Israel’s Divine Poets


By Isaac Meyers

Published August 15, 2007, issue of August 17, 2007.
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Edited by David C. Jacobson
Indiana University Press, 264 pages, $34.95

In an interview, Yehuda Amichai once mentioned that some congregations in America had started to use his poems as tefillot, or prayers, in a synagogue setting. This left him pleased (why not?) but also bemused. He had studied Bible at the Hebrew University, not in yeshiva. The Israeli literary scene, which is thoroughly secular, considered him a master and teacher, and sometimes found his flirtation with the Jewish God dishonest, even grotesque. But for other Israelis, and even more for Americans, this flirtation was the very basis of Amichai’s appeal. So he found himself refashioned into a sort of atheist rabbi, sexy yet spiritual, and easy to translate — which is no doubt what we want Israel itself to be.

Apart from Amichai, though, “theological” poets have been marginal in Israel until quite recently, and remain mostly untranslated and inaccessible to American readers. David C. Jacobson’s “Creator, Are You Listening?: Israeli Poets on God and Prayer” gives these poets, or at least a fair selection of them, some well-deserved exposure. Jacobson, who is a professor at Brown University and a prolific writer on Hebrew literature, has chosen six poets of whom Amichai is by far the best known. For each poet, Jacobson gives a concise introduction followed by representative poems in Hebrew with translations and commentary. The commentaries, in clear and unpretentious English, focus on words and phrases rather than themes. This makes sense: What makes these poets’ thoughts on God and prayer unique and interesting is the way they take apart and reuse the language of traditional Judaism. Explicating their language, Jacobson helps us understand their spirituality.

Take, for example, the lines in one of the poems by Rivka Miriam (born Rivka Miriam Rochman), “Sukkot”: “We will bring Him seven of the elders of our congregation/Ones over whom a thread of duration has been anointed.” (I translate literally; anyone who wants to understand the line, and perhaps give the delicate Hebrew a translation it deserves, must use Jacobson’s notes and discover the references.) By taking a talmudic description of Queen Esther (Megilla 13a) and modifying it in the context of Sukkot and its traditions, Miriam is suggesting that these traditions have a beauty that attracts God and protects us.

Jacobson is similarly helpful with Amichai. As he notes, toward the end of “My Father, My King” Amichai alludes to the prayer that one’s will may become God’s will. The speaker prays that whatever he does against his will may somehow also be according to his, the speaker’s, will, “and my will be like flowers.” It is a perfect Amichai ending: smooth, enchanting and a little vague. His way is to take one or two concepts and play with them, reversing and rearranging them to fit his taste for paradox in both phrasing and thought. Throughout his life, the sweetness and sadness in his signature bittersweet endings often came in glimpses of godless transcendence, its contradictions momentarily resolved in a cadence.

“Creator” lets us compare Amichai’s approach to those of Asher Reich and Zelda Mishkovsky (whose pen name was simply “Zelda”), two poets who grew up in a much more intense (ultra-Orthodox) environment than Amichai. One thing we notice is the sheer density of allusions per poem. Both Zelda and Reich show the effect of daily saturation in religious language. Zelda wrote symbolist poetry in a tenseless private language that combined biblical, Hasidic and modern Hebrew. Reich’s much fiercer, more rhetorical poems, written after a loss of faith, often take the form of liturgy but echo the Bible, Talmud and prayerbook. Unless we have lived the religious life from which these poets write, or fully understand their sources, we may sense their moods but we will miss most of what they have to say.

The final sections deal with Rivka Miriam, Hava Pinhas-Cohen and Admiel Kosman. All three are associated with the Israeli journal Dimui, which tries to bring together Jewish religion and modern Hebrew literature without doing damage to either. It is not surprising that at a time when Reform and Conservative Judaism are making inroads in Israel, these poets would write less about the pain of alienation than about the possibility for change. As with Zelda, Judaism is for them a personal experience, but unlike her, these poets are open about individualizing their faith. They keep it, but on their own terms. This gives their work a certain complacency, leading one to start missing the passion of Reich. Nevertheless, they are all attractive and daring writers, especially Rivka Miriam.

The poets in “Creator” use the religious component of the Hebrew language consciously, with inspiration and craft, to create meaning and beauty. They do not translate easily. Jacobson’s own translations are only cribs, and we can take them as a challenge. Zelda just got her first substantial English translation a year ago. Amichai is taken care of, though there is room for improvement. The other four poets are still looking for an English audience. Not the least of this book’s many merits is that it may help them find one.

Isaac Meyers is a graduate student in classics at Harvard University. He lives in Cambridge.

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