And So?

Reading the three texts of Shabbat Chazon [Vision] and Tisha B’av together can easily feed a sense of despair:

On this Shabbat of Vision, we stand at the river’s edge, imagining the world on the other side, the one our ancestors were, decades before, led to believe was just around the corner. And yet, as Deuteronomy opens, we are listening to Moses describe all the ways we’ve already disappointed and erred since taking those first tentative steps toward what we hoped would be better days. “How?! How can I bear the trouble/burden [torach] of you?” Moses moans (Deut 1:12; see PDF in previous post).

On this same Shabbat, we are treated to the prophet Isaiah’s speech from across the river, inside that imagined world. He, too, is explaining just how thoroughly we’ve failed, turning vision into a burden even God cannot bear: “[Your rituals] are become a burden [torach] to me…Your hands are full of blood.” (Isaiah 1:14-15). “How?! How did a dream of justice and righteousness become a city of murderers?” (1:21, paraphrased)

With Eikha, that imagined world has collapsed, and we are on the road out of the ruins. “How?! How did what once appeared so vibrant turn into this painful mess?!”

It seems that we’ve been crying, “How?! How did things get this bad?!” for so long that we might as well simply declare that nothing ever changes, that people are just as rotten to one another today as they were in Isaiah’s time or King Josiah’s or at the time of Exile, and our problems have been basically the same for 2700 years.

But we can also understand these three readings — offered to us at the lowest point in the Jewish calendar — as an age-old acknowledgement that there will always be failures, that the better days envisioned will always be ahead, that we are always facing an ending…with, we must hope, a new beginning beyond it.


“Where is the ‘so’?”

In the kinot for Tisha B’av, Chapter 13 offers a series of verses beginning “אֵי כֹּה” [ei ko], translated as “Where is the [ko-based] promise…?” (Sefaria offers the Hebrew for Chapter 13 but no translation.) Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s commentary, found in Koren Mesorat HaRav Kinot (Koren, 2010), explains:

In this kina, Rabbi Elazar HaKalir treats the word eikha as though it were a composite word consisting of two separate words, ei and ko, and therefore, the meaning of the word is not “how?!” but rather “where is the ko, the ‘so'”? Where are the promises that God made to the Jewish people using the word ko?
–p.318

The author of the kina is asking, R’ Soloveitchik says, why the promises were not fulfilled, and ultimately God responds: “Do not worry, the ko will be realized; sooner or later there will be no need to ask Eikha” (p. 327).

Maybe, however, we should read “where is the ‘so’?” from another angle: For nearly 3000 years, we’ve been warned that there is blood on our hands and work to be done. And so?

And so: 1) “Cease to do evil.” 2) “Learn to do good.” 3) “Devote yourself [to repair]” and, only then, 4) Atone/seek restoration of relationship.

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov taught: “If you believe that you can destroy, believe that you can repair.” (Meshivat Nefesh #38). We will always mess up, and always be called to keep going.

Vision, Blood, and Learning

UPDATED 8/7/22 evening with note on transliteration and link to epilogue

Three challenging Bible passages come together in the Jewish calendar in the next two days:

  • Devarim (Deut 1:1-3:12), the first portion in the Book of Deuteronomy (Deut 1:1-3:12);
  • Isaiah 1:1-27, the prophetic reading which gives this Shabbat it’s special name, “Shabbat of Vision,” or Shabbat Chazon; and
  • Eikha, the Book of Lamentations, read on Tisha B’av.

In some years, there are several days between Shabbat Chazon and Tisha B’av — offering a chance for us to take the admonitions to heart before entering into the deepest day of mourning the Jewish calendar and then beginning the slow climb toward the new year. Some years, like this one, leave no space between that last Shabbat of Affliction (or Admonition) and Tisha B’av. So we’re about to enter a complicated couple of days.


Historical and Literary Context

A bit of history is useful for viewing the confluence of readings for Shabbat Chazon and Tisha B’av:

  • Eikha/Lamentations is probably, current scholarship says, from the middle of the 6th Century BCE, although some parts may be older; the book as a whole is traditionally ascribed to the prophet Jeremiah (c. 650-570 BCE).
  • Jeremiah was active at the time of King Josiah (c.640-609 BCE), from the 13th year of the young king’s reign through Exile and the destruction of the First Temple. Substantial portions of the Book of Deuteronomy are also linked with King Josiah’s era.
  • The prophet Isaiah lived a century earlier, with the year 733 BCE a prominent date for his vision… which led him to criticize focus on ritual when what is required is tending to those in need:

Your new moons and your appointed seasons My soul hates…
Your hands are full of blood (stained with crime).
…Seek justice, relieve the oppressed….
How [Eikha] is the faithful city…once full of justice,
righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers!
–Isa 1:14-17, 1:21


How?!

