Descending Up and a Rambling Prayer

Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores brings us the work of two quite different poets: Anne Kleiman (1909-2011) and Annabelle Farmelant (b. circa 1926). A few weeks ago, I shared a little about Kleiman and her poetry (see Lake Michigan as Hebrew Landscape). Here are some thoughts about Farmelant (brief bio below).

Rambling with Rachel

In a 1926 piece called “Niv” — translated by Shirley Kaufman as “A Way of Speaking” — Rachel (Bluwstein, 1890-1931) compares “fancy ways to speak, endless and elegant…mincing down the street,” with speech that is “as innocent as a baby, as modest as dust.” The former she knows, but it’s the latter she prefers. See The Defiant Muse (full citation below; preview, including this poem, Hebrew/English, at Google Books.)

In Farmelant’s, “Flowers of Identity,” from the 1961 collection of the same name, the speaker forgets “niv ha-tefilah [the prayer’s idiom]” on a morning ramble. A footnote in on American Shores explains how translator Adriana X. Jacobs rendered the phrase so as to preserve the link with Rachel’s poem; more about the connection:

Rachel’s poem rejects the maximalist poetics of her (male) contemporaries and celebrates the modesty and simplicity of her niv, or poetic idiom, over the ornamental and densely allusive that early twentieth-century Hebrew poetry had inherited from the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment.
–Jacobs, Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores, p. 222

Additional notes explain specific prayer references as well as the dual meaning of the ramble’s location: “siach” is both “bush” and “conversation.”

The translation of “Flowers of Identity” can be read, on its own, as reflections on formal and informal prayer: “My neighbor left his tefillin behind/ And wrapped a garland around his head/ Intoxicated by their ripe scent/ Even my senses roamed…A foreign prayer/ From dawn to dusk.” But the notes add layers for the non-Hebrew reader and/or one unfamiliar with Rachel’s “Niv“: Farmelant’s “ramble” and the “mincing” steps of Rachel’s poem, for example, and the simpler speech preferred in “Niv” and the [ramble] לַשׂוּחַ and [plant; conversation] לְשִׂיחַ of “Flowers of Identity.”

Depths of Reflection

Farmelant’s poem “Skyscraper [Gored Shechakim],” from the 1960 collection Desert Islands,” appears in Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores and in Jacobs’ 2015 article, “Hebrew on a Desert Island,” which offers an overview of Farmelant’s work and Jacobs’ experience in translating:
Child, the plaza is flat./ Take care, the slope sets/ before you, the sky, immense….Descend up./ Spaceman
(Full poem and a link to the article below.)

unattributed, public domain photo, labeled: “buildings, city, man, reflection”
In her article, Jacobs discusses the challenges of navigating between “American Hebrew” and “Israeli Hebrew,” using as an example differing conceptions of “skyscraper” in the U.S. and Israel in 1960. (Remember: long before Israel started to build “up,” Boston’s Custom House Tower had been around for decades, and skyscrapers had long been a defining part of the U.S. landscape.) She concludes:

In this poem, the speaker experiences the reflection of the sky on the plaza as both a doubling effect and a fata morgana. The reflection of the sky is both literal but also transformative, and it is in this context that the ungrammatical command “descend up” takes effect and makes any sense. In moving between American and Israeli Hebrew, moments of (mis)perception have proven to be comparably generative.

Jacobs’ article discusses, in some detail, Farmelant’s exposure to Hebrew language, and the relationship of her career to wider issues between U.S.- and Israel-based Hebrew writers. The article, as well as end notes in Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores, also highlight issues in gender and gender politics relevant to Farmelant’s work and its reception. Despite the paucity of previous material and Jacobs finding Farmelant “entirely estranged from her poetry” (on American Shores, p. 104), a picture of the poet and her literary milieu emerges. The poet’s relationship to Judaism and Jewish text, however, remains more of a cipher….

