“A Winding Line: Three Hebrew Poets” by Maya Bejerano, Sharron Hass and Anat Zecharia & “So Many Things are Yours” by Admiel Kosman

A Winding Line: Three Hebrew Poets, Maya Bejerano, Sharron Hass, Anat Zecharia, Tsipi Keller (trans); So Many Things are Yours, 
Admiel Kosman, Lisa Katz (trans) (Zephyr, January & November 2023) A Winding Line: Three Hebrew Poets, Maya Bejerano, Sharron Hass, Anat Zecharia, Tsipi Keller (trans); So Many Things are Yours, Admiel Kosman, Lisa Katz (trans) (Zephyr, January & November 2023)

Hebrew is unique, an ancient tongue that was all but lost for millennia as a spoken language, but was revitalized in the late 19th century and is now the official language of Israel, a country of nine million. Despite this relatively small number of native speakers, Hebrew literature is robust, yet Hebrew literature in English translation remains rare. So it’s unusual to see two new poetry collections come out around the same time. A Winding Line: Three Hebrew Poets by Maya Bejerano, Sharron Hass, and Anat Zecharia, translated by Tsipi Keller and So Many Things are Yours by Admiel Kosman, translated by Lisa Katz  include a unique combination of poems that borrow from Old Testament stories and contemporary Israeli life, including politics. 

A Winding Line: Three Hebrew Poets appears self-explanatory. It’s a collection of poetry from three different writers, all women as it turns out, each born in a different decade from the late 1940s to the mid 1970s. Tsipi Keller translates all three in ways that preserve the voices of each. The introduction is from Adriana X Jacobs, an Oxford professor and translator herself.

Maya Bejerano, the eldest of the three, is up first. A published poet since 1978, she writes feminist poems and addresses age, both as an older poet (she’s 75 this year) and an older woman. In “Dear Addressee”, she writes:

 

Dear addressee,
would you still be interested in me?
A woman whose young years have passed
but she is still out, taking on the city streets,
her feet tapping the pavement
As she goes about her daily life.

 

In this stanza, she goes on to describe the fronds of palm trees, flowers, birds, and herbs in her garden. And in the next, she’s at an outdoor café, watching passers-by and feeling content with life, knowing this peace won’t last forever. It’s implied that old age will eventually catch up with her. She also includes a poem about Cain and Abel, followed by one titled “Netanyahu Netanyahu”, one of three poems about the Israeli Prime Minister in these two books.

The next poet is Sharron Hass, who studied classics as an undergraduate and religious studies in graduate school. Her poem “Song” includes eight sections and in the third she writes both about gods in the plural, as in the classics, as well as the tree of life, the title of a popular Jewish folksong and the name of many synagogues:

 

Why write? After all, I suspect all the gods.
They seem like a breach between light and matter, like a spider’s web:
the sweet white meat of walnuts; the tanks of cooking gas carried
on the shoulders of Paz employees; Bernini’s truth is a happy one—
a naked stone laughing.
I could go on all day enumerating miracles. And, indeed, why not?
I, too, am sun-saturated, weakened, and dropping to the ground,
onto the unknown universe. I, too, am frightened
because nothing is demanded of me but to enjoy the tree of life.
I hang from the tree of life.

 

Anat Zecharia is the youngest of the poets and her work concludes this collection. She writes about consumerism, evolution, and politics. In “Mister, Prime Minister”, written before 7 October 2023, she begins the second stanza with words that now seem prescient:

 

Mister Prime Minister,
You must be very proud of your country
As you observe what’s going on with your eyes shut.
Don’t worry about the terror and fire,
Living on the edge is surely
Motivating, nothing to be afraid of.

 

Admiel Kosman’s collection, So Many Things Are Yours, is similar in that he writes about religion and contemporary Israeli politics. Kosman was raised orthodox and earned a doctorate in the Talmud. Although he has lived and taught in Berlin for the past twenty years, it’s implied that his poems about place are set in Israel. He writes in a serious tone sometimes, but also with humor and nostalgia in other poems. In “We Dream That We’re Asleep”, he also writes about a prime minister that is presumably Netanyahu. In a more lighthearted poem, “The Central God”, he reveres his local handyman. The poem begins with this stanza:

 

The central god is passing through our neighborhood now.
He heals everyone, fixes everything. And he has plenty of time, no
one will be pushed aside. Yesterday, today, tomorrow, he smiles.
He’s the central god in the role of a glazier now.

 

These two books provide just a sample of poets who write in Hebrew. It’s interesting to see the common themes that appear in the work of these four poets. While they all have a strong connection to Israel and Judaism, they also use their poetry to criticize Israel’s current government. As Kosman’s translator Lisa Katz writes in her introduction:
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… this poetry provides a fresh, learned and political look at Jewish texts, at Israeli life, at human life.

Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.