How?! Is the World Like A Poem?

We are about to leave the month of Av — with its mournful cry of “eichah/how?!” — and enter the month of Elul, the final one of the old year. As we make this transition, a few more words about a poem, a poet, and a translator I first encountered during this past year.

The Hebrew poem, “Ka-shir ha-‘olam [The world is like a poem], by the U.S.-based writer, “Annabelle Farmelant, z”l, first appeared in the journal Gilyanot, in 1949, and later in the 1960 Iyyum bodedim (Desert Islands). Here is a 2016 translation by Adriana X. Jacobs:

“The World is Like a Poem”

The world is like a poem
in all its glory,
even in the thick of its aches
terrors and cries
its grandeur is reflected.
Man [ha-adam] enters the world like a wanderer
Like a wanderer man enters the world
and declares that he will roam
always, always.
But how — he asks — just how*
does beauty rule a poem
when a line is erased?
How does splendor** shine
when its form is wiped out?
Man is not in these things
for a poem’s beauty is not in a line
an unnamed [lo-karu] wanderer
in the world’s splendor**
Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores, p.149

*Eichacha — yisheil — eichacha.Eichacha” is an unusual form of “how.” The Evan Shoshan Concordance lists 78 occurrences of eich/eichah, plus four instances of “אֵיכָכָה eichachah: two in the Book of Esther and two in Song of Songs.
**”Tifereth” is a feminine word for an attribute of the divine, one right at the center of the Kabbalist tree of life.
tiferet ba-olam. splendor in the world.
tiferet ha-olam. splendor of the world.

The translation is Jacobs’ (see below), but these footnotes are mine.

Unnamed?

Jacobs often writes about the translator’s role in rendering poetry, generally, and more specifically about the poet-translator’s role in modern Hebrew literature. (See Strange Cocktail: Translation and the Making of Modern Hebrew Poetry. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2018; preview on Google Books; related articles via Academia.edu.)

Farmelant was something of an outlier in Hebrew poetry due to time, gender, and geography. And Jacobs shares some of her process around translating her work in “Hebrew on a Desert Island: The Case of Annabelle Farmelant” (Studies in American Jewish Literature, Volume 34, Number 1, 2015, pp. 154-174 — also available via Academia.edu).

In her introductory remarks in Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores, Jacobs speaks about the poem, “The World is Like a Poem”:

I understood wandering to mean the ways in which a poem circulates through time and place, how it is exchanged between readers, and also how it travels in and through translation….

But in what way is the poem “unnamed”? I thought of how translating a poem simultaneously assumes and undermines the poet’s authority by replacing her textual voice with my own but at the same time acknowledges that whatever origins the original text could claim — the influences and materials that brought it into being — can no longer be claimed….
— Jacobs, p.103

I read the line she is discussing differently, however. Perhaps because I have quite a few years on Jacobs, or maybe because I spent an evening this past week at an event highlighted by GoGo performers known as “Uncalled 4 Band.”

Unnamed? Uninvited? “Uncalled 4”?

As with my reading of Farmelant’s “Skyscraper,” I suspect that our different takes are probably colored by our age (I have decades on Jacobs, although I am quite a bit younger than Farmelant was). For someone who grew up female in the middle of the 20th Century reading “lo-karu” as “not invited” makes a great deal of sense.

The penultimate line of the poem in Hebrew —
והוא הלך לא-קרוא
is translated by Jacobs as “an unnamed wanderer.”
But קרוא can also has the meaning of “called, summoned, invited.” We were so often not unwanted in, even prohibited from, physical and intellectual spaces back then. So, I thought that, like the wandering earthling [ha-adam], the poem is trying to manage in a world which really hasn’t room for it, whose beauty is so easily erased:

??”And he walks uninvited — or uncalled for — in the world’s splendor.”??

Elul and the World Like a Poem

As we enter the month of Elul, our language shifts from “how!?” to more specific seeking as we prepare for the new year and begin reciting Psalm 27 through the season of repentance and return:

One thing I ask YHVH, only that do I seek:
to live in the house of YHVH all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of YHVH to frequent God’s temple.
…In Your behalf my heart says: “Seek My face!”
O LORD, I seek Your face.
— Psalm 27:4, 8

Farmelant’s poem includes that “how?!” — how, he asks, will this work? — but also offers some thoughts about one’s place in the world, a world of splendor, even “in the thick of its aches, terrors and cries.”


