1936 – 2005
“Dalia Ravikovitch has her own lyrical voice,” the esteemed literary scholar Baruch Kurtzweil wrote in the daily Ha’aretz in 1959, upon the publication of the poet’s first book, The Love of an Orange (the Hebrew term for orange is, literally, “golden apple”). “She does not have to imitate contemporary modernist trends, as other poets do,” he added, “because her poems are inherently unique. Even the defiant exoticism in her poems does not come from anywhere but her inner world, from a unique reality that is transformed into genuine poetry capturing one’s heart with its profound musicality. ...” Kurzweil became her mentor and a kind of father-figure for her.
Ever since Kurtzweil’s spirited acknowledgement of her work when the poet was only twenty-three years old, Ravikovitch has been considered a “wonderful gift to Hebrew culture” by the most conservative forces in Hebrew literature as well as by the most progressive. Among her many awards are the Bialik Prize, the Brenner Prize, the Shlonsky Prize, the Prime Minister’s Award and the prestigious Israel Prize, which she won in 1998.
Ravikovitch was born on November 18, 1936 in Ramat Gan, a Tel Aviv suburb. Her father, Levy (b. Berlin, 1909), an engineer, came to Palestine in the early 1930s via China. Her mother Michal (née Houminer), a teacher by profession, was born in 1909 in Rehovot and died in 1995. There were also twin sons, Ahikam and Amiram, born in 1942. In that year, when Ravikovitch was six years old, her father was run over and killed by a drunken driver, leaving his daughter with a permanent sense of loss and orphanhood. After his death Ravikovitch’s mother moved to Kibbutz Geva with her family and later married a kibbutz member. Dalia, however, feeling herself a misfit, left the kibbutz at the age of thirteen and moved in with a series of foster families in Haifa. She studied literature at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and later worked as a television and theater critic and high school teacher. Ravikovitch lived in Tel Aviv. She was thrice married and divorced. Her first, very brief, marriage at the age of eighteen, was to the writer Yosef Bar-Yosef. Her second was to the media personality Yizhak Livni, who remained her close friend, telephoning her every day. Her third marriage, which lasted for thirteen years, was to attorney Hayyim Kalir, to whom she bore a son, Ido Kalir, in 1978. She was desolate when the courts awarded custody to the father. When she was awarded the Israel Prize in 1998, her son received it on her behalf; she herself was unable to attend.
Ravikovitch published some twenty volumes of works, including two poetry books for children and three collections of short stories. She translated into Hebrew poems by Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Poe and others, as well as children’s classics, such as Mary Poppins. For some time she earned a living through journalism, inter alia working for the daily Ma’ariv, but in the 1980s resigned from her post there and lived in perpetual anxiety regarding her livelihood.
When Ravikovitch’s poems began to appear in the late 1950s, she was virtually the only recognized female Hebrew poet of her generation. She was an instant success in a male-dominated field of Hebrew poetry even though her works were antithetical to those of her contemporaries and to the poetic ideals they had established for their time. They—innovative poets such as Natan Zach, David Avidan and Yehuda Amichai—were predominantly preoccupied with the objective world. Rejecting the highly figurative language of their predecessors, they placed their values in clarity and exactness of detail, in the fluidity of everyday language, and in declining to implicate in the poems’ effect any extended abstract meanings. Ravikovitch’s early works, conversely, were lyrical and abstract. They were traditionally structured and rhymed and her language was highly adorned and essentially fanciful. In the context of literary history, the poetics of Ravikovitch’s contemporaries were largely Imagistic and effectively ascetic, while hers were Symbolist and hedonistic; their works were progressive, while hers were somewhat retrogressive.
Celebrated as the preeminent successor of Leah Goldberg, the only major female poet in Israel in the 1930s and 1940s (who read her early works), Ravikovitch’s recognition by the literary establishment was thus based on gendered presumptions and her divergent work was measured against the separate and distinctive tradition of women’s Hebrew poetry.
