Singing and Praying about Enemies

“Ooh sha sha, we’ve got to live together,” voices used to tell me, from under my pillow at night. “What the world needs now is love … love between my brothers and my sisters …everybody get together, smile on your brother.” They promised “change is gonna come” and an “answer blowin’ in the wind,” later asking: “What’s going on? …. War, what is it good for? (Good God, y’all) … Why can’t we be friends?”

Daily messages from my transistor and from people around me were very far removed from the language of “enemies” and “wicked” in the Book of Psalms.

I did not grow up among Bible readers or folks who relied on psalms for comfort or instruction. As I became a Bible reader and a Psalms reciter as an adult, I’ve struggled to reconcile all those years of “love everybody right now!” with some of the darker images in sacred text and prayer.

Once, a long while back, R’ Joel Alter launched a Jewish Study Center class I attended by saying that some people find it unhelpful to focus on enemies but that, for the purposes of that class (on the Book of Deuteronomy), we would not debate the topic: “Don’t tell me we don’t have enemies.” I don’t think I’d said anything myself about my problems with the concept of enemies in sacred text, but Joel’s comment definitely spoke right to me, and started to shift my perspective.

Nevertheless, I remain anxious about psalms that say things like, “a host encamps against me” (Ps. 27:4) or “let God’s enemies be scattered” (Ps. 68:2) or that speak of “the wicked,” rather than wickedness. (Beruria, who taught her husband, Rabbi Meir, to pray for an end to “sins” rather than “sinners,” is my hero!) After all: Who gets to declare someone wicked or enemy of God?

I do love some psalms and find them deeply moving. I enjoy studying psalms. I joyfully, or mournfully, as the occasion demands, add my voice when psalms are part of the liturgy. I recite psalms when someone is ill or in dire straits. Still, though, when the world around me seems especially threatening, I often prefer to lean on Bill Withers or let Sly and the Family Stone carry me away.

photo: Joe Haupt (image description, full credit below)

Recently, however, I’ve had my perspective shifted again by the psalm medleys of Adam Gottlieb and OneLove. In one recent example (“Duppy Medley, with Psalm 27, below), his translation and the musical context prepare me for lines like, “when armies come at me, my heart will hold.” I could try to explain why I think this works for me. Instead, I’ll just share the video and ask how this lands for you this Elul.

This link allows Spotify users to pre-save Psalm 1 Medley, which includes a fantastic minor key “Hammer Song.” No cost, just need a Spotify account.

Here is the Patreon page for Adam Gottlieb & OneLove. Becoming a patron gives access to the Psalm 1 Medley before the September 2 release date and lots of other content.


And, here, for some different forms of uplift:

Sly Stone’s “Everyday People,” brought to you by Turnaround Arts (school groups around the country);

Bill Withers offering his own “Lean on Me” with audience participation; and

Playing for Change’s Song Around the World version of “Lean on Me.”


NOTES

“Everyday People,” Sly and the Family Stone 1968. “What the World Needs Now is Love,” Jackie DeShannon 1965. “The Hammer Song,” Martha and the Vandellas 1963 (Seeger and Hayes, 1949). “Get Together,” Youngbloods 1968. “A Change is Gonna Come,” Sam Cooke 1964. “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Bob Dylan 1962. “What’s Going On,” Marvin Gaye 1970. “War,” Edwin Starr, 1970. “Why can’t we be friends,” War 1975.

Rabbi Joel Alter was then a relatively recent graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary and a regular teacher for DC’s cross-community Jewish Study Center after his day job in formal Jewish education. He is now a congregational rabbi in Milwaukee. Tagging him here with thanks and greetings.

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There were once some highwaymen [or: hooligans] the neighbourhood of R. Meir who caused him a great deal of trouble. R. Meir accordingly prayed that they should die. His wife Beruria said to him: How do you make out [that such a prayer should be permitted]? Because it is written (Ps. 104:35): Let hatta’im cease? Is it written hot’im? It is written hatta’im! Further, look at the end of the verse: and let the wicked men be no more. Since the sins will cease, there will be no more wicked men! Rather pray for them that they should repent, and there will be no more wicked. He did pray for them, and they repented. — Soncino translation, Babylonian Berakhot 10a. For more on this story, see also this PDF from a psalms study class a few years back.


