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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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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