Do we know enough about her background to say, for example : When Farmelant warns, “You will be like Adam [Adam ha-Rishon], scraping the whole sky,” is she referencing Talmudic legend? And is that odd locution of “descending up [תַּעֲמִיק מֵעָל]” meant to carry overtones of the sin that diminishes Adam in these legends, while also making him truly human?

R. Eleazar said: The first man reached from earth to heaven…But when he sinned, the Holy One, blessed be He, laid His hand upon him and diminished him…”

B. Sanhedrin 38b; other legends speak of his size, East to West

Also wondering in this context if the “הוּא” (which can be “he” or masculine “it”) in “תְּכַסֵּהוּ, הוּא עֵירֹם [It’s naked. Cover it.]” — might, then, refer to Adam? So, more like “Cover him, he’s naked.”??

Knowing a little more about her Jewish background, beyond linguistics, might help place some of her images. Meanwhile…

The First, Giant, Adam’s Fall?

When I first met this poem, it reminded me of the many hours I have spent — as a child and later, too — gazing into puddles, speculating on life in “the upside down world.” And, as with some of the Kleiman poems that reminded me of Chicago, I loved the connection, in Hebrew, to my U.S. city life. (I know rural places have puddles, but they don’t have upside down apartment buildings and skyscrapers.)

After reading Jacobs’ article, about struggling with the mirages in Farmelant’s writing, I developed another kind of appreciation for those reflections. And now, after more time with this poem, and with the rest of Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores, I am wondering if “Skyscraper” is talking about all the space that man took up in 1961.

So much of her writing itself — and her attempt to carve out a literary career — surrounds the difficulties women experience(d) just trying to take up space: on the sidewalk, in the home, in the workplace, and, most particularly, in any world of “ideas.” Farmelant and I are not the same age, but this, too, is an experience we shared.

As noted in a previous post, I recommend the TLV1 podcast from Marcela Sulak, discussing and reading some of Farmelant’s work. And I repeat my recommendation for getting hold of this volume of poetry. Once you meet these American Hebrew poets, you might discover that your horizon has been a mirage.

NOTES

Annabelle (Chana Biala) Farmelant was born in Boston and has, with the exception of a few years in Israel in the early 1950s, spent most of her life on the east coast of the U.S. Prior to studying at Hebrew College in Boston, she attended local public schools as well as the high school program of Hebrew College. She wrote Hebrew poetry in college and for some years afterward but then focused on writing plays. See introductory material in Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shore and “Hebrew on a Desert Island: The Case of Annabelle Farmelant,” by Adriana X. Jacobs, Studies in American Jewish Literature, Volume 34, Number 1, 2015. Download full text here: Hebrew on a Desert Island,

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Bibliography:
Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores: Poems by Anne Kleiman and Annabelle Farmelant. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2016.

Shachar Pinsker, professor of Hebrew literature and culture at the University of Michigan, editor. Introduction: “Meager Gifts” from “Desert Islands” American-Born Women and Hebrew Poetry.

Translators: Yosefa Raz, for Anne Kleiman. Adriana X. Jacobs, for Annabelle Farmelant. Each offers notes and a preface.

The Defiant Muse: Hebrew Feminist Poems from Antiquity to the Present, a Bilingual Anthology. Edited and introduced by Shirley Kaufman, Galit Hasan-Bokem, and Tamar S. Hess. Foreword by Alicia Suskin Ostriker. NY: Feminist Press at CUNY, 1999.