With gratitude to Jacobs for making Farmelant accessible…like many readers of Hebrew in translation, I can puzzle out words here and there, recognize biblical and rabbinic allusions, but I would find a whole volume of Hebrew poetry formidable…and for so many ideas about Hebrew literature more generally.

And in memory of Annabelle (Chana) Farmelant, who died shortly after I last wrote about her poetry for Shavuot and whom I find myself missing, though I never had the opportunity to meet her.

NOTES

Translations by Adriana X. Jacobs, Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores: Poems by Anne Kleiman and Annabelle Farmelant. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2016). See also: information on Farmelant, including an article on her work by Jacobs.

In 1960, Annabelle Farmelant, z”l, a U.S.-based writer, who was living at the time in Israel, published a book of Hebrew verse called Iyyum bodedim (Desert Islands). A second volume, Pirchei zehut (Flowers of Identity), was released in 1961. Shortly afterward Farmelant returned to the U.S. and abandoned the writing of poetry in any language; she lived in New York City until her passing, on June 14, 2019, at age 93. In 2016, Adriana X. Jacobs published translations of her poems in Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores: Poems by Anne Kleiman and Annabelle Farmelant. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2016).
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Exploring Divine Fluidity: Yentl, Gender, and Time

Murkiness does not persist for long in biblical narrative. For only one verse, “the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters.” After that, God begins a program of dividing [“va-yavdilוַיַּבְדֵּל]: light from darkness, waters above from waters below, water from dry land,….six days of work from the hallowed seventh. The theme of division continues throughout Genesis, in the stories of Noah, Babel, Abraham and descendants. Exodus and Leviticus stress divisions relating to food, sex, and other topics: this is kosher; this is not.

The biblical concept of “holiness” is all about separations; and the ancient Rabbis further pursued divisions and borders, beginning with the first words of the Mishnah: “From what time may one recite the Shema in the evening?”

Murkiness is studiously avoided in Jewish tradition. And deceptive or confusing characteristics are particularly reviled, as when a pig “pretends” to be kosher by showing its split hooves (a characteristic necessary for a kosher animal) while hiding the fact that it does not chew the cud (also required).

How, in such a worldview, can an individual who is “neither one nor the other” — like the title character of the I.B. Singer’s 1962 Yentl the Yeshiva Boy — function?

And how is Judaism, with its separations and borders, to respond to the murkiness of gender-fluidity?

Photos: Stan Barouh

Photos: Stan Barouh

Yentl, in referencing Jewish sacred text, becomes part of the age-old conversation on those texts, their interpretations and implementations. Like commentary in every age, Theater J’s Yentl brings contemporary perspectives, needs, and questions into dialogue with centuries of existing material. This happens partly as the tale — set in late 19th Century Poland — interacts with music aware that the shtetl is no longer the only model for Jewish gender roles. In addition, the set, designed by Robbie Hayes as an open book, urges us into the dialogue as well.

Theater J‘s presentation combines the 1975 play, co-written by Singer and Leah Napolin, with newer music from singer-songwriter Jill Sobule. This “play with music” (not “musical” for legal reasons), directed by Shirley Serotsky, differs substantially from the 1983 film created by Barbra Streisand. And, while it comes closer to the original story in many ways, it differs from that, too, in interesting ways.
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Yentl at Theater J, Post-Show Panel on Women and Religious Tradition

yentl

UPDATE: Change of panelists for September 14

Theater J’s new production of Yentl, based on Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short story, explores issues of gender and religious tradition. Panel discussions following Sunday matinees extend the conversation.

Virginia Spatz, co-organizer of Washington Friends of Women of the Wall, is joining a post-show panel on Sept. 14, so Theater J is offering a discount to friends WfWOW and their friends for any date of the run:

Tickets: Visit Buy Online or call Box Office Tickets at 800.494.8497.

Find out about ticket discounts here.

SPECIAL OFFER: Use coupon code ‘YENTL10’ and save $10! Buy online or call and mention the code.

 

“Jewish Women and Religious Tradition”

September 14 panel, post-matinee, approximately 5:30 p.m.

