Poetry & Politics Through the Eyes of Back

By Kelly Finlan
February 21, 2002

photo by Katie Reing

February 18, 2002 – To a packed room, Dr. Rachel Tzvia Back read from her latest collection of poetry, Azimuth. This followed a lecture in which she tackled such controversial issues as US-Israeli relations and Israeli-Palestinian relations, ending Cabrini’s week-long Cultural Kaleidoscope.

Back was born in Buffalo, New York in 1960. The daughter of American parents, she was brought up to believe that she and her family were “temporary inhabitants” of the United States. She studied at Yale, Temple University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and she moved to Israel in 1981. She became the seventh generation of her family to live in Palestine.

She lives in Lower Galilee in a small village on the northern side of a hilltop with her husband and three children. On the southern side of the same hilltop are the ruins of the Arab town of Miar. Its inhabitants were evacuated and never allowed to return; this town was dismembered over time. On a hilltop to the north, the ruins of another village stand. They are the remains of a farm, the farm that once belonged to Back’s great great great grandfather. He founded the town and established the first modern farm in Israel. This town was also evacuated and dismembered. It is from here, between these two decimated villages, that Back draws her inspiration.

Back read from Azimuth, published this fall by Sheep Meadow Press. Such poems as “Three Love Chants,” “Unplated,” “Abu Saleem Healer,” and “Where Grief Hollars” paint a vivid picture of love and loss, tradition and separation.

Dr. Back spoke of a vision she had of a buffalo, wandering the plains of Israel. There have never been any buffalo anywhere near this area. This vision served as inspiration for a collection of more recent poetry she calls “The Buffalo Poems.” She read from this collection. They focused around the similarities between the violence in Israel and that toward the buffalo. “A Middle Eastern Fable and Nursery Rhyme” spoke of children from both cultures and the daily brutality they must endure.

The political stability of her country is of great concern to Dr. Back. She understands and can appreciate the perspectives of both the Israeli and Palestinians. “These people [Palestinians] were completely displaced fifty years ago,” she said. At the same time, she sympathizes and defends the Zionistic viewpoint, their landlessness and victimization. “I would like to see Israel become a democracy” with Jewish tradition, but without the presence of a total Jewish state. This is a controversial Post-Zionistic standpoint. Back has abandoned the hope for peaceful resolution in the near future. “There was a time,” she said, “when it was possible and, in fact, probable. But not now.” She suggests unilateral separation.

Despite the violent state of Israel and her conflicting opinions concerning the rearing of children in such a state, Back does not intend to leave. “I love Israel.” There is a focus on community and on family that she finds unique and comforting.

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Kelly Finlan

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