By Barbara Goldberg
Moshe Dor was a major figure in contemporary Israeli literature. A lyric poet par excellence, his subject was love. All of Dor’s poems are love poems, even when they express hate.
Dor was born in Tel Aviv in 1932, a sabra, as native-born Israelis are called. The sabra is a desert plant native to Israel, tenacious and thorny on the outside, deliciously sweet on the inside—as was Dor the poet and Dor the man. He had a fierce love of the Land of Israel, his motherland, and Hebrew, his mother tongue.
In 1932, Tel Aviv was a little town with coarse zifzaf sand rustling under one’s bare toes. Sand dunes ran all the way down to the sea. Camel caravans passed, bells clanging on their swaying necks. Wild vines clothed the hills. This was the landscape of Dor’s youth, the motherland he clung to and yearned for.
His other love was for a woman, the American poet Barbara Goldberg. He was passionate about each, but always in exile from one or the other. Only in his imagination could the two loves become one. Despite the complexity of the subject matter, his poems, often self-mocking, always compassionate, are written with a light touch and rich musicality. Dor, in fact, was also a lyricist—particularly well known for “Erev Shel Shoshanim” (Evening of Roses), a favorite wedding song for brides all over the globe.
Another constant thread running through Dor’s poems is “hamatzav”—the “situation,” an ever-present fact of Israeli life. The conflict, the latest scandal, Israel is always in the midst of a “situation.” Hamatzav means living in a stranglehold, under the gun, a land constantly under siege.
Dor’s hope was that Jew and Arab could reconcile, as did Jacob and Esau, the twin sons of Rachel and Isaac. Isaac was the forebear of the Israelites; Isaac’s half brother Ishmael is considered to be the father of the Arabs.
Since its inception in 1948, Israel has fought many wars. Dor was well acquainted with the agony of war. In pre-state Israel, while still in high school, he joined the Hagana underground. Later he served in the army as a military correspondent.
In the 1950s he broke away from the poetics of the time, which was based on social realism, and focused on the collective. He became a founding member of the “Likrat”—“Towards”—group. Likrat focused on the individual and also on “native” as opposed to cosmopolitan literature. This movement was rooted in the Land of Israel, its physical, spiritual and historical aspects. Later he sat on the editorial board of Ma’ariv, one of Israel’s leading newspapers, and became a radio and TV personality.
Dor attained many honors in his lifetime: author of some 40 books of poetry, interviews and children’s verse, he received the Bialik Prize, Israel’s top literary award, and twice received Israel’s Prime Minister’s Award in Literature. Former president of Israel’s PEN Center, he served as Counselor for Cultural Affairs at the Israeli Embassy in London and as Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at the American University, Washington, DC, where he met Goldberg.
And thus began a collaboration that endured for more than 28 years. The two translated and edited numerous anthologies of contemporary Israeli poetry, including After the First Rain: Israeli Poems on War and Peace (with a preface by Shimon Peres). Dor also became a prolific translator. His own work has been translated into more than 30 languages. His most recent book in English is Scorched by the Sun, translated by Goldberg and the author.
But more important than Dor’s achievements are his insights into the full spectrum of human emotion, by turns cheerful and tragic, delicate and aggressive, ecstatic and tormented.
And underlying all are the sights, smells and breath of Israel.