For a while now, I have been asking Hasidic Jews, especially women, what they think poetry is supposed to be. In today’s Hasidic world, many view poetry as at worst secular, at best bittul torah, a frivolous distraction from serious learning. The women I’ve spoken to basically agree with this; they consider poetry ornamental or therapeutic. This, despite the fact that so many of the greatest sages in our history, from Moses to Moshe Luzzatto, were proud to be known as poets and created not only liturgical hymns (piyyutim), but also more intimate lyrics. Poetry came naturally to Deborah and to David.
One modern poet who did not let her Orthodox Judaism or her gender keep her from writing seriously has finally been made available to the English-speaking world. The publication of “The Spectacular Difference: Selected Poems of Zelda,” by the Israeli poet known simply as Zelda, does a triple service: to women, to Orthodox Judaism and to poetry.
Zelda Schneurson Mishkovsky was a direct descendent of the Lubavitcher rabbinical line. As a girl, in 1926, she moved with her family to Jerusalem; after the death of her father, she and her mother continued to move around the Land of Israel. Despite their religiosity, Zelda and her mother seem to have been free spirits who were uncommonly devoted to each other. In fact, the only time they lived apart was when Zelda, in the 1930s, made an unsuccessful stab at getting a formal education in painting. From then on, she taught steadily in a religious elementary school (she was Amos Oz’s second-grade teacher). When she finally married, at 35, her husband joined her little world and encouraged her to share her poetry. From her first book in 1967, she caused a sensation — not simply the work, but the poet herself. In fact, by staying exactly the way it was, her life went from unremarkable to extraordinary. In the Israeli literary world, a world of romantic self-promoters and furious activists, this celebrated poet lived quietly in Jerusalem and wore a sheitl till the end of her days.
Zelda’s poetry is modernist and innovative in form, and she made nearly as much of the possibilities of the young Hebrew language as did her secular friend and counterpart, Yona Wallach. But while Wallach’s poems bristle with anger and neurotic confusion, Zelda’s reveal an inner life that is complex, but unusually tranquil. Its feeling of a self-contained and fundamentally stable world derives from traditional Judaism. Again, while practically all other Israeli poets — for instance, Yehuda Amichai — use biblical language for effect, Zelda lived in the language of observance. The allusions to Tanakh, Talmud, Zohar, Hasidism and the prayer book, which give her poems body, also give shape to her thoughts. Not that she does not question God; she does, but with a faith in the underlying harmony of God’s world, a harmony that is very close at hand if not actually before our eyes.
Like our father Abraham
who bound his son
on the altar —
so was my grandfather.
Outside, it snowed;
outside, they roared:
“There is no justice,
And in the shambles of his room,
of the Heavenly Jerusalem.
These contradictory properties — modern poet, traditional Jew — make Zelda of vital interest both to lovers of Hebrew literature and to Orthodox Jews. Yet until now, a good selection of Zelda’s poems was not available in English. We have Marcia Falk, a personal friend of the poet, to thank for remedying this situation.
“The Spectacular Difference” has an informative, affectionate introduction and extensive notes. The translation is expert and sensitive, as was to be expected. (Falk is known for her earlier translations of the Song of Songs and of the work of Yiddish poet Malka Heifetz Tussman.) The translation is especially successful in the more mystical poems, such as “About Facts,” and in poems of memory and love, like “Leisure” and “Black Rose.” Sometimes, though, it nearly becomes a personal reinterpretation: For example, Falk occasionally replaces a concrete Hebrew term with a less vivid English one, or adds an extra phrase that will not seem necessary to everyone’s ear. The very presence of the translation is highly useful, since it lets a reader without extensive Hebrew knowledge understand the gist of the poetry. In tandem with these, the notes are absolutely essential, and excellently done. Without them, one never could appreciate with what deep imagination Zelda drew on the language of traditional Judaism.
Isaac Meyers is a doctoral candidate in classics at Harvard University. He has written on poetry and translation for the Forward, Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, and Parnassus: Poetry in Review.
The Spectacular Difference: Selected Poems of Zelda
By Zelda, Translated by Marcia Falk
Hebrew Union College Press, 288 pages, $26.95.