Miri Ben Simhon’s poetry faces Mizrahi women’s lives in Israel straight on. Her work is sensitive and brutal, personal and political. “In the literary arena at the beginning of the 1980s”, writes a critic, “it took a lot of courage – not to speak about Mizrahim […] but as one”. In ‘GIRL FROM THE SLUMS’ Ben Simhon voices an ironic monologue by a character, Aliza Alfandari, who desperately tries to please the world from which she is disinherited, “a place meant for others”. Try as she might, she cannot enter it by being good, that is, with stereotypical behavior.
In another poem, Ben Simhon expresses awareness of her dissident place in the Israeli literary world:
…the reason I started writing poems now
that I’ve wanted to write for a long time
there were endless excuses as above
that had partial solutions
labored and less so
for a long time, at the same time
I was pursued by the new Hebrew poetry and its subjects
in the rhythmic ticks of meter
on a dizzying spiral track that didn’t go anywhere
and I ran for my life and looked back
as if deserving of punishment…
[‘HARD TO COME DOWN FROM THE CLOUDS’]
‘NOT MUCH, MON DIEU’, a 1990 poem, portrays the Mizrahi poet attempting to enter the Israeli canon in the metaphorical form of a well-known poet’s “castle”. The speaker depicts herself trying to crawl through the window “like a wild cat/ (apparently one can’t get in the door)”. Scholar Ketzia Alon has pointed out that, despite Hebrew’s grammatical gender, Ben Simhon’s female speaker uses the masculine form for cat, an empowering decision that prevents her from becoming a mere sex kitten.
And of the universal, self-doubting inner world of the poet, a Ben Simhon speaker says:
I want to write now
but I’m too nervous to write now
that’s all that comes to mind now
when an embarrassing feeling of a lack of creativity adds to my anxiety
along with a sharp awareness of the banality of the above.
[PRIOR TO A POEM]
Three books were published by mainstream Israeli presses during the brief dozen years of her writing lifetime (1983-1995), and one posthumously. All four of Ben Simhon’s slim volumes, 114 pages of poetry in all, received critical attention in Israeli newspapers when they were originally published. Her work was also paid notice when she died suddenly in 1996 in an accident that may have been a suicide. When an anthology of personal reminiscences and critical evaluations was published in 2010, it was widely reviewed, a critic writing at the time that Ben Simhon “strikes the reader’s heart with wonder and sorrow”. Her work has been examined in anthologies of postcolonial criticism of Hebrew literature as well.
Although they came from different milieus, Ben Simhon may perhaps best be compared to Israel’s YONA WALLACH with whom she shares a history of depression and hospitalizations coupled with a direct glance at women’s lives.Wallach’s family was Eastern European, the prevailing ethnicity in the nascent state; she spent her childhood and adult life in highly urban Tel Aviv. In contrast, Ben-Simhon was born into a Moroccan family, on the near bottom of the social scale; she grew up and remained in sleepier Jerusalem. Both poets were secular but knowledgeable about Judaism (Ben-Simhon studied in the state-religious school system), and both used it to write about gender issues in Israel.
Linguist Michal Zellermayer points out that Hebrew is a language on the oral end of the spectrum so that texts often “resort to allusions to canonized texts as contextualization clues […] This requires that the reader make continuous regressions to contextual information rather than progressing linearly”. The canon in this case is the Hebrew Bible, a mandatory text in all Israeli schools from first through twelfth grade. In translation into English, biblical allusions take on a new life in a different culture. The King James Version brings its Protestantism along, a different religiosity or its echo. But in contemporary Hebrew as in contemporary English, allusion to the Bible is most often no longer religious. Instead or in addition, it signifies cultural history or myth. Miri Ben Simhon, for example, in MY MIND, names “the waters of Genesis” [may-beh-resheet] and alludes to a sentence in Genesis (Jacob holding his twin brother Esau’s heel at birth), while using words that may associated with the biblical past: chariots and nose rings. To a reader of Hebrew, the word that opens the Bible (beh-resheet – in the beginning) can never not be the word that opens the Hebrew Bible. But for all readers everywhere, this poem is also very much about a tormented soul; the writer is simply using the narratives and metaphors among which she has grown up.