RETURN

Image description: plastic rectangular transistor radio from the 1950s. Single dial and volume control. Photo: Joe Haupt via Wikimedia. License Attribution-Share Alike Creative Commons 2.0. Official name: “Vintage General Electric 5-Transistor Radio, Model 677 (Red), GE’s First Commercially Produced Transistor Radio, Made in the USA, Circa 1955.”

Video description: Musicians performing live in a small, possibly home-based (decidedly not fancy) studio. Guitarist/vocalist on one side; drummer, guitarist, and additional percussionist on the other side.

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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Prayer Warm-up: From Self to Community

Part of the early morning warm-up for prayers — along with awareness of our blessings and awakening body, soul, and mind — is moving from what Mishkan T’filah [Reform prayerbook] calls “self-fulfillment” to “social imperatives of community.” And that means beginning to move through the individual joys and concerns that we brought with us to a communal awareness — of each other and the world beyond these walls.

…To me it’s a little ironic that Mishkan T’filah editors discuss this in the introduction but don’t include my favorite way to accomplish this — the psalms — in the prayerbook proper….

Psalm 30 in particular, on the handout (Psalms Handout; see below), is a great vehicle for moving through our personal laments and dancing, shaken-ness and solidity, as we become aware of participating in thousands of years and millions upon millions of voices crying out and healing, praising without ceasing.

In this season of Elul, Psalm 27 is also recited, asking God to help us feel the divine presence as we seek to return to ourselves, as individuals and as a People in the new year.

And, finally, I repeat a teaching I learned earlier this summer about the nearness of all we need — like the water right in front of the deer in Psalm 42 — and how it is, even still, for us to experience what sustains us. We do, after all, have to become vulnerable, if only for moment.

Note: Please note that Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb’s first name contains a typo on this handout, PsalmsAugust22. My apologies.

See also, “Morning: Blessing, with Echo of Gunshots.”

Psalm 27 for the season (4 of 4)

“If you’re not 20 minutes early, you’re late,” my ballet teacher, Marie Paquet, used to tell her adult students: Without time to leave behind the outside world and prepare to focus, warm up physically and mentally, class could be frustrating, even dangerous. Over the years, I’ve realized that her adage also applies to worship services. Still, life and public transportation don’t always support early arrival to services.

But necessity, as I’m sure “they” rarely say, is the mother of invention in kavanah [intention]….

This past Shabbat, Shabbat Sukkot, I entered the sanctuary un-early and a little frazzled. Moreover, this particular service skipped over some introductory prayers that ordinarily help me focus. This left me struggling to follow the service. But, then, in a moment provided for silent prayer, I stopped struggling and simultaneously “heard,” quite clearly:

“On Your behalf, my heart says: ‘Seek My face!'” (Psalms 27:8)

I wish I could say that this verse instantly helped me find my way into the service. But I can say that I my inability to keep up became suddenly irrelevant. Moreover, I stumbled into a three-part message encapsulating the fall holidays. I am hoping it will carry — for me and others, I hope — the essence of the season of teshuva into the mundane, post-holiday world.
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Yet More on Psalm 27 (3 of 4)

The close of Psalm 27 —

קַוֵּה, אֶל-יְהוָה: חֲזַק, וְיַאֲמֵץ לִבֶּךָ; וְקַוֵּה, אֶל-יְהוָה.

Hope in the LORD; strengthen yourself, let your heart take courage, and hope in the Lord [Psalm 27:14]

— is often cited as a motivational aphorism, particularly for the penitential season. This is its role in this meditation for Elul, for example.

Psalms 27:14 is employed in the Babylonian Talmud as a proof-text for appropriate attitude in prayer. The passage includes a discussion on prayer and hope, including — like the question Langston Hughes asks in “Harlem” — what happens to hope deferred.

