Yona Wallach and the Challenging of Gender Roles

“And despite her wild life, and as her image recedes, she comes across to me as a nun: 'I sit at home. Quiet, resting and writing. And I follow processes of the soul as I myself am the laboratory and the laboratory assistant.'”
 - Halit Yeshurun

For the second article in our celebration of women’s history month, we look at the controversial feminist poet, Yona Wallach. Yona Wallach was born in Israel, and she had a significant impact on both the artistic and political climate of the country, partly due to never leaving the country. She used her poetry to challenge the borders of gender and sexuality, often touching on more taboo content, and because of this we will give a warning before our exploration of her work and life; we will discuss sexual content. If that is something you are not comfortable with for any reason, we will have another article coming out next week.
 
First, in any discussion about Yona Wallach in English, one must acknowledge the limitations. Though most of Wallach’s poems have been translated, their content often relies on the poem being read in Hebrew. Throughout her career, Wallach often criticized and took advantage of the gendering of words and second meanings in her work, so when translated to English, parts are lost. So while we will do our best to convey the full meaning of her work, much would be better explained by a person who speaks Hebrew.
 
Luckily, in this article, we will be focusing on some of her more easily translated poems, and discussing them in relation to her life. As with many other artists, Wallach’s work influenced her life just as much as her life influenced her work. To understand either, we must discuss both.
 
Wallach was born into a very political family, and she grew up in Kiryat Ono, a city that her father was instrumental in founding. After her father died in 1948 in the Arab-Israeli war, Wallach, still quite young, was raised by her mother. Wallach was exceedingly smart, enough that she was sent to a private school, but also exceedingly rebellious, enough to be kicked out of said school. She left academia after that, never finishing high school, and instead choosing to pursue poetry in Tel Aviv.
 
Even from a young age, her poetry was good enough to garner significant recognition, and she was quick to make contacts in the art scene in Tel Aviv. She is now seen as an integral member of Tel Aviv poet’s circle, and even her early work is seen as a large influence in the artistic movement that was just beginning at the time. She wrote explicitly about sexuality and gender, and she pushed against the boundaries of both.
 
There are in fact many poems where both gender and sexuality are discussed, and one of the clearest examples of this is the poem “Hebrew.” As a prominent feminist, Wallach studied how femininity was viewed in the Hebrew language and the culture of Israel, and she discusses it in this poem, writing:

“Hebrew is a sex maniac
Hebrew discriminates for and against
is forgiving, gives privileges
with a big gripe from the exile
in plural, men have the right of way
it’s a thin line it’s a big secret
in the singular chances are equal
who says it’s a lost case.”
 
In the same poem, she discusses sexuality, writing about experiences (whether her own or not) in curiosity about women. And by making it the writer who is describing the experiences, she both makes the bold move to discuss female sexuality at all without surrounding it in metaphors and flowery language, but she also discusses her well-publicized attraction to women as well as men and making her desire for women explicit:
“Hebrew peeks through the keyhole
as I did at you and your mother
when you washed in the shed
your mother had a big ass
but I never stopped thinking
the days passed like showers
you remained a thin girl, soaping herself
afterwards you women plugged all the holes
plugged all the gaps.”
 
Though this portion does have an instance of a type of voyeurism that has often been a tool used to make women who are attracted to women seem predatory, that does not appear to be Wallach’s intention.
 
In Wallach’s work voyeurism is a constant theme and is used in many other instances outside of this one to strengthen other points, and while it is easy to criticize this portion for the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes, one has to recognize that it is a bisexual woman saying it. So it more likely comes from a place where she is trying to display similarity between types of attraction that receive different reactions, as jokes are often made about heterosexual men looking into women’s locker rooms and bedrooms, but when a woman is attracted to other women all signs of attraction are seen as predatory. Then by the woman writing about doing something that men joke about doing, she equates her attraction to women to heterosexual men’s attraction to women.
 
