Seven Poems by Zelda

By Ocker, Varda Koch | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Seven Poems by Zelda


Ocker, Varda Koch, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


THE UKRAINIAN-BORN ISRAELI ORTHODOX POET ZELDA Schneersohn-Mishkovsky, better known as Zelda (1914-1984), belonged to a lineage of illustrious rabbis. Her father, Shelomoh Shalom Schneersohn, descended from the prominent Schneersohn dynasty of Habad hasidic masters, and was the uncle of the late rebbi of Lubavitch, R. Menahem Mendel Schneersohn (1902-1994). Her mother, Rachel Hen, was a descendant of the famed Sephardic dynasty of Hen-Gracian, which traces its roots to eleventh-century Barcelona, Spain. (1) Her maternal grandfather's grandfather, R. Elhanan ben Meir ben R. Elhanan, was a student of R. Shneur Zalman of Lyadi (1745-1812), the founder of Habad Hasidism. (2) In 1925 the family emigrated to Mandatory Palestine and settled in Jerusalem, a move followed by the traumatic death of both the poet's father and grandfather. Following her graduation from the Teachers' College of the religious Mizrahi movement in 1932, Zelda moved to Tel Aviv and then to Haifa, where she taught until her return, with her twice-widowed mother, to Jerusalem in 1935. In 1950 she married Hayyim Mishkovsky and from then on devoted herself to writing. Although she began writing in the 1930s, and publishing in the 1940s, Penai (Free Time), her first book, was not published until 1967. The book, with its rich emotive and contemplative images drawn from the world of Jewish mysticism, Hasidism, and Russian fairy tales, immediately established the poet as a major figure on the Israeli literary scene, popular with both religious and secular audiences. It was followed by Ha-Carmel ha-Ee Nireh (The Invisible Carmel), published after her husband's death in 1971, Al Tirhaq (Be Not Far, 1975), Halo Har Halo Esh (It Is Surely a Mountain, It Is Surely a Fire, 1977), 'Al ha-Shoni ha-Marhiv (On the Spectacular Difference, 1981), and she-Nivdelu mi-Kol Merhaq (That Became Separated from Every Distance, 1984). The books brought the poet several prestigious awards: the Israeli Brenner Prize (1971), the Bialik prize (1977) and the Wertheim Prize (1982).

The seven poems translated below come from Penai, Zelda's first book. (3) They depict religious rituals and their spiritual meaning, or seemingly mundane experiences that the poet explores as a springboard to metaphysical ones. Zelda was firmly embedded in the Bible. She especially drew on Psalms, as well as on Ezekiel, whose mystical visions inspired many a Jewish mystic. The ancient biblical songs of praise and supplication provided her with a ready model for interacting with and relating to the divine. Zelda, to the best of my knowledge, is also the first female orthodox Jewish poet to delve into the rich corpus of Jewish mystical writings, thought by both traditional and modern scholars to be written exclusively by men (unlike Christianity, Judaism has not had its female mystics). (4) She makes its symbols and imagery pivotal to her poetry. (5) The contemplative self of her poems, especially in Penai, is often portrayed as anchored in a domestic, physically narrow life, whose boundaries are the home, the balcony and courtyard, the shopkeepers and downtrodden of the neighborhood. And yet this very humble feminine self dares to appropriate the male-authored language of Jewish mysticism in its search for meaning, for the mark of God in the world.

Zelda's poetry can also be seen as a poetic expression of the tenets of the program of Habad, to which the poet was linked by family ties and spiritual leanings. A hasidic movement which originated in the late eighteenth century, Habad (an acronym for the Hebrew hokhmah, "wisdom," binah "understanding," and da'at "knowledge,") sought to know the divine through contemplation. (6) The contemplative lyrical self in Zelda's poems is often found observing a variety of daily, ordinary things and asking herself what is their hidden meaning. She thus expresses the hasidic association of the state of awe before a divine reality that surrounds us with a state of humility that stems from the awareness of one's "own nothingness against the only true existence and reality.

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