1911 – 1970
Upon the publication in 1959 of a poetry collection entitled Mukdam u-Me’uhar (Sooner or Later), containing selected poems from Goldberg’s entire career, the poet Nathan Zach criticized what he considered the monotonous nature of her poetry. Accusing her of “narrowness,” he asserted: “Ultimately, Lea Goldberg writes a great many poems on a single subject: the torments of unrequited love.” Similar claims were made by other critics: they portrayed her as “the poet of the broken heart,” who harbored conservative tendencies. Nonetheless, an overview of Goldberg’s poetry and of her literary output as a whole yields a different picture. Not only did Goldberg work in a vast range of creative areas—as a poet, author of prose for adults and children, playwright, gifted translator, scholar and critic of literature and theater—but in every one of these fields, and certainly in her poetic output, one can discern many and varied “channels”—from diverse poetic genres to surprising and innovative uses of language and form.
Goldberg was born on May 29, 1911 in the city of Königsberg, Prussia. She spent her childhood years in Kovno, Lithuania. During World War I, her family was exiled to Russia, returning afterwards to Lithuania. It was during this journey homeward that her father, Avraham Goldberg, an insurance expert, was arrested. As a result of the difficult events that he experienced, he suffered an emotional breakdown. He later left the family home and was hospitalized intermittently in various institutions, remaining in Europe until his death (the precise dates are unknown). In Lithuania, Goldberg studied at the Hebrew gimnazjum and later at the University of Kovno. In 1930 she continued her studies at the University of Berlin and later attended the University of Bonn, studying Semitic languages, history and pedagogy. Her dissertation examined the sources of the Samaritan translation of the Torah.
At an early age (apparently twelve), Goldberg began to write poems—most of them in Hebrew and a small number in Russian—and it was not long before some of her works were published. In the early 1930s she belonged to the Lithuanian poets’ circle, P’tach, with her poems appearing in a periodical of that name as well as in the literary collection Pa’am and, later, in the periodicals Ketuvim and Turim. In 1935 she immigrated to Palestine, settling in Tel Aviv. One year later, she was joined by her mother, Tsila Goldberg (1885–1982). Lea Goldberg never married and the two lived together until Lea Goldberg’s death.
Simultaneously with her aliyah her first poetry collection, Taba’ot Ashan (Smoke Rings), consisting largely of lyrical-modernist poems, was published. For the most part, these works feature a brave, direct and exposed form of expression, in which the speaker refers to herself as “an unattractive woman of twenty-two,” usually living in a closed room, surrounded on all sides by her reflection, sober but waiting for “love smells.” Other poems in this volume are marked, surprisingly enough, by a longing for the landscapes of the Christian villages, in a manner that perhaps expresses a “naïve individual perspective,” as argued by Ariel Hirschfeld.
By her second collection of poems, Shibolet Yeroket ha-Ayin (Green-Eyed Spike, 1939), she has already drawn somewhat closer to the poetic style of the Yahdav circle (led by Avraham Shlonsky). Nature becomes a more central presence in these poems, along with a penchant for generalization (as is evident in both her language and choice of subject matter). Goldberg chose to respond to the events of World War II in an indirect but fascinating manner, in the two collections of poetry that she published during the 1940s. In Shir ba-Kefarim (Songs in the Villages, 1942), she writes poems that “masquerade” as well-known East European folk songs, thereby seeking to perpetuate the European world that is being destroyed, by painting a poetic portrait. Beneath the folkloristic gloss, the poems are replete with allusions to death and destruction. During this period, Goldberg compiled, together with Shlonsky, the well-known anthology of translations, Mi-Shirat Russiyah (Of Russian poetry, 1944), a further tribute to the culture of her childhood. In the collection entitled Mi-Beiti ha-Yashan (From My Old Home, 1944), the recollection of this world becomes more explicit. Throughout her career, Goldberg continued to portray herself as experiencing “the pain of both homelands.”
