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.

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Eicha for my city and maybe for yours

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 in despair right here,
Can Jewish space bring rest?
Refugees are some, just some,
of misery’s many faces
Public protest spreads the nation
are we stuck in narrow places?

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. Not in our name.
Closing camps, protecting neighbors and strangers –
that is work we are all called to do
But what about mutual care?
Or must we ignore some of our truths
in chasing a goal that we share?

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

Yes: We demonstrate publicly that Jews will not turn our backs on refugees arriving in this country and on immigrant neighbors already here. We support vigils and protest to #CloseTheCamps. Now!!
Can we not also:

  • 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?

“It is not ours to complete the task, but neither are we free to desist from it” — Pirkei Avot 2:16

Here’s a PDF of this post, should anyone want to print a single page.Eichah for my city maybe yours

Resources on Psalms

I’ve been collecting resources on individual psalms for study on a monthly basis. (Local to DC? Check out Temple Micah, third Tuesdays of the month, 1:30 – 3 p.m.) Here are the materials so far (last updated 7/17/19 — here is the stable page where more will be added.)

Psalm 1 Resources (PDF)

Psalm 92 Resources (PDF)

Psalm 8 Resources(PDF)

Psalm 22 Resources (PDF)

Coming soon, a few notes, by request, on Ugaritic and the Psalms, and more resources related to individual psalms as they are gathered.

The wingCatz of Terumah

Instructions for crafting a place for God to dwell include a pair of hammered-work creatures, with upward spreading wings, facing one another above the cover of the Ark. Between the two sculptured figures is where God promises to meet Moses to deliver further Revelation (Exodus 25:10-22, in parashat Terumah: Ex 25:1-27:19). The imagery is intriguing, if disconcerting: too close to forbidden graven images, too similar to idols of neighboring ancient cultures, and, ultimately, too erotic for prime time. But I’ve I recently learned some new perspectives on the hammered-work creatures and, more generally, the way religious imagery can work for us or not.

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(Re)dedication and Tasks Incomplete

In postscript to “Thirty on Psalm 30,” here are some related words from R. Aviva Richman, faculty of Hadar. Meant as a teaching for Chanukah, this strikes me as just as applicable to beginning a new calendar year or, indeed, to starting any new day:

The work of hanukat habayit [dedication of the house], then, takes place in multiple spheres—in our homes, in our communal structures, and in our own bodies independent of any particular larger structure. Any narrow focus on one of these aspects of hanukat habayit to the exclusion of others will necessarily leave gaps—some people will not be able to fully participate in the critical transformation that is Hanukkah if we neglect any of these modes.
— “Communal and Private (Re)dedication

Richman goes on to urge that we work “within all of these sites of rededication, to create homes, communal structures, and selves where brokenness is allowed to be visible and can be transformed into rejuventation and healing.”

The idea of allowing brokenness to show and become rejuvenated also reminds me of the Marge Piercy poem, “The task never completed”:

No task is ever completed,
only abandoned or pressed into use.
Tinkering can be a form of prayer.

Each night sleep unravels me into wool,
then into sheep and wolf. Walls and fire
pass through me. I birth stones.

Every dawn I stumble from the roaring
vat of dreams and make myself up
remembering and forgetting by halves.

Every dawn I choose to take a knife
to the world’s flank or a sewing kit,
rough improvisation, but a start.

— from The Art of Blessing the Day (NY: Knopf, 1999)

This poem, like Psalm 30 in its position in the morning liturgy, knows that making a truly fresh, joyful start involves acknowledging that weeping spent the night. (Re)dedicating the house — in multiple spheres — requires knowing where a knife or a sewing kit is needed.

(Thirty on Psalm 30)

Eighteen (or 19) Names, Seven Voices

In the last post, we considered a ring of connection linking Psalms 28, 29, and 30. (See “Psalms Near 30.”) One of the key elements was the repetition of God’s voice in Psalm 29. The seven mentions of God’s voice, along with the repetition of God’s name, also extend this ring of connection to the Shabbat and weekday Amidah.

God’s Name in Psalms 29 and 30

In discussing the origins of the Standing Prayer, with its eighteen foundational blessings, the Rabbis offer several explanations, including this one based on Psalm 29:

Corresponding to what were these eighteen blessings instituted… Rabbi Hillel, son of Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani, said: Corresponding to the eighteen mentions of God’s name that King David said in the psalm: “Give unto the Lord, O you sons of might” (Psalm 29)….
— B. Berakhot 28b, Koren Steinsaltz commentary

With regard to the nineteenth, they add:

Corresponding to what was the nineteenth blessing instituted? Rabbi Levi said: According to Rabbi Hillel, son of Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani …the nineteenth blessing corresponds to a reference to God in that psalm, where a name other than the tetragrammaton was used: “The God of glory thunders” (Psalms 29:3)….
— B. Berakhot 28b

We saw early on in this series a tradition that Psalm 30 was added to the liturgy under the influence of Jewish mystics because the psalm “mentions the name of God ten times, and Jewish mystics saw in this a hint of the s’firot, the ten aspects of the Godhead” (Siddur Lev Shalem ). I still count only nine appearances of YHVH in Psalm 30, however, couldn’t find a source that detailed the ten mentions of God’s name, and wonder if maybe the tenth was hidden. (See “The Whole Nine Yards.”)

In a similar vein to the Talmud’s handling of the nineteenth blessing, here is one way to find ten mentions of God’s name in Psalm 30:

שְׁמַע-יְהוָה וְחָנֵּנִי; יְהוָה, הֱיֵה-עֹזֵר לִי
Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me. O Lord, be my helper.

