Middle East


In Search of the Perfect Poem

Nehemia Rappoport is a collector of Hebrew poetry books. Only Hebrew. The intensity of the encounter with him and the thousands of books displayed along the walls of his apartment almost manages to disguise the fact that this is essentially an addictive activity.

Born in 1921, this poetry lover has bought every single Hebrew poetry book published for more than 60 years. He is a dedicated collector, and a naive one who is open to any new verbal and poetic experiment—not for academic reasons, but as an eclectic and willing participant who always wants more.

The walls of Rappoport’s apartment, located in central Tel Aviv, are packed with more than 4,000 books. They glide from the living room to the study and from there to the closed-off balcony, where shelves holding hundreds of other books cover the walls. Little pieces of paper stick out from the alphabetically arranged books, marking his preferred poems.

The colors of the book covers are especially intriguing. The older books’ colors have faded, and shades of wood and soil alternate with the newer titles’ yellow, gray, cream, and bright white. The unique blend of the paper, color, and scent creates a quiet and hermetically sealed box in the heart of the incessantly vibrant city.

Rappoport, a retired electrician, discovered his great love of Hebrew poetry when he first read poems by [early-20th-century Hebrew poet] Rachel. When he served as a soldier in Italy in the Jewish Brigade of the British army during World War II, he carried a book of her poems alongside the Hebrew Bible in his backpack. He was 25 years old when he began collecting.

Before our meeting, he prepared his favorite collection on a side table in the corner of the living room. Next to these volumes was a notebook where he keeps a handwritten, detailed catalog of all the items in the collection, classified by writer, title, publisher, and the book’s location in his library. “Everything is handwritten,” he says with an apologetic smile. “It’s too late to learn how to use the computer.”

I ask who his favorite poets are.

“Natan Alterman, of course,” he replies, “particularly Stars Outside. The book almost opens itself to a dark, wrinkled page, and Rappoport immediately quotes from “Moon”: “Never will you root out, our God, the sadness of your enormous toys.” “I’m also a great enthusiast of  Yehuda Amichai,” he continues, opening Now and in Other Days. From this he reads “My Mother Baked Me the Whole World,” and concludes: “This simplicity, directness, it gets to me and moves me to tears.”

He quickly reaches for two of the first books of Meir Wieseltier: “I really like him, he’s a great innovator, what happened to him?” And he reads to me in a light tone “Lemmus, Lemmus” from Chapter One, Chapter Two, and adds: “This is a revolution. Nobody wrote like this before him.” And so he continues on to Israel Pinkas and his first books, and Yona Wallach and Aryeh Sivan, and he dotes for a moment on the books of Avraham Halfi. He can’t read “Song for  Yossi the Parrot” but he asks me to whisper it, and says, “I named one of my sons Yossi.” He stands up, looks at me hesitantly, waits for me to finish, and sits down.

I ask him to point out the rare and special books in his collection, and he  brings back from the shelves the source of his pride. One volume is David Fogel’s book In Front of the Somber Gate, which was published in Hebrew in Vienna in 1923. He proudly points to “all the magnificent poetry books of Uri Zvi Greenberg,” and his eyes twinkle. Then he says with emotion: “Look at this unusual book about a world which is no more,” and hands me a small book, Kinder Lieder, which includes poetry accompanied by musical scales, written in 1923, in order to make Hebrew more accessible to the children of Berlin. I get goose bumps holding this tiny book that lost its readers.

“Which young poets touch you?” I ask him.

He slowly takes out Efrat Mishori’s book and says angrily, “Is this poetry? What is it?”  Then he calms down, reaches for books by Dori Manor, Eitan Glass, and Zvi Shterenfeld. He concludes, “I respect them.”

I wonder how he goes about buying his books.

“I walk around all the bookstores in Tel Aviv,” he says. “I don’t have contact with the salespeople, I don’t need it. I just look around, thumb through the books and buy, even if I realize after a quick look that the book doesn’t have great poetic value.”

“Have you ever thrown out a book that disappointed you?”

“Of course not. It has never crossed my mind. I always continue in the search of the best book. This whole collection is nothing other than proof of the search for the best one.”

Now he relaxes slowly into his armchair. His fatigue is obvious, and I hurry to collect my papers and have a last look at the thousands of books resting on their shelves. Rappoport follows my gaze and repeats: “All this is in search of the best, the perfect one.”