Two later collections—Al ha-Perihah (Of Blossoming, 1948) and Barak ba-Boker (Morning Lightning, 1955)—mark the major period of her poetic oeuvre. They contain poems that are fully developed in form and expression while tending towards classical lyric genres (such as the sonnet and the terzina) and hints of Neosymbolism. Alongside poems dealing with love (and the dialogue that is part of love), Goldberg addresses the meaning of artistic creativity, the theme of speech versus silence, and the shadows of death. One of her most famous poem cycles, appearing in Barak ba-Boker, is “Ahavatah shel Teresa di Mon” (The Love of Thérèse du Meun). The majority of the poems in these collections are still metered and rhymed.
In the early 1950s Goldberg moved to Jerusalem, where she served as a lecturer in the Department of General and Comparative Literature at Hebrew University, later becoming its chairwoman. In her academic work her primary area of interest was Russian literature. In the capital Goldberg gathered around her a circle of young poets who included Dalia Ravikovitch, Yehuda Amihai and Tuvia Ribner, exerting considerable influence on their poetic development and their publications.
In 1959 Goldberg compiled the aforementioned collection, Mukdam u-Me’uhar, choosing to omit the bulk of her early works. The volume was poorly received by the younger generation of contemporary critics (Dan Miron and others). Goldberg did not lay down her pen as a result, but the final collection of poems published during her lifetime, Im ha-Laylah ha-Zeh (This Night, 1964), is generally described as “stripped” of such tools as style, meter or form, showing the influence of the poetic changes prevalent in Hebrew poetry of the 1950s and 1960s. Metaphoric richness seems to give way here to linguistic paucity, almost to the point of muteness. But Goldberg continued to write poetry until her death, of cancer, on January 15, 1970. These later works were collected in She’erit ha-Hayyim (The Rest of Life), which was published posthumously.
Goldberg also produced works of prose, the most famous of them the novels Ve-Hu ha-Or (And He Is the Light, 1964), generally considered an autobiographical work, and Pegishah im Meshorer (Encounter with a Poet), a character study of the poet Avraham Ben-Yitzhak. In addition, she is well known as the author of hundreds of works of poetry and prose for children, which include Yedidai mi-Rehov Arnon (My Friends from Arnon Street, 1943); Mah Osot ha-Ayalot (What Do the Does Do? 1949); and Dirah le-Haskir (A Flat to Let, 1959), which are characterized by elements of humor, fantasy and imagination alongside a realistic, yet caring and compassionate, observation of the human condition. Goldberg also published numerous articles dealing with children’s literature and served as an editor of children’s books at Sifriyyat ha-Po’alim.
In addition, Goldberg was well known as a playwright. Of the three plays that she wrote (Yam ba-Halon [Sea in the Window, 1938]; Ba’alat ha-Armon (Lady of the Castle, 1955); and the unpublished late-1950s manuscript, Ha-Har ha-Ilem (The Silent Mountain), only Ba’alat ha-Armon, about coping with post-World War II reality, was a stage success.
Goldberg was also an accomplished translator. Her magnum opus was almost certainly her translation of Tolstoy’s epic novel War and Peace (1953), but she also translated Chekhov’s Stories (1945), selected poems by Petrarch (1953), Ibsen’s Peer Gynt (1958) and many other works, as well as reference books and works for children. Goldberg was undoubtedly one of the leading poets of twentieth-century Hebrew literature, her influence extending beyond the realm of Hebrew “women’s poetry” alone. Many of her poems have been set to music. She was awarded the Israel Prize posthumously in 1970.
In her well-known essay, “The Courage of the Ordinary” (1938), Goldberg champions a life and literature centered around “hard everyday work that demands concentration and precision”—work that “does not involve any great celebrations of glowing ideals and colored lights. …” Yet what remarkable bounty lies hidden in her “ordinary world.”
