Erez Bitton is an Israeli poet and “dominant figure,” possibly “founding father,” of “a new and major tradition in the history of Hebrew poetry — the tradition of Mizrahi Israeli poetry–that is, poetry by Israelis of North African and Middle Eastern descent.” So writes Eli Hirsch in the introduction (p.10) to You Who Cross My Path: The Selected Poetry of Erez Bitton.
Bitton, Erez. Translated by Tsipi Keller. You Who Cross My Path: The Selected Poetry of Erez Bitton. Rochester, NY: BOA Editions Ltd, 2015.
Mizrahi Israeli Poetry
Hirsch goes on to say that Bitton’s early poetry (1960s-70s) was considered “marginal” at the time of its publication, explaining:
The Ashkenazi memory had a solid and official expression in Israeli culture. It was fashioned by the political establishment, playing a central role in the collective national mythos, the mythos of “The Holocaust and the Revival.” The young Ashkenazi poets could therefore reference this memory, while also challenging and undermining it in…the modernist project: to crack or even break the collective “official language” of their parents and predecessors in order to build from its wreckage a more “authentic” speech…
The Mizrahi memory, on the other hand, and the wrenching migration that shaped it, found little expression in the official Israeli culture. The official mythos viewed the Mizrahi Jews as ancillary, as incidentals who had hiteched a ride and joined the national journey….not quite proper Israelis, namely, not modern Ashkenzaim, not “Western.”
— Hirsch, You Who Cross My Path, translated by Tsipi Keller, p. 12
Bitton is quoted extensively in this article “The Mizrahim Are Finding Their Voice” about Israel’s “Ars Poetica” movement, a pun on a derogatory slang word often applied to men of Middle Eastern descent.
Jeffrey Saks’ article, “Words Winged with Light” at Lehrhaus, explores Bitton’s work in its “ethnic” context and beyond. The article also includes links to music and more.
Blindness and Sight
Bitton lost his sight in an accident with a hand grenade at the age of 10. Saks discusses this at some length, as does the introduction to You Who Cross My Path. The latter suggests focusing specific “languages” shared by blind and sighted alike:
- the language of the heart;
- the language of the ear and voice;
- the language of the hand; and
- the language of the foot
— Hirsch, You Who Cross My Path, translated by Tsipi Keller,
Bitton arrived in Israel as a child in 1948, after spending time in transit camps in France and Israel. He was born in Algeria to a Moroccan family in 1942. (Some sources list his birth year as 1941, but You Who Cross My Path says 1942.) Here are his Poetry Foundation and Institute for Translating Hebrew Literature pages.
BTW, the poet’s name is sometimes spelled “Biton” in English, making his name identical with that of an Israeli singer/songwriter born 1973 in Beer Sheva.