The formulation “O Lord, be my helper,” alludes to the meaning of the Tetragrammaton: “For I will be with you” (see Exodus 3:12-15, and Onkelos, according to Ramban‘s reading in his commentary on the words: אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה eHyeh asher eHyeh). At all events, the combination הי הֱיֵה, Hashem heyeh, “O Lord, be,” is a play on the spelling of the two words.”
The Jerusalem Commentary, p.226

In this way, verse 11 suggests the tenth mention of God’s name in Psalm 30 without spelling it out directly. Hinting at the Name seems quite fitting with many themes of the psalm and with musical and chant settings for this verse in particular.

God’s Voice

Continuing their discussion of the Amida, the Rabbis touch on the seven blessings of the Shabbat Standing Prayer: 

Corresponding to what were these seven blessings of the Shabbat Amida prayer instituted?… Rabbi Halafta ben Shaul said: Corresponding to the seven “voices” which David mentioned on the waters; in other words, the seven times that “the voice of God” is mentioned in Psalms 29, which served as the source for the weekday prayer.
— B. Berakhot 29a

In the previous post, outlining a ring of connection between Psalms 28, 29, and 30, I suggested that Psalm 29’s focus on God’s voice can be read as a response to Psalm 28’s fears of God’s silence or idleness. And then Psalm 30 loops us back to Psalm 28’s themes of supplication, crying out, rescue from the pit, and God as strength and help.

As noted also in “Psalms Near 30,” the powerful, majestic, etal. voices of God — especially if considered in response to a personal plea for connection and rescue — seem reminiscent of God’s speeches in The Book of Job, chapters 38ff…

….Except that in Psalm 29 it’s the human speaker who is extolling God’s voices. And, based on the passages in Berakhot, the psalm is somehow the source of the Amida. So, God’s voice in all its shattering, shake-inducing fire in some sense prompts our Standing Prayer.

Is it that standing before God that eventually turns lament into dancing, undoes the sackcloth, and dresses us in joy? It’s a long way from “the pit” to a place where one’s “whole being might sing hymns to [God] endlessly.” The changes expressed in Psalm 30, which follows on the ring from Psalm 28 to 29 — and into the prayers Psalm 29 inspires — are huge and visceral. A little bit like Job, post-whirlwind, saying: “I had heard You with my ears, But now I see You with my eyes” (Job 42:5).


27 of 30 on Psalm 30
No Longer National Novel Writing Month, but continuing the focus on Psalm 30 (“Thirty on Psalm 30”) begun as a NaNoWriMo-Rebel project. Whole series (so far).


NOTE:
Koren Talmud Bavli. Volume 1: Tractate Berakhot. Jerusalem: Koren, 2012.
This English in this bilingual edition combines translation, in bold type, with additional narration from Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz in ordinary font. The English-opening section also offers English notes, complete with illustrations, and full Hebrew text. The Hebrew-opening section provides traditional layout without translation. The 42-volume set is still being released. In addition to print editions, PDFs — which include the illustrations and all — are available for $9.95/each. Visit Koren for more information.

If you’re looking for a free, accessible English-only versions, visit Halakhah.com.

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NOTE:
Onkelos translates Exodus 3:14 without attempting to render key phrases into Aramaic:

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh.” And He said, “Thus shall you say to the Israelites, ‘Ehyeh sent you to me.'”
Onkelos: On the Torah (Jerusalem: Geffen, 2006)

An additional note says that “Ibn Ezra regards Ehyeh as God’s name and asher ehyeh as a description of God’s nature.”

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Mouse and Menorah

In Perek Shira, as noted in the previous two posts, verses from Psalm 30 join a chorus of praise in which “each of God’s creatures, plants and animals, mountains and rivers, sings out to its Creator in a special way.” Our prayers, are part of a “cosmic symphony” says Rabbi Arthur Green:

The prayers of Israel are recited in a special language and a distinctive form. There is a way in which they belong to the Jewish people and to us alone. But prayer is also a universal act, one that binds the whole human community together with all of nature, calling forth in us an appreciation of life as an ongoing celebration of the gift of being.
— from Kol Haneshemah (citation below)

This idea leads to the commentary in Pesikta Rabbati — medieval commentary on the holidays — which tells us that there were seven dedications, channukot, from dedication of heaven and earth in Breishit to the “dedication of the world to come, because even that has lights…”

More on the seven dedications as November (National Novel Writing Month) ends and Chanukah begins.

20 of 30 on Psalm 30
As a National Novel Writing Month Rebel, I write each day of November while not aiming to produce a novel. This year I focus on Psalm 30 (“Thirty on Psalm 30”) in the hope that its powerful language will help us through these days of turmoil and toward something new, stronger and more joyful, as individuals and as community. Whole series (so far)…. Look for this not-necessarily-novel writing project to extend into Chanukah, which begins just as NaNoWriMo ends, and apologies to anyone who is bothered by the strange posting schedule.

Mouse and Menorah.jpg

NOTE:
Comment appears on page 704 of Kol Haneshemah: Shabbat V’chagim, the prayerbook published by Reconstructionist Press, 1996. Full citation at Source Materials. For more on Art Green, visit his website.

Kol Haneshemah includes select verses from Perek Shira as an alternative P’sukei D’zimrah. Among them is the first Mouse verse, translated as follows:

The mouse says: “I shall exalt you, O REDEEMING ONE, for you delivered me, and gave my enemies no joy on my account.” (Psalm 30:2).

Kol Haneshemah does not include the verse-conversation when the mouse is captured by the cat. See “And the Mouse Says” and “Glory and the Swallow” for more on Perek Shira.
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