Rivka Basman Ben-Hayim
Rivka Basman’s mother died when she was five. Her younger brother was ripped from her hands and murdered by the Nazis, and she escaped from the Nazi death march. After the war, she helped the illegal immigration movement to what was then Palestine. During that time, she met and married the painter Shmuel Ben-Haim, who designed every one of her books. The couple lived on Kibbutz Ha-Ma’apil for sixteen years, where she taught schoolchildren. During the 1960s, she studied comparative literature at Columbia University for one year, and later went to Russia, where her husband was Israel’s cultural attache. In Russia, she furthered clandestine contacts between Soviet Yiddish writers and the outside world. After her husband died, she added “Ben-Haim” to her name.
Family and Education
Rivka Basman Ben-Haim was born in Wilkomir (Ukmerge), Lithuania to Yekhezkel and Tsipora (née Heyman) on February 20, 1925. Her mother died in 1930, and her father remarried; he and his second wife had a son, Aharon (Arele).
As a child, Rivka attended a Yiddish-speaking folk-shul, and she and her classmates read and delighted in the poems and stories of the Yiddish woman writer Kadya Molodowsky. Even then, she wrote poems in Yiddish. She continued studying in a Lithuanian “gymnasium” (academic high school), but in 1941, before she could graduate, her family moved into what later became the Vilna ghetto. She spent two years in the ghetto, where she met the poet Avraham Sutskever and read him her poems in Lithuanian and Yiddish. He encouraged her to write only in Yiddish and was her mentor and friend till his death.
When the Vilno ghetto was liquidated, Rivka was sent to Kaiserwald, a forced labor camp for women in Riga. While in the camp, she and two others decided that each would do something every day to lift the spirits of the women in the camp: one sang a song, one danced, and Rivka recited a poem she had composed that day (“Remembrance,” The Thirteenth Hour, pp. 12-13). When Kaiserwald was liquidated, she managed to rescue her poems by rolling her copy of them under her tongue. She later said of these poems that they are “not sublimated enough”: they are a cry from the heart but not artistic enough to be considered good poetry. She plans to leave them to Yad Vashem, where they will serve as historical documents.
Rivka’s father (b. 1897) was murdered by the Germans in Klooge, a camp in northern Estonia, shortly before the Allied victory. Her brother Aharon was murdered by the Germans when he was about eight years old.
Marriage and Immigration to Israel
After World War II, Rivka spent two years in Belgrade (1945–1947), where she married “Mula” Shmuel Ben-Haim. There she helped him run the Belgrade Berihah (Heb. “flight”) station for moving Jews out of Eastern Europe for illegal immigration to Palestine. To avoid detection from Interpol, Mula took on her name, “Basman.”
Upon arrival in Israel in 1947, the couple became members of A voluntary collective community, mainly agricultural, in which there is no private wealth and which is responsible for all the needs of its members and their families.kibbutz Ha-Ma’apil. Mula, who had joined the Haganah, became an active soldier in the War of Independence, and Rivka helped defend her kibbutz when it was attacked.
After the war, Rivka studied at the Seminar Ha-Kibbutzim in Tel Aviv, from which she received a teaching diploma. She taught children on Kibbutz Ha-Ma’apil, where the couple lived for sixteen years. At the same time, she published poetry and was a member of the Yiddish poets’ group, Yung Yisroel (Yid. Young Israel).
In 1961, Rivka and Mula moved to New York City so she could study English and comparative literature at Columbia University. From 1963 to 1965, when her husband was Israel’s cultural attaché to the Soviet Union, Rivka taught the children of the diplomatic corps in Moscow. At the same time, she furthered clandestine contacts between Soviet Yiddish writers and the outside world.
Basman Ben-Haim’s Poetry
Rivka composed her first book of poems while she was still a member of Kibbutz Ha-Ma’apil; the rest were written after she had left the kibbutz. Her husband designed and illustrated all of her books as long as he lived, and she has used her husband’s prints in every book she has published since then. After his death on October 7, 1993, Basman added his family name to hers and became known as Rivka Basman Ben-Haim.
Basman Ben-Haim is a singularly non-ideological poet. She elected to live in Israel after the Holocaust and her poetry shows she feels rooted in Israel. But the political movements and social trends of her second home are absent from her work.
The first volumes of Basman Ben-Haim’s poetry contained poems that were rarely more than one full page. They have meter and are rhymed. Her innovative use of language often involves juxtaposing ordinary elements of language in extraordinary ways, e.g., Di Shtilkayt Brent, The Silence Burns. Biblical figures and hints of homiletic Jewish stories can be found scattered throughout her poetry, but these serve as metaphorical tools, not as themes. Her poetry is elegiac and lyrical. The elements of nature, trees and flowers, the sea and rain figure prominently.
