A Poet’s Contradictory Properties

By Isaac Meyers

Published March 25, 2005, issue of March 25, 2005.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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,

no judge.”

And in the shambles of his room,

cherubs sang

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.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • 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.