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Nathan Alterman

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Nathan Alterman
Nathan Alterman in 1952
Nathan Alterman in 1952
Born(1910-08-14)August 14, 1910
Warsaw, Congress Poland, Russian Empire
DiedMarch 28, 1970(1970-03-28) (aged 59)
Tel Aviv, Israel
Occupationpoet, translator, playwright, journalist
LanguageRussian, Hebrew, German, French, English, Polish
NationalityIsraeli (since 1948)
Literary movementYakhdav (led by Avraham Shlonsky)
SpouseRachel Marcus Tzila Binder
ChildrenTirza Atar

Nathan Alterman (Hebrew: נתן אלתרמן; August 14, 1910 – March 28, 1970) was an Israeli poet, playwright, journalist, and translator. Though never holding any elected office, Alterman was highly influential in Socialist Zionist politics, both before and after the establishment of the modern State of Israel in 1948.


Nathan Alterman was born in Warsaw, Poland (then part of the Russian Empire). In 1925, when he was 15 years old, the family moved to Tel Aviv and he continued his studies at the Herzliya Hebrew High School.

When he was 19 years old, he travelled to Paris to study at the University of Paris (a.k.a. La Sorbonne), but a year later he decided to go to Nancy to study agronomy. Though maintaining close contacts with his family and friends in Tel Aviv and visiting them on vacations, Alterman spent three years in France and was highly influenced by his occasional meetings with French artists and writers. On his return to Tel Aviv in 1932, he started working at the Mikveh Yisrael agricultural school, but soon left it in favour of working as a journalist and poet.

In 1933, when Alterman was 33 years old, he joined the literary circle "Together" (Hebrew: יחדיו). Members of that literary group published the literary magazine "Columns" (Hebrew: טורים) and rebelled against the literary establishment of that time, identified with the poet Hayim Nahman Bialik and his followers.

On the 22nd of August, 1934, he married Rachel Marcus, an actress in "The Cameri Theatre" (Hebrew: התיאטרון הקאמרי) In January 1941 their only daughter was born: Tirtza Atar, who would grow up to become a poetess herself.

Alterman is credited with bringing the seeds of the marmande tomato to Israel, where it was the main species cultivated in the country until the 1960s.[1]

Literary career[edit]

In 1933, when he was 23 years old, Alterman began to write songs for the vaudeville theatre "The Broom" (Hebrew: המטאטא)."[2]

In 1934, he began to publish in the daily newspaper Davar a rhymed column named "Tel Aviv Sketches" (Hebrew: סקיצות תל אביביות). that addressed current affairs and during four months 26 of these rhymed columns were published.

In November 1934 he left Davar and began to publish in the daily newspaper Haaretz a similar column named "Moments" (Hebrew: רגעים) but this time the columns had a less lyrical and more satirical nature, and he continued to publish these columns for eight years during which he published a total of 297 columns.

Alterman's first published book of poetry was Kokhavim Bakhuts ("Stars Outside"), published in 1938. This volume, with its "neo-romantic themes, highly charged texture, and metrical virtuosity,"[3] as Israeli critic Benjamin Harshav puts it, established him as a major force in modern Hebrew literature.

His next major book was "The Joy of the Poor" (Hebrew: שִׂמְחת עניים ṡimḥàt aniyím, 1941). This is a kaleidoscopic phantasmagoria consisting of 31 interconnected poems, all from the viewpoint of the ghost of a dead man obsessed with the living woman he loves – a reversal of the Orpheus and Eurydice story. The dead man wants to protect his living love from war and poverty, but more than anything he wants to drag her into his world. His plans are continually frustrated. The light from a humble candle is enough to drive him back. The story reads like a supernatural thriller, but the rhyme and the meters are regular and elegant.

In 1942, when the first news about the Holocaust reached the Zionist Jewish community in British Mandate Palestine, Alterman wrote a poem, which can be described as a sarcastic paraphrase on the Jewish prayer, "Praised are You ... who has chosen us out of all the nations". In this poem Alterman says, "At our children's cry, shadowed by scaffolds, we heard not the world's furor. For you have chosen us out of all nations, you loved and favoured us. For you have chosen us of all nations, of Norwegians, Czechs and Britons. As they march toward scaffolds, Jewish children of reason, they know their blood shan't be reckoned among the rest, they just call to the mother 'turn away your face'." In 1943, Alterman wrote the maqama "The Swedish Tongue", in which he praised Sweden's willingness to welcome Jewish refugees from Denmark.[4]

In 1943, he also wrote a poem that was critical of Pope Pius XII, a poem that is featured at the Yad Vashem museum.[5]

In 1945–1947, Alterman's weekly column in the Labour Movement "Davar" newspaper denounced the British army's oppressive measures and praising the illegal immigrant boats landing Jewish holocaust survivors on the country's shores, in defiance of British policy. The most well-known of these is the 1945 "In Praise of an Italian Captain" (Hebrew: נאום תשובה לרב חובל איטלקי).[6]

