Erez Biton
(Algeria, 1942)   
Erez Biton

Erez Biton, the 2015 Israel Prize laureate in poetry, was born in Oran, Algeria to Moroccan parents who then immigrated to Israel in 1948. At the age of 10, he was blinded and lost a hand in an accident. Biton holds a BA in social work from Hebrew University and an MA in psychology from Bar Ilan University.

The author of six books of poems and a play, Biton is the foremost Mizrahi poet in Israel today. The term Mizrahi, Hebrew for ‘eastern’, denotes Jews from the Arab world and adjacent, mostly Moslem-majority countries.

According to poet Mois Benarroch, Biton brings us to ‘the site of [Arabic-Hebrew] bilingualism, a vital space in the Israeli experience. He doesn’t merely insert an Arabic sentence here and there [an idea the poet mocks in ‘Summary of a conversation’]: “(What is authenticity?/ To walk down the middle of Dizengoff Street and shout in Judeo-Arabic /‘I am from the Maghreb, I am from the Maghreb’?)”. Rather, he writes a new and complete language’.
Furthermore, poet and scholar Almog Behar has noted the way Biton reaches ‘beyond the dichotomy’ through which Mizrahi art in Israel is often viewed, as ‘between protest [ . . . ] and folklore (the “documentation” of experience), a dichotomy that provides a meager sustenance for Mizrahi artists, somewhere between politicization and nostalgia, [ . . . ] without any opportunity to bridge the fracture between past and present’.

In a 2014 interview with Biton for the Times of Israel, Mitch Ginsburg reports that the poet

was born in Algeria ‘along the coast of the seas’, he said, with the [Judeo-Arabic] name Ya’ish. [ . . . ] His parents, both Moroccan Jews, had emigrated from small towns on the edge of the Sahara to the big city of Oran, in Algeria, where Albert Camus set his great novel The Stranger. In 1948 or 1949 – family history and the official documentation clash – he arrived, age 6, in Israel.

The family lived for a year in the immigrant camp built alongside the town of Ra’anana and then moved to Lod, which had been emptied of its Arab inhabitants during the War of Independence. His father [ . . . ] worked on the railway and in salt mines. ‘He was very bitter, tired, engaged in a daily struggle to survive’, Biton said.
He and his siblings, though, were elated. They played in the orchards and the fields. They snuck into the movie theater and, though they felt the sadness of the vacant Arab houses, avidly searched for treasures that their erstwhile residents had allegedly buried in the earth. Although he was enrolled in an ultra-Orthodox school, Biton remembers his childhood as barefoot and carefree.

After the accident, at the Jerusalem Institute for the Blind, the interviewer continues, Biton:

showed a collection of poems to the piano teacher at the school, Elisheva Kaplan, who had quit playing piano in order to translate for the students as many books as possible into Braille. She brought the poems to Professor Shimon Halkin, the longtime head of the literature department at Hebrew University and the Hebrew translator of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, ‘and he crowned me a poet’, Biton said.
In addition to earning his living as a social worker and rehabilitation psychologist, Biton has served as chairman of the Hebrew Writers Association, written a weekly column for the daily Maariv and currently edits the Hebrew literary journal Apyrion. His poetry has earned a number of literary awards, including the Miriam Talpir Prize (1982), the Prime Minister's Prize (1988), the Yehuda Amichai Prize (2014) and the Bialik Prize for Lifetime Achievement (2014).

[This article quotes from Mois Benarroch's blog, 23.4.2008 (Hebrew); Almog Behar's blog, 30.10.2009 (Hebrew); Mitch Ginsburg, Times of Israel, 8.12.2014 (English)]

© Lisa Katz

Listen to the poet on YouTube reading My mother, her children did not live and other poems


In Hebrew
Minkha morokait (A Moroccan offering), Aked, Tel Aviv, 1976
Sefer hanana (The book of mint), Aked, Tel Aviv, 1979
Tsipor bin yaveshot (Intercontinental bird), Hakibbutz Hameuchad, Tel Aviv, 1990
Sulika, a play, Snir, 2005
Timbisert: tsipor morokait (Timbisert: A Moroccan bird), Hakibbutz Hameuchad, Tel Aviv, 2009
Nofim havushay eenayeem (Blindfolded landscapes), Hakibbutz Hameuchad, Tel Aviv, 2013
Beit ha-psantrim (House of Pianos), Hakibbutz Hameuchad, Tel Aviv, 2015

On the poet’s work
Ana min al-magreb (I am from the Magreb), ed. Ketzia Alon and Yochai Oppenheimer, Hakibbutz Hameuchad, Tel Aviv, 2014
In English
You Who Cross My Path. trans. Tsipi Keller, BOA Editions, Rochester, NY, 2015.

In Hebrew
The poet’s Wikipedia entry
Prof. Galili Shahar reads Erez Biton
Audio: A radio interview with poet Anat Sharon-Blais
Mois Benarroch on the poet
Audio: 2013 radio interview with journalist Kobi Medan
Two poems from A Moroccan Offering

In English
Two more poems in English translation on Asymptote
Video: A trailer for a film about the poet: Shattered Rhymes
Contesting the trauma of immigration - an essay by scholar Hannan Hever
Times of Israel interview by Mitch Ginsburg
Sometimes I feel foreign: a 1990 interview with the poet

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