That mournful cry, beginning with the word “Eikha” in Isaiah 1:21, is echoed in both Deuteronomy and the book of that name.

For the record, “eikha” appears only the once in Isaiah, four times in Eikha, and five times in Deuteronomy, plus twice in Jeremiah and once each in four other books of Tanakh. (See handout, “Eikha and Chazon,” below).

Isaiah’s vision prompts us to consider any number of collective crimes. The compressed time period of Shabbat followed immediately by the day of mourning makes it difficult to process or respond. But Isaiah doesn’t just leave us with blood on our hands; he suggests a way forward:

Learn to do good.
Devote yourselves to justice;
Aid the wronged.
Uphold the rights of the orphan;
Defend the cause of the widow.

Isaiah 1:17 (see “Isaiah page one” handout, also below)

We can read this message as a simple “do better.” And, of course, that is what we are being told to do. But we must also heed that first commandment: Learn.

For nearly 3000 years, Isaiah has railing at us that we have blood on our hands. And for just as long, the prophet has been telling us that the first step — before trying to undertake the work of justice, provide aid, uphold anyone’s rights, or defend the most vulnerable — is to learn.

We can inform ourselves about the problems and issues. We can listen to the voices of those most affected by crimes in which we have participated, however inadvertently. We can get to know what solutions others are already working to implement. We can learn more about Jewish history, practice, and philosophy to shore up our ability to respond Jewishly — and/or steep ourselves in other traditions that inspire us.

For nearly 3000 years, Jewish tradition has been calling us to do better by learning better.


TRANSLITERATION NOTE: The Hebrew word ” איכה ” is pretty commonly transliterated “eicha” (and this blog often used that spelling in the past); eikha is used here, though, in an effort to make clear the distinction between the chet of “[חזון] chazon” and the khaf of “eikha.”


TOP

PDF Handouts

Handout for Hill Havurah, six-page-PDF includes both “Eicha and Chazon” (5 pages) and “Isaiah page one” (1 page) in one document. Also below: separate pieces.

——-

Eicha and Chazon (five-page-PDF, originally prepared for Temple Micah in 2019 and re-shared with Hill Havurah and Tzedek Chicago in 2022) —

——-

Isaiah page one — (one-page-PDF) three translations for Isa 1:15-18 and some definitions.

BACK

Or Olam: the light ahead and within

Seeking pieces of liturgy and other resources for uplift, as we try to move from the depths of Av to the new year, I’ve found myself returning again and again to “Eternal Light” — based on a line from the high holiday prayers — as composed by Norma Brooks and recorded by “Psalm Full of Soul” with guest artists The Blind Boys of Alabama (recording below).

Or Olam — Eternal Light

“Infinite light is preserved in life’s treasure-house; ‘Lights from darkness’ said God — it was so.” — from the piyyut “Or Olam

“And the light of the moon shall become like the light of the sun, and the light of the sun shall become sevenfold, like the light of the seven days, when the LORD binds up His people’s wounds and heals the injuries it has suffered.” — Isaiah 30:26

These lines, from an ancient liturgical poem by Yose ben Yose (4th-5th Centuries CE) are added to the Yotzeir Or blessing on the High Holy Days. They refer to a Talmudic legend (Chagigah 12a) that the brilliant primordial light of Creation, too powerful for mortal eyes, was hidden away by God, and is preserved for the righteous in the world-to-come.

— liturgical verse and commentary from Mishkan Hanefesh for Rosh Hashanah (CCAR, 2015)

Each of us is a repository of life. We are where life is stored, and this eternal light rests inside each of us, waiting for us to manifest it with our actions. When we act justly, we bring this light into the world, answering God’s dictum, “Lights from the darkness!” When we help another, we bring the “it was so” into the present, an ongoing creation of light in darkness (R David Kominsky, b. 1971)

— commentary from Mishkan Hanefesh continued

The song, “Eternal Light,” is based on “Or Olam” and its commentary, as well as on Gen 1:3-5 and Isaiah 30:36 and 45:7. The same line appears in Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgies (see p.178 in Mishkan Hanefesh for Yom Kippur, e.g.) Video here, with lyrics, is shared with kind permission of Norma Brooks, composer. Full credits below.

