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Shoham, Matityahu

(Poliakewicz; 1893–1937), Hebrew poet and playwright. Matityahu Shoham was born to an affluent family in Warsaw. As a student, he read the classics of Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, Polish, and German literature. In 1915, he married the daughter of one of the wealthiest men in Warsaw, and for the next few years enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle. In 1919, David Frishman published Shoham’s first poem in the prominent journal Ha-Tekufah, exposing him to literary circles.

After World War I, Shoham’s father-in-law lost all his possessions, and Shoham was forced to earn a living as a bank clerk. In 1930, he realized a lifelong ambition to move to Palestine, but because of his very introverted personality he made very few friends and returned to Warsaw a year and a half later, disillusioned. Nonetheless, during his stay in Palestine he completed his play Tsor vi-Yerushalayim (Tyre and Jerusalem; 1933). His reputation in Warsaw as a writer grew exponentially, and for a few years he was a candidate for the Nobel Prize. Eventually he lectured at Warsaw’s Jewish Studies Institute and in 1936 was elected president of the Polish Hebrew Writers and Journalists Union.

Shoham’s works fall into three genres: biblical plays, poetry, and essays. His poetry, in turn, may be divided into three categories: lyrical poems (including poem cycles); longer poems (both dramatic and meditative); and prose poetry. Formally, Shoham’s poetry, like his other work, is characterized by a highbrow Hebrew idiom with a marked tendency to the archaic and uncommon, befitting its compound and complex syntax. In content and style, Shoham’s works are epitomized by an aesthetic elitism and by a longing for the transcendental and for the “remote” as these ideas appear in romantic and symbolist literature. Harnessing this literary tradition, he creates schismatic situations that arise from cultural and erotic sexual conflicts, interwoven with his longing for the ancient Near East. These central themes are reflected in his great poems: “Kedem” (East; 1922), “Ur kasdim” (Ur of the Chaldees; 1930), and “Erets Yisra’el” (The Land of Israel; 1936).

Shoham’s principal artistic achievements are embodied in his biblical plays, five in all, of which four have survived: Yeriḥo (Jericho; 1923), Bil‘am (Balaam; 1928–1929), Tsor vi-Yerushalayim (1933), and Elohe barzel lo ta‘aseh lekha (Do Not Make for Yourself Iron Gods; 1937). An additional play, Yeshu u-Miryam (Jesus and Mary), which was meant to complete a trilogy with the last two plays, was lost. All the topics in Shoham’s plays are derived exclusively from biblical sources, supplemented by innovative plotlines. At their heart are the conflicts between Jewish and other cultures, and the deepseated struggles within Jewish culture itself. The most outstanding examples of Shoham’s artistic triumphs are, without doubt, Tsor vi-Yerushalayim and Elohe barzel lo ta‘aseh lekha. In the field of historic drama during the period of Hebrew revival, no other writer matched his powerful literary creations and exceptional Hebrew style.

Suggested Reading

Israel Cohen, Matityahu Shoham: Ḥayav vi-yetsirato (Tel Aviv, 1965); Ruth Kartun-Blum, From Tyre to Jerusalem: The Literary World of Matityahu Shoham (Berkeley, 1969); Gershon Shaked, Ha-Maḥazeh ha-‘ivri ha-histori bi-tekufat ha-teḥiyah (Jerusalem, 1970).



Translated from Hebrew by David Fachler