1944 – 1985
To all who knew her, Yona Wallach passed through this world like a “living thunderbolt.” Regarded by many of her friends and colleagues as the most important among the young Israeli poets of the 1960s, she has had a profound effect on Israel’s cultural life ever since her works began to appear in periodicals in the early 1960s. Mysticism, religion and prophecy, passion, genius, sex and madness are only some of the terms associated with this woman and her poetic art. A leading female voice in modern Hebrew poetry, she is equally remembered for her abrasive and extravagant personality. Yona Wallach is a household name in a country where poetry reading is not widespread. She is the only writer of her time whose life and death were documented in a sensational and instantly best-selling biography.
Wallach was born on June 10, 1944 in Palestine, where her parents, Michael Wallach (1912–1948) and Esther (Gofman) Wallach (1910–1985), immigrants from Bessarabia, arrived in the early 1930s. Together with other Zionist comrades, they built their home on abandoned Arab land now known as Kefar Ono, a small farming village in central Israel, where Wallach lived with her mother for most of her life, until her death from breast cancer on September 26, 1985. She never married and never left Israel for any period of time. Wallach’s father was killed during Israel’s War of Independence when she was only four years old. Her mother was a co-owner of the village’s movie-theater. She died of Parkinson’s disease shortly before Wallach’s death. Yona’s sister, Nira Schentzer (b. 1938), from whom she was estranged, lives in Jerusalem.
Growing up in the tight-knit community of Kefar Ono, Wallach had a fairly ordinary early childhood, but with the onset of adolescence she became an exceedingly defiant teenager. She was accepted to one of Tel Aviv’s most prestigious high schools, Tikhon Hadash, but was expelled after tenth grade after failing all subjects. She never graduated from high school or attended college. At seventeen, Wallach attended the Avni Institute, a renowned school for fine art in Tel Aviv. She never completed her studies there, but during that period of time Wallach became acquainted with the Tel Aviv bohemian life of the 1950s and was inspired by dissenting poets such as Nathan Zach (b. 1930) and David Avidan (1934–1995). Attractive and attracted to young rebellious free spirits like herself, she became a frequent visitor to Tel Aviv’s “literary cells” and developed a close relationship with a new generation of up and coming poets, including Meir Weiseltier (b. 1941) and Yair Hurvitz (1941–1988).
Many of Wallach’s early poems, later collected in Devarim (1966), are believed to have been written before she was eighteen years old. These very well-known poems—featuring the shattered lives of odd characters, predominantly women, with very exotic non-Jewish names such as Cornelia, Cecilia and Teresa—are still considered the pinnacle of her work. But Wallach’s rise to glory was marked by both great success and frequent withdrawals. After her poems began to appear in various newspapers and magazines in 1964 and she began to be recognized among the young avant-garde poets of Israel, Wallach experienced some years of personal chaos and intense involvement with promiscuous sex, hard drugs and madness. She was twice committed to mental institutions, once in the mid-1960s and once in the early 1970s.
Even though she at once developed into a highly recognized poetic personality, Wallach’s poetic art began to touch Israel’s critical world only in the mid-1970s when the works of other nonconventional poets began to be recognized by a new literary establishment in Israel. She was then accepted to the prestigious Tel Aviv Foundation for Culture and Art and in one year (between 1977 and 1978) won three literary prizes, including the Prime Minister’s Prize. She became a patron of young poets and was frequently invited to appear at various forums where she read her poems in loud, ecstatic, almost musical, rhythmic tone in front of huge crowds. Some of her poems were set to music and were sung by prominent Israeli singers.
The body of poetry that brought Wallach the glory and critical acclaim she had desperately sought is collected in the book Shirah (1976). It consists of the poems she wrote between the years 1963 and 1975 which previously appeared in Devarim (1966) and Shenei Ganim (Two Gardens, 1969), and the never before published body of poems titled Lema’alah mi-Zeh (Higher than That). Though her next two large volumes, Zurot (Shapes) and Mofa (Performance), did not appear until 1985, the former shortly before her death and the latter soon after. Shirah already reveals the two most important contributions Wallach made to Hebrew poetry: the invention of a poetic language that is free of conventional signification and thus capable of speaking for one’s own perceptions and personal experiences; and the deconstruction of gender boundaries and the reinvention of femininity as a “sex that is.”
