Posts filed under ‘Hebrew’

Rosh Hashanah

Aharon Shabtai

Listen (in Hebrew)

Listen (in English)

Even after the murder
of the child Muhammad on Rosh Hashanah,
the paper didn’t go black.
In the same water in which the snipers
wash their uniforms,
I prepare my pasta,
and over it pour
olive oil in which I’ve browned
pine nuts,
which I cooked for two minutes with dried tomatoes,
crushed garlic, and a tablespoon of basil.
As I eat, the learned minister of foreign affairs
and public security
appears on the screen,
and when he’s done
I write this poem.
For that’s how it’s always been —
the murderers murder,
the intellectuals make it palatable,
and the poet sings.

(translated from the Hebrew by Peter Cole)

For those of us who regularly seek solace in poems, acts of terrorism can be particularly hard to deal with, because (the deluge of poetry written in the aftermath of 9/11 notwithstanding) there just doesn’t seem to be enough good poetry about living with terrorism.

In times like these, I find myself turning to books like  J’Accuse (New Directions 2003), a collection of ‘political’ poems by Hebrew poet Aharon Shabtai. Shabtai’s poems seem matter of fact, even flippant, in tone, but beneath their nonchalance lies a deep groundswell of outrage – an outrage made all the more powerful for being directed impartially against all who traffic in hatred or hold human life cheap, whether Arab or Jew. Shabtai’s voice is the voice of a poet for whom terrorism is a fact of everyday life, and therefore something to be not dismayed by but struggled against. What you hear in Shabtai’s poems is the constant rediscovery of the balance of being human, of learning to endure the horrors of the news without either succumbing to hatred or surrendering to indifference. It is what makes these poems so unexpectedly comforting.

– falstaff

(recording courtesy: PBS)

November 27, 2008 at 8:28 pm 9 comments

from Seven Laments for the War Dead

Yehuda Amichai


Is all of this
sorrow? I don’t know.
I stood in the cemetery dressed in
the camouflage clothes of a living man: brown pants
and a shirt yellow as the sun.

Cemeteries are cheap; they don’t ask for much.
Even the wastebaskets are small, made for holding
tissue paper
that wrapped flowers from the store.
Cemeteries are a polite and disciplined thing.
“I Shall never forget you,” in French
on a little ceramic plaque.
I don’t know who it is that won’t ever forget:
he’s more anonymous than the one who died.

Is all of this sorrow? I guess so.
“May ye find consolation in the building
of the homeland.” But how long
can you go on building the homeland
and not fall behind in the terrible
three-sided race
between consolation and building and death?

Yes, all of this is sorrow. But leave
a little love burning always
like the small bulb in the room of a sleeping baby
that gives him a bit of security and quiet love
though he doesn’t know what the light is
or where it comes from.

[translated from the Hebrew by Chana Bloch]

What better way to end our series on War poetry than with Amichai? I could try summing up the theme, but I don’t need to. This poem says it all.


Coming up on Poi-tre: A Valentine’s Day Special and an Auden retrospective. Stay tuned.

February 13, 2007 at 3:40 am 3 comments

The Diameter of the Bomb

Yehuda Amichai

Listen [1]

The diameter of the bomb was thirty centimeters
and the diameter of its effective
range – about seven meters.
And in it four dead and eleven wounded.
And around them in a greater circle
of pain and time are scattered
two hospitals and one cemetery.
But the young woman who was
buried where she came from
over a hundred kilometres away
enlarges the circle greatly.
And the lone man who weeps over her death
in a far corner of a distant country
includes the whole world in the circle.
And I won’t speak at all about the crying of orphans
that reaches to the seat of God
and from there onward, making
the circle without end and without God.

(Translated from the Hebrew by Yehuda Amichai and Ted Hughes.)

In his Introduction to Amichai’s Selected Poems (Faber and Faber 2000), Hughes writes “He found a voice not just for a people in crisis but for the resurrection of a people, an ancient people, which was simultaneously the creation of a new people – what was simultaneously that people’s emergence as a central character in a global political drama at the crux of two deadlocked civilisations.”

Who but Amichai can we turn to then, when horrors like the bombs in Bombay strike us? Amichai’s poems have an incredible ability to reach beyond the individual – they are not poems of personal grief, not simply poems that speak to the sadness of any one people, they are poems about the loss of all people everywhere. And yet for all the sorrow and outrage in them, for all the crying sense of injustice, they are also startlingly modern, unflinchingly matter of fact.

The Diameter of the Bomb is an excellent example. Amichai starts clinically, with the basic facts – details about the size of the bomb, its effective radius, the number of casualties, then slowly the details become people, the statistics turn human, and we are shown the real human cost of terrorism. But the circle does not stop there, the shock waves of Amichai’s poem ripple further, going past God and Heaven to an infinite emptiness. There is no God, or none that we can trust, there is only endless circle suffering that now includes us all.

The Diameter of the Bomb has long been one of my ‘favourite’ Amichai poems – and seeing the footage of the Bombay blasts on television it was the first poem I thought of.


Notes and Links:

[1] This recording is taken from The National Jewish Centre for Learning and Leadership’s Recording of A Ritual for Beginning to Remember – a collection of recordings put together to commemorate the first anniversary of 9/11. The Diameter of the Bomb is the first piece of the second part of the recording, which goes on beyond the Amichai poem (the other pieces are interesting and apt as well). You can find the full recording here.
[2] The translation of the poem being recited is different from the one I’ve posted here. I understand there’s a Stephen Mitchell translation of Amichai and I suspect that may be the version used. I’m not sure. At any rate, I personally like the Amichai-Hughes translations, and the basic sense of the poem stays pretty much the same.

For more commentary, see Minstrels

And more on Amichai here

Finally, you can find the Hebrew Text here. As the link shows, there’s also a setting of the poem for mezzo soprano and digital audio by Jonathan Berger.

July 13, 2006 at 4:01 pm 10 comments

Ein Yahav

Yehuda Amichai

Listen (to Chana Bloch read)

A night drive to Ein Yahav in the Arava Desert,
a drive in the rain. Yes, in the rain.
There I met people who grow date palms,
there I saw tamarisk trees and risk trees,
there I saw hope barbed as barbed wire.
And I said to myself: That’s true, hope needs to be
like barbed wire to keep out despair,
hope must be a mine field.

Chana Bloch reads her translation of the hebrew poem by Yehuda Amichai. Amichai is considered one of the greatest modern Israeli poets. My bias toward poets who write about the ordinary and mudane makes him one of my favourites.


February 22, 2006 at 6:27 pm Leave a comment