Rivke Basman Ben-Haim’s Credo
Welcome to Throwback Thursday, a weekly photo feature in which we sift 116 years of Forward history to find snapshots of women’s lives.
Yiddishland the world over celebrates poet Rivke Basman Ben-Haim’s upcoming 90th birthday next week at Tel Aviv’s Leyvik House. Arriving in the newly founded state having survived the agonies of Kaiserwald and Stutthoff concentration camps, the Vilna born Basman was among the ten young writers belonging to the emerging artistic literary elite of Israel’s Yiddish writers known as “Yung Yisroel.” Founded in early post-war Israel, with the nascent state still unsure what to make of a language they clearly hoped would remain in the diaspora — it was up to their Tel Avivian father figure, noted Yiddish poet of world reknown, Avrom Sutskever to guide them through their Israeli inner-diaspora.
A distinctly cultivated individual, exuding Central European warmth and charm under Mediterranean skies, Basman is recollected by fellow Yiddish writer and current Forverts editor Boris Sandler, as having brought a unique ‘womanly warmth and an intimate coziness’ to the mostly male Friday night gatherings of Yiddish writers in the 1990s at Leyvik House.
Pictured here, in her romantic seaside cottage home in Herzliyah Pituach in 2014 , replete with a garden full of wildflowers, she’s seen writing while seated beneath a panorama of oil paintings by her husband of many years, noted artist Mule Ben-Haim. And it’s there beneath his lush tones that she fashioned her credo, in part to answer ongoing criticism by Israelis demanding to know why she chose to continue writing in Yiddish. Simply put, she would tell them that having been born in Yiddish — she lived now too in Yiddish.
Mule and Rivke left Europe’s smoldering embers and arrived at a kibbutz in 1947,where she took comfort noting that the older folks there still understood Yiddish. Creatively, Basman said recently in a video interview for Sandler’s forthcoming piece about Leyvik House, that she always knew instinctively the first line of any poem she wrote would be in Yiddish. Additionally, that while she had worked professionally as a Hebrew teacher and is comfortable in both languages, Yiddish has for her an inherent quality of innateness. She has been noted to say, in response to the attacks on Yiddish, that while she chooses to live in Hebrew in its ‘high-mindedness and beauty, it’s Yiddish that breathes in my every pore in its solitary uniqueness.’ And she had no difficulty saying that in Hebrew.
Metaphorically, she added a poet’s vision to her credo, saying that “in my mind’s eye I see a flock of birds who leave where they are to fly to faraway shores. On their way, countless numbers of them are lost. Only a few of them reach their destination and continue their song in the spring. So maybe I’m one of those who merited reaching a shoreline. And I know that all of me, my entire being, is in Yiddish.”