One of Israel’s national poets, literary legends and political voices, Natan Alterman, is born, 1929
In his lifetime, Natan Alterman would go on to become one of Israel’s national poets, as a literary legend and a political voice. Born in Warsaw, Poland on this day in 1910, Alterman was the son of two teachers, his father having been one of the founders of the Hebrew kindergarten in Warsaw. After fleeing Warsaw at the start of World War I, the Alterman family moved to Moscow and Kishinev before settling in Tel Aviv in 1925. In Tel Aviv, Alterman was a student at Herzliya Gymnasia, and after graduating, he moved to Paris to study at university. He went on to obtain his degree in agricultural engineering in 1932, and returned to British-occupied Palestine in 1934.
Alterman published his first poem in 1931, and as he continued to write and publish work, his writing fell under two categories: satirical poetry focused on contemporary politics and romantic, lyrical imagist poetry. The year he returned to Palestine, Alterman began contributing political poetry to Ha’aretz via the weekly political column called “Moments.” In 1943, he started writing for the Labor daily newspaper, Davar, primarily focusing on criticizing British authorities and chronicling the endeavors of the Haganah and the Palmah. His poems were banned by the British, though it didn’t stop his work from being passed around by hand.
In 1935, Alterman married actress Rachel Markus, and together they had a son Tirza, born in 1941. Meanwhile, Alterman published books of poetry, the first of which was Kochavim BaChutz (Stars Outside) in 1938. His second book of poetry was published in 1941, titled Simchat Aniyyim (Joy of the Poor), and Shirei Makot Mitzrayim (Plagues of Egypt) was published three years later. One of Alterman’s most famous poems was published around the time of the War of Independence. Titled “Silver Platter,” this poem touches on the sacrifices made by Israeli soldiers in the fight for nationhood:
"Still bone weary from days and from nights in the field/ Full of endless fatigue and unrested, Yet the dew of their youth. Is still seen on their head/ Thus they stand at attention, giving no sign of life or death/ Then a nation in tears and amazement will ask: "Who are you?"/ And they will answer quietly, "We are the silver platter on which the Jewish state was given."
After the establishment of the State of Israel, Alterman continued writing for Davar, mainly for “The Seventh Column.” In 1957, Alterman wrote Ir HaYonah (Wailing City) as an abstract commentary on human history through a focus on the Holocaust, illegal immigration to Israel, and Israeli national independence. Alterman won the Bialik Prize for literature because of this piece, and a year later, he published an anthology for children.
The 60s was a busy decade for Alterman; he published multiple collections, wrote five plays, and after the Six-Day War, he became a member of the Movement for Greater Israel which called for the expansion of Israeli borders and settlements. He also worked on translating works by Moliere, Shakespeare, and Racine from English to Hebrew. In 1968, Alterman received the Israel Prize for his contributions to Hebrew Literature.
By the time Alterman passed away in 1970, he was widely considered as one of Israel’s national poets and the literary spokesman for pronationalist Israelis. Even today, Natan Alterman’s work is widely read in Israel, and his face has been on the NIS 200 since 2016, along with the words from his poems “Eternal Meeting” and “Morning Song.” The latter poem embodies the Israeli national spirit that defined Alterman’s career:
“If the road is hard and treacherous, If not only one shall drop dead, Forevermore we shall love thee, homeland, We are yours in battle and in labor!”
"Alterman, Nathan." Encyclopaedia Judaica. https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/alterman-nathan. "Alterman, Natan."
Encyclopedia of World Biography. https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/alterman-natan.
Lior, Gad. “New NIS 200 bill featuring poet Nathan Alterman to debut in early 2016.” YNetNews, June 2015,
https://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4672312,00.html. “Natan Alterman (1910 - 1970).” Jewish Virtual Library.
https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/natan-alterman. “שיר בוקר (Shir Boker) (English translation)." LyricTranslate,
https://lyricstranslate.com/en/שיר-בוקר-shir-boker-morning-song.html. “The Silver Salver.” ZioNation: Zionism-Israel Web Log, https://zionism-israel.com/hdoc/Silver_Platter.htm.