Natan Zach, Blunt and Cherished Israeli Poet, Dies at 89

Natan Zach, a cherished Israeli poet who helped revolutionize Hebrew poetry by spurning the formality of his more established contemporaries in favor of plain-spoken, loose-limbed verse, died on Nov. 6 in Ramat Gan, outside Tel Aviv. He was 89.

His death, at a hospital, was announced in a statement by Israel’s culture minister, Hili Tropper who called him “one of Israel’s greatest poets.” He had been struggling with Alzheiimer’s disease, according to a nearby nursing home, where he lived.

Although Israel is a relatively young country, with a language that had to be reconstructed two centuries ago after it nearly died out during the Roman Empire, it has a rich and sometimes tumultuous poetic tradition. Volumes of verse are common on Israeli bookshelves, and the merits of various poets are argued as vociferously as New York baseball fans once quarreled over the abilities of Mantle, Snyder and Mays.

When Mr. Zach published his first poems, in the early 1950s, the reigning poet was Nathan Alterman. Mr. Zach, a brash newcomer on the literary scene, chafed at Mr. Alterman’s influence, seeing his rhymes and meters as rigid, his wording as ornamented and his themes as impersonal. He said as much in a watershed article in 1959 that shook up Israel’s literary world.

“It was an act of patricide, but also a defiant and condescending act of criticism by a man who was very knowledgeable about world literature,” the literary critic Ariana Melamed wrote in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz after Mr. Zach’s death.

Mr. Zach joined with other rebel poets — most notably the premier modernist, Yehuda Amichai — to form an avant-garde nucleus anchored in the journal Likrat (Toward). He went on to publish two dozen collections, with poems often touching on the fleeting nature of relationships and the fragility of the human body and of existence itself. They were always set to intriguing rhythms and rendered in a lucid Hebrew, filled, as a Haaretz editorial said, with the “words with which we trade and curse, argue and clash.’’

The poet Peter Cole, a MacArthur “genius” grant winner and a translator of some of Mr. Zach’s poems, said, “He changed the language of Hebrew poetry, period,” adding, “He heard a quiet music in the spokenness of modern Hebrew — a music that dignified the language of ordinary speech and all it implied.”

The poem “To Put it Differently,” which was translated by Mr. Cole, gives glimmers of Mr. Zach’s audacity and mischievous humor:

Poetry chooses choice things, carefully selecting
select words, arranging,
fabulously, things arranged. To put it differently
is hard, if not out of the question.

Poetry’s like a clay plate. It’s broken easily
under the weight of all those poems. In the hands
of the poet, it sings. In those of others, not only
doesn’t it sing, it’s out of the question.

Mr. Zach and Mr. Amichai, who died at 76 in 2000, were the literary guerrillas of their generation, but they carved out distinct paths, said Leon Wieseltier, the editor of Liberties, a new journal of culture and politics.

“Amichai made lyricism out of the vernacular; Zach fell under the chilly spell of Eliot,” he wrote in an email, adding that “often a current of tenderness sneaks past the poet’s forbidding persona, a gust of warmth amid the cool literariness.”

Though both poets were secular Jews, Mr. Amichai grew up in an Orthodox home and dappled his stanzas with allusions to Jewish rituals and biblical vignettes; Mr. Zach, the son of an interfaith marriage, almost never did.

Often stepping into Israel’s clamorous politics, Mr. Zach embraced a leftist perspective on the perennial tensions between Israel and the Palestinians, even voicing support for the flotilla of six vessels that in May 2010 tried to penetrate an Israeli blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

He took an elitist view toward the culture of right-wing Israeli Jews who traced their roots to predominantly Muslim countries. Comparing them in a 2010 television interview with Westerners like himself, he said: “The one lot comes from the highest culture there is — Western European culture — and the other lot comes from the caves.”

A petition signed by more than 500 people accused him of racism and asked that he be fired from his teaching positions.

Yet he continued to garner awards — he had already won the prestigious Bialik Prize for literature and the Israel Prize for Hebrew poetry — and teach, testifying to the democratic tolerance of Israelis for unfettered speech.

Mr. Zach was born Harry Seitelbach on Dec. 13, 1930, in Berlin to Norbert and Clementine Seitelbach. His father was a well-off German Jew who managed a family business; his mother, an Italian Catholic, tended the home. In 1936, the family fled Hitler’s Germany and emigrated to the British Mandate of Palestine, settling in Haifa and then Tel Aviv. His father failed in a construction business, could never adjust to Israeli culture or master the language and eventually committed suicide.

Like many immigrants to Palestine and Israel, Mr. Zach chose a Hebrew name. (Zach means “clear.”) At 17, he served in the military during the 1948 war for Israel’s independence. Afterward he enrolled at Hebrew University in Jerusalem to study philosophy and comparative literature but dropped out. He finished his bachelor’s degree in Hebrew and comparative literature at Tel Aviv University in 1963 after he had begun teaching there.

His poems first appeared in print in 1951, and a solo collection, “First Poems,” was published in 1955. His collection “Other Poems” (1960) is considered his masterwork.

Mr. Zach moved to England in 1969 and completed a doctorate there at the University of Essex in 1978. He then returned to Israel. Among his works was a translation into Hebrew of Allen Ginsberg’s “Kaddish and Other Poems.”

His marriage to Asya Haramati in 1958 lasted less than a year. He began a relationship in the 1970s with Sarah Avital, and they married in 2014. She survives him, as does his son, Ido Assif.

Some Zach poems touched on romance, but like a Stephen Sondheim lyric they were often edged with cynicism. “As Agreed” is a poem about parting lovers but is utterly devoid of sentimentality, as reflected in these stanzas, translated by Tsipi Keller:

Look, as we agreed,
I am in one place, you in another.
We didn’t become one, which is also natural,
and in your weakness and in mine
there looms a promise, too:
after memory forgetfulness is all.

And if the road already may incline downward
in the famed sloping print of life’s curve,
it does, in some sense, aspire upward,
and aspiration is a great thing in life,
on this, too, we agreed, you surely remember.

Etan Nechin contributed reporting.

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