  • Sarah Breger, managing editor, Moment Magazine
  • Bonnie Morris, Professor of Women’s Studies, George Washington Univ; Author and Historian
  • Virginia Spatz, writer, educator, activist and WfWOW co-organizer

 

YENTL

AUGUST 28 – OCTOBER 5, 2014

Based on Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short story “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy”

Adapted for the stage by Leah Napolin and Isaac Bashevis Singer

With new music and lyrics composed by Jill Sobule, additional music by Robin Eaton

Directed by Theater J Associate Artistic Director Shirley Serotsky

As a girl in 19th Century Eastern Europe, Yentl is forbidden to pursue her dream of studying Talmud. Unwilling to accept her fate, she disguises herself as a man. But when she falls in love, Yentl must decide how far she’s willing to go to protect her identity. Invigorated with a bracing klezmer/pop/rock score from Jill Sobule (the original “I Kissed a Girl,” “Supermodel”), Yentl asks up-to-the-minute questions about gender and sexuality.

For more on this production, see Exploring Divine Fluidity

Of Plumbing and Gender

A few years ago, I had the wonderful opportunity to participate in Hartford Seminary’s “Building Abrahamic Partnerships,” an eight-day program offered each summer for a new group of Christians, Jews and Muslims. While there, a plumbing problem accidentally illuminated — for me, anyway — a truth about gendered religious experience and dialogue.

As it happened, a pipe disaster rendered the ladies’ room unusable on the same morning we were discussing gender in Judaism. The program director announced that alternatives were being explored and that perhaps a schedule for sharing the men’s room would have to be arranged. (Things worked out fine, but that’s not the point here.)

“How appropriate,” I remember telling the group. “Because this is how Jewish women live all the time.”

Even if his usual practice is egalitarian, a Jewish man can opt to be counted in an Orthodox minyan and accept honors there, for example. A Jewish woman has no such option, except in women’s and “partnership” settings. Women’s leadership is recognized in many prayer communities and not in others; men have options in this case, while women do not. In Orthodox settings, women might have seating that provides good access to the service; or they might be seated in a distant balcony.

….Maybe men will share the bathroom; maybe women will walk next door….

Maybe there will be time to discuss how women’s experiences of the lifecycle, of sacred text, of leadership and relationship to ritual differ in substantial ways from men’s; maybe not.

Maybe there will be some acknowledgement of the differing power structures experienced by women and men in and across faith communities; probably not.

Gender-related issues are in some sense “optional” for men in interfaith dialogue, while women generally don’t have that choice unless the dialogue has been carefully designed to incorporate their perspectives.
 

Accidental Analogy

Sometimes a plumbing accident is just a plumbing accident, and I am not sure that my fellow BAP participants found the bathroom situation so educational….

But I do think the accidental analogy is worth some thought:

In interfaith dialogue in the U.S. and some other parts of the world, participants arrive from communities in which gender plays very different roles. In some communities, gender defines many religious obligations and rights; in others, this is no longer the case.

Assuming that, for the sake of getting along, everyone will subscribe to the former view is akin to announcing, “We only have a men’s room. Women will be offered an alternative arrangement.” Assuming, instead, that everyone will subscribe to the latter view, on the other hand, might be likened to a sort of “one bathroom, no rules” approach.

Neither approach is particularly useful or respectful on its own — either in bathroom logistics or in dialogue. What is required, IMO, is a frank discussion, a careful compromise and an acknowledgement that the end practice will probably not suit everyone, even if it does allow peaceful co-existence and further dialogue.

More?

For more on gender and religion, interdenominational and interfaith dialogue, and related issues, please see Gender/Sexuality/Dialogue pages (moving from InterfaithandGender.org)
 

Tzipporah’s Eye View at the DC Sermon Slam

I have always lived among priests and prophets. I know that some divine encounters prove more terrifying than illuminating. And I believe there is much to be learned about Revelation by turning away from Sinai’s thunder and lightening.

Consider for a moment that time Miriam and Aaron complained about Moses and his black wife and God responded by covering Miriam with white scales. [Numbers 12:1ff. Tzipporah also appears in Exodus chapters 3, 4, and 18]…


…So, what does this incident tell you about Revelation?

Follow me for a moment on a “tzipporah-eye view,” looking two directions at once to see ahead. [“Tzipporah” = “bird”]

One bird’s eye focuses in on the siblings, without regard to gender. Here are three powerful individuals, all within spitting distance, shall we say, of divine Revelation. Genuine caring and concern between the siblings is evident, and each is deeply committed to community and the evolving Torah.