Psalms 27:14 stands out in that it uses the second person (command) form, while the previous 13 verses are in the first person: “God is My light…whom should I fear?” etc. This raises the question: Whose heart is to hope?
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More Exploring Psalm 27 (2 of 4)

Psalm 27 includes a powerful “single request,” one that is frequently offered as a song:

One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life,
to behold the graciousness of the LORD, and to visit early in His temple.
אַחַת, שָׁאַלְתִּי מֵאֵת-יְהוָה– אוֹתָהּ אֲבַקֵּשׁ:
שִׁבְתִּי בְּבֵית-יְהוָה, כָּל-יְמֵי חַיַּי;
לַחֲזוֹת בְּנֹעַם-יְהוָה, וּלְבַקֵּר בְּהֵיכָלוֹ

— Psalms 27:4, JPS 1917, borrowed from Mechon-Mamre
full translation at Mechon-Mamre; others linked here

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Exploring Psalm 27 — (1 of 4)

For a little over 200 years, Psalm 27 has been associated with the season of repentance: Some have the custom of reciting this psalm during Days of Awe (10 days), some for the whole month of Elul as well (40 days), and some beginning on Rosh Hodesh Elul and continuing through Hoshana Rabba (51 days). There are several explanations for this association. Most focus on the psalm’s themes; also noted: the expression “were it not” — לוּלֵא — in verse 13 spells Elul — אלול — backward.

Many siddurim include the full psalm somewhere in Psukei D’zimrah (verses of song, in the morning service). Mishkan T’filah includes the single verse, 27:4, for which there are a number of popular tunes (p.662 in “songs and hymns”).
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Notes on Psalm 27

Two Sources for Basic Commentary
Rabbi Benjamin Segal offers an analysis of Psalm 27 in its biblical-literary context and discusses the unity of psalm, behind its apparently disparate set of emotions. The very readable series from Schechter Institute in Philadelphia also includes complete text of each psalm in English and Hebrew. This commentary includes a note on the use of Psalm 27 in Elul and the Days of Awe. [UPDATE 2017: Sadly, this on-line resource appears to be gone; Segal’s A New Psalm: The Psalms as Literature is now published by Geffen Books.]

Machzor Lev Shalem offers explanatory notes as well as a few thoughts on Psalm 27 in the penitential season. Unfortunately, the Rabbinical Assembly’s link to this material, previously offered here, is no longer public. Instead, a few notes are shared in More Exploring Psalm 27 (2 of 4). (Here is the machzor’s own website.) The Kol Nidrei sample pages include Zelda’s poem on “that strange night,” inspiration for this essay during Elul 5772.

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You Will Gather Me In: Fall Holiday Prayer Link

Psalm 27 is filled with foes and fear, betrayal and destruction. Many teachers suggest that the foes are (also) within us, as we struggle with the work of teshuvah [repentance, return] in the days leading up to Yom Kippur. This is the perspective of Joseph Rosenstein, translator of Siddur Eit Ratzon,* who has wars raging “around me, and within me” in verse 3 and turmoil “around and within me” in verse 11.

Psalm 27 is also full of comfort, particularly shelter: “Adonai is the strength of my life” (27:1), despite raging wars “You are with me” (27:3), God offers a “sukkah [shelter] during terrible times,” a tent for hiding from disaster (27:5), and “will always gather me in” (27:10). While God may provide shelter for the lost and frightened, however, the real lesson of Psalm 27 seems to be that we have to learn to ask for directions.

A powerful plea for permanent shelter — “only one thing I ask…to dwell in the house of Adonai all the days of my life” (27:4) — is answered with the promise of perpetual instruction (27:10-11):

Though my father and mother will leave me [ki avi v’immi azavuni]
You will always gather me in [v’Adonai yaasfeini]

Teach me Your way, Adonai [horeini YHVH darkhekha]
guide me to walk straight on Your path, [u’n’cheini b’orach mi-shor]
despite all the turmoil, around and within me [l’maan shor’rai].

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