Voic­es With­in the Ark: The Mod­ern Jew­ish Poets

Howard Schwartz reflects on Voic­es With­in the Ark: The Mod­ern Jew­ish Poets, pub­lished in 1980. Voic­es in a col­lec­tion of over 400 mod­ern Jew­ish poets from over 40 nations.

In 1980 – thir­ty-six years ago – Antho­ny Rudolf and I pub­lished Voic­es With­in the Ark: The Mod­ern Jew­ish Poets. It’s a hefty book arranged in four sec­tions – Hebrew, Yid­dish, Eng­lish and Oth­er Lan­guage poets, 400 of them, in 1200 pages. It was the first and last book of its kind since the 1920s. Voic­es demon­strates the rich tra­di­tion of Jew­ish poets writ­ing in the mod­ern era. Our goal was always to be inclu­sive. (I remem­ber wan­der­ing through the streets of Jerusalem, ask­ing if any­one knew of an Ethiopi­an Jew­ish poet. Even­tu­al­ly I found him.) We were great­ly assist­ed by the Hebrew poets Shlo­mo Vin­ner and Gabriel Preil, who direct­ed us to the most impor­tant Hebrew and Yid­dish poets, many of whom they knew per­son­al­ly. Shlo­mo Vin­ner, a math pro­fes­sor at Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty, is also a deeply com­mit­ted poet. Eston­ian-born Preil, one of the most beloved Hebrew poets, wrote in Hebrew but lived in the Bronx. He was large­ly unknown there, but was treat­ed like a hero when he man­aged to trav­el to Israel.

Look­ing back, we man­aged to include many poets who have since gained world­wide stature, not only Nobel Prize win­ning poets such as Nel­ly Sachs and Joseph Brod­sky, but many oth­ers such as Yehu­da Amichai, Paul Celan, Osip Man­del­stam, Allen Gins­berg, Muriel Rukeyser, Karl Shapiro, Del­more Schwartz, Philip Levine, Don­ald Finkel, David Meltzer, Jerome Rothen­berg, Dan Jaffe and David Igna­tow. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, we inevitably omit­ted many fine poets who lat­er estab­lished them­selves, such as Ger­ald Stern, Ali­cia Ostrik­er, Michael Heller, Jane O. Wayne, and Ruth Stone, whose work was only start­ing to emerge at that time. Many of the young poets we includ­ed ful­filled their ear­ly promise, such as Lin­da Zisquit, Rose Drach­ler, Rodger Kamenetz, Jacque­line Osherow, Philip Schultz, Laya Fire­stone Seghi, and Michael Cas­tro. There have also been many excep­tion­al younger poets who have pub­lished since 1980, such as Jeff Fried­man, Richard Chess, Dina Elen­bo­gen and Car­ol Rose, whose work was unknown to us at that time. Tony Rudolf and I are well aware of poets we wish we had includ­ed. We sin­cere­ly apol­o­gize to the poets we over­looked. Still, the book is burst­ing with orig­i­nal poets for whom Judaism is an inte­gral part of their vision.

There are an aston­ish­ing num­ber of excep­tion­al Hebrew poets. Of the old­er gen­er­a­tion, there are Hay­im Nach­man Bia­lik, Nathan Alter­man, and Uri Zvi Green­berg. Their work was large­ly for­mal, but in the next gen­er­a­tion Yehu­da Amichai used mod­ern, col­lo­qui­al Hebrew rather than bib­li­cal Hebrew as the lan­guage of his poems, and cre­at­ed a rev­o­lu­tion in mod­ern Hebrew poet­ry. Amichai tow­ers above the all oth­er con­tem­po­rary Hebrew poets, but the tra­di­tion is great­ly enhanced by poets such as Yona Wal­lach, Dan Pagis, Dalia Ravikovitch, Haim Guri, Natan Zach, Amir Gilboa, Natan Zach, Leah Gold­berg, Rachel and Zelda.

There were also many cel­e­brat­ed Yid­dish poets. Some, such as Jacob Glat­stein, Abra­ham Sutskev­er, Aaron Zeitlin (who wrote the song Dona Dona), and Itzik Manger (who wrote the utter­ly hilar­i­ous midrashic par­o­dy, The Book of Par­adise) have inter­na­tion­al rep­u­ta­tions. Among oth­er dis­tin­guished Yid­dish poets are Moishe Leib Halpern, Moishe Kul­bak, H. Leivick, Rachel Korn and Melech Ravitz. Remark­ably, despite the near-extinc­tion of Yid­dish, there are con­tem­po­rary Yid­dish poets such as Mal­ka Heifetz Tuss­man and Asya.

Per­haps the most remark­able fact about Voic­es were the far-flung poets we dis­cov­ered, such as Nis­sim Ezekiel of India, the Dutch poet Judith Herzberg, the French-Egypt­ian poet Edmond Jabes, the French poet Claude Vigee, the Ger­man poet Else Lasker-Schuler, the Hun­gar­i­an poet Mik­los Rad­noti, the Greek poet Joseph Eliyia, the Ethiopi­an poet Yosef Damana ben Yeshaq, the Ital­ian poet Pri­mo Levi, the British poet Isaac Rosen­berg, the Argen­tine poet Alexan­dra Pizarnik (often com­pared to Sylvia Plath), the Peru­vian poet Isaac Goldem­berg, and the Turk­ish poet Musa Moris Farhi, demon­strat­ing a world wide com­mu­ni­ty of Jew­ish poets.

