American Words, Israeli Songs

Serendipitous Album Sets Emily Dickinson's Verse to Music

Verse to Song: Efrat Ben Zur sets Emily Dickinson’s poetry to music.
angelika sher
Verse to Song: Efrat Ben Zur sets Emily Dickinson’s poetry to music.

By Mairav Zonszein

Published June 01, 2012, issue of June 08, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Listening to the new album “Robin” by acclaimed actress and singer-songwriter Efrat Ben Zur, you wouldn’t know that the songs on it were sung by an Israeli artist, or that they were composed to the poems of 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson. But it is precisely this serendipitous combination that makes the album so captivating.

“I didn’t plan this album,” said Ben Zur, a veteran theater and TV actress who previously made two albums in Hebrew. “It was a mystical experience; knowing that Dickinson’s poetry belongs to another era released something in me and opened my imagination.”

The album takes the popular Israeli tradition of setting Hebrew poetry to music — such as Arik Einstein singing Avraham Halfi, or Yehudit Ravitz singing Yehuda Amichai — but does so with the work of a prominent American poet, known for her bizarre and reclusive behavior. While Ben Zur is quirky, she doesn’t identify with Dickinson, who secluded herself in her Massachusetts home, caring for her sick mother and writing hundreds of poems that no one knew about until after her death, in 1886. Rather, she feels she has “stepped into her clothes and made them my own” — a fitting project for a versatile actress.

Emily Dickinson
wikimedia commons
Emily Dickinson

Ben Zur first encountered Dickinson’s work in acting school, when she read the poems in a Hebrew translation. It was only a few years ago that she decided to order a collection in the original English, and once it came, she instinctively began composing music in her home with just an autoharp and two guitar strings. “I can’t really play any instruments. I found a way to compose on two guitar strings, and I like it,” she said.

The first song she wrote was to a poem called “Bee, I’m Expecting You!” which is a letter to a bee from a fly awaiting its arrival. The texts have philosophical underpinnings that are not immediately obvious from their subjects. It was only through composing that Ben Zur felt their existential heft. “I began grasping the texts more deeply through the melodies,” she noted.

Ben Zur is no stranger to setting music to poetry, having composed several songs to the works of classic Hebrew poet Leah Goldberg on previous albums; however, this is the first time she’s recorded in English. “Why English? Why not?” she said. “I’ve been listening to music in English since I was a child, and my love for the arts derives more from there than from here.” Indeed, Ben Zur’s daily life at the Gesher Theater in Tel Aviv is immersed in the texts of Anton Chekhov, Isaac Bashevis Singer and William Shakespeare, so it is natural for her to draw inspirations from outside Israel. She also found that singing in the original language was more organic and sounded better, even though English is foreign to her. “The Hebrew sounded too highbrow,” she said.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.