And yet, this story shows, understanding anyone else’s piece of Revelation – even the teaching of a prophet sibling, whom you love and respect – has always been hard. How much more so must non-siblings in your time work to understand each other’s perspectives!…

Recording from DC’s recent Sermon Slam, a project of Open Quorum. Background notes and sources.
Full text.


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A Category Struggle: Source Materials Update

This past Shabbat I included a passage from one of my favorite teachers, Alicia Ostriker, in a dvar Torah. I was asked to share the bibliographic information and maybe some other resources providing women’s commentary on Torah. As a result, I decided to update my source materials. And, in the spirit of my chosen NaBloPoMo topic, I am offering here 30 such resources, with annotations:

Female Scholarship (but not particularly “feminist” or focused on women)
Feminist Scholarship on Torah
Women’s Torah Commentary
Women’s Midrash and Creative Commentary
Miscellaneous Related Resources
My Writing (shameless plug)

Please note that categories here are somewhat arbitrary and do overlap. Nor was it clear to me whom and what to include. Nehama Leibowitz, for example, is a category in herself: She’s one of the few and probably the first female scholars universally cited and taught; her work, however, is not particularly focused on female characters or themes in the Torah, and I don’t think she considered herself a feminist.

Some of these resources are treasures for me, material I that has moved me, shifted my practice or perspective. Some are included because they’re often cited or because they’re part of the whole feminist Jewish history. The list is not even trying to be comprehensive. However, if you have a resource you treasure and want to share, please post it in the comments or contact me, songeveryday at gmail.com, to share a guest blog.
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Prayers for the New Month of Nisan

Merciful God, the outside world is full of bustle and turmoil.
You are close to us everywhere, but the burdens and obstacles of daily life can rise as a barrier between our hearts and You.
In rituals of wrapping those barriers disappear.
Wrapping reminds us of Your precious constant love,
helps us feel the safety and security of your protecting hand.

These words, in spirit of Fanny Neuda‘s “On Entering the Synagogue,” introduce Washington friends of Women of the Wall‘s “Tallit Solidarity Ceremony.” This will be offered as part of the gathering in solidarity with Women of the Wall on March 11 at the Israeli Embassy. Please join us in person or in spirit.

"Save us from Women of the Wall!" [photo from WoW's Facebook page]

“Save us from Women of the Wall!” [photo: WoW’s Facebook page]

Meanwhile, WoW reports on their Facebook page that these posters [Pashkevillim] appear in Jerusalem in advance of their monthly service:

“Help! The Western Wall is being trampled and desecrated by a group of women called “Women of the Wall” who are requesting to desecrate the Western Wall on Tuesday Rosh Hodesh Nisan 5773 at 7 am. Male and female worshippers, please attend Rosh Hodesh prayers at the Western Wall on that day and protest against this desecration of holiness. All those who consider important the place from which the Shechina will never move should come to raise your voice and protest.” [translation by Pam Frydman]

Today, Women of the Wall
and so many of our brothers and sisters around the world,
struggle to find the peace in worship we so often take for granted.
Today, we unfurl the garments that, for many of us, contribute
to our individual and collective sense of sanctuary.
We are grateful for the rights we enjoy, even while aware
of the many who do not yet enjoy them.

For those who choose: Unfurl your prayer shawl at this point. Hold it aloft… but do not wrap yourself in its shelter.

For with You is the fountain of life.
In Your light we see light. (Psalms 36:10)

Hashem, our God, Fountain of Life and Light, help us see one another more clearly through Your light. Bring more light to our leaders in the U.S., in Israel, and around the world. Today, our shoulders go unprotected by our sheltering garments as we stand in solidarity with Women of the Wall and all who struggle for the freedom of religious practice. We remember the words of Proverbs: “Listen, my child, to your father’s instruction, and do not forsake your mother’s teaching.” We pray: May Your Sheltering Presence fill the world, soon and in our time. And let us say: Amen.

For those who choose: Lower prayer shawls at this point.

May the month of Nisan,
with its particular promise of freedom of religious practice,
renew us all in our own religious practices, in our tolerance
for other practices, and in our efforts to promote understanding
and justice in our own communities and beyond them.
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