SHOHAM (Polakevich), MATTITYAHU MOSHE


SHOHAM (Polakevich), MATTITYAHU MOSHE
SHOHAM (Polakevich), MATTITYAHU MOSHE (1893–1937), Hebrew poet and playwright. Born in Warsaw, and orphaned at an early age, Shoham was educated by his grandfather and uncle. He studied foreign languages and secular literature largely on his own. In 1930 he went to Palestine, but being unable to earn a livelihood, returned to Poland two years later. He served for three years as chairman of the Hebrew Authors' Association of Poland, and helped to edit its biweekly publication Ammudim; he also lectured at the Institute of Jewish Studies in Warsaw. Most of Shoham's poems, plays, and essays were published in Ha-Tekufah, Moznayim, Gilyonot, and Ketuvim. Only two of his works appeared in book form during his lifetime – Ẓor vi-Yrushalayim (1933) and Elohei Barzel Lo Ta'aseh Lekha (1937). His other works were published in collected form in 1965. -Lyric Poems Shoham began his literary career by writing lyric and dramatic poems, his main themes being love and the biblical past. His vocabulary and style are archaic, and he frequently employs exotic figures of speech and highly dramatic symbolism. The power of Shoham's poems lies in their densely packed lines and in the depth of their mythic conception. This is apparent even in his early lyric cycles, such as "Shulamit" (Ha-Tekufah, 4, 1919), "Negohot" (ibid., 7, 1920), "Kaẓir" (ibid., 9, 1921), and "Peret" (ibid., 19, 1923). The pervasive theme in these poems is sensual, primitive love, which is invariably linked to the recurrent cycle of time. A broad mythical conception of love and human life also dominates the poems "Ahavah" (Ha-Tekufah, 22, 1924) and "Gadish" (Moznayim, 3, 1931), and the prose   poems "El ha-Malkah" (Ha-Tekufah, 6, 1920) and "Nedudim" (ibid., 8, 1921). Most of Shoham's longer poems are based largely upon a mythical conception of Jewish history. In "Kedem" (Ha-Tekufah, 14–15, 1922) and "Ur Kasdim" (ibid., 26–27, 1930), the dramatic tension springs from the polarity between East and West. Shoham's view is that the salvation of Western man in general, and of the Jew in particular, depends upon his return to the Orient and the renewal of the supremacy of the Orient. In the war between light and darkness (Ormazd and Ahriman), light will ultimately triumph ("Kedem") and Nimrod will regain his place in the world ("Ur Kasdim"). In "Ereẓ Yisrael" (Ha-Tekufah, 27, 29, 1935, 1936), the tension arises from the poet's confrontation with the myth-strewn landscape of Palestine. Exceptionally interesting are his poetic essays To Scatter and to Winnow dealing mainly with historiosophic problems of Jewish existence and aspects of poetry. -Dramatic Poems Shoham is regarded as one of the major dramatists in Hebrew literature. His four verse plays deal with biblical themes against the background of eternal Jewish problems; and they are all characterized by the author's predilection for making the protagonists embrace opposing views of historical destiny. Shoham's first play, Yeriḥo ("Jericho," Ha-Tekufah, 20, 1924), is a dramatization of the fall of Jericho. The chief characters, Achan, a Hebrew, and Rahab of Jericho, are drawn to one another. Their love, perhaps, is a symbol of the attraction between the decadent culture of Jericho and the vigorous, vital Hebrew culture of the desert. Achan is the hero of the play, while Phinehas the priest, who condemns him to death because of his love for a foreign woman, is its villain. Shoham suggests that the salvation of the young nation depends upon the merging of the two cultures. At the close of the play, Eldad and Medad, the spiritual heirs of Moses, proclaim that the nation's message is not narrow and chauvinistic, like that of Phinehas, but universal, promising redemption for all. In Bilam ("Balaam," Ha-Tekufah, 23–25, 1928, 1929), Shoham presents in a favorable light the liaison between Zimri the Hebrew and Kozbi the Midianite woman, a relationship forbidden by the priest. Phinehas, who opposes the union, is rebuffed by Moses who approves the love of the young people. Subsequently, however, the couple is murdered by the fanatical priest. But the basic theme of the play is found in its sub-plot – the conflict between Balaam, the prophet of darkness, and Moses, the prophet of light, and Balaam's final "regeneration out of sin." Balaam had grown up together with Moses, and had become estranged from him out of envy; but before Balaam's death he is redeemed from his darkness and accepts the teachings of his