Ben Simhon was born January 13, 1950, in Marseille, France, the youngest of three children of Moroccan parents from Fez on their way to the new state of Israel. In April of that year, the family arrived by boat and was settled in a transit camp in Jerusalem. In 1955 the children and their mother moved to permanent housing in the Katamon neighborhood in the western part of the city, home to many poor immigrants. According to Dan Albo, editor of an anthology of reminiscences and critical essays about Ben Simhon, the future writer was singled out as a sharp student of literature as early as grammar school. When she began to attend an exclusive high school in an adjacent, wealthy neighborhood, Ben Simhon learned for the first time about negative Israeli stereotypes of Moroccans. In 1985, she told a reporter, that on the contrary, “Until I was ten I thought God was Moroccan”.
The poet spent her mandatory Israeli army service in an intelligence unit and then worked nearly two years in the Secret Service, where, according to Albo, she witnessed events that disturbed her and led her to resign. Ben Simhon went on to study Hebrew literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and acting at the Beit Zvi School of the Performing Arts in Tel Aviv, working at times as a nude art school model, and later becoming an editor. Beginning in her late 20s, she was often hospitalized for mental illness, spending a total of three years in institutions, on and off medications.
In the early 1980s, Ben Simhon returned to her mother’s home in Jerusalem and participated in a writing workshop run by Yehuda Amichai. Her first publication appeared in the noted journal Akhshav in 1983; three of her books were published during her lifetime, and a fourth, which she prepared for publication, a few years after her death. Toward the end of her life, the poet, off her medication, told friends she was on her way to New York to marry Bob Dylan.
Ben Simhon’s mental illness, like that of her near contemporary Yona Wallach, does not reduce the tremendous grasp of social reality and human power relations that she expresses in her poetry. In January 2015, the Haaretz newspaper published in its literary supplement a letter Ben Simhon wrote in 1985 or 1986 to Israel Prize poet laureate MEIR WIESELTIER, who emigrated from Russia to Israel as a child. While the letter and the poem share sexual as well as castle imagery and discussion of a particular man, one doesn’t have to assume that a deluded Ben Simhon really desires Wieseltier (or Bob Dylan). The letter writer is in fact completely clear about her awareness that the established poet does not want her; but the real problem is that he does not want her poetry. She’s been published but he hasn’t bothered to read it. The poem and letter express a desire for recognition by the dominant literary canon, coded in sexual metaphors.
On July 2, 1996, Miri Ben Simhon was run over by a truck late at night on a country road outside the farm community of Petahya in central Israel, in an accident that may have been a suicide.
Books in Hebrew
She’s Into It, Not Into It/Meh-oon-yenet, lo meh-oon-yenet, Hakibbutz Hameuchad, Tel Aviv, 1983.
A Thin Stalk in an Ancient Clay Pot/Shih-bolet daka ba-kad heres atik, Alef, Tel Aviv, 1985.
Thirst/Tsemah Sifriat Poalim, Tel Aviv, 1990.
Worried Existentialism/Existentialism hared, Carmel, Jerusalem 1998.
Secondary Sources in Hebrew
The Poetry of Miriam: a biographical anthology/Shirat Miryam, ed. Dan Albo, Carmel, Jerusalem 2010.
“I have never needed God” Trans. L. Katz in Poetry magazine, July-August 2016.
“Girl Out of the Womb, Whereto?” Trans. L Katz in The Defiant Muse: bilingual anthology of Hebrew Feminist Poems, ed. Galit Hasan-Rokem, Shirley Kaufman & Tamar Hess, Feminist Press/CUNY, New York, 1999.
Links (in Hebrew)
Slow-motion animation by Sofi Gutman to a poem about the weather
Anti-shefa sings ‘GIRL FROM THE SLUMS’
Tamar Arenson analyzes two poems