At the age of fourteen, I sat at a desk as the rabbi’s sermon about the Binding of Isaac echoed in my head with a volume of the Talmud in front of me; here, I wrote my first poem. It was unripe, clumsy, and filled with linguistic play. Yet, its writing was the beginning of an escape and a reinvention of self. I grew up surrounded by Jewish texts, but my closeness to them started to wane in my teenage years. I was a curious adolescent, too curious. I came of age in a home and yeshiva wherein curiosity was considered innately heretic. My surroundings fought my inquisitiveness, and I fought back in return. I became a ‘rebel,’ which made me feel both liberated and lonely at the same time. When a person’s internal language changes like this, a vacuum is created, which needs to be filled with a new language, a form of expression that can make sense of the world. This is where writing and poetry began for me.
Poetry represents the ultimate struggle with the internal human landscape. It tills the inner soil in order to discover what grows within — our deepest secrets, valued symbols, and treasured moments — and once the earth is plowed, our truest self and values can grow to fruition. The literary landscape from which I come is suffused with Psalms, biblical stories, and the intricate logic of the Talmud. These texts hover around me even now, many years after I’ve exchanged a strictly Orthodox lifestyle for a traditional one, made up of my personal choices within the large body of possibilities presented by Judaism. Traditional Judaism values the needs of the current time over strict adherence to Jewish Law. It seeks a balance between Jewish value and modern everyday life.
For me, poetry and Hebrew poetry in particular, have always been similarly two-fold: an investigation of the personal within a vast body of possibility. For me, poetry is at once the place with the texts that nourished my childhood, the hills of Samaria with their abundance of olive and fig trees, the lively bet midrash—house of Torah study — filled with the ecstatic voices of a hundred boys singing nigunim till one in the morning; and also, poetry is the foreign texts for which I yearned, the unknown city center and its electric nightlife, the rock songs rousing the streets of modern Jerusalem. The ancient feeling of home and the intense curiosity of newness.
The literary landscape from which I come is suffused with Psalms, biblical stories, and the intricate logic of the Talmud.
In my new collection, Frayed Light, poems such as “Settlement,” “To My Mother,” “Friday Market,” and “Unity” emerged from this inner friction of a life that attempts to contain tradition and break with it at the same time. The wandering described in the poem “Unity” is the movement away from my childhood, towards a stream of thought where the different ceremonies, religions, and texts of the East and the West merge into one river. In those early years of adolescent rebellion, the pursuit to bring to light the spirit within the material I was studying developed, and I began to realize that all spiritual search is alike, stemming from the same desire for contact with mysitcal. I am a child of that path:
…We are warm travelers,
our eyes unfurled, traveling in psalms,
in Rumi, in the sayings of the man from the Galilee.
We break bread under the pistachio tree,
under the Banyan trees, under the dark
of the Samaritan fig tree…
We sit cross-legged within the rocking
of flesh, the quiet of the Brahmin, the bells
of Mass, the tumult of Torah…
I read the poetry and Hassidic teachings of Ha’Rav Kook voraciously, alongside the Mahabharata, Buddhist and Zen-Buddhist writings, and the New Testament, all while binge-reading contemporary Hebrew poetry. I relate deeply to Yehuda Amichai, a poet who argued and reconciled again and again with God and his religious identity, and Amichai’s sense of abandonment by that same God, mainly after the Holocaust. I understand Natan Zach, who searched for the music in Hebrew that reflected the post-Independence War and Six Day War periods, the post-faith spirit. I embrace Dahlia Ravikovitch, who demanded moral standards, like the biblical prophets, and Zelda, who continued the tradition of a softer Judaism, from Isaac and Rebecca to Hannah and Solomon. These iconic poets taught me how the Modern Hebrew language was able to rise again from its ancient flames, comprised of both the traditional (the Biblical) and the contemporary.
My poetry developed as I did. My spiritual and theological journeys diverged into new paths. A political one emerged as I left the settlement and grappled with the post-trauma triggered by my army service. The path of the traveler, one who embraces the song of the road, materialized as well. During my post-army travels in Asia and South America I experienced intense social, linguistic, and geographical awareness. I traveled to new cities and villages, was surrounded by unfamiliar sounds, languages and landscapes, tribes and immigrants. The expansive landscapes of these countries were so contrary to the confined terrain of Israeli and Palestinian scenery I was accustomed to. This abundance of experience asserted within me a multi-faceted and inclusive consciousness, which is a crucial base for the inner life of a poet.
The expansive landscapes of these countries were so contrary to the confined terrain of Israeli and Palestinian scenery I was accustomed to.
Poems like “Hebron,” “Post-Trauma,” “Walking,” and “Epilogue” were born during this time where my expanded consciousness grappled with post-army reality. The poem “Post-Trauma” moves through a night in Tel Aviv, where the Mediterranean heat and the sensual body merge with memories of Hebron, the violence that stained the young man that I was:
Your shoulders, the silence, the weak light of the lamp. I left
without saying a word, to the sea at Jaffa, I drank a beer
and then another one, and facing the rising sun as it struck
the sand, I realized what happened in Hebron.