Poems borrowed from Adriana X. Jacobs, “Hebrew on a Desert Island: The Case of Annabelle Farmelant.” Originally in Studies in American Jewish Literature, Volume 34, Number 1, 2015. Download link: Hebrew on a Desert Island

גורד שחקים
יֶלֶד, הַכִּכָּר שָׁטוּחַ
זְהִירוּת, הַמּוֹרָד שָׁקוּעַ
מוּלְךָ, הַשַּׁחַק, עָצוּם.
תְּכַסֵּהוּ, הוּא עֵירֹם
תִּהְיֶה לְאִישׁ, כְּאָדָם הָרִאשׁוֹן
אֶת כָּל הַשְּׁחָקִים תִּגְרֹד
לְאַט יֶלֶד, הַיָּם עָמֹק.
תַּעֲמִיק מֵעָל
הֱיֵה אִישׁ חָלָל. — (c) Annabelle Farmelant, 1960

SKYSCRAPER
Child, the plaza is flat.
Take care, the slope sets
before you, the sky, immense.
It’s naked. Cover it.
You will be a man, like Adam
you will scrape the whole sky.
Slowly, child, the sea is deep.
Descend up.
Spaceman. — (c) Adriana X. Jacobs, 2015

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Lake Michigan as Hebrew Landscape

1

Al gedot hamishigan tz’i lach…
Go forth to the banks of Lake Michigan
and skip among the rocks…
the waves will lash
and scatter at your feet.

…drenched in the smell of lakes,
lean your dew-fresh hand on my forehead…
and my soul will rest.
— “My Longings,” by Anne Kleiman, translated by Yosefa Raz

On this snowy day, far from Chicago, I open a new book — found in search for something else, ordered largely because it was on sale, without particular expectations or knowing thing-one about these poets — and through it, a strange woman is telling me in Hebrew that the same light touches us both, as we look out our separate windows, and that the prospect of peace awaits on Lake Michigan’s rocky shore.

How is this poet speaking straight to me? Here are just a few of the ways:

Set in Chicago. (My first hometown).
Composed in Hebrew. (A language I am still learning but already love).
By a woman addressing a female friend. (Thus, speaking to me in a way that so much fails to do).
In dialogue with ancient text and classic Hebrew poetry. (Some of my favorite topics.) In fact, reworking a poem our study group read not too long ago.
Referencing the Song of the Sea — from this week’s Torah portion, itself a favorite and also our daughter’s bat mitzvah portion, a decade-plus ago.
Enhanced by nerdy endnotes…

1024px-gold_coast_and_michigan_lake_(8091814447)_(2)

Leandro Neumann Ciuffo [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The material in Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores, is itself unlikely in some ways. The introduction, by Shachar Pinsker, touches on many forces working against the material’s creation and publication. Its authors were women educated in a system designed by and for men. They’re U.S.-born in a field focused on Israel and a culture centered in Europe and the Land. And, most fundamentally, they write in a gendered language and a tradition that made it difficult for women to “express themselves poetically as the subjects rather than the objects of masculine desire, a metonymy for the nation, or a projection of masculine self-images” (Pinsker, p.7).

The very structures which gave “American women Hebrew education and access to its riches were also precluding them from writing and especially from publishing Hebrew poetry” (pp.5-6). And “when a work was finally published,” there was no guarantee that “it was received and understood properly” in its day or accessible to later readers and scholars.

Kleiman’s Longings

Anne (Chana) Kleiman (1909-2011 — yes, she lived to 101) was born to Russian immigrants in St. Joseph, Missouri. According to Pinsker’s introduction, Kleiman received an extensive Jewish education before moving to Chicago at the age of 19. There, she studied at the College of Jewish Studies (instruction in Hebrew), and at the University of Chicago (in English). She later worked as a Jewish educator and remained active in adult Jewish education after retirement. Her Hebrew poetry appeared in the 1940s.

In her translator’s preface, Yosefa Raz speculates that existing Hebrew literature formed for Kleiman a “made-up Hebrew landscape (which could include Lake Michigan!), beyond which the words [of her poems] could not travel” (p.18). Raz also describes the challenge of what the poet’s daughter calls “Sabbath Hebrew,” a fancy, heavily inter-textual language.

“My Longings” was originally published in the 1947 collection Netafim[Droplets]. It appears in Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores: Poems by Anne Kleiman and Annabelle Farmelant (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2016).