For more musical inspiration, including some pieces for the high holidays, check out Norma Brooks’ earlier album, Bountiful Light, created with the help of musicians and choir members from DC and beyond.

Image description: Video is basically one static pair of images overlaid throughout with the song lyrics. Image 1 is a photo of the eight performers at recording session: Blind Boys of Alabama with “Psalm Full of Soul,” that is, Vanessa R. Williams, Vince Evans, and Norma Brooks. Image 2 is the album cover showing Psalm Full of Soul logo and a picture of Vanessa, Vince, an Norma laughing together. Static text: “Psalm Full of Soul ‘Eternal Light.’ Composer: Norma Brooks. Vocal Soloist: Vanessa R. Williams. Featuring guest artists The Blind Boys of Alabama.” On top of the static graphic, lyrics appear in a text box as song progresses. (Lyrics can also be found below.)


“Eternal Light” lyrics (Norma Brooks)

Eternal, eternal light
Source of life, source of life
Light of creation, God’s living treasure
O holy light, God’s holy light

Light from darkness
Light from darkness
God spoke, and it was so
Light from darkness
Light from darkness
Creator of heaven and earth

Eternal, eternal light
Source of life, source of life
Light of creation, God’s living treasure
O holy light, O holy light

O holy light, eternal light
O holy light, eternal light

When the light of the moon
Shall be as the light of the sun
And the light of the sun
Shall be sevenfold
As the light of the seven days,
Seven days of the week
Oh, in the future
There will be a more perfect light
The light resides
Within Each one of us,
Just waiting for us
Just waiting for us
To act justly, to act with purity,
Clarity and joy

The ongoing creation
Of light from darkness
O holy light, O holy light
Eternal light, O holy light

Eternal, eternal light
Source of life, source of life
Light of creation, God’s living treasure
O holy light, God’s holy light

BACK

Credits for “Eternal Light”
Guest Artists: The Blind Boys of Alabama (Jimmy Carter, Ben Moore, Joey Williams, Paul Beasley)
Vocal Soloist: Vanessa R. Williams
Keyboards: Vince Evans
Guitar: Alvin White
Bass: Bryan Fox
Drums: J.C. Jefferson
Choir: Rhonda Burnett Chapman, Byron Nichols, Michael White, Vanessa R. Williams
“Psalm Full of Soul” (c) 2008

RETURN

Whence Comes Help: After Tisha B’av

With Tisha B’av behind us, we are meant to be climbing upward, from the calendar’s deepest point, toward the new year. But how can we begin the climb while disasters mount around us and reasons to mourn continue to grow? Psalm 121 speaks to a moment such as this. I’ve found myself turning again and again in recent days to the Nefesh Mountain version of “Esa Einai.” And to this idea that there is stability, despite the constant change…even the mountains are shifting:

“Change is ceaseless, and transformation knows no pause. The dynamism both exhilarates and exhausts the spirit; no wonder that we seek stability amidst this endless process.” Thus writes R’ Everett Gendler in a commentary on Psalm 121. He then suggests that Psalm 121’s expression “mei-ayin” — usually translated as “from where?” — carries “echoes of the Creative Nothingness, the Divine Void, the AYIN” and that God’s four-letter Name [YHVH] hints at “stability amidst ceaseless process.” (Full comment found in Kol Haneshamah: Shabbat Vehagim. Reconstructionist Press, 1996, p.215.)

Thanks to Nefesh Mountain for creating their uplifting music, and for permission to share their “Esa Einai” along with this commentary as part of an effort to begin looking upward.

Learn more about Nefesh Mountain, and check out their newest album, “Songs for the Sparrows,” just released in June.

Eicha for my city and others, 5781

Alas! How lonely sits the city
Once great with joyful people!
New horrors fill horizons now
while old pain never left
Each new loss diminishes
the streets themselves bereft

Bitterly we weep all night
cheeks wet with tears unseen
If we are to join together,
we must widen this choir of woe
When some cries are background noise
what’s the meaning of “friend” and “foe”?

