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It's me speaking

Nir Nader interviews poet Yudit Shahar

(Unless otherwise noted, translations are by Stephen Langfur.)

Y

UDIT SHAHAR arrived at the Challenge office on a Friday morning. She had taken the bus, which got stuck in a huge traffic jam at the entrance to Tel Aviv. She thought the police must be looking for suicide bombers. I suggested that multitudes had driven in to enjoy a sunny day at the coffee shops. "I don't even have a driver's license," she said, "and my pupils are astonished: how do I get from Petakh Tikva to their schools in Rishon and Ramat Gan by bus?" This reminded me of her poem about taking the bus to or yehuda ("the light of Judah," a town on the city's outskirts - Ed.).

The Light of Judah

No one came to avenge her insult.
Mazal gropes in the poverty dress,
alchemizing small change,
finds two sheqels sixty to Or Yehuda.
Mazalika, beauty gone,
wounded in and out,
drowns honor in a face not worth two spits,
and two wobbly legs getting off the bus
betray her, in mud as in life,
flopping toward the Light of Judah.

In "The Light of Judah" you describe Mazalika without a drop of mercy.

Yudit Shahar at a public reading of women poets at Bamat Etgar.

The pain and the injustices are what move me to write. I want to stress that although my everyday is filled with financial struggle, this is not the private woe of Yudit. I see what happens to me as part of what is happening to working people in this country. This is what I try to say in poetry. I am Mazalika, I and no one else. I write in the buses. I carry a poem three weeks polishing it.

Poetry has grown distant from people, and people have distanced themselves from it. Poetry too has been privatized. It bothers me to read a book of love poems, even first-rate poems, when they show no consciousness of actual everyday life, of what's going on. This is corruption and narcissism on the part of the writer. It's our duty to talk about the core of what it is to be a human being today, and that includes the problem of survival. We live in a whorehouse society. Our governments are enemies of the people. They trample on whoever they can. As an example, take the cancellation of the bread subsidy. A government that ends the year with a budget surplus of 1.5 billion dollars cancels the couple of million it was spending to subsidize bread.

If all this passes the poet by, and she merely fiddles while the situation burns, then the act of writing becomes a form of crime.

Bread

(Variation on Midrash Rabbah)

On the day they canceled the bread subsidy
no bird shrieked,
no fowl flew,
no ox lowed,
no Seraphim chanted, "Holy, holy..."
the sea roiled not,
all creatures kept silent,
no echo of a voice could be heard to say
I am the Lord thy God.

Who are your pupils?

I'm a special-education teacher in classes that are called "challenge," the toughest classes in the system. The pupils have various undiagnosed problems. Once they were called "marginal youth." They're in 10th grade and don't know the alphabet. They belch in class to be funny. They haven't been professionally diagnosed because their parents can't afford it. Here's something else that's been privatized. A diagnosis costs 1800 shekels (ca. $500), and the parents have to pay. When you have six kids, you omit the diagnosis: maybe another kid will succeed.

How did you get into this field?

Ideals. I thought there were people who need me, children who arrive with bruises from various parts of the educational system. I thought I could help them learn to believe in themselves. I'm good with them. They arrive as mavericks in the society. It stands out quite clearly that they're from the lowest classes. My path to this profession was totally ideological, thanks to Galia Maor, CEO of Bank Leumi.

What does it have to do with her?

It's a long story. I divorced at 40 and had to build myself up from scratch, occupationally. The cost of supporting a family with two kids fell totally on me. I went to work for VISA in Bank Leumi. The ads described it as a "job with a future." All day I sat at the computer, looking for accounts that had gone over their credit limit.

The job meant getting up early and getting home late, and here I was, a single parent. The salary was miniscule, though bigger than what I make as a teacher.

One day the bank threw a party for the workers to celebrate the birth of VISA Leumi. Galia Maor told us that if we didn't increase our output they would fire us. The audience was made up mainly of single parents and students, and here she is flaunting her diamonds at us and threatening dismissals. The demand kept rising. First they wanted 100 actions per day. When we reached 100, they demanded 120. Then 140. It was impossible to go back to an earlier quota. We had to keep raising our output or be fired.

