A few weeks ago, Mark Elber, my colleague, friend and fellow poet, sent me a brief email posing the following question: “If you had to pick ten Jewish poems by any writers in any language, do you have an idea of what you would pick?”
Mark’s question has stood before me like a steep mountain, daring me to try to climb it.
But it has not taken me long to realize that, for several reasons, I cannot answer Mark’s question. In the first place, there is no way I could limit myself to only 10 poems. More broadly speaking, despite the depth of experience that comes with age – I turn 79 at the end of this month – I have no idea what would make a poem “Jewish,” or preclude a poem from being called “Jewish.”
Even more problematic, although I have been writing and translating poems on and off ever since my senior year in high school, I still cannot tell you what makes a poem a poem.
Where to begin?
Our TANAKH, our Hebrew Bible, contains one of the world’s finest collections of poems, 150 of them: Tehillim, or Psalms. Any one of them – depending on an individual’s particular circumstances and on the always changing, always fragile condition of the world in which we find ourselves – could be a worthy candidate for Mark’s Top 10 list. Thus, Psalm 23 speaks to many different people on a wide variety of occasions. Psalm 100 is a consummate poem of thanksgiving. And I confess that I had never paid particular attention to Psalm 42 until my dying sister told me how directly that poem spoke to her as her life was ebbing away.
Other biblical books flow with the music of Hebrew poetry: All of Song of Songs, most of Job, much of our Prophetic literature, the first and last chapters of Kohelet. Our Torah, the first five books of the TANAKH, though largely prose, also contains sections of intense, energetic poetry.
Consider, for example, Exodus, Chapter 15, often referred to as Shirat Hayam, or Song of the Sea. To this day, our siddur, our Jewish prayer book, highlights words from this ancient song: Mi kamocha ba’elim Adonai, Mi chamocha nedar bakodesh, Nora t’hilot oseh fele. (Who is like you, O Lord, among the mighty? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, working wonders!)
The power of medieval Hebrew poetry has also found its way into our communal worship. “Adon Olam,” possibly composed in Spain during the 13th or 14th century, is a well-known closing hymn among Jewish worshippers the world over.
One of the many miracles arising out of the creation of modern Israel has been the resurrection of the Hebrew language, a language now spoken by an estimated 8 million to 9 million individuals. Modern Hebrew is, not surprisingly, continuing to expand its dialogue between remembered ancient and medieval texts and the vibrant and expanding expression of its speakers’ everyday needs and concerns.
Modern Hebrew poetry is particularly rich in its often-ironic treatment of the Hebrew Bible. Chaim Nachman Bialik (1873-1934), often called Israel’s national poet, and Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000), Israel’s best-known contemporary poet, are both particularly adept at standing biblical verses on their heads in an effort to bring together linguistic present with linguistic past; the two of them have produced hundred of works that would qualify as significant, perhaps essential, Jewish poems.
You will notice that while Mark Elber has asked me to identify 10 Jewish poems by writers in any language, I have limited myself to poems written in Hebrew. How odd of me, given that most of the roughly 7 to 8 million Jews living outside of Israel are functionally illiterate when it comes to Hebrew. Nevertheless, I would argue that, within our millennial experience, it is Hebrew that lies at the very core of Jewish identity.
Of course, there are innumerable important Jewish poems written in languages other than Hebrew. Yiddish, for sure! Also, Ladino, English, French, German, Spanish, Russian …. Nevertheless, Hebrew is the fundamental, “founding” language of our long collective history.
I will confess that when I was a young boy joining my father in worship at Temple B’nai Israel, in Elizabeth, New Jersey, a Conservative synagogue, I felt bathed in the sounds of the Hebrew words, even though I had but the vaguest sense of their literal meaning – sounds that comfort me to this very day. What makes a language uniquely compelling is the impossibility of bringing all of its music into any other language.
Listen to our central Jewish prayer, the Shema, the final six words of which we Jews are bidden to utter on our deathbed. It’s pure biblical Hebrew, but somehow embodies the yearnings of other languages of the world. Is it mere coincidence that these six Hebrew words echo the 5-7-5 structure of classical Japanese haiku?
I cannot answer Mark Elber’s question for many reasons. Most importantly, I cannot limit my response to 10 poems, or even 100 poems. But I can tell you this: Every one of the most significant “Jewish poems” on my ever-expanding list will be written in Hebrew.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is a rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.