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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