I looked at Maor and asked myself, What am I doing in this bank? And who am I giving my best hours to? I wanted to throw up. I quit.

I had a degree in teaching history and preparing pupils for matriculation. I wanted to work from the heart, so I decided to retrain in Special Education at the Kibbutz Seminary.

Nights I worked in telemarketing for an insurance firm. I had terrible pangs of conscience as a mother who leaves her house in the morning and comes back late at night. My job was to phone people and offer them a deal where the company would help them get tax refunds. People got mad at me for calling them at 9 p.m. I felt uncomfortable about it, but I had no choice. "How dare you phone me at 9 o'clock!" "When you need to feed your kids, you'll call me."

They paid minimum wage, of course, and if I got people to sign up I'd get a percentage. I was among the better telemarketers, but I hated it. It's awful. That's how we survived.

When I got my degree in Special Education, the supervisor in the Ministry of Education asked me, "Why have you done this retraining? We've already told the Kibbutz Seminary that we won't need any more special-education teachers."

I'd reached a point where I was trained for all kinds of things that had nothing to do with each other, and I had two kids.

Then I went through a series of jobs.

God of the Secretaries

The God of the Secretaries likes them to paint
a secretary face in front of the mirror
and click-clack at dawn to the station
jam into a van for a maximum day at wage minimum
disperse into the empty spaces Oh shadow army of the Holy One Blessed Be He.

The God of the Secretaries likes them to lower
their glance to his belly's center: Nescafe two sweeteners
easy on the milk.

The God of the Secretaries likes them meek
in aspect, murmuring, At once, certainly, where At once means
Really in my hand right now, please.

Oh God of the Secretaries, what do you know about secretaries memoranda
memberanda when her yearning is to break out
in the looniest dance but the child at home oh her child!
God of the Secretaries, you don't understand a thing about secretaries
because she's still climbing the steps to class in a skirt too short for her size
and a hand barely covers the underthings mom didn't wash.
God, what do you know about underthings.

I went to work as a secretary in the College of Judea and Samaria in Ariel for the boss who figures in the poem as God of the Secretaries. I was one in a series of women whose lives he'd embittered. He was a professor of social work. I used to force myself to go there. The whole time I looked for another job in order to escape from him. The only thing I found was work in the Customer Service department of Sakal [electrical appliances - NN] at the airport. The workers there were 19- or 20-year-olds from Ramle or Lod, with wild long gilded fingernails. I didn't fit in, there were no women my age. One day my supervisor comes to me and says, "Listen, Yudit honey, you're just wonderful with the customers, but you don't fit us and we don't fit you." Two months later they fired her too because she got pregnant.

Customer Service it's me speaking
yes, how may I help you,
sorry ma'am I know you've waited for some time
no, I can't pass you on to my supervisor,
that's the system, ma'am, a service agreement, regular feedback,
bonuses to outstanding human resources
and at the first of the month a check that doesn't even cover
the hair roots going white.
(Ma'am, can't you hear your baby's crying?)
It's me, Human Voice Response speaking with you
twenty four hours a day, seven days a week
we are here, tightly bound, underground
from the crack of dawn till we're good as gone
in a place called Open Space, bathed in fluorescent,
windowless, toilets at the end, with a super listenin' in
and deducting if I stagger in a disrespectful manner
as I sell the pack of lies that is good for every size
no ma'am, it doesn't matter what you say
(your baby keeps crying away)
each man has his price and a glowing lie
that lights his way from above.
How may I help?

—Translated by Ronen Altman Kaydar

Yudit: Aren't you fed up with this saga of jobs? It'll bore your readers to death.

If we don't tell them, who will?

When I keep saying it's survival, I mean that according to the Bibi law of 2003, I wasn't eligible for unemployment money, so a sword hung over me. A day of not working meant no food for the kids. It was a frantic fight for survival.

One day before being fired from Sakal—and here was a piece of luck—I'd found a teaching job at the National Center for Learning Disabilities in Rosh ha-Ayn.

So things straightened out for you at last.

Not quite yet, unfortunately. They didn't pay us for the last five months of the year. It was a private establishment. While I was trying to survive and taking loans, teachers were gradually resigning. But when you're a single parent and need to work as if in the jungle, you're constantly busy with how to go on and where to get money. So I didn't leave till the year was over. I hoped they would pay.