friend. Balaam's blessing is interpreted as the triumph of the inner light in his heart over the darkness which had engulfed him. The structure of the play, with its two plots, is complex. The action centers on the main plot (Kozbi – Zimri), which is largely a drama of intrigue, while the subplot is unfolded in Balaam's long discursive soliloquies. These soliloquies tend to weaken the dramatic effect of the play, but they undoubtedly add to its poetry. Zor vi-Yrushalayim ("Tyre and Jerusalem," 1933; new edition 1992) was written during the author's stay in Ereẓ Israel – an experience which appears to have considerably altered his views on the relations between Jews and gentiles. In the earlier plays, these had been presented as relations of attraction, but they are now regarded as relations of dissociation. There can be no bond between Elijah the prophet and Jezebel, for she belongs to a foreign culture; and Elisha, who had initially courted Jezebel, dissociates himself from her when he receives the tidings of redemption. Ahikar, the prophet of Tyre, predicts that the culture of Tyre will not prevail over the culture of Israel until there is a "marriage" between El and Astarte; but the central theme of the play is the uniqueness of the Hebrew nation. No longer is the emphasis upon the tragic attachment which overpowers the heroes despite the taboos of society; it has shifted to the dramatic self-denial of Elisha, who conquers his impulses and rejects the temptations of Jezebel in favor of his spiritual ideal. The play also marks a considerable technical advance: there are fewer discursive elements, the dialogue is much more alive, and there is an increase in the use of dramatic techniques such as mime, crowd scenes, and shifts in the dramatic viewpoint. Elohei Barzel Lo Ta'aseh Lekha ("Thou shalt not make to thyself molten gods," 1937) represents a remarkable change in Shoham's methods and outlook. The allegorical elements hinted at in Bilam now take precedence over the symbolic elements characteristic of the previous plays. Alongside the mythical characters, who represent concepts of nation and race, stand the two protagonists, Abraham and Gog, personifying two historical ideas – Abraham, the prophetic ideal of social salvation, and Gog, the racist concept that all breeds must be subjugated to the northern race. Echoes of the doctrine of Aryanism and Nazism are clearly discernible in the course of their struggle; this topicality leads to the appearance of numerous anachronisms, as for example a cannon. The common man (represented by Lot), who is crushed between the two opposing forces, feels that he must give up all hope of redemption in the distant future, for to struggle for it in this life can be disastrous. Here Shoham shows his preference for the insignificant, unimaginative Western man, rather than for the promulgators of lofty ideas, the implementation of which can lead to catastrophe. Technically, the latter is the most complex of his works, combining a plot of love and intrigue, involving Sarah, Hagar, and Lot's daughters, played out under the allegorical superstructure of the relentless struggle between Abraham and Gog. Shoham's work is a mixture of primitive archaism and ideological expressionism. His archaic language and long reflective passages render his plays totally unsuitable for the stage; but his ideological passion, linked to a profoundly imaginative conception of historical situations, his original style, and his complex outlook have secured him a central place in the history of Hebrew drama and poetry. Although most of   his characters are symbolic, the ideological and emotional tension between them generates a powerful dramatic atmosphere which does not depend on theatrical success alone. -BIBLIOGRAPHY: I. Cohen, in: M. Shoham, Ketavim, 1 (1964), 7–178; G. Shaked, The Hebrew Historical Drama in the Twentieth Century (1970); idem, in: Scripta Hierosolymitana, 19 (1967), 16–38; R. Kartun-Blum, From Tyre to Jerusalem, the Literary World of Mattityahu Shoham (1969); J. Oren, Iyyunim be-"Ẓor vi-Yrushalayim" le-M. Shoham (1967), incl. Bibliography. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: G. Shaked, Al Sheloshah Maḥazot (1968); R. Kartun-Blum, "Mahut ha-Shirah be-Maḥshavto shel Shoham," in: Moznayim, 28 (1969), 43–47; H. Barzel, "Yeẓarim ve-Ideot be-Maḥazotav shel Shoham," in: Bamah, 48–49 (1971), 35–45; E. Wolfin, "Ḥidushei Milim be Maḥazotav shel Shoham," in: Ha-Ivrit ve-Aḥyoteha, 2–3 (2003), 191–204. (Gershon Shaked)

Encyclopedia Judaica. 1971.