City crying out with loss:
six-year-old child shot to death
joining a list, far too long,
of youth killed in past years.
Community grief so deep for some
while others escape most tears.

Down our roads, more peril
desolation, violence, fear
systems that crush and jail
separate, cage, and hate
Borders come in many shapes
Too often closed, that welcome gate

Evidence mounts. But do we act?
ICE camps remain; racism persists.
Policing prospers, yet safety eludes
Some thrive, while too many do without.
Must we ignore some of our truths
in chasing a joint goal to shout?

Forging coalition is struggle, tougher in anguish.
Inside affliction, can we hear another cry?
It is painful and complex, but we must keep trying
trying to heed the whole sound
I know you can hear it, God once declared loudly:
that voice of a sibling crying up from the ground

–V. Spatz, songeveryday.org CC-BY-SA


Back in 2019, a number of Jewish communities were marking Tisha B’av with vigils and protests, attempting to demonstrate that Jews will not turn our backs on refugees arriving in this country and on immigrant neighbors already here. The original “Eichah: for my city and maybe for yours” (2019) asked us to consider the following:

  • Recognize many ways our country has long separated families, caged and brutalized people?
  • Cry with our local, national and international communities, refugees and not, who lend different voices to the chorus of “How lonely sits this place!”?
  • Send prayer energy to our many beleaguered communities, near and far?
  • Commit to exploring, in the days to come, ways in which we are complicit in so much suffering and ways we might take up action for repair?

On this Tisha B’av, 7/18/21, DC-area Jews please acknowledge:

  • Nyiah Courtney, age 6, shot to death in Ward 8 on 7/16/21 (the 108th homicide in DC, 2021)

And remember:

  • Makiyah Wilson, age 10, shot to death in Ward 7 on 7/16/18
  • Karon Brown, age 11, shot to death in Ward 8 on 7/18/19

Here is the 2019 version, “Eichah: for my city and maybe for yours.” And here is a PDF to use and share of this version.

New Site and Podcasts

This site is already full and too closely resembling my desk in that the organization makes sense only to me and sometimes fails me too. So, I decided there is no room for a set of posts about podcasts and I am using a new site for that: Rereading4liberation.com

Please visit. Subscribe to the podcast on whichever platform you prefer — it’s posted on Anchor.fm but appears on Spotify and many other ways of getting a podcast. Listen and, if you enjoy what you hear, tell others to check it out. thanks!

Rethinking Exodus for Joint Liberation

Update: please visit Rereading4liberation.com where you will find conversations with around related issues and daily podcasts on Rethinking Exodus.

This is an invitation — to Jews, non-Jews, Bible readers and not — to explore some ideas about liberation and join together in figuring out how we are going to get ourselves out of the Narrow Place we’re stuck this year in such a way that we don’t leave our neighbors behind.

Some of us are facing a seriously changed Passover in just a few days and are maybe hearing the story we’re repeated so many times in a new way this year. Some of us only recognize the Exodus story from the movies or general popular culture. Either way, we know that we need a new approach.

This year, more than ever, we have to stop talking in vague terms about joining hands and marching and instead consider

  • Are we prepared to head toward something truly different?
  • Will we let go of what we have in order to get there?
  • With whom have we joined hands?
  • Whom have we left behind?
  • Have we been marching toward a liberation that never seems to materialize for so long that we now wonder if it’s worth the upheaval?

To help us explore these topics, together and individually, please join me in Rereading Exodus for a New Sense of Liberation — a book in progress offered here — and in a new podcast, “Rethinking Exodus for Joint Liberation.” Both resources focus on how the realities in the District of Columbia and the Exodus tale inform one another.

Rethinking Exodus podcast

Brand new, today (March 30): the first episode — about who survives the plagues and how we can try to help each other through this, as well as a few more light-hearted topics — is available now at Rereading4Liberation.com. [This is an update as of April 15. Moving material OFF the former Anchor and podcasting sites for now.]

Rereading Exodus book

This book in progress, delayed by the Rona and other issues, builds on last year’s Exodus and Coalition. Part 2 expected late April.

If reading on laptop or larger device, try two pages side-by-side, as it was laid out for print viewing. If reading on phone, try one page horizontal view.

Rereading Exodus for Liberation (interactive).

Rereading Exodus for Liberation (print) — easier to print.

still working on an epub.

