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Nathan Alterman (1910–1970) was the most important Hebrew poet of his generation. He was popular with readers of poetry and continues to be much-studied. Side by side with the major modernist works that established his reputation, Alterman was also a prolific producer of occasional verse on subjects of Jewish and Israeli concern. Try to imagine a close-knit, ideologically driven society of immigrants in which a public-spirited Wallace Stevens or Geoffrey Hill regularly contributed a “Seventh Column” to the newspapers. Some of his engaged poetry, like “The Silver Platter,” which honors the anonymous battlefield sacrifices that made the state of Israel a reality, are familiar to every Israeli; poems commenting on and often criticizing Israeli policy in the 1950s are still recalled and discussed today. Though it would probably be an exaggeration to ascribe to Alterman great influence over the socialist Israeli establishment of his day, there is no doubt that the elite, from Ben-Gurion on down, read him and acknowledged his stature as writer and conscience of the nation.

Alterman shared with many of his admirers a mild contempt for American Jews, Jews who enjoyed lives of materialistic comfort that contrasted tellingly with the Spartan conditions of pioneering Israeli Jews. These American Jews had not given sweat and blood on behalf of their people. He dismissed the pretenses of his brethren west of the Atlantic who deemed themselves a Jewish cultural center that rivaled Israel, as if they reincarnated the academies of Sura and Pumbedita in late antiquity that bequeathed to us the Babylonian Talmud. And he lampooned the claim that post–World War II American Jews had found a secure haven in this country.

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