Ravikovitch’s early works indeed appear prototypically female. Graceful, subtle and meek, her lyrical poems present “a tiny woman” struggling to survive in an overwhelming universe. A “clockwork doll” controlled by savage men, she is entrapped in her femininity and compelled to become precisely what men want her to be—a sheltered little princess. Speaking in childish, intensely emotional tones, the female speaker in Ravikovitch’s poems laments the loss of her tender childhood dreams as she acquiescently succumbs to the harshness of adult existence. Presumably speaking in her own voice, the poet expresses much yearning for the love of the father she hardly knew, all the while portraying him in the image of a distant, heartless, authoritarian figure. She also yearns for the love of a man, yet far from being a desired bliss, love for her is a brutal and destructive affair (“An orange did love/With all its heart/the man who ate it,/the man who smote it.”). Rendering the experience of earthly love as an unfulfilling and self-annihilating matter that grows not out of emotions but simple bodily desires, Ravikovitch goes on to create for her loveless, dejected soul a gratifying existence in some imagined paradisiacal state away from its anguished realities: “There I knew an inimitable desire,” she writes, “and that time was the seventh day of the week/and the tree branches kept growing big./and the light was floating around like a gushing stream …”
Marked by a regression to childhood fantasies and dreams, the wish to transcend in Ravikovitch’s poems frequently assumes imaginary visits to exotic lands such as China and Madagascar, Scandinavia, Australia and New Zealand. At first blush, these fabulous journeys serve to calm the speaker’s tormented mind. Yet the poet’s objectives are far reaching as she seeks to shatter the social and cultural boundaries in which she feels entrapped in hope of finding in all remote places models of a different life, free of authoritarian practices and stifling conventions. Always in a fluid state of transformation (“today I’m a mound/tomorrow I’m a sea”), she is eager to create for herself spaces of freedom and independence, usually to no avail. Every attempt to break away results in a disappointing return to a stifling existence in a world governed by customs and laws she is unable to escape.
The highly stylized concentration on the self and its narcissistic desires, the benchmark of her early works, began to fade away somewhat in Ravikovitch’s third volume, The Third Book (1969). Oftentimes showing an increasing affinity for her colleagues’ poetics of impassive detachment as well as for their informal language and loose structures, Ravikovitch began to open up to the state of the world and to the pain and vulnerabilities of others. Still exploring different times, different cultures and different places, she began to see everywhere she went “much growth but hardly any bloom.” War, violence and destruction permeate far and near places she once considered fabulous, including the sweet homeland of her youth. A political dissident since the early 1980s and an outspoken protestor against Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian population in the occupied territories, in her later works Ravikovitch renounced the Israelis’ “untamed need to cause pain and to torment.” Wondering “what has been happening to us” and to the ideological dreams of Israel’s founding fathers, she chided Israel’s propensity to venerate war, death and destruction and denounced all forms of aggression and misuse of power.
Though her crisp lyricism remained essentially unchanged and could sometimes evoke the sense of emotional turmoil displayed in her earlier poetry, in the course of four decades Ravikovitch developed into a versatile writer who engaged in a wide range of issues: personal and general, local and international. She never abandoned typically female topics such as women’s entrapment in the kitchen and she gingerly poeticized about her experiences as a mother to her only son. And yet, in her later works Ravikovitch mostly traveled through real and imaginary worlds exploring the pain and suffering of men and women throughout the universe. She never seems to offer any real solutions to the atrophies of human lives. But in her subversive linkages to traditionally male Jewish texts, such as the Mishnah and the Midrash, and to universal myths, legends and fairy tales, Ravikovitch was the first woman poet in Hebrew to confront a world dominated by ancient texts and by the power of their words. Through her writings on victimization one hears the voices of those oppressed and depressed by tyranny and violence and begins to recognize the injustices that are built into our lives, our society and our culture.
Always given to bouts of depression, Ravikovitch died on August 21, 2005, at her Tel Aviv home, where her son found her lifeless body. Deeply mourned by the country’s literary establishment, she was widely eulogized as Israel’s greatest woman poet.
The Complete Poems So Far. Tel Aviv: 1995; Winnie Mandela’s Football Team (short stories). Tel Aviv: 1997; Half an Hour Before the Monsoon (poems). Ra’anannah, Israel: 1998; She Came and Went (stories). Tel Aviv: 2005.
Dress of Fire (poems translated from the Hebrew by Chana Bloch), 1976; The Window: New and Selected Poems (translated from the Hebrew by Chana Bloch and Ariel Bloch), 1989.
Mazor, Yair. “Besieged Feminism: Contradictory Rhetorical Themes in the Poetry of Daliah Rabikovitz.” World Literature Today 58/3 (1984); Pincas, Israel. “Leaving Traces.” Modern Hebrew Literature 1 (1988): 36–38; Weiseltier, Meir. “Real Love Is Not What It Seems to Be.” Modern Hebrew Literature 17 (1996): 15–19.