Next week, Israel will celebrate the sixty-fifth anniversary of its independence. For most Jewish citizens here, the date comes and goes without much fanfare. Of course, the same could be said for the Fourth of July, which in our country has become more a day for shopping and barbecuing than for recalling the specific eighteenth-century events that led to American independence. Of course, there are no living Americans who participated in the Revolutionary War, nor are there any among us who could possibly have known such people. (Even my grandmother, born a mere 102 years after Yorktown, could hardly have met a veteran of the Revolution, although her parents just barely could have!) But in Israel there are many veterans of the War of Independence still among the living and, as a result, Israeli Independence Day is taken much more seriously in Israel than American Independence Day is here.
To create what Israelis consider just the right atmosphere for their national holiday, Independence Day is preceded by Memorial Day, a day of national mourning. But by juxtaposing the two days—one of intense grief and one of great national pride—and by allowing one naturally to flow into the other, the Israelis are also saying something profound about the way they understand the very existence of their state: that it was not handed to them by kismet, much less by the United Nations, but was purchased, so to speak, with the blood of all those who gave their lives so that the state could be born. Among Israelis, the most profound literary expression of that thought—or at least the mostly widely known—is Natan Alterman’s poem Magash Ha-kesef (“The Silver Platter”), which generations of Israelis have learned to recite by heart and which I myself also committed to memory as a university student trying to complete a major in modern Hebrew in a single year before graduating. (When I returned from my junior year in France—during which I had abandoned all my courses except the ones in Hebrew language and literature—and had one year of college left, my goal was to become proficient enough in modern Hebrew to avoid having to take any language courses while in rabbinical school and part of my self-imposed regimen involved memorizing modern Hebrew poetry. It worked too!)
Alterman was an interesting figure. Born in Warsaw in 1910, he moved with his family to Israel when he was fifteen, but—in this one way like myself—spent years in France studying at the very same university I did. (Peculiarly, I’m the one who studied Hebrew. The Hebrew poet himself studied agronomy.) Eventually returning to what was then British Palestine, Alterman worked briefly as a teacher but then turned to journalism and spent the rest of his career writing poetry and working as a journalist and translator. His translations of Shakespeare and Molière into modern Hebrew won him important prizes, but it was his poetry that made him famous. His greatest work, a book called Simhat Aniyim “(The Joy of the Poor”), was written when he was only thirty-one and is considered a true masterpiece of Hebrew letters. But his single best-known poem would have to be Magash Ha-kesef, the poem I learned by heart when I was nineteen.
The title itself Alterman didn’t make up. That honor goes to Chaim Weizmann, the first president of Israel, who in 1947 after the United Nations had voted to partition the British Mandate and from it to create two independent states, one Jewish and one Arab, remarked famously that "No state is ever handed on a silver platter…The Partition Plan does not give the Jews [a state,] but [only] an opportunity." And it was from that thoughtful, chastening remark that Alterman took the concept that he spun out into his poem, which itself was also written before independence was declared in 1948. The poem is therefore not a reflection on the War of Independence, although it reads that way now, but an almost prophetic prediction of what exactly it was going to take to create a Jewish state in the Land of Israel, and of the level of commitment and dedication, but also the level of loss, that was going to be required to transform the dream of an independent Jewish state into reality.
And so, despite the fact that I am so much more adept at writing prose than poetry, I would like to offer my readers a fresh English translation of Alterman’s poem in honor of the sixty-fifth anniversary of Israel’s independence. Forty years have passed since I set myself to learning these lines. I’ve changed. Israel has changed. Everything, almost, has changed. But the degree to which these lines continue to inspire and move me—that actually hasn’t changed at all.
The Silver Platter
As peace comes the land, the red of the skies
Grows slowly less intense over smoke-covered borders
As a nation, still breathing despite its broken heart, rises in its place
To experience something unprecedented, something miraculous.
To prepare for the ceremony, the nation rises up in the moonlight
To stand before the dawn seized by celebration and by terror.
And it is then, at that moment, that a boy and a girl come forward
And slowly take their place before the nation.
Armed, dressed in fatigues, still wearing combat boots,
They come forward along the assigned path in silence,
Having found the time neither to change their outfits nor to wipe
Away the traces of exhaustion earned in the line of fire.
Tired to the point of exhaustion and, indeed, deprived of all rest,
Dripping with dew, or rather with the sweat of Jewish youth,
The two approach and stand perfectly still,
And for a long moment seem neither dead nor fully alive.
In tears but seized by curiosity, the nation asks simply
“Who are you?” The two remain still, considering the question,
But then they do answer. “We are the silver platter,” they explain,
“The one upon which the state has been granted to you.”
And then, having said their piece, they fall back into the shadows
And leave the rest to be recorded in the Annals of Israel.