Mr. T

T. Carmi (ט. כרמי) was a prolific Israeli poet and translator. He was also a learned person who was fond of ancient Jewish literature (including rabbinic texts) and his poetry is embellished with numerous allusions to this rich corpus. One of his books, for example, bares the title “Near the Stone of Strayers” (ליד אבן הטועים) following the story in Bavli Bava Metziah 28b.  In another book a cycle of poems is entitled “Which way to Lod?” (?באיזה ללוד) and builds upon the story of Beruriah and Rabbi Yossi in Bavli Eruvin 53b. In academic circles Carmi is often cited, thanks to his English anthology of Hebrew poetry (ancient and modern) that was published by Penguin Press.

This post is not about rabbinic intertextuality in Carmi’s poetry, rather it concerns a curiosity relating to Carmi’s name or more precisely, to the meaning of the letter T.  At first sight it seems that Carmi is a last name and T stands for the first. However there is a tendency among Israeli writers to use a sort of pseudonym in which the first letter of their last name appears at the beginning of their literary name. Hence the novelist Yizhar Smilansky (יזהר סמילנסקי) is known as S. Izhar (ס. יזהר),  and the poet Sh. Shifra (ש. שפרה) is in fact Shifra Schifmann (שפרה שיפמן). This habit confused many scholars who sought (for some reason) to decipher what the T stands for and came up with peculiar suggestions. In a recent article published in Hebrew the reference to Carmi’s anthology gave credit to Tuvia Carmi (טוביה כרמי), while in  another article written in English he becomes no less than Ted Carmi. There are other examples of this trend including what might be the funniest examples of them all –  Todros Carmi (טדרוס כרמי), probably after the medieval Hebrew poet Todros Abulafia.

So what is the correct answer? Well, T. Carmi was born in New York in 1925 as Carmi Tscharney (כרמי טשרני), and the T stands for his last name. It is true, though, that Carmi is a very unusual first name, a fact that undoubtedly contributed to the (ongoing) confusion. But apparently, what’s in a(n abbreviated) name is nothing more than Tscharney.

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5 responses to “Mr. T

  1. If your name rhymed like Carmi Tscharney, wouldn’t you shorten Tscharney to T (though I’m not one to make fun of unusual names). As for “Carmis,” my favorite is the I. Twersky student, now the president of Givat Washington college.

  2. There is also Carmi Gilon, the former head of the Israeli Security Agency (שב”כ) and the current vice president of external relations of the Hebrew University. When he was at the ISA he was always rendered in the press as כ, which was quite perplexing as there are very few male names in Hebrew that begin with that letter.

  3. It is also worth mentioning that the T. Carmi is also author of the Israeli children’s classic “Shmulikippod” – together with his first wife, Shoshana Hyman. Together, they use the pseudonym “Cush” (כוש) – an acronym of their first names: “Carmi v’Shoshana” (כרמי ושושנה).

  4. Yes, a very good point about Shmulikippod (Shmulik the Porcupine). And speaking about Carmi’s name and brilliancy as poet read his next poem out loud (sorry, untranslatable):
    היא רעדה
    מה יכולתי לעשות?
    כיסיתי אותה
    קר מדי, אמרה
    אני יודע, אמרתי
    עשיתי מה שיכולתי
    היה יותר קר מקודם
    שוב כיסיתי אותה
    כן, היא מילמלה
    באמת היה יותר קר מקודם

    This is one of Carmi’s last poem; he died from cancer at the age of 69.

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