Until Oppression Stays Behind

Getting out of biblical Egypt is the climax of an epic drama full of promises, plagues, and politics. And we sometimes think of escape from Mitzraim as definitive and final:

Oppression behind us;
freedom ahead;
halleluyah!
(On Passover: “Let’s eat.”)

Leaving Mitzraim, however, isn’t just moments of triumph and release: It’s a long, messy, frequently discouraging process.

—– SPOILER ALERT:
After the initial drama, the people spend 27 more chapters of Exodus, followed by Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, in the wilderness; the Torah closes, forty years on, with an entire generation having perished on the journey and a river still to cross. —–

Truly seeing ourselves, individually, as “personally coming forth from Egypt” (Pes 116b) means embracing the whole story. Engaging with its complexities can also help us in communal and public approaches.

Leaving Mitzraim

Exodus, and the Passover experience, can appear as modeling a violent parting of oppressor and oppressed peoples. Centuries of commentary offer additional, sometimes quite different, perspectives, however. Shifting our views can serve us in many ways.

The Exodus is defining for Jews. It’s crucial in other faith traditions, including Christianity and Rastafari, and an important literary theme, in- and outside religious contexts. Exodus has also played key roles in U.S. political philosophy, from early colonial ideas to the 20th Century Civil Rights movement and beyond. In particular, the Exodus story is regularly employed to highlight shared values and promote coalition across Jewish and Black communities.

Some uses of the Exodus story have become frozen and no longer serve us well. Shifting some of these conversations is imperative if we are to escape today’s Mitzraim. This book seeks to highlight views of Exodus that can inspire fresh community and coalition building for our day.

Michael Walzer’s 1986 Exodus and Revolution concludes with this now oft-quoted adage about the three-fold Exodus message:

First, wherever you are, it is probably Egypt.
Second, that there is a better place,
a world more attractive, a promised land;
and third, that the way to the land is through the wilderness.
There is no way to get from here to there
except by joining together and marching.

The image of “joining together and marching” toward that “better place” has inspired and comforted many. But that imagery can also lull us into thinking that we are marching toward equality and justice, when, instead, we’re dragging the whole of that mythical Egypt with us.

A more apt characterization, at this point, might be that we are a conflicted people with a history of marching, sometimes ineffectively, toward a liberation that hasn’t yet materialized for all concerned. It’s time we re-examined our basic assumptions and listened more carefully to others on this journey.

As SVARA: The Traditionally Radical Yeshiva teaches, we can abandon a foundational story that is no longer working for us, we can deny there is any problem, or we can dig deeper and transform the old story.

This book represents an attempt to look deeper into the Exodus story, seeking a shift of perspective that will help us tell a story in which, finally, we’re all free — or at least headed together, respectfully, in a positive direction.

After Mitzraim

Following the tenth plague, hurried departure preparations, and the break in narrative to describe the Passover ritual, we read in this week’s Torah portion:

When Pharaoh sent the people out, God did not lead them by the nearer route, for God said: “Lest the people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.” So God led the people round-about, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds….
And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him; for he had extracted a vow from the Children of Israel, saying: “God will surely remember you; and you shall carry up my bones with you.”
— Exodus 13:17-19

Here we are, embarking on our journey into new-found freedom….

…And we’re on a roundabout route to avoid fear of potential conflict which might tempt us to turn back.

…We’re carting along old bones, honoring a vow made generations earlier, back when the old Pharoah still knew our ancestor Joseph, then a highly-placed administrator in Egyptian government (Gen 50:24-26 and Ex 1:8).

…And then, as if to underscore the illusory nature of our escape, we are once again trapped in a deadly power struggle, Mitzraim’s army behind us and the Sea of Reeds ahead (Ex 14:1ff).

The portion continues, of course, with God helping Moses to part the waters, the escaping people marching “into the sea on dry ground,” the sea “coming back upon” the pursuing chariots and riders, and, finally, the celebratory dance and Song of the Sea (Exodus 14 and 15).

The Song of the Sea has long been part of Jewish liturgy, as have psalms that celebrate coming out of Mitzraim (Ps. 113-118, sometimes called “Egyptian Hallel”). Celebratory Exodus themes are part of many other moments in the daily, Shabbat and Festival prayers, as well as Passover. But Jewish tradition has always included the bitter along with the sweet and asked us to incorporate alternative understandings into our readings and practice.