The unsung heroes of Voic­es are the trans­la­tors, who man­aged to rep­re­sent these poets in the best pos­si­ble way, in trans­la­tions that were fine poems in them­selves. Lin­da Zisquit pro­vid­ed won­der­ful trans­la­tions of Yona Wal­lach; Shirley Kauf­man, an Amer­i­can poet who lived in Israel for many years, trans­lat­ed the Holo­caust sur­vivor Aba Kovn­er; the poet Mar­cia Falk brought the Yid­dish poems of Mal­ka Heifetz Tuss­man and Zel­da to life; Joachim Neu­groschel, (whose father was the Yid­dish poet Mendel Neu­groschel) did excep­tion­al trans­la­tions of the cryp­tic poems of Paul Celan. And, of course, many others.

The most mov­ing sto­ry we encoun­tered was that about the Hun­gar­i­an poet Mik­los Rad­noti. He was shot while on a forced march and buried in a mass grave. On exhuma­tion sev­en poems were found that he had writ­ten on pic­ture post­cards, the last of them only sec­onds before he was exe­cut­ed: I fell beside him. His body turned over,/already taut as a string about to snap.” Anoth­er very inter­est­ing sto­ry is that of Jiri Langer. He was Franz Kafka’s Hebrew teacher in Prague. When he was 18 he decid­ed to become a Hasid, and he took a train to Belz and joined the Belz Hasidim, who were famous for their sto­ry­telling. Langer, who loved sto­ries like his friend Kaf­ka, wrote those sto­ries down. After five years in Belz he came back to Prague and pub­lished Nine Gates to the Hasidic Mys­ter­ies, relat­ing the tales he had heard in Belz. At the time of the Holo­caust he took a boat to Israel, escap­ing the Nazis. How­ev­er, he had filled his suit­cas­es with books and man­u­scripts, not clothes, dur­ing a harsh win­ter, and his health nev­er recov­ered. He died two years after arriv­ing in Israel, hav­ing pub­lished a slim vol­ume of beau­ti­ful Hebrew poems. 

We tried our best not to be a Beit Din. If a poet con­sid­ered him­self or her­self Jew­ish, we accept­ed that. While David Meltzer, one of the lead­ing Cal­i­for­nia poets, had a Jew­ish father but not a Jew­ish moth­er, it is per­fect­ly clear from his poet­ry that he is deeply immersed in Jew­ish tra­di­tion. Nat­u­ral­ly we includ­ed him. As for Joseph Brod­sky, who was born Jew­ish but con­vert­ed to Chris­tian­i­ty, we wrote him and asked if he want­ed to be includ­ed in an anthol­o­gy of Jew­ish poets. He replied empath­i­cal­ly that he did want to be includ­ed, and he is. 

A con­fes­sion – I want­ed to include sev­er­al songs of Bob Dylan, which are in fact beau­ti­ful poems. Dylan gave us per­mis­sion to include mas­ter­pieces such as Mr. Tam­bourine Man” and Shel­ter from the Storm.” But it was exact­ly at that time that he announced his con­ver­sion to Chris­tian­i­ty. Over­re­act­ing, I dropped all of Dylan’s songs from the book, and I’ve regret­ted it ever since. We did include Leonard Cohen’s haunt­ing song, Isaac.”

We also dis­cov­ered some great schol­ars and rab­bis who wrote poems, such as Mar­tin Buber, Ger­shom Scholem, and Rav Kook. We would have liked to include the ear­ly Yid­dish poems of Abra­ham Joshua Hes­chel, but were not giv­en per­mis­sion to do so.

Voic­es With­in the Ark has been out of print a long time, but some­how most Jew­ish poets seem to have a copy. I know that the poets includ­ed were hap­py to be part of this fam­i­ly of poets. We hope that a younger edi­tor will take up where we left off.

Please read our final poem fea­tured for Jew­ish Poet­ry Month, Howard Schwartz’s Yehu­da Amichai in the Heav­en­ly Jerusalem,” from his book of poet­ry, Breath­ing in the Dark, 2011.

On earth,
in his beloved Jerusalem,
he could often be found in that tiny café
on King George,
sip­ping black cof­fee.
Every­one knew who he was,
but they all left him alone.
Lat­er, he would shop in the shuk
like every­one else,
take a seat in the back of the bus,
put down his bags of fruits and veg­eta­bles,
and dream a lit­tle
till the bus reached his stop.
Every­one else was asleep
when he rose at four in the morn­ing
to jot down the poems hid­den in the cor­ners
of his city.
This was his secret life.

On his sev­en­ti­eth birth­day he whis­pered,
I’m tired of giv­ing birth,
and it seemed to be true.
His face was tired,

even his eyes,
and yet some­thing con­tin­ued to burn.
I’ve learned the secret
of fer­til­iz­ing myself,
he told me.
I sup­ply both egg and seed.
But I’m tired of giv­ing birth

At sev­en­ty-six
he took leave of this world
as one would expect of such a mod­est man.
Pres­i­dents and prime min­is­ters spoke at his funer­al;
thou­sands gath­ered to pay their respects.
When he reached heav­en,
he was greet­ed by his heroes,
King David and Shmuel ha-Nagid,
along with hun­dreds of his poems,
their fly­ing let­ters swirling around him.
The angels, delight­ed to wel­come him,
offered him a pair of wings,
but he declined, say­ing,
It’s enough if my words have wings.
Tell me, where are the cafés

Oth­er souls
wan­der the streets of Par­adise like tourists,
star­ing at the heav­en­ly tem­ple
or tak­ing a seat at the back of Rashi’s class.
Not Yehu­da.
He’s still long­ing for the ruins
of the earth­ly tem­ple,
for the ancient stones of his earth­ly city,
for all the sheets hung out to dry,
flap­ping like sails in the wind.

Relat­ed Content:

Howard Schwartz’s most recent col­lec­tion of Jew­ish folk­tales is Leaves from the Gar­den of Eden: One Hun­dred Clas­sic Jew­ish Tales. His book, Tree of Souls: The Mythol­o­gy of Judaism, won The Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award in 2005.