Haim Gouri, Israeli poet, novelist, journalist, and documentary filmmaker, passed away on Wednesday, January 31, 2018, at 94. His 70-year career "gave voice to some of the country’s most emblematic and tumultuous moments," writes The Times of Israel.
Gouri was an occasional teacher and visitor to T. Carmi’s classes for HUC-JIR's Year-In-Israel students in the 1980s. The only English volume translation of his poetry, “Words in My Lovesick Blood: Poems by Haim Gouri,” was completed by Rabbi Stanley F. Chyet, Ph.D., z"l, Professor Emeritus of American Jewish History.
Gouri received the Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa, at HUC-JIR/Jerusalem Ordination and Academic Convocation on November 18, 2016. Read his remarks:
I would like to express my sincere thanks to those who found me worthy of receiving an honorary degree from Hebrew Union College. This is a moving occasion for me, because of my fellow honorees and because of those who have chosen to award me this degree, people who represent a very important and vital part of Jewish culture at a time of spiritual tension and controversy in Israel, and around the world.
We meet here in restless Jerusalem, during a tempestuous period marked by ongoing conflict between us and our neighbors and among ourselves. Many of those present here are active participants in the struggle to shape our common identity, striving to widen its boundaries and make it more open and tolerant.
Sometimes I reflect on the method for preparing k'toret, the incense burned in the ancient Temple. Many spices were combined to produce just the right fragrance. We must not underestimate the importance of the different flavors of our identity. They help to create a rich whole.
Some people see pluralism and human diversity as a threat to identity. But it is only through pluralism and diversity that we may breathe deeply. In a pluralistic society, people may sometimes feel that they need to protect their souls. Someone may try to steal your identity and replace it with an alien experience you will find unbearable. At such a moment it is difficult to remember that a complex society is also a rich asset that brings us much benefit.
In my book Im Hashirah v'Hazman (“With Poetry and Time”), I wrote:
“You’re one of us, don’t worry! You carry all the years with you! You were there at every stop along the way … wherever we were, you were there too: at the covenant with Abraham and on the night of the angels and the ladder and that battle till dawn, and that blemish that lives on like an identity card in your flesh. We saw you with us at every stop. In every time. In each reincarnation … Because you also went down to Egypt, and you also came out of there at the appointed time, after the signs and wonders. And you also crossed the great and terrible desert on foot. And you also stood at the foot of the mountain, its summit cloaked in smoke and fog, at the time of the Tablets of the Covenant!... We say this because you are here in the Land where all these times have merged together… You are of this place!”
All my life, I have felt myself to be part of what happens here, all the wars and all the creativity. I am “the image of my homeland’s landscape” – a landscape that is often complex and difficult. Sometimes I feel, as I then wrote:
“In that case, I’m too much all at once. In that case, I’m an endless civil war. Not the summary of my history as an heir, but fragments and contradiction.”
“A people remembers a Land and swears by its name. A Land awaits the people. It’s not simple! Not at all simple. Sometimes I feel that my mind is confused and my reason muddied by the fact that I am always this place, with all its history, and also this people, with all its wanderings…”
Elsewhere in the same book I wrote about the fact that I am all these layers, like an archeological mound, like a deep cross-section of the ground.
And among those layers of identity there arises the question of the Jewish religion and its place in creating an identity.
“You aren’t religious… so we will repeat in your ears the ancient philosophical homily of Akabia Ben Mahalalel."
“Know where you came from and where you are going.” In other words – if you don’t know where you came from, you won’t know where you’re going… This is the problem of identity. The number one problem without which the troops are neutered and force crumbles and the spirit is lost.”
These words of Ben Mahalalel have accompanied me all my life, and I turn to them whenever I address the question of identity, memories and thoughts echoing between the layers and strata.
My mother, may her memory be a blessing, once said, “we are divided into those with a feeble spirit and those with a torn soul.” Yet perhaps a great richnesslies in the torn soul. Perhaps there, and in the pluralism and in the tension that follows, we may find evidence of a living and wondering people, fierce in its feelings and opinions. This is why the activities of different streams within Jewish and Israeli identity are so important. Through their struggle for recognition, they grant us the potential for such richness.
This is a moving occasion for me. I am proud to accept this degree from an honorable and important Jewish tribe, and once again I thank those who found me worthy of such distinction.