Until she was about 80 years old, most references to the Holocaust in her poetry were oblique (for example, “Poems Too,” The Thirteenth Hour, p. 49, where she says a “balm cannot be found”.) But as the years progressed, her reluctance to speak openly of the Holocaust diminished. In her poem “Sixty Years Later” (Poetry of the Holocaust, pp. 145-148), she explained that when she realized that she and those like her were “the last witnesses on earth/who saw and heard it all,” she allowed herself to speak more directly about what she saw, what she did, and how she felt. She identified Musye Miryem Daiches as the wonder-child who danced for the women-inmates every night; she spoke of her own poetry recitals, and she said “God, too, wore a yellow star-/How then could He save His children?” In 2020, Basman Ban-Haim finally devoted an entire book, A Bliyung In Ash (A Bloom In Ashes) to her experiences in the Holocaust. Dedicated to the brother who was “ripped out of her hands” and “burned up”/murdered, the book contains poems written during the Holocaust and poems and prose about her experiences during the Holocaust. She speaks openly of her shattered dream to be re-united with her father and the sense that those who “survived” did not really survive at all.
For all that Basman Ben-Haim’s early life was shattered, she remained optimistic. She and those who shared her fate found new lives. They maintained and created friendships; they found love and created families. On the whole, her poetry radiates a sense of calm and comfort: she found calm in identifying with the natural world, and comfort in friendship and in love.
One of the recurring themes in Basman Ben-Haim’s poetry is the nature of time. In her poem “Arum A Refreyn” (Concerning a [musical] Refrain), she says about the refrain of the Yiddish song: “What was, was, and is gone”: “I don’t agree. /What was is with us still.” (See https://yiddishpoetry.gc.cuny.edu for the original and my English translation.)
In 2006, Basman Ben-Haim published a two-volume collection of her poems entitled Le-koved Ikh Un Du (In Honor of You and Me). In 2008, she and the Israeli poet, Roni Somek, published a dual-language (Hebrew-Yiddish) book of poems entitled Ani Iraqi-Pyjama/ Ikh Bin An Iraqi-Pyjama, in which a Hebrew poem and its Yiddish translation appear on facing pages. In 2010, a selection of her poems translated into Hebrew appeared under the title Al Meitar Ha-gehem (On a String of Rain).
Besides Hebrew and English, Basman Ben-Haim’s poetry has been translated into French, Polish, German, and Flemish. She was awarded the Arye Shamri prize in 1980, the Fichman prize in 1983, the Itzik Manger prize in 1984, the World Zionist Foundation prize in 1989, the Dovid Hofstein prize in 1992, the Sholem Aleichem House’s Pollak prize in 1994, the Leib Malakh prize (awarded by Beit Leyvik) in 1995, the Mendele prize of the city of Tel Aviv-Jaffa in 1997 and the Chaim Zhitlowsky prize in 1998.
Basman Ben-Haim lives in Herzyliyah Pituah. She continues to write poetry and is active in the Union of Yiddish Writers located in Tel Aviv.
Selected Works by Rivka Basman Ben-Haim
Toybn Baym Brunem (Doves at the Well). Peretz Farlag: Tel Aviv, 1959.
Bleter Fun Vegn (Leaves of the Paths). Yisroel Bukh Farlag: Tel Aviv, 1967.
Likhtike Shteyner (Radiant Stones). Yisroel Bukh Farlag: Tel Aviv, 1972.
Tseshotene Kreln (Beads in Shadow). Yisroel Bukh Farlag: Tel Aviv, 1982.
Onrirn Di Tsayt (To Touch Time). Yisroel Bukh Farlag: Tel Aviv, 1988.
Di Shtilkayt Brent (The Silence Burns). Yisroel Bukh Farlag: Tel Aviv, 1992.
Di Erd Gedenkt (The Earth Remembers). Yisroel Bukh Farlag: Tel Aviv, 1998.
Di Draytsnte Sho (The Thirteenth Hour). Yisroel Bukh Farlag: Tel Aviv, 2000.
Af A Strune Fun Regn (On a Strand of Rain). Yisroel Bukh Farlag: Tel Aviv, 2002.
Lekovod Ikh un Du (In Honor of You and Me). H.-Leyvik Farlag: Tel Aviv, 2006.
Ikh Bin An Iraker-Pyjama (I am an Iraqi-Pyjama). H.-Leyvik Farlag: Tel Aviv, 2008 (with Roni Someck).
Al Meitar Ha-Geshem (On a String of Rain). Keshev Publishing House: Tel Aviv, 2010.
Liderheym (Poems-Home). Beys Sholem Aleichem: Tel Aviv, 2013.
Der Shmekhl Fun A Boym (The Smile of a Tree). H.-Leyvik Farlag: Tel Aviv, 2016.
Eybike Vegn (Eternal Paths). H.-Leyvik Farlag: Tel Aviv, 2018.
A Bliyung In Ash (A Bloom in Ashes). H.-Leyvik Farlag: Tel Aviv, 2020.
Basman Ben-Haim, Rivka. [Eight poems], trans. Zelda Kahan Newman. In Step by Step: Contemporary Yiddish Poets, edited by Elissa Bemporad and Margherita Pascucci, 40-57. Firenze, Verbarium/Quodlibet, 2009.