In “My Longings,” Kleiman alludes to Exodus, Kabbalat Shabbat, and some images from H.N. Bialik. She also turns Leah Goldberg’s “The Love of Theresa de Meun” on its head: where Goldberg’s 16th Century French noblewoman experiences unrequited longing for her children’s male tutor, Kleiman’s female Chicagoan treats a meeting with “my sister” — part Sabbath bride, part woman of damp skirts — as possible, perhaps imminent.

Raz calls “My Longings” her favorite poem:

…[it] mixes language from Isaiah, Bialik, and Goldberg is able to strike a balance between the prophetic and the lyrical, imagining sharing a blessing of “light beams” with her female interlocutor, who can also “slake [her] thirst with their radiance.” Thus the poet rewrites the traditional language of the shekhinah, filtered though Bialik’s erotic address to a female lover, into a poem of female friendship.
— Yosefa Raz, “Translator’s Preface,” p.20

view_of_oak_street_beach,_lake_shore_drive_and_drake_hotel,_chicago_(60767)

Tichnor Brothers, Publisher [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Less Traveled Territory

There is so much to explore in this less traveled corner of U.S.-born Hebrew poetry. Beyond these particular poets and their work are wider topics, including the way non-Israeli Hebrew poets view their relationship — or lack thereof — to the Land.

I have not spent much time with the work of Annabelle (Chana) Farmelant (b.1926) yet, but it appears to be quite different from Kleiman’s. Marcela Sulak, who translated Orit Gidali’s Twenty Girls to Envy Me, discusses and reads some of Farmelant’s work in this TLV1 podcast.

Kleiman herself employs a variety of styles and covers a wide range of topics. Only two of her poems in this volume explicitly touch on Lake Michigan. These have a special resonance for readers who’ve lived somewhere around the lake. But it’s also interesting to consider what “To Lake Michigan,” the second poem referencing Chicago’s lake, might say about Rachel and her poems to the Galilee or what it means to have this Midwestern body of water as “l’megaleh razi ‘ad [my revealer of eternal mysteries].”

After all, I myself, spent just a few days on the shores
of Lake Kinneret, AKA the Sea of Galilee,
while it was Lake Michigan —
sometimes as apparently motionless as glass,
sometimes roiling with white caps,
either way, with opposite shores as invisible as any sea’s
— which witnessed years of my longings,
like the woman’s in this poem,
twin desires
to break free and
be at rest.

There’s a special kind of poetry in hearing the facts of one’s hometown expressed in the language of one’s prayers. Al gedot hamishigan.

NOTE:
Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores: Poems by Anne Kleiman and Annabelle Farmelant. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2016.

Shachar Pinsker, professor of Hebrew literature and culture at the University of Michigan, editor.
Introduction: “Meager Gifts” from “Desert Islands” American-Born Women and Hebrew Poetry.

Translators:
Yosefa Raz, for Anne Kleiman. Adriana X. Jacobs, for Annabelle Farmelant.
Each offers notes and a preface.
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Rivka Miriam: at age 13 and 60+

A 13-year-old poet wrote one of the pieces recently enjoyed by the Hebrew Poetry group at Temple Micah (DC), I was surprised to learn.

The poem “Still” opens the collection called These Mountains: Selected Poems of Rivka Miriam, and it was one of the first we discussed by this poet. This review excerpt includes lines from the 1966 “Still,” contrasting it with lines from a poem written in 2009 and published in the two-volume Collected Poems [Kol Shirei Rivka Miriam] (2010):

Here, for example, are lines from an early book and a recent one: ‘God knocked on my window/ and the skin of my face shone . . . the walls were too narrow/ so he left my room and fled/ into the fields’ (tr. Linda Zisquit). And then: ‘It seems that not only God is hiding/ the earth is hidden too’. God who is present and disappears, and his existence beyond the field of vision though on some perceptible wavelength, are motifs running through all of Miriam’s work. While the second quote was written when she was 57, the first she wrote when she was merely 13. Her first book, My Yellow Dress, was published when she was 14.
— Erez Schweitzer (translated by Lisa Katz)

“A School of her own: on Rivka Miriam’s Collected Poems [excerpt],” originally in Haaretz (16 Feb 2011), can be found on Poetry International Web. The site also offers a related piece on the same Collected Poems set.