Poetry: Mukdam u-Meu’har: Mivhar Shirim. Tel Aviv: 1959; Sh’erit ha-Hayyim: Shirim, Rishumim min ha-Izavon. Tel Aviv: 1971; Leah Goldberg—Katavim, A-C (Shirim). Ribner, Tuvia, ed. Tel Aviv: 1972. Prose: Mikhtavim mi-Nesi’ah Medumah. Tel Aviv: 1937; Pegishah im Meshorer. Tel Aviv: 1952; Leah Goldberg—Katavim, D (Proza: Ve-Hu ha-Or; Sippurim; Pegishah im Meshorer). Ribner, Tuvia, ed. Tel Aviv: 1972; Diaries: Yomanei Lea Goldberg, edited by Rahel and Aryeh Aharoni. Tel Aviv: 2005; Plays: Leah Goldberg—Katavim, E (Mahazot: Ha-Har ha-Ilem; Ba’alat ha-Armon). Ribner, Tuvia, ed. Tel Aviv: 1979; Essays and Studies: Ahdut ha-Adam ve-ha-Yekum be-Yezirat Tolstoy. Tel Aviv: 1959; Ha-Ometz le-Hulin: Behinot u-Ta’amim be-Sifruteinu ha-Hadashah. Ribner, Tuvia, ed. Leah Goldberg—Katavim. Tel Aviv: 1976; Mi-Dor u-Mei’ever: Behinot u-Ta’amim be-Sifrut Kelalit. Ribner, Tuvia, ed. Leah Goldberg—Katavim. Tel Aviv: 1977; Children’s Works: Mah Osot ha-Ayalot? Tel Aviv: 1949; Nissim ve-Nifla’ot. Tel Aviv: 1954; Dirah le-Haskir. Tel Aviv: 1959; Tsrif Katan. Tel Aviv: 1959.
Lady of the Castle: A Dramatic Episode in Three Acts, translated from the Hebrew by T. Carmi. Tel Aviv: 1970; Russian Literature in the Nineteenth Century: Essays, translated into English by Hillel Halkin. Jerusalem: 1976; Selected Poems, translated and introduced by Robert Friend; foreword by Yehuda Amichai; afterword by Gershom Scholem. London: 1976; On the Blossoming, translated with an afterword by Miriam Billig Sivan. New York: 1992.
Baumgarten-Korris, Ora. “Literary Devices in the Poetry of Lea Goldberg” (Hebrew). Ph.D. diss., Hebrew University, 1979; Hovav, Lea. “Elements in Children’s Poetry As Reflected in the Work of Lea Goldberg” (Hebrew). Jerusalem: 1986; Yaglin, Ofra. “Perhaps Another Look: Modern Classicism and Classic Modernism in the Poetry of Lea Goldberg” (Hebrew). Tel Aviv: 2002; Jaffe, Abraham B., ed. Lea Goldberg: Selected Articles on Her Work (Hebrew). Tel Aviv: 1980; Idem. B. Encounters with Lea Goldberg (Hebrew). Tel Aviv: 1984; Idem. B. Lea Goldberg: Aspects of her Personality and Oeuvre (Hebrew). Tel Aviv: 1994. Lieblich, Amia. About Lea (Hebrew). Tel Aviv: 1995; Miron, Dan. Founding Mothers, Stepsisters: Two Beginnings in Modern Pre-State Israeli Poetry (Hebrew). Tel Aviv: 1991. Idem. “The Courage of the Ordinary, and Its Collapse: On ‘Smoke Rings’ by Lea Goldberg as a Major Juncture in the Evolution of Modern Hebrew Poetry” (Hebrew). In Man is Nothing More Than … The Weakness of Power, the Power of Weakness: Studies in Poetry, 309–388. Tel Aviv: 1999. Kartun-Blum, Ruth, and Anat Weisman, ed. Encounters with a Poet: Essays and Studies on the Work of Lea Goldberg (Hebrew). Tel Aviv: 2000; Ribner, Tuvia. Lea Goldberg: Monograph (Hebrew). Tel Aviv: 1980; Shaham, Haya. “A Female Poet Among Male Poets: On the Acceptance of the Poetry of Lea Goldberg and Dalia Ravikovitch by Contemporary Critics” (Hebrew). In Sadan: Mehkarim be-Sifrut Ivrit, vol. 2, edited by Ziva Shamir, 203–240. Tel Aviv: 1996; Shaked, Gershon. “On the Poetry of Lea Goldberg” (Hebrew). Orot (January 1960): 50–56.