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Contemporary Israeli Poetry Reflections 8/31/20

David Dirlam

We had a richly metaphorical discussion of poetry today, which showed both the participant’s inventiveness and the way we build on each other’s ideas. Since we now are recording the discussions, it’s no longer necessary to provide all the details. I’ll use these reflection pages to share ideas to encourage people who could not join us to check out the recordings or even to find a way to join us in the future.

Rabbi Edery opened with the observation that half of the bible is poetry, all the psalms and most of the prophets. Janet mentioned how similar chanting was in the different synagogues she had visited. Rabbi Edery explained how different ways of chanting are found sometimes only a few score miles away from each other. I took a minute to tell how our Savannah synagogue was originally Sephardic but chanted with Ashkenazic melodies. Since I wanted to learn the Sephardic melodies, we celebrated our 25th anniversary in Curaçao at the oldest western hemisphere synagogue. Hearing the cantor’s beautiful melodies, I asked him where he learned them. He said at Hebrew Union College in New York City. So I asked him if the melodies were written down. He replied with a book title and author that Annette reminded me I had in my own library. The melodies were on a page at the beginning that I had missed. We had to go to Curaçao to learn what was on our own bookshelves.

Rabbi Edery mentioned how Cantor Ramon Tasat started a series of musical poetry readings before the High Holidays. He invites different singers or readers. We read "A Place to Worry” by Yonatan Geffen and “If You Listen to the Waves” by Ofra Haza (click the titles to hear You Tube versions).

Janet recalled the deep effect on her of the ending of “A Place to Worry.” Her husband used to say, “Flowers are God’s smiles. Don’t pick those smiles.” Marcia, Doug, Rabbi Edery, and Anthea developed the idea that “Flowers are the last vestige of hope,” where “our worries become God’s worries,” but we should be careful “not to destroy what we were given.” 

Rabbi Edery asked, “What kind of God do you think this poem is creating?” He later answered with his memory of a visit to Hal and Sally’s garden. “It was beautiful. If you’re a gardener, you never know what will come. You do everything with care but then don’t have control.” Marcia inferred from the poem’s second paragraph’s references to “they” that God needs us to complete his creation. We saw that this is why He “terribly worries” (vedo'eg nora) at the end of the poem. “Nora” describes God and the Y’amin Noraim—the days of awe, but English words fail to convey the dread of awe or the awe of Makom, translated as “place” but also used as a name for God, as the poet well knew.

Rabbi Edery asked, “Is this a Jewish poem or just a Hebrew one?” And answered that the poem presents a different demeanor of God. “It shows many other images of God—crying for His children, suffering for His children, sad for them. We have an “anthropathic” view of God. These images were not part of our Sunday school. It reflects a different strain of images of God.”

We moved on to “If You Listen to the Waves” by Ofra Haza, one of the best-known poets in Israel. The waves are the seven days of creation, but different. It ends with “You’ll discover the secret wonder. You’ll surrender to the sounds, to the hope, to the dreams. Since then, from the seventh day.” It’s a blind man’s view of the world that shows how beautiful and deep sound can be. Marcia added that the poem incorporates us into creation, and Rabbi Edery told how in it, creation is not what happened a million years ago, but is happening now.

Ruth, Rabbi Edery, Richard, Marcia, and Doug worked out an interpretation of the poem leading to “the still small voice” that is God. If we close our eyes at the ocean to see what we discover, we will see ripples of creation, energy that lasts hundreds of thousands of years, destruction, re-creation, and ultimately a dynamic world where we must continually readjust our priorities. 

God cannot create light without shadow. Nature is not merely kind. There’s death, sickness, and predators. I was reminded of the renowned ecological study of Isle Royale in the middle of Lake Superior. When some moose made it across the 15 miles from Ontario, they bred fast and soon ate themselves into wild swings between plenty and starvation. A half-century later, a pregnant wolf made it across to the island and the moose population soon stabilized. When you look at the big picture, both the moose and the wolves will live. Harmony in nature includes balance. This is the systems view of nature. If you take the predators away, the system will deteriorate. If we asked God what to say to the gazelle or moose, He might only be able to reply, “I’m sorry, this is just the way it works.”

Doug objected that such “Social Darwinism” doesn’t work when we get to events like the Holocaust. Rabbi Edery replied that “Evil people use this idea to justify their evil. It is not the system—it is those who are a match to the system, who survive and by implication, not those who twist it to what they see as their personal advantage. To Mark’s question of whether anything good could come from the Shoah, Rabbi Edery cited those who mentioned the world’s newfound sympathy for the Jews and the advent of a Jewish homeland in Israel. But his preferred view was “to look at the Shoah as a terrible devastation” and as a plea to “do everything we can to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.” It is not just the Jews, but also people who were enslaved for hundreds of years and were not Jews. As Job said, “Are we going to take the good from God and not the bad?”

From interpreting together two beautiful poems, we encountered creation with a renewed richness, evolving like Torah chanting itself from region to region, delicate as flowers, eternal as ocean waves, quelling chaos with a balance between light and darkness, life and death, and everywhere with quiet, unavoidable awe.

Wed, July 17 2024 11 Tammuz 5784