Poetic Developments

Schweitzer points out central themes in Miriam’s work: womb and grave; the presence and absence of God; laughter and tears as the foundation of spiritual experience; history as a continuous present, adding:

exactly because of its unity of theme and style over so many years, her body of poetry may be read in an attempt to extract the developmental, biographical and artistic processes in it.

Our poetry discussion group has only begun reading Miriam’s work. And we are somewhat divided regarding the relevance of a poet’s biography to their work and vice versa. But this background is a welcome addition to the little bit that is available (or that I have found, so far) in English.

Additional Resources

Here is a short biography of Rivka Miriam.

Here, is a TLV1 Israel in Translation podcast, including the poems “Elul” and “In the Beginning God Created.” (I found its title, “Rivka Miriam on asking forgiveness,” misleading.)

A gender-neutral translation of “In the Beginning God Created” appears in Siddur Lev Shalem:

In the beginning God created
the heavens that actually are not
and the earth that wants to touch them.
In the beginning God created
threads stretching between them —
between the heavens that actually are not
and the earth that cries out for help
And God created humans
for each person is a prayer and a thread
touching what is not
with a tender and delicate touch.
— Rivka Miriam, trans by David C. Jacobson

Extending the theme of creation, Rabbi Steven Sager translates and discusses Miriam’s poem, “Created on the Second Day.” Search the the Sicha, “Continuing Conversation” site for more from Rivka Miriam in the context of various midrashim and other topics.

INVITATION: Hebrew Poetry group at Temple Micah meets first, third, and fifth Saturdays after Shabbat morning service. All welcome. Discussion in English, poems explored in both Hebrew and English.

These Mountains: Selected Poems of Rivka Miriam. New Milford, CT: The Toby Press, 2009.
The collection clearly identifies “Still” as from her first publication (1966), but I somehow failed to notice the date, and I know our discussion of the poem never touched on feeling the poet was young or the material immature.
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Distance, part 2

The distance between people and God, and if/how that distance may be bridged, is a major question in theology, philosophy, and the arts, including contemporary Hebrew poetry. The previous post looked at related ways that “touch” [Hebrew: נָגַע] occurs both in Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed and in some verses from Yehuda Amichai. The distance between people and God is explored in a different way in the poetry of Leah Goldberg, according to Rabbi Dalia Marx in “Israeli ‘Secular’ Poets Encounter God.”

Goldberg’s God

Marx’s essay explores three Israeli poets, all considered “secular” rather than “religious,” in order to show that “religiosity and engagement with God are not limited to classical forms of prayer and to ‘religious’ circles.” In addition to Goldberg, poets discussed are Yona Wallach (1944-1985) and Orit Gidali (b. 1974).

Marx analyzes several Goldberg poems, including the series “From the Songs of Zion.” This four-poem series, Marx tells us, looks at the question raised in Psalm 137: How can we sing God’s song in a strange land? It concludes with “Journeying Birds” (translated here by Marx):

That spring morning
heaven grew wings.
Wandering westward,
the living heavens recited
T’fillat Haderekh: [22]
“Our God,
bring us in peace
beyond the ocean
beyond the abyss,
and return us in fall
to this tiny land
for she has heard our songs.” [23]
— Leah Goldberg IN Marx, pp.188-189

The essay continues:

Unlike Goldberg’s other poems discussed here, “Journeying Birds” reflects no distance from God — who appears like the God of tradition and who is addressed in a heartfelt prayer for a safe journey. Yet the prayer emanates from the mouth of birds, not the poet’s. What is impossible for her, who does not possess the language of prayer, can be uttered freely and naturally by the birds.