Bearing a strong resemblance to the culture of dissent that swept the academic world overseas at her time, much of Wallach’s poetry seems to be preoccupied with language and signification. And yet this poet never seems to be either burdened or trapped in an all-imposing “symbolic order” that, according to both postmodernist and poststructuralist thought, predetermines one’s perception, desire, imagination, thought, experience and reality. On the contrary, the belief in the power of words to break through the metaphysical barrier where an unfettered self may discover nature and authenticity runs through all her poetry. In many of her poems, particularly the later ones, Wallach’s voice appears as a raging Id in pursuit of the “light of the soul…/the infinite…/the secrets of creation,” as she unceasingly attacks all cultural boundaries which, as she believes, guilefully conceal a dazzling spiritual reality locked inside human consciousness. Arguing that “real life is hidden,” her poetic expression shatters the prosaic language which Hayyim Nahman Bialik (1873–1934) described in his influential 1915 essay “Revealment and Concealment in Language” as the “hard sheet of ice” that stabilizes human’s existence. Traveling through “the sealed walls…en route to some feeling/that will recover the possibility/that will penetrate the possible…” her “teary and weary eye,” like Bialik’s, is looking for a “lucid passage” that will take her beyond the “daily practices” to a place where the vision is different from what “culture reveals.” In her response to a numb world burdened by repressive systems, Wallach does not invent a fictional reality of artificial gardens filled with beauty and tender love, as some of her colleagues do. Gratification, for her, is embedded in the human body and soul and particularly in the psyche and the wealth of its suppressed visions, dreams and hidden pleasures.
A “thief of language,” in French and American feminist terminology, Wallach’s monumental design of semi-mythological heroines at once presents the male perception of female’s victimization (e.g. “Nizeta is Little Red Riding Hood”), but immediately proceeds to offer an alternative story that challenges the logic of a masculine/feminine dichotomy and its entire range of attached attitudes, such as positive/negative, activity/passivity, culture/nature, head/emotions, which French feminist thinkers highlight in their assault on “logocentric” male thought. In her work Wallach attributes to women the “masculine” qualities in such traditional binary oppositions and “feminine” qualities to men. Astutely aware of the risk of creating an inverted form of sexism, her design of women of great physical and mental potency (traits universally considered “male” qualities) is subtle and heavily disguised. Wallach is not out to extol femininity or to destroy masculinity, but to reject, in Simone de Beauvoir’s words, “biologism as essentialism.” Fleeing fixed gender identity, she seems to understand that the goal of the female struggle is to revoke the “death-dealing binary oppositions of masculinity and femininity” (Julia Kristeva) so that a new approach to human identity can evolve, based solely on interchangeable individual characteristics.
Wallach’s reinvention of a whole new brand of feminism reverses gender roles, views men as sexual objects, and speaks of women’s sexual fantasies in explicit, indeed obscene terms. Increasingly bold, direct and provocative, her poetry, particularly that of the last ten years of her life, permeates the bastion of male power—his muscular body and protuberant sexual organs—and at the same time challenges men’s logical mode of thinking and patriarchal attitudes. It is a battle for self-definition in which Wallach employs explicit and taboo sexual fantasies that violate a wide range of social, cultural and religious rules and customs commonly considered sacred and uses them as an explosive poetic tool not merely to confront women’s realities but primarily to examine the ways in which the world can be truly different.
Shirah (Collected Poems). Tel Aviv: 1976; Or Pere (Wild Light). Tel Aviv: 1983; Zurot (Forms). Tel Aviv: 1985; Mofa (Appearance). Tel Aviv: 1985; Tat Hakarah Niftahat Kemo Menifah (The Unconscious Unfolds Like a Fan: Selected Poems 1963–1985). Tel Aviv: 1992.
Wild Light: Selected Poems of Yona Wallach. Translated by Linda Zisquit, 1997.
Cohen, Zafrira Lidovsky. Loosen the Fetters of Thy Tongue Woman: The Poetry and Poetics of Yona Wallach. Cincinnati: 2003; Rattok, Lily. Angel of Fire: The Poetry of Yona Wallach (Hebrew). Tel Aviv: 1997; Tsofar, Ruth. “Staging Sexuality.” Hebrew Studies 43 (2002); Zilberman, Dorit. Hebrew Is a Bathing Woman: Essays on the Poetry of Yona Wallach (Hebrew). Tel Aviv: 1990.