"I feel an immense gratitude to Michael Weingrad for retrieving from obscurity a great Hebrew poet and a hero of the American immigration to Israel. . . . Few have written so powerfully about the poetic experience of the return to Zion as Ben-Yosef; none have written so well about the experience of leaving America and joining that return. Weingrad’s beautiful translations are themselves works of poetry."—Yossi Klein Halevi, author of Like Dreamers
"Reuven Ben-Yosef left English and America behind to remake himself as a Hebrew poet in Israel. Now Michael Weingrad has returned him to us, in an English translation that captures the passion, pride, and angry beauty of his verse. Ben-Yosef's meditations on Jewish life in Israel and America—an opposition that split his own family—offer a powerful, and unfashionable, counterpoint to the American Jewish literature that was produced to such acclaim during his lifetime. He offers a unique and challenging response to the question of what it means to be a Jewish poet. "—New Republic
"An exceptionally thoughtful introduction to the work of a complicated man. Reuven Ben-Yosef was an American and an Israeli, a soldier and a poet, a utopian and a skeptic, and Weingrad's sensitive essay and the intelligent translations included in the volume make the man and his work come alive."—Adam Rovner, author of In the Shadow of Zion: Promised Lands before Israel
"Weingrad deepens the conversation about American Jews' relationship to American identity and culture by introducing the expatriate Ben-Yosef and his Hebrew poetic corpus. It's an important contribution that will push future scholarship in interesting new directions."—Philip Hollander, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Reuven Ben-Yosef (1937–2001) was born Robert Eliot Reiss to an assimilated Jewish family in New York. He switched from writing English poetry to Hebrew poetry after his immigration to Israel in 1959. He is the author of more than a dozen volumes of superb Hebrew poetry, as well as two collections of essays and two novels, and he won literary honors such as the Levi Eshkol Prize, the Bar-Ilan University Prize, and the Neuman and Kovner prizes for Hebrew literature. At the center of his oeuvre is the sequence of poems he wrote in the 1970s called “Mikhtavim la’Amerikah” (Letters to America), a searing and confessional set of addresses in the form of “letters” to his family members (none of whom, however, could read Hebrew) and to American Jewry as a whole.
In this edited volume, Weingrad includes not only these expertly translated poems but also an extensive, fascinating introduction that helps us see Ben-Yosef’s personal poetry as part of a larger family story. While Ben-Yosef was writing about his American family members, they were writing about him. Ben- Yosef’s younger brother, poet James Reiss, began publishing highly praised collections of poems in the 1970s and addressed conflicts with his brother in a number of poems. Ben-Yosef’s brother-in-law, novelist William Luvaas, published a first novel that was clearly based upon the Reiss family. Ben-Yosef’s letters to America are therefore joined by his family members’ “letters” to Israel, through which the Reiss family collectively created its own literature of the American–Israeli relationship in miniature, the conflicts and rifts, rivalries and loyalties of family members and competing homelands.
This essential introduction, which also describes Ben-Yosef’s early life as an American and the challenges of becoming an Israeli poet writing in Hebrew, enriches our understanding of the deeply personal poems collected in the rest of the volume. Weingrad compellingly argues that Ben-Yosef’s poems, though seemingly local in their explicit Israeli audience and address, implicitly speak to Jews in America about assimilation, heritage, and the struggle between competing identities.
About the Author
Michael Weingrad is associate professor of Judaic studies at Portland State University. He is the author of American Hebrew Literature: Writing Jewish National Identity in the United States.
Series: Judaic Traditions in Literature, Music, and Art
6 x 9, 200 pages