Tuesday, September 8, 2009

I am a Silver Platter

As many know, the title of this blog refers to the well-known Israeli poem by Natan Alterman. Few Yom HaZikkaron ceremonies (Israeli Memorial Day) do not include the poem, which has since been put to music. With the UN Vote for the partition of Palestine on 29 November, 1947 (ironically, the cross-street of where I live), people around the world stated that the state of Israel was handed over on a Silver Platter (Magash HaKesef). Chaim Weizman, who would become the first president of Israel, gave the following quote to HaAretz newspaper on December 15, 1947: "A nation is not handed over on a silver platter (אין מדינה ניתנת לעם על מגש של כסף)." The poem itself was published for days later.

During a war where Israel lost 1% of its total population, the poem became a rallying cry for the Israeli War of Independence. And in many ways, such a mantra still lives strong. The state was built, and lives on, because of the sacrifices of real people, each day.

In November, I relished Pres. Obama's speech in Cairo. I felt that he complicated the issues, he dared people to look beyond the polarities that so often dominate discourse and in turn elevate the conversation to a level of highest common denominator. Yet perhaps manifested most visibly by HaAretz editor Aluf Benn in an Op/Ed to the NYT, Israelis from across the political spectrum recoiled at Obama's emphasis of Israel as a refuge from atrocity, specifically from the Holocaust.

The Israeli narrative, seen most poignantly in this very poem, is one which voices itself in positive terms. The state was not handed over on a silver platter. Quite the opposite. It is a land that has roots throughout the collective memory of the Jewish people. The Jewish narrative goes back to the Bible, the Jewish Zionist narrative to the 1880s (you want to say 1860s, fine. We can have that conversation if you want).

I didn't expect such an argument from Benn and others (several Israeli friends voiced the same thing). Personally, I should note that I didn't hear said condemnation toward the Israeli state in Obama's words. Physical protection does not preclude Israeli voicing itself in its own, positive terms. Yet the lack of both narratives in the speech left, and continues to leave, a bitter taste in the mouths of many natives I have encountered. Did Obama say that the State of Israel was handed over on a silver platter? He didn't say it wasn't.

But what does this have to do with me? In what is now a social requirement for all who leave the country (and Canada) for an extended time, why grace my blog with said title? Rabbinic commentators on sacred texts often have clever word plays for names. Sometimes the names are quotes from Tanakh. Other times the clever "nicknames" are the name of the most famous book. So I figured that I needed one as well. My friend, chevruta, former Brown Bear who almost got in a fight with the Penn Quaker and future roommate, Ari, came up with the perfect choice. Well done.

Besides for being a poem with which I have identified for a long time, the name also reflects the religious significance I place on modern texts. More on that in a later post.
And the rest will be told in the chronicles of my blog...

מגש הכסף
נתן אלתרמן

והארץ תשקוט, עין שמים אודמת
תעמעם לאיטה על גבולות עשנים
ואומה תעמוד - קרועת לב אך נושמת
לקבל את הנס האחד, אין שני.

היא לטקס תיכון. היא תקום למול סהר
ועמדה, טרם-יום, עוטה חג ואימה.
אז מנגד יצאו נערה ונער
ואט אט יצעדו הם אל מול האומה.

לובשי חול וחגור, וכבדי נעליים
בנתיב יעלו הם הלוך והחרש.
לא החליפו בגדם, לא מחו עוד במים
את עקבות יום הפרך וליל קו האש.

עייפים עד בלי קץ, נזירים ממרגוע,
ונוטפים טללי נעורים עבריים
דום השניים ייגשו, ועמדו לבלי נוע.
ואין אות אם חיים הם או אם ירויים.

אז תשאל האומה, שטופת דמע וקסם,
ואמרה: מי אתם? והשניים שוקטים,
יענו לה: אנחנו מגש הכסף
שעליו לך ניתנה מדינת היהודים,
כך ויאמרו ונפלו לרגלה עוטפי צל,
והשאר יסופר בתולדות ישראל.

The Silver Platter
By Natan Altermann

The earth grows still.
The lurid sky slowly pales over smoking borders.
Heartsick but still living, a people stand by
To great the uniqueness
Of the miracle. Readied, they wait beneath the moon,
Wrapped in awesome joy before the light. — Then soon,
A girl and boy step forward,
And slowly walk before the waiting nation;
In work clothes and heavy-shod
They climb
In stillness.
Wearing still the dress of battle, the grime
Of aching day and fired night
Unwashed, weary until death, not knowing rest,
But wearing youth like dewdrops in their hair.
— Silently the two approach
And stand.
Are they of the quick or of the dead?
Through wondering tears, the people stare.
"Who are you, the silent two?"
And they reply: "We are the silver platter
Upon which the Jewish State was served to you."
And speaking, fall in shadow at the nation's feet.
Let the rest in Israel's chronicles be told.


  1. I am very moved by this, Zach, and will use it on Erev Yom Hazikharon, when I lead the Rosh Chodesh observance at my small synagogue in California. You may not remember me, I was your neighbor at 923 Asbury in Evanston, and watched you grow. Thank you for this.

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  3. Hi. Great post. Thanks for the info. I'm going to use part of this today at the Assisted Living Facility where I work in Cleveland, Ohio. I will cite you properly. :-) Todah.