Yona Wallach

June 10, 1944–September 29, 1985

by Zafrira Lidovsky Cohen, updated by Tafat Hacohen-Bick
Last updated

Israel poet Yona Wallach (right), with her parents and sister, Kiryat Ono, late 1940s. From the Kiryat Ono Archive.

In Brief

Yona Wallach was one of Israel’s most important poets and had a profound effect on Israeli culture. Wallach's poetry is characterized by breaking conventions regarding gender, sexuality, and religion, among others. The body of poetry that brought Wallach glory and critical acclaim is collected in her book Shirah (1976). Her earlier poems are short in length and many portray surrealistic figures and colorful images. Wallach’s later poetry, collected in Zurot (Shapes) and Mofa (Performance), which both appeared only in 1985, is different from her earlier poetry, and suffered from a difficult and hesitant reception, by both literary critics and the public. Despite her early death at age 41, Wallach remained highly influential, and the interest in her personality and poetry continues to grow.

To all who knew her, Yona Wallach passed through this world like a “living thunderbolt.” Regarded by many literary critics and poets as one of the most important 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 Wallach and with her poetic art. A leading female voice in modern Hebrew poetry, she is equally remembered for her abrasive and extravagant personality. 

Early Life and Family

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 she 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). 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).

Early Life

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. 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 quickly 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 a 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 glory and critical acclaim 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). Shirah 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.”

Later Poetry

Wallach’s later poetry, collected in Zurot (Shapes) and Mofa (Performance), which both appeared only in 1985, is different from her earlier poetry and suffered from a difficult and hesitant reception, by both literary critics and the public. While her earlier poems are short and many portray surrealistic figures and colorful images, her later poems are either characterized by extreme directness (for example, the poems opening with the line "When you come to sleep with me"("kshetavo lishkav iti" from Or pere) or are "long poems" that are verbose and lacking in structure, and suffer (or gain) from a lack of editing, repetitions (anaphoras and other types of repetition), and a dense, rhythmic meter.

Main Thematic Topics

A “thief of language,” in French and American feminist terminology, Wallach’s monumental design of semi-mythological heroines 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”) 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—the man’s 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.

Wallach's poetry also reveals great interest in religiosity and in the image of God, as Wallach claimed in her last interview: "I met God and my life changed completely." In her famous and highly controversial poem "Tefillin," one can find the desire for a physical embodied encounter with God. This poem, which brought her fame even outside the poetry-reading public, describes a sado-masochistic sex act, performed in front of an amazed audience of worshippers. Other poems express an urgent passion for Messianism, fulfillment, and realization, often represented through the figure of Jesus. "My sweet Jesus" becomes a model for a sexual/religious (orgasmic) redemption, that is, a moment wherein God can be encountered in the flesh. For Wallach, the Incarnation is examined above all in the possibility of God appearing embodied in the flesh.

Despite Wallach's early death at age 41 in 1985 due to cancer, she remained highly influential, and interest in her personality and poetry continues to grow. Between the years 2012 and 2014, three films about Wallach were released, including Yair Qedar's film "Yona Wallach: The Seven Tapes," based on recorded conversations between Wallach and Halit Yeshurun, which also appeared in 2013 in the book Zot HaYonah, together with unpublished poems by Wallach. In 2021, previously unpublished dramatic works written by Wallach appeared as Andartah Shel Tsara'at: Col Hamahazot (A Monument of Leprosy: The Complete Dramatic Works).

Published Works of Yona Wallach

Hebrew

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.

Zot Hayona (Yona Wallach, Selected poems, Diaries and an Interview). Ben Shemen: 2013.

Andartah Shel Tsara'at: Col Hamahazot (A Monument of Leprosy: The Complete Dramatic Works), edited by Oded Carmely & Shani Pocker. Tel Aviv: 2021.

English

Wild Light: Selected Poems of Yona Wallach. Translated by Linda Zisquit. Rhinebeck, NY: Sheep Meadow Press, 1997.

Let the Words: Selected Poems of Yona Wallach. Translated by Linda Zisquit. Rhindebeck, NY: Sheep Meadow Press, 2006.

Bibliography

Cohen, Zafrira Lidovsky. Loosen the Fetters of Thy Tongue Woman: The Poetry and Poetics of Yona Wallach. Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 2003.

Hacohen-Bick, Tafat. "'I Want a River / No Small Temple':  Poetics and Theology in the Later Poetry of Yona Wallach." Prooftexts 38:1 (2020).

Rattok, Lily. Angel of Fire: The Poetry of Yona Wallach (Hebrew). Tel Aviv: 1997.

Stav, Shira. Reconstructing Daddy: Fathers and Daughters in Modern Hebrew Poetry (Hebrew) Or Yehuda: 2014.

Tsamir, Hamutal. In the Name of the Land: Nationalism, Subjectivity and Gender in the Israeli Poetry of the 1950s-1960s. (Hebrew). Be’er Sheva and Jerusalem: 2006

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.

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How to cite this page

Cohen, Zafrira Lidovsky and Tafat Hacohen-Bick. "Yona Wallach." Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women. 23 June 2021. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on February 25, 2024) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/wallach-yona>.