Basman Ben-Haim, Rivka. “Es Treft In Mir A Hunger” [“Sometimes A Hunger Grips Me”], “Zekhtsik Yor Shpeter” [“Sixty Years Later”], trans., Zelda Kahan Newman. In Poetry Of The Holocaust: An Anthology, edited by Jean Boase-Beier and Marian de Vooght, 142, 145-148. Nanholme Mill, England: Arc Publications, 2019.
Basman, Ben Haim, Rivka, Kahan Newman, Zelda, trans. [Five poems], Mendele Review: Yiddish Literature and Language 7(2), (February 25, 2003).
http://yiddish.haifa.ac.il/tmr/tmr07/tmr07_2003.htm (accessed February 14, 2021). [Yiddish and English].
Basman Ben-Haim, Rivka, trans. Zelda Kahan Newman and Kathryn Hellerstein. “Greenesses.” Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies & Gender Issues 19 (Spring 2010): 174-175.
Basman Ben-Haim, Rivka, “Rivka Basman Ben-Haim,” trans. Zelda Kahan Newman, Kathryn Hellerstein and Sabine-Huynh on website: Tierre à Ciel: Poesie d’Aujourd’hui - accessed February 14, 2021 at: https://www.terreaciel.net/Rivka-Basman-Ben-Hayim-traduite-par-Zelda-Ka… (accessed February 14, 2021).
[English and French].
Basman Ben-Haim, Rivka. “Shteyner Bliyen” [“Stones Bloom”], trans. Zelda Kahan Newman. Pakn Treger: Magazine of the Yiddish Book Center (Fall 2013, Translation issue)
https://www.yiddishbookcenter.org/language-literature-culture/pakn-treg… (accessed February 14, 2021). [Yiddish and English].
Basman Ben-Haim, Rivka. “Tauben sprechen Jiddisch”: Gedichte: jiddische – deutsch, Übersetzt von Niki Graça und Esther Alexander-Ihme. Berlin: Hochroth Verlag, 2020 [Yiddish and German].
Basman, Ben-Haim, Rivka. The Thirteenth Hour: Poems of Rivka Basman Ben-Haim, trans. Zelda Kahan Newman. New York: May Apple Press, 2016.
Basman Ben-Haim, Rivka. “Toybn Redn Yiddish” [“Doves Speak Yiddish”], trans. Zelda Kahan Newman. Blue Lyra Review 3(6) (Fall, October 30, 2014),
https://bluelyrareview.com/issue-3-6-fall-2014 (accessed February 14, 2021). [Yiddish and English].
Basman Ben-Haim, Rivka, [Two poems], trans. Zelda Kahan Newman. Midstream [Magazine] (Summer 2002): 46-47.
Glatstein, Jacob. “Rivke Basman.” In Tokh Genumen, 1949-1959 [The Heart of the Matter, 1949-1959]. Buenos Aires: Farlag Kiyyum, 1960, pp. 312-316 [Yiddish].
Gurfein, Rivka. “Shirey Rivka Basman” [“The Poems of Rivka Basman”]. ‘Al ha-Mishmar (28 August 1959): 3 [Hebrew].
Hellerstein, Kathryn. “Songs for the Silent: Contemporary Women Poets in Yiddish.” Hadassah Magazine 82(1) (August-September 2000): 34-35.
Hever, Hannan. “Edut be-Tahposet:‘Al Shirah Shel Rivka Basman Ben-Haim, ‘Der Yid Fun Matsevot’” [“Masquerading Testimony: On the Poem by Rivka Basman Ben-Haim, [“The Jew from Tombstones”]. Karmel: Ketav ‘Et le-Shirah [Carmel: Periodical for Poetry] 16 (2012): 71-72 [Yiddish and Hebrew].
Kahan Newman, Zelda. “A Quiet Yiddish Israeli Voice.” Midstream [Magazine] (Winter 2010): 13-16.
Kahan Newman, Zelda. “A Smile Learned in Sadness: The Poetry of Rivka Basman Ben-Hayim.” In Yiddish after the Holocaust, edited by J. Sherman, 266-285. Oxford: Boulevard Books, 2004.
Kahan Newman, Zelda. “My Desert Is Hotter Than Yours: The Poetry of Rivke Basman Ben-Hayim.” Women in Judaism: A Multidisciplinary e-Journal 6(2) (2010), accessed February 14, 2021 at: http://www.womeninjudaism.org.
Kahan Newman, Zelda. “The Thirteenth Hour”: A videotaped lecture given at the Library of Congress on September 16, 2016 [54 min., 30 sec.]. Accessed February 14, 2021 at:
Kahan Newman, Zelda, blog with recordings of Basman Ben-Haim, Rivka. https://yiddishpoetry.commons.gc.cuny.edu
Lev, Abraham. “Vi Toybelekh Reyne” [“As Pure Little Doves”]. Lebns-Fragn [Life’s Questions] 99 (Year 10, January 1960): 13 [Yiddish].
Wolpe, David E. “Nokh ‘di Draytsente Sho’ - di Fertsente” [“After the Thirteenth Hour – the Fourteenth”]. Lebns-Fragn 585-586 (Year 50, January-February 2001): 17 [Yiddish].