be remiss in my duty if I did not pay homage to his memory in my modest and surely inadequate way.

Nathan Yonathan was born Nathan Klein in 1923, in Kiev, the Ukraine. He grew up in Petah Tikva and lived most of his adult life on Kibbutz Sarid. He began publishing in 1940. With a Bachelor of Arts and Masters degrees in Hebrew and General Literature, he has taught at high school and university levels, both in Israel and the U.S. He was Editor-in-Chief editor of the Sifriat Poalim Publishing House for about twenty years. He has been a member of the board of directors of the Israeli Broadcasting Service and
Chairman and President of the Israeli Writer's Association. He received the Bialik Prize and the Prime Minister's Prize, he has published a novel and a number of children's books but is best known as a poet and lyricist. He lyrics for songs that are known by every Israeli, including "Dugit" (about a toy fishing boat and a child) and "Ha'ish Hazeh" (This Man) about Israeli Premier Yitzhak Rabin after he was assassinated.

Despite the honors he received in his life time, many feel that Nathan Yonathan was unjustly passed over by the establishment, and did not receive the Israel Prize and other honors due to a writer of his caliber.

Nathan Yonathan had two children, Ziv and Lior, of whom the eldest, Lior, was killed in the Yom Kippur war. This loss colored his later work, but yearning for peace and the futility of war colored all of his work, including the memorable, haunting poem he wrote during the Sinai campaign of 1956, later put to words: "If we ever return to you, homeland."

I first met Nathan when he was sent to help lead our youth movement in the United States, in the 60s. Few of us adolescents really understood that chance had given us a wonderful and unique opportunity to touch genius. Nathan taught us what he taught everyone in Israel, informed by personal friendship and warmth. He remembered every single one of us more than thirty years later, and always had time to be a friend.

Nathan taught every man how to be romantic without being kitchy, to show feeling without being melodramatic, to love our country without being chauvinistic and to love our fellow men without loving them to death in the thrall of empty ideologies.

Nathan was the poet for the rest of us. He believed in the common man but he was not common. He lived his ideals as much as was possible in an imperfect world. He was not a pop artist, but he wrote poetry for the >rest of us, and brought joy and beauty to the plainness of everyday life.

His songs are sung and his poems are learned by every child in Israel. Perhaps because of his resolve to serve every man, he was denied some of the honors reserved for 'great' poets, whose works are hardly known by most Israelis.

He was a friend to everyone he knew and enriched our lives by his existence. He gave his talent and his energies to building a better and more beautiful society for all Israel, to teach children and adults to love beauty and to love their fellows.

Perhaps he was the Israeli Walt Whitman. Now he is gone forever, and we have lost a poet of peace, love and brotherhood. We will always have his poems and his songs, but we will miss everything else, including his charismatic romantic idealism, his friendship and warmth and even his all-too-human foibles.

Ami Isseroff
Rehovot,
March 12, 2004


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