In the early stages of the 1948 Arab–Israeli War he wrote numerous patriotic poems, the most well-known of which is "The Silver Platter" (Hebrew: מגש הכסף magásh ha-késef). Having become a canonical text read on Israel's Remembrance Day, this poem was written in response to Chaim Weizmann's words in December 1947, after the adoption of the UN Partition Plan for Palestine, "No state is ever handed on a silver platter... The partition plan does not give the Jews but an opportunity". In his poem, Alterman describes a scene similar to the Biblical Revelation on Mount Sinai, where the Jewish People are waiting to receive the Jewish state, as the Israelite were waiting to receive the Torah. And yet, instead of Moses descending with the Tablets of Stone, the people see two unfamiliar youths, a boy and a girl, wounded and near dead with exhaustion. When asked, "Who are you?" they reply, "We are the silver platter on which the state of the Jews was handed to you".

He also wrote One from the GHL (GHL is a Hebrew acronym for overseas draft), which refers to the nearly 20,000 of Holocaust survivors and other Jewish refugees who immigrated to the newly created State of Israel and were immediately drafted into the Israel Defense Forces and sent to the front lines. They had no military training and some 300 died in battle shortly after their immigration to Israel. The poem was published in Davar on the last day of the war, in protest of the inhumane treatment of these soldiers. The poem contrasts the sacrifice of these soldiers with the pretension of the state to be a safe homeland for Jewish refugees.

Later the poem was set to music by Shem Tov Levy and first performed by Arik Einstein in his 1985 album Land Product. It is often sung during the Israeli Remembrance Day and in ceremonies marking the 1948 war of independence.

Nathan Alterman with his daughter Tirza Atar

Alterman translated Shakespeare, Molière, Racine, Gozzi, Molnar, Lully, Dostoevsky, Bernard Shaw, Ionesco, Courteline, Priestley, Barrie, Anouilh, de Beaumarchais, Jonson, Labiche, Ostrovsky into Hebrew and Yiddish. He wrote the lyrics of the famous Moshe Vilenski song Kalaniyot, sung by Shoshana Damari.

Some of Alterman's poems have been turned into popular songs, e.g., "A meeting with no end" (פגישה לאין קץ). An episode in Season 3 of the Israeli Netflix show Shtisel is named after one of his poems, "First Smile," which is read at a memorial service during the show.[7] An English-language translation of "First Smile" by Robert Friend (from Found in Translation, Toby Press, 2006) is also included in the episode.

Political activism[edit]

During the 1950s, Alterman was opposed to the martial law imposed at the time on Israel's Arab citizens (until 1966), and was also strongly supportive of workers' struggle such as the 1952 sailors' strike which was suppressed by the Ben Gurion Government.

memorial plate to the poet Nathan Alterman and his family in Tel Aviv

After the Six-Day War, Alterman was one of the founders of the Movement for Greater Israel finding himself in alliance with right-wing activists whom he greatly opposed in earlier times of his career. He criticized David Ben-Gurion (who only held at the time the position of a Knesset member, but was still influential) for being too willing to give up the territories captured during the war in return for a peace agreement.

Awards and recognition[edit]

NIS 200 banknote, showing Alterman.

Alterman has been featured on Israel's NIS 200 bill since 2016.[8]

Books (Hebrew)[edit]


  • Stars Outside (Hebrew: כוכבים בחוץ). Yachdav Publishing, 1938; Machbarot Lesifrut Publishing, 1945; Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House, 1995
  • Joy of the Poor (Hebrew: שמחת עניים). Machbarot Lesifrut Publishing, 1941
  • Plague Poems (Hebrew: שירי מכות מצרים). Machbarot Lesifrut Publishing, 1944
  • The Seventh Column [vol. 1] (Hebrew: הטור השביעי : שירי העת והעתון). Am Oved Publishing, 1948; New editions: Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House, 2003; 2004
  • The Seventh Column [vol. 2] (Hebrew: הטור השביעי : שירי העת והעתון, ספר שני). Davar, 1954
  • City of the Dove (Hebrew: עיר היונה). Machbarot Lesifrut Publishing, 1957
  • Poems of Ten Brothers (Hebrew: שיר עשרה אחים). Machbarot Lesifrut Publishing, 1961
  • Summer Celebration (Hebrew: חגיגת קיץ). Machbarot Lesifrut, 1965
  • Pythagoras' Trial (Hebrew: משפט פיתגורס). Machbarot Lesifrut, 1965
  • Moments (Hebrew: רגעים). Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House, 1974
  • The Silver Platter: Selected Poems (Hebrew: מגש הכסף : מבחר שירים). Ministry of Defense, 1974
  • The Front Stand (Hebrew: העמדה הקדמית : משירי העת והעתון). Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House, Mosad Alterman, 1980
  • From: Stars Outside, Joy of the Poor, Plague Poems, City of the Dove (Hebrew: מתוך ׳כוכבים בחוץ׳, ׳שמחת עניים׳, ׳שירי מכות מצרים׳, ׳עיר היונה). Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House, 1980
  • Poems 1931-1935 (Hebrew: שירים 1935-1931). Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House, 1984
  • In Praise of Frivolity (Hebrew: שבחי קלות הדעת). Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House, 1997
  • Poems of Yore (Hebrew: שירים שמכבר). Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House, 1999
  • The Seventh Column : Israeli Art from the Benno Kalev's Collection (Hebrew: הטור השביעי : אמנות ישראלית מאוסף בנו כלב). Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House, 2000