  • What can we learn by pausing to explore this precarious spot at the start of our freedom journey?
  • Whose old bones are we carrying? which historical relationships continue to influence our decisions? can acknowledging what we carry help us move forward?
  • Is fear of conflict warping our path? are there (still) good reasons for avoiding the more direct route?

Rereading Exodus

Updated 3/18/21

This post was intended as the introduction to Until Oppression Stays Behind: Rereading Exodus toward more just and inclusive community building. It was originally posted on February 7, 2020 — when we were still in the Before Times. Until Oppression Stays Behind was the promised 2019 redraft of 2019’s “Exodus and Exile: Thoughts on Coalition and Redemption,” released as a sort of beta-test publication before Passover 2019. See “Coalition and Redemption” for details and to download or order a print copy. Once the world went into pandemic mode, plans for a new book morphed into a new podcast and blog Rereading Exodus https://rereading4liberation.com/ 

NOTES

מצרים/Mitzraim is biblical Egypt. Using “Mitzraim” to distinguish
the place of biblical story from any actual country, ancient or contemporary.

צַר — The Hebrew “tzar” means “narrow.” The plural “tzarim” = “narrow straits.” The Zohar (mystical work, 13th Century Spain) thus suggests that Exodus is about God bringing us out of our own “narrow places” including constricted opportunities and narrow-mindedness.

See, e.g., “Liberating Ourselves from Narrowness,” by Lesli Koppelman Ross at My Jewish Learning
BACK to TOP

בכל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים
שנאמר והגדת לבנך ביום ההוא לאמר בעבור זה עשה ה׳ לי בצאתי ממצרים

In each and every generation, a person must see themself as personally coming forth from Mitzraim. As it is said: “And you shall tell your child on that day, saying: It is because of what YHVH did for me when I came forth out of Mitzraim.
— Mishnah Pesachim 10:5-6/Pes 116b
BACK

For Shelter Protecting ALL of Us

Meditation I wrote today contemplating the sukkah and the state of our shelters: the temporary ones Jews put up this week and the longer term ones that the state pretends to offer to all.

For Shelter Protecting All_Sukkot5780 (PDF) contains meditation for sitting in the sukkah while conscious of the lack of shelter available to Black people when police are around as well as a meditation for waving the lulav on a related theme. Some of the latter is based on an earlier meditation created for Occupy Judaism in 2011.

 

 

Sacred Power: Poems, Their Translations and Their Music

As we head into the season for contemplating “the sacred power of the day” and reciting and singing U-netaneh Tokef, Admiel Kosman’s “Piyyut for Musaf of Rosh Hashanah” and the musical rendition, “Mashiv Haruach,” offer additional perspectives.

An English translation, by Aubrey Glazer, appeared in a 2007 alternative prayer book, Siddur Alternativi l’Shivim v’Edhad shirim v’Shirai Ahava (Tel Aviv: HaKibbutz Hameuchad). Not sure if the Hebrew was published simultaneously or earlier.

Atalya Lavi, cantor and soloist with Beit Tefilah Israeli, composed and recorded “Mashiv Haruach” in 2016. It is part of the congregation’s “Shevarim [broken]” collection of pieces for the high holiday season.




Beit Tefilah Israeli’s “Mashiv Haruach” link includes, along with audio of the musical setting, full Hebrew of Kosman’s poem (credited) and full English (uncredited). Kosman’s Hebrew and Glazer’s English also appear in Machzor Lev Shalem (Rabbinical Assembly, 2010) as a reading/meditation on U-netaneh Tokef.

Many English speakers will also be reminded of Leonard Cohen’s 1974 musical response to U-netaneh Tokef, “Who by Fire.” See, e.g., recent commentary, “Who Shall I Say is Calling,” from cantorial student Gabriel Snyder.

Approaching You in English

As English-speaking Jews prepare to spend so many hours with words, both Hebrew and English, in this holiday season, perhaps Kosman’s “Approaching You in English” will also resonate. In a January 2012 Tablet article, Lisa Katz shares the concluding lines:

Officially You may refuse. I know. I’m
approaching You in English this once.
But, please, be kind,

be attentive to the heart.
Even if it’s pointless,
tasteless. Please accept an offering
from me this time.