They didn't. Eventually I got to Nitzan, an association that deals with learning disabilities. From then on I began to find my way. I substituted at Amit High School in Rishon LeZion, and this year I'm part of the regular staff. The same at Blikh in Ramat Gan. But the pay is very low despite my two academic degrees, so I have to work three jobs.

I feel that I'm doing something true and real as a special-ed teacher. But I don't understand why the state spits in our face. My son worked in telemarketing after he finished high school and made more than me. He asked me ironically if I wanted a loan.

God comes into your poems, God of the secretaries, a God that falls silent in front of the bread. Where does he come from?

I grew up in a religious family. My father was a rabbi and my grandfather a cantor. As a girl I saw how they divide the men from the women in the synagogue, and that I wouldn't be able to be a rabbi or carry the torah. I would always sit apart with the women. I rebelled and entered the army. I'm still curious about religion, but I think that if God exists, he is so big that he probably won't much care about things like separating meat and milk.

You are basically a poet of social issues.

I'm ambivalent about my writing. Life is stronger than words. I don't always manage to express this. And I also wonder who would find it interesting. There's so much suffering, and so much luxury and corruption beside it. Who reads poetry?

On the other side, I feel that if I succeed in saying something socially significant, I'll have a sense of achievement. I have standards of poetry netto, poetry as such. I don't like the poetry of issues and causes. The tension between writing poetry for its own sake and doing something significant, something that contributes, tears me apart.

Do you see any change on the horizon for the State of Israel?

I don't know what to think. The situation here is like a shadow dance. Apart from the social questions, there is the sin of the occupation and the racism. I was among the leftist voters, basically Meretz, but today I don't know what to say. The Israeli side is the occupier, the one that is responsible, but I can't blame Israel only. We are flailing about in a very deep swamp. I would recognize Hamas because there's no other way, but the way they act isn't clear to me. And within the country the society is in tatters, without solidarity.

The first time I voted was for Shulamit Aloni of Meretz. That was 1977. Now, thirty years later, I don't know who to vote for, although I'm a super-responsible person and consider it my duty to vote. I'm disappointed with Meretz because of its lack of interest in a social agenda. Hadash has shrunk to the point that it only cares about the Arab population. I want to vote for a party that will care about Arabs and Jews and will try to resolve the conflict.

But I'd like to return to a more personal note. Despite everything that is happening, and to me as well, I feel lucky. I could have been born on a sidewalk in India. Or Gaza. There are people whose situation is harder, much harder, than mine. I go around with this pain, maybe because I grew up in an environment that was full of pain. I have pupils who are hungry. My own kids never went hungry. I'll telemarket people at 2 a.m. to bring food home to my kids. I feel spoiled because I have a mind, because I am capable of analyzing what happens to me.

And besides, I have enough money to take a bus to Afula and buy sunflower seeds.

Yellow Lace

This was twenty odd years ago.
They lived in a roomy house of Jerusalem stone
I was finishing preparatory matriculation
for the culturally deprived, second year,
she was a Ph.D., married to a famous professor,
their thin pale son used to sneak up behind me
and breathe on my neck.
She'd hunch over the piano in the music room
the shadows of the trees in the garden jigged and jittered to the air
in the soft Jerusalem light I knew wasn't meant for me.
She made a point of buying cheesecake and apple pie for family
and guests at a particular bakery,
she taught me to operate the dishwasher and vacuum cleaner,
she bubbled with praise on finding that her maid had arranged
the cans in a practical order,
I wanted to tell her I'd already published a poem in a journal
but kept quiet.
She complained how hard it was to find good help now that Arab women
don't come because of the tension.
She wore British lace panties yellow in the places of friction.
Fortnightly, on the dot, an aged seamstress arrived from Baka to do "little mendings"
in exchange for old clothes and canned foods.
When I told her I'd be getting married and leaving, I felt I was stealing from her,
she had the look of one who smells something fishy
and threw a glance at my stomach,
I wanted to say I wasn't pregnant
but kept quiet
and still felt under no obligation
to offer her husband the right of first night.

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