This is not a typical poem for Goldberg in the sense that she uses a familiar liturgical phrase, T’fillat Haderekh, even drawing upon its contents, which, traditionally, asks God “to bring us to our destination for life…and peace…and to return us to our homes in peace.” Like traditional Jewish prayer too, the birds speak in the first person plural [24]. Goldberg, by contrast, could only address “my God,” not the “traditional God” of common Jewish prayer [25].

…Goldberg often writes about birds, who symbolize, for her, joy and freedom. [26]. In this very native and local poem she allows birds to address the ineffable with a joyful prayer that she cannot make herself.
— Marx, “Israeli ‘Secular’ Poets Encounter God,”
IN Encountering God, p.189

The comment above about Goldberg’s use of “my God” refers to two poems also discussed in Marx’s essay: “I Saw My God at the Cafe” and “The Poems of the End of the Journey, 3.” The former does not address God, but describes “my God” in the third person. The latter begins, “Teach me, my God…,” and remains singular and personal throughout:

Teach me, my God, to bless and to pray
Over the secret of the withered leaf, on the glow of ripe fruit…
…Lest my day become for me simply habit.
— Goldberg, from “The Poems of the End of the Journey”
Poems II. Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hame’uchad, 1986

NOTE: See Marx’s essay for her translations and discussion of these poems. The full three-part “Poems of the Journey’s End,” translated by Rachel Tzvia Back, appears as a Haaretz poem of the week. (Requires a little patience with ads, but the poem will show up, free of charge).

Tradition and Alienation

In “Poems of the Journeys End,” Goldberg “negotiates with the living God from whom she feels alienated,” Marx tells us: “Traditional prayers are a manifestation of faith; this one is a supplication for faith to arise” (Encountering God, p. 188).

Perhaps it’s a question of chicken and egg, in terms of who picks up a siddur in the first place. But traditional prayers, in contrast to Marx’s declaration, are filled with words and imagery meant to spark a prayerful attitude…a sense of faith, one might say, which the siddur does not take for granted. (Imagining that we are imitating choruses of angels, joining our voices with “all living things who praise,” outright begging God to “open our lips.”)

Moreover, far from being new or unique in Goldberg’s poem(s), a feeling of distance or alienation from God is a major theme in the Book of Psalms. The Jerusalem Commentary on Psalms, e.g., includes a category called “descriptions of the spiritual distress of the psalmist, who feels himself far away from God” (p.xxiii).

It seems hard to believe, in fact, that Goldberg’s “Poems of the Journeys End” is not in active in dialogue with these themes in the psalms:

And he shall be like a tree planted by streams of water,
that brings forth its fruit in its season, and whose leaf does not wither;
and all that it produces prospers.
— Psalm 1:3

So teach us to number our days, that we may get us a heart of wisdom.
— Psalm 90:12

But, somehow, her poetry seems to be read as oddly disconnected from the tradition that helped forge it:

As the orison of an ever-receding horizon, Lea Goldberg’s poems blur the line between the secular and religious divide. They reach for a “contiguity” (Dan Miron’s term) between tradition and a breach with that tradition, awakening anew the religious power of the Hebrew language. And so, this volume of poetry speaks uniquely to this generation of Jewish readers. It should be kept by one’s bedside, read as meditations, “blessings” or “hymns of praise” each morning and night, just as God renews Creation each day (Psalms 104), in the glory of dappled-things, a “withered leaf” or “ripe fruit”, reviving “all things counter, original, spare, and strange” (Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Pied Beauty”), so that your words do not blur in vulgar gibberish, so that your days not turn mundane.
— Rachel Adelman, 2005 review of a Goldberg volume

Hers? Mine? Ours?

Psalms are an odd hybrid of poetry and prayer. It’s not clear where they would fall when Marx declares, in “Israeli ‘Secular’ Poets Encounter God,” that prayer and poetry share an affinity but differ in essentials. But it seems odd that Marx makes so much of Goldberg’s shift from first-person singular to plural in the three poems discussed, without even mentioning that the psalms also include first-person singular and plural language, for both narrator and address to God.