I’m pleading with You,
please understand,
don’t be offended,

even if
when I approach
I seem to You
to cross myself
— from “Approaching You in English” by Admiel Kosman
Approaching You in English, trans. by Lisa Katz and Shlomit Naim-Naor
Boston: Zephyr Press, 2011.

In her Tablet article, Katz speaks about translation generally and about Kosman’s poetry in particular:

Because I am a translator, I know that for poetry to cross language borders, it must have strong content and brilliant or at least surprising thoughts, not the province of all writers, even the very good ones. To stay at home with honor, poetry must touch a local nerve—be sensitive to both language and current affairs—which is a different thing.

A Talmud and religious-studies scholar now teaching in Berlin, who used to be considered a “religious poet,” Admiel Kosman (10 books, plus one in translation, Approaching You in English, translated in 2011 by me with Shlomit Naim-Naor) crosses most of the heavily guarded borders here, as in the title poem [quoted above].
— Katz, “Beyond Amichai”

In 2008, Katz spoke about Kosman to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs:

Even in Israel, in terms of dominant poetics, Kosman is well-known but marginal, because he uses Jewish sources to confound received thought about Israel & the Jewish religion. Even in Israel, Kosman’s broad, humanist concept of Judaism defeats the assumptions of readers who expect piety from what they believe to be religious poetry.
Power & Translation: Lisa Katz at AWP

Can You Hear Me This Time?

Katz’s above quoted speech, with many interesting things to say about what poetry gets published in its original language and in translation and why, included this plea: “If there is a publisher out there interested in a witty and political poet who uses Jewish religious texts to make his effects, please contact me.” Three years later, Zephyr put out the bilingual edition quoted above.

Here, for further background, are bits from two reviews of the anthology.

Adriana X. Jacobs in Translation Review:

Approaching You in English offers a selection of poems spanning more than thirty years of Kosman’s oeuvre, which includes nine volumes, from the 1980 publication of And Then the Act of Poetry (Ve-acharei mora’ot ma’ase ha-shir) to the 2012 collection You’re Awesome (Keta’im itkha). But Katz and her co-translator Shlomit Naim-Naor eschew chronology, rearranging the selected poems to create an entirely different order and, in the process, a collection that exists only in English. Readers looking for a timeline of Kosman’s work will be disappointed that the translators neither note the specific collection from which the poems are taken nor date uncollected poems. The lack of a chronological order questions the very efficacy of a selected poems collection. Charting the development of themes, ideas, or style in a poet’s corpus is almost impossible to map without offering readers the possibility of consulting every single poem a poet has written, something that is rarely available in translated volumes. There are a number of reasons for this, but foremost is that translators are often tasked with curating an author’s work for its most “representative” pieces, taking the translatability of a given work into consideration (which is highly contingent on the translator/editor and his or her abilities, interests, and needs).
— Adriana X. Jacobs (2013): Approaching You in English by Admiel Kosman. Translation Review, 85:1, 72-77

E.C. Belli in Words Without Borders:

What this means in practical terms for the poems in this collection is not a reluctance but a downright refusal to be boxed in. The first poem, “What I Can,” an anaphora-based ars poetica, makes it clear from the start: “I can write poems from sand, water and mud./ On the table I’ve written poems/ made of small pieces and crumbs of words”; and later, “I am writing poems now made of potatoes,/ sickly poems,/ ones that wound and tear and do harm, about my childhood about shame/ about rare/ sensitivities and I can write poems for you and brush them off as if nothing/ had ever happened then,/ a series of ornamental poems.”

Kosman’s materials are many. His topics range from writing poems to relationships to sex to women (handled magnificently with what one might call a very gender-light touch, a touching respect) to God to Jewish texts to life in Israel to Israeli-Palestinian politics. He even touches upon language, specifically English, which he takes a few friendly jabs at: “Please, I’m encroaching on Your generosity in English this time”; and later, “Please, won’t You be so kind and understand me this once/ in a broken foreign tongue […] Can You hear me this time? In the language of non-Jews?” (“Approaching You In English”).
Feb 2012 issue of Words Without Borders



More on Admiel Kosman
Another Kosman poem was translated for this podcast; skip to 5:30 for the poem

Who by Fire?

Leonard Cohen (1934-2016). Lyrics, from the 1974 album “New Skin for the Old Ceremony,” with some interesting commentary at Genius. Dublin 2012 performance on YouTube.

BACK