  • Kinneret, Kinneret (Hebrew: כנרת, כנרת). Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House, 1962
  • Ghosts' Inn (Hebrew: פונדק הרוחות). Amikam, 1963
  • Esther the Queen (Hebrew: אסתר המלכה). Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House, 1966
  • Last Days of Ur (Hebrew: ימי אור האחרונים). Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House, 1990

Children-Picture Books[edit]

  • The Tenth Chick (Hebrew: האפרוח העשירי). Machbarot Lesifrut Publishing, 1943; new editions - Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House, 1973, 2005
  • The Singing Book of Friendship (Hebrew: ספר התבה המזמרת). Machbarot Lesifrut, 1958
  • The Puzzle Book (Hebrew: ספר החידות). Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House, 1971
  • To Children (Hebrew: לילדים). Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House, 1972
  • Og King of Bashan (Hebrew: עוג מלך הבשן). Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House, 1975, new edition 2011
  • Rhymes for children (Hebrew: חרוזים לילדים). Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House, ;1976 new edition 2002
  • What a Wonder (Hebrew: איזה פלא). Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House, 1983
  • A Tale of a Small Chirik (Hebrew: מעשה בחיריק קטן). Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House, 2003
  • A Tale of a Final Pe (Hebrew: מעשה בפ"א סופית). Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House, 2000
  • It All Happened at Hannuka (Hebrew: זה היה בחנכה, או, נס גדול היה פה). Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House, 2001


  • Love Poems (Hebrew: שירי אהבה). Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House, 1998
  • Tel-Aviv Serenade (Hebrew: סרנדה תל-אביבית). Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House, 1999
  • You Should Ring Twice (Hebrew: צריך לצלצל פעמיים : שירי-זמר, שירי-ספר, פזמונים). Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House, Israel Broadcasting Authority , 2002


  • The Final Mask (Hebrew: המסכה האחרונה). Maariv, 1968


  • Breaking the Circle (Hebrew: במעגל : מאמרים ורשימות, תרצ״ב־תשכ״ח). Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House, 1971
  • The Triangular Thread (Hebrew: החוט המשולש). Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House, 1971
  • The Alterman Notebooks [Vol A] (Hebrew: מחברות אלתרמן, כרך א׳). Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House together with Katz Research Institute for Hebrew Literature, Tel-Aviv University, 1977
  • Little Tel Aviv (Hebrew: תל־אביב הקטנה). Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House, 1979
  • The Alterman Notebooks [Vol B] (Hebrew: מחברות אלתרמן, כרך ב׳). Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House and Mosad Alterman, 1979
  • The Alterman Notebooks [Vol C] (Hebrew: מחברות אלתרמן, כרך ג׳). Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House and Mosad Alterman, 1981
  • Between the Poet and the Statesman (Hebrew: בין המשורר למדינאי). Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House, 1981, ext. ed. Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House, Mosad Alterman, 1986
  • The Alterman Notebooks [Vol D] (Hebrew: מחברות אלתרמן, כרך ד׳). Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House, 1986
  • Both Roads (Hebrew: על שתי הדרכים). Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House, Mosad Alterman, 1989
  • Essays and Articles (Hebrew: סער ופרץ : פרוזה ומאמרים). Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House, 2019

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Salad Days, Haaretz
  2. ^ Joy Fletcher, Rebecca (2013), The Broom & the Kettle: Satire in the Cabarets of Tel Aviv, Taylor and Francis Online, doi:10.1080/0449010X.2011.10707132 (inactive January 31, 2024){{citation}}: CS1 maint: DOI inactive as of January 2024 (link)
  3. ^ Harshav, Benjamin (2007), The Polyphony of Jewish Culture, Stanford: Stanford University Press, p. 188, ISBN 978-0804755122
  4. ^ Nathan Alterman's 1943 maqama "The Swedish Tongue", translated by Ghil'ad Zuckermann.
  5. ^ Yad Vashem: Our Info on Pius XII Based on 'Best Research'
  6. ^ Song of the "Illegals". The Canadian Jewish Chronicle, August 23, 1946, page 12. Includes an English translation.
  7. ^ "First Smile." Shtisel, created by Yehonatan Indursky and Ori Elon, season 3, episode 4, yes Studios, 2021.
  8. ^ New NIS 200 bill featuring poet Nathan Alterman to debut in early 2016
  9. ^ "List of Bialik Prize recipients 1933–2004 (in Hebrew), Tel Aviv Municipality website" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on December 17, 2007.
  10. ^ "Israel Prize Official Site – Recipients in 1968 (in Hebrew)".
  11. ^ Nadav Shemer, Jerusalem Post, 3/10/2011

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]