Marx concludes her essay by reiterating the hope, expressed by poet Avot Yeshurun, that “Hebrew literature should renew prayer.” And she does make her point that ‘secular’ poets participate in a “vivacious religious sentiment…far richer and more bountiful than initially expected” (Encountering God, pp.196-197). But her decision to contrast poetry with “traditional prayer,” without mentioning psalms serves to dissociate Goldberg’s work from its background.

Psalms have, it seems, been considered somewhat old-fashioned for millenia —

When the sages in the Second Temple period composed the prayers and blessings that all Jews are obligated to recite, they created new texts rather than selecting chapters from Psalms….The main reason for this tendency seems to have been that the psalms were written in an ancient poetic style not easily understood in the Second Temple period. The rabbis used a style similar to the spoken language of their day, so that ordinary Jews could understand them.
Jerusalem Commentary on the Psalms, p. xliii

— but also demand their own renewal: “Sing unto the LORD a new song” (Psalm 149:1).

Goldberg’s “withered leaf” and desire to avoid the mundane are a fine example of renewing an old theme — except when authors, like Adelman, fail to mention the theme being renewed.

NOTES

“Israeli Secular Poets Encounter God” by Rabbi Dalia Marx
IN Encountering God: El Rachum V’chanun: God Merciful and Gracious. Lawrence A. Hoffman, editor. Woodstock, NY: Jewish Lights, 2016
Full paper also posted on Academia
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Marx’s end-notes:

22. T’fillat Haderekh (literally, “the Road Prayer”) is the title of the traditional prayer for beginning a journey.

23. Leah Goldberg, Milim Achronot (Last Words) (Tel Aviv, 1957) reprinted in Poems II, 221 (my translation, DM).
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24. Talmud, Berakhot 29b

25. For another exception, see Amir, “Prophecy and Halachah,” 52-53.
[Yehoyado Amir, “Prophecy and Halachah: Toward Non-Orthodox Religious Praxis in (Eretz) Israel. Tikvah Working Paper 06/12 (New York: NYU School of Law, 2012)]

26. Lieblich, Learning about Lea, 237
[Amia Lieblich, Learning about Lea (London: Athena Press, 2003)]
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The Picture, Part 2

In Bialik’s poem, the Matmid, there is both a collective of students and a “lonely voice,” chanting solo at night:

His comrades three await him in his place,
They, who have been his friends since first he came:
The burning light, the desk, his Talmud text.
— HaMatmid [The Talmud Student], Helena Frank, trans.

1947 illustration for the poem, "The Talmud Student," by Lionel S. Reiss (1894-1988)

1947 illustration for the poem, “The Talmud Student,” by Lionel S. Reiss (1894-1988)

See also, Reiss’ illustration of this passage at right.

According to one biography, and several articles on Lithuanian yeshivot [academies] of the late 19th Century, this is a direct reflection of author’s experience. Chaim Nachman Bialik (1873–1934; also: Haim or Hayim) studied in Volozhin in the late 1880s, where several, somewhat competing, educational forces were at work:

  • comraderie among students and a sense of collective learning;
  • the anti-ascetic leaning of one master, Rabbi Naftali Tsevi Yehudah Berlin (“the Natsiv”); and
  • the 24/7 learning philosophy of Rabbi Chayyim Soloveitchik.

One Biographer’s View

1) “Bialik was no longer alone with his sacred books in the vacant synagogue of his hometown,” writes biographer Sara Feinstein of Bialik’s arrival in Volozhin. “Now he felt part of a mighty force of hundreds of talmudic scholars whose voices rang with fervor and exhilaration.” (Sunshine, Blossoms, and Blood, p.43; more below)

2) Of the Natsiv, she writes:

It was said that he once admonished a Matmid who went to extremes by denying himself food and sleep:

In your obsessive studying you do not have time to become a scholar. When you cease to exaggerate your being a Matmid, going without food or sleep, you will begin to know Torah.

