Although he was 85 years old and had been fighting cancer for the last year, the death of Aharon Amir last week came as a surprise to many. After all, in recent months he had been as vigorous and active as always, making sure that the Keshet literary journal appeared on time, receiving books sent to his editorial office, reading manuscripts, catching up on developments in the literary world, attending poetry festivals and literary events, and even sitting in cafes with friends for an early morning beer.
A poet, translator and editor, and a founder of the Canaanite movement, Amir left his body to science, so no funeral was held for him. He is survived by his wife, Bettine, a poet and painter, with whom he raised her two children (one of whom passed away last year), by his own three children from a previous marriage - Nadav, Hiram and Avishag - and by his grandchildren.
Amir, with his crisp, proper Hebrew and deep guttural accent, did not like to speak of his disease. In fact, he did not much like to talk about himself at all. In January, an event marking his 85th birthday was held at Tel Aviv's Bialik House. He sat and listened to the praise and compliments with which the speakers showered him. Finally, when it was his turn to address the crowd, he sounded a humorous note of reservation about anniversary festivities of all kinds.
"There was something full of force about him," says Amir's friend, poet Shin Shifra. "We had plans for two more issues of Keshet, one to be published soon and one in June, for Israel's 60th anniversary celebrations." Shifra met Amir in 1957, through the poet Yonatan Ratosh. "I brought Aharon two poems of mine for the first issue of Keshet. Over the years the journal became a home to me. He provided a platform to newcomers and young poets and discovered many new voices. He was first and foremost a poet. I loved his later poems. They were more open, full of sharp self-irony. He did not spare himself irony any more than he spared others.
"He was a very complex man, with an innate integrity, a man proud of being a man. He adhered to elegant codes in his relations with the world. He was private, did not share intimacies about himself, always revealing a little and concealing more. In a society where everyone is engaged in constant striptease, it was a wonderful thing."
Aharon Amir was born in Lithuania in 1923 and grew up in Tel Aviv. He was a member of the Etzel and Lehi pre-state Jewish underground militias, and studied literature and Arabic at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (it was to these studies, as well as to his visits to Lebanon and Syria, that he owed his fine command of Arabic). He was among the founders of the Canaanites, a group whose official name was The Council for the Coalition of Hebrew Youth. Its members included Ratosh, author Benjamin Tammuz, sculptor Yitzhak Danziger and others.
The Canaanites supported the establishment of a secular Hebrew nation, separate from Judaism and the experience of exile, which tapped into ancient Hebrew culture, the peoples of the region and the Mediterranean space. "I define myself as a Hebrew man," Amir said in an interview in Haaretz last December.
Between 1948 and 1958 Amir edited the Canaanite movement's journal, Alef. In 1958 he became editor of Keshet, which appeared for 18 years and was a literary home for authors such as Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua and Yehoshua Kenaz (Amir used to mention that S.Y. Agnon and playwright Nissim Aloni also wrote for Keshet). The journal resumed its activity in 2002, and since then it has appeared regularly, four times a year - unusual for an Israeli literary journal.
Amir published poetry books and novels (in Hebrew), including the "Nun" trilogy, "And Death Shall Have No Dominion" (also translated into French) and "The Villains." He often wrote or translated under pseudonyms, such as Yovav or Michaela Nedivi. His name became widely known when it was mentioned in a song by Meir Ariel: "Reading 'Islands in the Stream' by Ernest Hemingway, / nicely translated by Aharon Amir."
And, indeed, Amir was a particularly prolific translator. What began as a way of making a living became his life's work. He translated into Hebrew over 300 books by various authors including Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, Herman Melville, Winston Churchill, John Steinbeck, Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Bronte, Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison and O. Henry. In 2003 he won the Israel Prize for his work as a translator.
In the biblical spirit
Although widely respected, Amir always felt an outsider in the local literary scene. Maybe it was his accent, or perhaps the Canaanite ideas, which he never relinquished. "From a young age I have felt there was something strange in me," he said in an interview three months ago. "I was in 10th grade at the Gymnasia Herzliya [high school] in Tel Aviv, which was filled with working-class Israel, all blue shirts [of the Labor movement]. Some knew that I was actually supposed to serve in the Etzel. Later an old friend let me read something he had received from Benjamin Tammuz. It was the platform Ratosh had written for a national Hebrew movement. Thanks to this I visited Tammuz himself, and a month later I met Ratosh. We spent four hours together in some darkened room on the roof of that friend's house, and since then I have been captivated by this matter."
Amir's positions cannot be easily categorized as left or right. He was neither. As a Canaanite, he objected to anything with even the slightest hint of Judaism and believed in a secular Hebrew state, in the spirit of the biblical era's Hebrew culture. In December he was asked what his surname was before he chose the Hebrew name Amir. "I don't remember," he answered.
"All we need here is a secular state," he said in that interview. "I don't want to see this country without the Arabs, it's unthinkable to me. I think that they can be a constructive and fertile component in this joint work. We are missing that because we speak more and more of a Jewish state and a Jewish society and culture.
"By virtue of what it is in human, scientific, technological, even humanist terms, Israel is in a category of its own within this region. For all of its immigrant nature, it is still rooted in a language that is the ancient language of this country, and in which the Bible was written and which, with the power of the Bible, has won over entire worlds. Israel certainly provides encouragement to become the standard-bearer of progress and development and true nationality, not of religious nationality."
Says literary editor Aliza Ziegler, a member of Keshet's editorial board: "Aharon was a great editor, in the tradition of the great editors who are no longer with us, as much as he was a translator and poet. I saw him in his last days poring over manuscripts and proofs for the last issue of Keshet, upright, dressed in a golden black robe, lucid as crystal, regal. He looked to me like an ancient king, and for a moment I deluded myself that he would not die.
"But he did die, and I think he lived a wonderful life of flowing, abundant creation and great vitality, and he got to celebrate his 85th birthday with a large crowd. In the last days before his death he was visited by Dror Eydar, one of his many proteges. Dror came to him with a camera and documented what they both knew would be their last conversation. It is a riveting, chilling document, and I hope that one of the television channels will agree to show it."
Haaretz.com, the online edition of Haaretz Newspaper in Israel, offers real-time breaking news, opinions and analysis from Israel and the Middle East. Haaretz.com provides extensive and in-depth coverage of Israel, the Jewish World and the Middle East, including defense, diplomacy, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the peace process, Israeli politics, Jerusalem affairs, international relations, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the Israeli business world and Jewish life in Israel and the Diaspora.