At the Turn of Childhood-A New Fruit by Zelda: An Annotated Translation

By Ocker, Varda Koch | Women in Judaism, Annual 2006 | Go to article overview
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At the Turn of Childhood-A New Fruit by Zelda: An Annotated Translation

Ocker, Varda Koch, Women in Judaism


[1] The late orthodox Israeli poet Zelda Schneersohn-Mishkovsky (1914-1984), better known as Zelda, was a descendent of a lineage of illustrious rabbis. (1) Her father, Shelomoh Shalom Schneersohn, belonged to the prominent Schneersohn dynasty of Habad hasidic masters and was the uncle of the late New York rebbi of Lubavitz, R. Menahem Mendel Schneersohn (fl. 1902-1994), who was (and remains) the subject of considerable messianic speculation. Her mother, Rachel Hen, descended from the famous Sephardic dynasty of Hen-Gracian, which traces its roots to eleventh-century Barcelona, Spain. Her maternal grandfather's grandfather, R. Elhanan ben Meir ben R. Elhanan, was a student of R. Shneur Zalman of Lyadi (fl. 1745-1812), the founder of Habad Hasidism and Zelda's paternal grandfather's grandfather. (2) R. Elhahan's grandson and Zelda's maternal grandfather, R. Hayyim David Zvi Hirsch (1850-1926), was rabbi in the ancient Ukrainian city Chernigov and an influential hasidic leader.

[2] Following the emigration of the family to Mandatory Palestine, where they settled in Jerusalem in 1925, both the poet's father and grandfather died. Zelda, who was twelve at the time and her father's only child, received special permission to recite the Qaddish, the Jewish mourner's prayer, which she did daily for a year. (3) She and her mother were isolated in the Jewish community of Jerusalem. Only when she began to study in a Teachers' College of the religious Mizrahi movement, whose teachers encouraged her artistic and literary bent, did she feel at home. Following her graduation in 1932, she moved with her mother to Tel Aviv and then to Haifa, where she taught in a school for orthodox girls. In 1935, she returned with her now twice-widowed mother to Jerusalem, where she would remain for the rest of her life. She worked intermittently as a teacher, but did not find teaching her vocation. In 1950, she married Hayyim Mishkovsky, an accountant, stopped teaching, and devoted herself to writing.

[3] Although Zelda began writing short pieces of prose and poems already in the 1930's, when she was in her twenties, and began to publish sporadically since the 1940's, Penai (Free Time), her first book, was not published until 1967, two years after her mother's death, when the poet was fifty-three years old. Ha-Carmel ha-Ee Nireh (The Invisible Carmel), her second book, was published after her husband's death in 1971. Following these two books, which were republished together in 1971, Zelda produced four more: Al Tirhaq (Be Not Far) in 1975; Halo Har Halo Esh (It is Surely a Mountain, It is Surely a Fire) in 1977; Al ha-Shoni ha-Marhiv (On the Spectacular Difference) in 1981; she-Nivdelu mi-Kol Merhaq (Who became Separated from Every Distance) in 1984. Additional poems, never included in these books, appeared in various Israeli newspapers and magazines. After the publication of her first book, she quickly won wide acclaim and several prestigious awards: the Israeli Brenner Prize (1971), the Bialik Prize (1977) and the Wertheim Prize (1982). She became popular among secular and religious readers alike, who fell under the spell of her rich emotive and contemplative imagery, drawn from the world of Jewish mysticism, Hasidism, and Russian fairy tales.

[4] One can read Zelda's poems without knowing much about Judaism, although Hasidism and Kabbalah informed much of her poetry. After all, the wish to find metaphysical meaning in the trivial and ephemeral, the enchantment, and disillusionment with the concrete and the sensual can be and have been experienced by religious and secular people alike. However, Zelda's poetry, with its heavy use of religious concepts and archaic grammar, challenges even Hebrew readers. Here is the recent testimony of the novelist Amos Oz, who, as a child, was Zelda's pupil:

   Teacher Zelda also revealed a Hebrew language to me that I had 
   never encountered before . 

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