— Feinstein, p.42;
inner citation: Meir Bar-Ilan. Mi-Vilozhin ‘ad Yerushalayim (Ramat Gan: Bar-Ilan University, 1971) vol 1, p.114

content3) The yeshiva’s founder, Rabbi Chayyim (the elder) Soloveitchik, ancestor of the master of Bialik’s day, “had decreed at the time of the Yeshivah’s founding that learning must go on twenty-four hours a day: ‘The sound of leaning must not cease to be heard within its walls.’ All students were required to take shifts in learning during the night, over and beyond the regular schedule of lectures and recitations…” (Feinstein, p.38)

Feinstein goes on to quote a description of a yeshiva day around the time Bialik was there:

Every student, no matter what age, is expected to attend the Shaharit (morning service) at 8:00 a.m. At the conclusion of the service some may return to their lodgings fo breaksfast, others remain in the study hall…Following Ma’ariv (evening service) students return to their lodgings for their evening meal. Some return to the Yeshivah to study past midnight, others sleep until 3:00 a.m. when they return to study until morning.
— Feinstein, again, p.38
citing Berdyczewski, “Toldot Yeshivat ‘Ets-Hayyim,” ha-Asif (1887): 237

Why is Bialik’s Matmid Alone? (Reprise)

Knowing the strong tradition of Jewish learning in groups, particularly pairs, I wondered in this blog, a few days back, why Bialik’s student is alone: is this a literary device? a reflection of personal isolation? a homelitical warning?

Apparently there is something of a controversy today about educational practice in the 19th Century, with some debate about when and where paired study called “hevruta” was used. See “Three Partners in Study” and “Learning in Pairs.”

— and, in support of paired study, I note that it was my study partner who read through the latter citation finding material pertinent to the question I was asking…points I had missed, even while citing the article! —

Even if hevruta study was regularly employed at Volozhin, however (which appears debatable), it seems that Bialik’s poem reflects the odd, late-night vigils required of students there.

So that answers the basic “why is he alone?” question, and it provides additional background for understanding the poem, HaMatmid. Deeper layers of the question remain. And “What’s wrong with this picture?” has a different resonance.


With gratitude to my many partners in study, past and present, long-time and newer.
And with special thanks to my chevruta, Amy Brookman.

HaMatmid and Bialik Resources

Feinstein, Sara. Sunshine, Blossoms, and Blood: H.N. Bialik in his Time, A Literary Biography. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2005.

Hebrew. The full Hebrew text is available at Project Ben-Yehuda, which “aims to make accessible the classics of Hebrew literature (poetry and prose, but also essays, letters, memoirs, and reference works) to the reader of Hebrew.”

English. An English translation, posted for educational purposes and covering much of the poem, is available at Poetry Nook.

What’s Wrong with this Picture?

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The Hebrew Poetry group at Temple Micah (DC) is exploring some works of Chaim Nachman Bialik (1873–1934; also: Haim or Hayim). So I have recently discovered “The Talmud Student,” one of his most famous poems. I find it fascinating and powerful. But it leaves me with one large question I’m hoping someone(s) can help me answer.

Some read this poem as pure ode to Talmud study:

The ideal Torah student is constantly studying. His is the image portrayed by the great poet Chaim Nachman Bialik in his masterpiece, HaMatmid [The Talmud Student]. There he describes the night and day devotion of the young man to his studying task in moving and inspiring terms. For Bialik, himself once a yeshiva student, the “Matmid” is the true hero of Jewish history.
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, VP emeritus of the Orthodox Union

It is also, perhaps more commonly, read as a statement of “great ambivalence” toward the way life in the Lithuanian yeshiva of the late 19th Century CE. (See, e.g., this Jewish Virtual Library note.)

The poem is frequently understood as referencing concerns about insularity in the yeshiva world, as in this contemporary opinion piece by Shmuel Winiarz.
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