Considering that Wallach’s work focused much on the reactions of the reader(s), it can be said that the reaction to the same behavior from a man would have been less negative. This reaction is just as much a part of the poem as the words themselves. Of course this is not meant to excuse any such behavior from any gender, but instead to offer a possible interpretation of her intentions.
 
This, of course, was a poem that caused a significant amount of controversy, but the one that caused the most in her life was a poem called “Tefillin.” This poem is about bondage using tefillin, which is a set of small leather boxes with straps containing verses of the Torah worn by Jewish men during weekday morning prayers. The poem is overtly sexual and includes violent imagery using an object that is sacred to many, and the reaction to it was large and not exactly positive. From fellow writers to ministers in the government, the public made it very clear that they believed Wallach had gone too far, but Wallach never showed any regret for her work. In addition to the poem, there was a series of photographs done that were only released entirely after Wallach’s death, and it seemed that for some this poem is an example of Wallach pushing too far.
 
To others, of course, it was just another example of Wallach’s brave and ground-breaking work, and she was praised by many. This poem was seen as just another way that Wallach had broken the rules of gender and sexuality, using an object that for many was associated with masculinity and devoid of sexuality, and making it a tool for sex and femininity. Whichever side is right, of course, is not for us to decide. We instead will look back to her life and how the release of the poem affected it.
 
She lost support from many people who had previously sung her praises, but she also lost friends. One particular friend, Zelda, a fellow poet, was very vocal in her anger. She ended their friendship and refused to work with the magazine that had published Wallach’s poem again. Wallach’s popularity also dropped slightly. Before she had been a household name, which was rare for a poet in Israel at the time, but after that, her name was linked with much more negative connotations. It was only three years after the poem was published, in 1985, that Wallach died of breast cancer.
 
Though her reputation was a tainted one, Wallach is still considered to be one of the most well-known Israeli poets of the time. Her work pushed boundaries, and she lived her life loudly, and she will be remembered for these things. There are of course many ways to interpret her work, as with any art, and many people will discuss her poems throughout the years, but one thing that can be said for certain is that Wallach’s poetry deeply affected her life, and her life deeply affected her poetry. While she was described as more solitary, in reality, she embraced her fame fully. Being as open in interviews as she was in her work, it was in fact during an interview that she found out about her cancer. And in her work, though not all cases describe real experiences she had, she often writes about her own life and desires. So the separation between author and work can become very blurred.
 
For example, as previously mentioned, she often portrays many things that bend gender roles, but she also mentions things that suggest she may not have completely identified as either male or female. Such as an interview in which this was said: “As a woman, you are out of the ordinary.” To which Wallach responded "I am not at all certain. I believe that as a man I am quite out of the ordinary. I believe I am an extraordinary man."
 
This quote can either be interpreted as her straying from the gender that was assigned to her at birth, or that she was saying her talent was not out of the ordinary for a woman but is extraordinary for a man. Also, a constant theme in her poetry is the swapping of traditional gender roles, which, while it could be a feminist stance, could also be her mind or desires. There, of course, is no way to say either way conclusively, but it is important to discuss that if Wallach had access to the vocabulary we have today, she might have chosen to identify as something outside of "woman." The reason that she is included in women’s history month is that, from the information we have, we can’t conclusively say that she would identify as anything other than a woman, so we won’t override how she identified. But we do believe that the possibility of gender variance in historical figures is something that should be discussed, even if a conclusion can’t be reached.
 
It is through discussion that we learn more about ourselves and the subject that we are discussing, so we encourage anyone who has any more information to support either side, to comment and tell us what you think. Because history is rarely an exact field, but rather a series of educated guesses from the evidence we are given. So, go off, find more evidence and help us continue making queer history.

[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material.]

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http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/thirty-years-after-yona-wallach-s-tefillin-was-published
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http://jacket2.org/commentary/yona-wallach

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https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/wallach-yona

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http://wjudaism.library.utoronto.ca/index.php/wjudaism/article/viewFile/276/331

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March 11, 2017 https://investigationsandfantasies.com/2013/10/04/33/

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https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/israeli-womens-writing-in-hebrew-1948-2004