Once I genuinely discovered non-Hebrew poetry, I felt liberated. When I encountered the Polish poets Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert, and Adam Zagajewski, it felt as if I had unearthed another inner language. All three poets compose in a seemingly simple form but are complex in the content of their craft. They achieve a perfect blend of the individual and the collective, between expansive, universal time, and the specific minutes of the alarm clock on the nightstand by the bed. This stems from their desire for “big words” as Herbert called them — theology, history, philosophy — integrated with the intimacy of the individual fate and narrative, what can be called the “private history” of a person. Milosz’ “Campo de Fiore,” for example, presented me with a craft that blends the sensual, individual image and narrative with the collective, moral dilemma of historical horrors.
Jewish texts, in general, separate between the individual story and the general theology. The Bible can be seen as a national collective of human histories, and the Talmud mainly focuses on the law and religious interpretation of these stories. In the section “Water Pierces Itself” I delve into persona poems of biblical characters and Jewish historical figures like Noah, Sarah and Hagar, Devorah, Martin Buber, Golda Meir, and even my own parents, in an attempt to blend the personal with the philosophical, the past with the present. In the poem “Judah the Maccabee” I use a past narrative of national conflict to reflect on the present state of Jewish nationhood:
We’re restless, like any other tribe.
Kingdoms rise and fall…
No, there is no land beyond the land
no milk and honey flowing down the hillside, staining the earth.
There is only desire
to mark eternity,
to beat time,
even through fire.
Reading American poetry further inspired my writing. Poets like Allen Ginsberg, James Wright, Robert Bly, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Louise Gluck, and Robert Hass taught me how to shift from chronological writing, which is perpendicular, to spatial, geographical writing, which is horizontal. Whereas the Jewish-Hebrew journey is in its essence a movement of collective chronology — historical memory constructed out of text — the American experience moves through terrain, and this finds expression in the poets’ deep knowledge of their natural and often botanical surroundings. I think of Gluck’s devotion to the forest, trees, and garden in “The Wild Iris”, or Bly’s snowy fields and chestnuts. As Ginsberg demonstrates, this spatial knowledge doesn’t only exist in the field of flora and fauna, but encompasses nature in all its aspects — clothes, records, electronics, books, art, political opinions, drugs, restaurants, cafés, foods, alcohol, spit and semen. This scope of imagery is related to expansiveness, a free movement within the wide open field, which is impossible in Israel, where the narrow land and people are constantly hindered by borders and walls, religious boundaries and conflict. In the poem “Distance” I wander the constricted land of the West Bank in a somewhat failed attempt to move freely, to walk without direction, in longer poetic lines, with prayers in my hands:
I recall journeys to school through Ramallah,
a song on the radio about a boy whose eyes
are scared and hungry, a child my own age
sitting on a stool outside a mosque.
The trees in my father’s orchard stand naked,
and I return home, hands stained with the blood of cherries.
I face the window, a bonfire burns, sounds from a wedding.
Is there a certain moment when the wandering begins?
By reading Hebrew poetry alongside Polish, American, and Greek poets, the desire grew to describe the individual against the backdrop of history, and vice versa, to write poetry wherein the free movement of the physical individual body is of equal importance to the movement of national consciousness and thought. By drawing close to the ancient, the pagan, the symbolic, and the mythological — the poet can enter the great kingdom of “the I”, the private folklore of man and woman, which is filled with imagination and doesn’t bow down to any tribal literary tradition.
The ancient feeling of home and the intense curiosity of newness.
In the last two hundred years Hebrew poetry and literature became the most important development in the Jewish canon, and, in my opinion, surpassed rabbinic and religious writing. This developed through an openness towards parallel non-Hebrew literary traditions, just as Maimonides advanced his religious thought and philosophy through a close encounter with the Muslim world. With the poems in Frayed Light I hope to propose an inclusive model for reading and writing poetry which is also a spiritual and religious model, one wherein the lines from a prayer book can be placed next to Ginsberg’s “Howl,” the writings of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov alongside the contemplative humanist poems of Milosz, the Bible alongside Louise Gluck’s “The Wild Iris.”
This piece is a part of the Berru Poetry Series, which supports Jewish poetry and poets on PB Daily. JBC also awards the Berru Poetry Award in memory of Ruth and Bernie Weinflash as a part of the National Jewish Book Awards. Click here to see the 2019 winner of the prize. If you’re interested in participating in the series, please check out the guidelines here.
Yonatan Berg is a leading Hebrew poet. He is the youngest recipient of the Yehuda Amichai Prize and a number of other national awards. He has published three books of poetry, one memoir and two novels. His latest book, Far from the Linden Trees, was published in 2018 and received excellent reviews. Yonatan Berg is a bibliotherapist and teaches creative writing in Jerusalem.