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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Babylon: the Earthling and the Tower

Exploring Babylon: Chapter 2.2

What did the Talmud mean by calling an apparently obscure town in then-contemporary Babylon the source of the first human’s “buttocks”? And what, if anything, can we learn from the remark?

Babylon makes several appearances, directly and indirectly, in the early chapters of Genesis:

  • Bavel” first appears directly in a genealogy list identifying Nimrod, descendant of Noah through Ham, as the founder of Babylon (Gen 10:10);
  • the Tower of Babel story appears in Genesis 11:1-9, with the name “Bavel” linked to God’s confounding of language and scattering of peoples;
  • as discussed in “Babylon and the Beginning,” the Babylonian Captivity, that is, exile of Israelites during the 6th Century BCE, is read into Gen 1:2; and
  • Babylon, as a geographic and cultural location for rabbis of the Talmud, enters commentary on the creation of the first human (Gen 2:7-8):

 

It has been taught: R. Meir used to say: The dust of the first human [adam ha-rishon] was gathered from all parts of the earth, for it is written, “Your eyes saw my unformed substance” [N1], and further it is written, “The eyes of the Lord run to and fro through the whole earth” [N2]. R. Oshaiah said in Rav’s name [N3]: Adam’s trunk came from Babylon, his head from Eretz Yisrael [N4], his limbs from other lands, and his buttocks (Soncino: private parts), according to R. Aha, from Akra di Agma [N5].
— Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 38a-b
adapted from Soncino translation
Notes below


The Earthling

Rabbi Meir’s comment — specifying the dust used to create ha-adam (Gen 2:7) and explain where the earthling was before being placed in the garden (Gen 2:8) — is frequently cited to support the egalitarian message that all humans, from whatever land, come from one source. It also celebrates both diversity and unity of humanity.

Rav’s further specifics — from a time when Babylon was growing in importance as a center of Jewish life, while Zion was still the metaphorical “head” — can also be understood more generally to speak to our divided, or blended, natures.

Similar concepts are found in the 12th Century Yehuda HaLevi poem, “My heart is in the East, and I am at the ends of the West,” and even 20th Century pieces, like “I left my heart in San Francisco” (Cory/Cross, 1953; popularized by Tony Bennett). The quintessential verses of Psalm 137, with its many interpretations over the centuries, continue to add layers to the idea that portions of our being remain in Babylon and Zion.

Before getting to R. Aha’s comment, here is an attempt to illustrate some of the divisions and blends we might embody in Exploring Babylon. This is the second project I’ve posted based on ideas in Personal Geographies: Explorations in Mixed-Media Mapmaking by Jill K. Berry; here’s the first. And here is a completely different visual approach to Torah.

earthling




Notes:

N1: Ps. 139:16. Many commentaries relate Psalm 139 to the creation of the first human; some attribute the psalm, or part of it, to Adam.
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N2: “The eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth,” is similar to language in Zech 4:10 —

עֵינֵי יְהוָה, הֵמָּה מְשׁוֹטְטִים בְּכָל-הָאָרֶץ.
which are the eyes of the LORD, that run to and fro through the whole earth.

— and identical to part of 2 Chronicles 16:9 —

כִּי יְהוָה, עֵינָיו מְשֹׁטְטוֹת בְּכָל-הָאָרֶץ
…for the eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth…

The Soncino translation cites Zechariah. The Koren/Steinsaltz translation cites Chronicles.

The Soncino notes add that, perhaps, this teaches “‘equality of man’, all men having been formed from one and the same common clay.”
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N3:Rab, or Rav (Abba Arika), was a leading teacher in 3rd Century CE Babylon. He came from a prominent family in Jewish Babylonia and was a disciple of Rabbi (Judah the Prince, or Yehuda ha-Nasi), redactor of the Mishnah and major leader of Jews under Roman occupation, before returning to Babylon to teach. Rav founded the academy at Sura and helped establish what became Babylonian Judaism. The other major academy of the time was at Pumbedita (see N5 below).
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N4: The Soncino notes that Eretz Yisrael was considered “the most exalted of all lands,” and so is linked with the head, as the “most exalted” body part.
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N5: A Babylonian town (also spelled: Akra d’Agama, Akra de-Agma), which some sources situate near Pumbedita, where a Talmudic academy was established in the 3rd Century CE. Also possibly a low-lying area, and/or in the south of Babylon. More on this town and R. Aha’s comment…
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Akra de-Agma in the Notes

Louis Ginzberg’s reference to the above passage includes a parenthetical remark: “Akra de-Agma (a town in Babylon, notorious on account of the loose morals of its inhabitants).” The Soncino notes on Sanhedrin 38b quote this remark without elaboration or any further source. (See Legends of the Jews, Vol 5:15, Jewish Publication Society, 1925). Meanwhile, numerous teachers of the last century cite this remark on loose morals of Akra de-Agma as fact, but I can’t find any independent sources that suggest anything of the kind.

The name “Akra di Agma” appears also in Baba Batra 127a, while “Akra” and “Agama” are mentioned as two neighboring locales in Baba Metzia 86a. Both of these passages mention the place(s) in the context of rabbinical life, without any commentary on the morals, loose or otherwise, of the inhabitants.

Steinsaltz adds this marginal note to San 38b:

Akra de-Agma. This is apparently the name of a Babylonian city, perhaps in the south of the country. According to the [Shulkhan] Arukh this was a lowly place, either from a physical or ethical standpoint, and for this reason it is said that from here the dust used to create Adam’s buttocks was taken.

Combining the Soncino and Steinsaltz notes might suggest that Ginzberg was relying on, or extending, something in Shulkhan Arukh (16th Century code of Joseph Karo). But it still seems like something else might be going on with Akra de-Agma.


Three hypotheses:

On the one hand, this teaching is so specific in its place names. And, we know Akra de-Agma is near the academy at Pumbedita, while Rav’s academy was based in the town of Sura. So, I can’t help wondering if there’s some sort of in-joke involved in identifying ha-adam‘s buttocks (or “privates”) with a rival academy — like Harvard students calling New Haven a hick town or Howard alumni talking trash about Hampton.

On the other hand, this teaching is speaking of ha-adam and so suggesting what it means to be human in a wider sense. In this more symbolic context, I wonder if Akra de-Agma somehow became a synechdoche for the many ways Babylon itself — by the time of the Shulkhan Arukh and later centuries — came to mean danger and wildness, particularly of a sexual nature.

Finally, George Carlin’s “FM & AM – The 11 O’Clock News” comes to mind:

It’s 8 O’Clock in Los Angeles
It’s 9 O’Clock in Denver
It’s 10 O’Clock in Chicago
In Baltimore, it’s 6:42!

Could it be that Akra de-Agma was the Baltimore of Babylon?

In that case, I think, the composition of ha-adam rishon, the first earthling, might be tied up with the Tower or Babel theme: Will humanity be of one speech or idea — “devarim ahadim,” as at the start of the Babel story — or be “scattered over the face of the earth” as the people fear and ultimately experience, at the close of the story?

What can we take from the story of ha-adam rishon and the Tower of Babel to help us avoid either extreme?

Stay tuned. And share your thoughts, too.

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