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Riva Rubin 1932-2013

My sister Riva

Riva was born in Booysens, Johannesburg to John and Judith Wainer who divorced when she was eleven. Her imagination as a girl with two brothers and no sister in a father-dominated household was kindled by her mother's girlhood stories in Austria before WWI. Her facility with words was honed by both her voracious reading (hence as a little girl being called "old fashioned") and the stinging repartee developed in response to her father and his friends teasing her as "Stompie" (Afrikaans for "shorty" – or more pejoratively "cigarette butt") because she was petite.

Her first poem:

How the butterfly got its colors

She is eight, on the top step by the kitchen door.

The yard is cemented grey,

the shed is corrugated black, the door

and window wood of the hut in the corner

are servant brown.

She will invent a butterfly.

The first story:

There's a river, I dip watergreen on the wing tip.

There's a thistle, I dab silvery purple on the throat.

There's an orchard, I splash yellow and orange as I wish

on the back of the butterfly.

I take golden feelers from on high.

She is eighty, dying, behind the shutter, looking out.

An old white butterfly presents

itself on the windowpane.

In the 50s and early 60s, Riva was part of a young Johannesburg literati (and musicians) set, notably Barney Simon but particularly Lionel Abrahams, jointly founding and cooperating in the magazine - The Purple Renoster - and with whom she maintained a life-long friendship. There were also peripheral connections to the works of aspiring Blacks like Todd Matshikiza and the Afrikaans world of Uys Krige and, particularly, of Herman Charles Bosman.

In Israel, her literary career started in 1963 as an editor for an engineering journal, which led her to Hebrew-English translations, thanks to Michael Ben Moshe who had been a teacher of hers in Johannesburg. Her many translations and editing works include the autobiography of President Katzir and much of A B Yehoshua's articles. Apart from translation, she was prolific as a writer of short stories and poetry, too numerous to record.

She was the first English language writer accepted as a member of the Hebrew Writers Association and, as chairperson of the Israel Association of Writers in English (IAWE) and editor of its literary journal, ARC, she represented IAWE there. She had been executive secretary of PEN Israel (a journal of Israeli writers) and edited an anthology of Hebrew writers for PEN International, a global community of writers promoting literature and defending freedom of expression. This anthology, together with her many translations, made Israeli literature known to the literary world at large. She is also published in an anthology by Penguin Books. Whilst the continual frustration and cultural isolation as a writer in a language other than that of the land in which she lived may have deprived her of a fuller recognition both at home and abroad, it honed her writing in the way ballet is movement refined as an art, e.g.:

"… the poet… can rely on nothing but his or her individual sense of the 'the thing to be shown' … it is the poet's nature to reinvent every word with every utterance". (Bialik's Bird, Keshev, 2012)


"In the morning the ticker tape

of my dreams unwinds

into my waking;

I get the message.

It's just the word I can't find". (Ibid)

Riva represented Israel at several congresses, particularly at a 2008 writers' congress in Cape Town to deliver the keynote address on women poets ( Recognition in Israel first came with the Aryeh Dulcin Prize for Creative Writing in 1981, and then with the Israel President's Prize for Literature (English) in 1999. In 2008, the South African Federation in Israel (Telfed) honored her service to the State of Israel.

Her personal contribution is in having made writing in the English language in Israel recognized and accepted. It will not be long before she will also be found in Wikipedia.

By Yom Kippur 2013, nine months after her emergency operation for pancreatic cancer, Riva lost the strength to stand but, as in life, she refused to succumb to circumstances and insisted on being propped upright in a chair in her living room until too weak even to speak. I moved her to a couch where she half-lay, half-sat, cognizant but staring sightlessly through the window wide-eyed to catch the light of the slowly fading day – her acceptance of the absolute reality of infinity (eyn sof) in kabbalah while silently and slowly shuffling off her mortal coil like a butterfly in its cocoon. Some hours later, at the first light after Yom Kippur, she breathed her last, having already made peace with all in her last will - in control to the very end.

Now I move

Now I move into the great forgetfulness

of myself where eros and thanatos are

equally mysterious, irrelevant

to the tears shed for loss, for loss

is the sum.




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Monday, 17 June 2024

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