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Translating Zelda

Poet Marcia Falk spotlights a noted Israeli poet whose surprisingly sensual lyrics we can finally read in English.

Translation is an art of intimacy—even passion—but the story of my engagement with Zelda’s poetry had a less than romantic beginning. it was early 1974; I was living in Jerusalem on a grant to complete my doctoral thesis, a new translation of the biblical Song of Songs. But the Yom Kippur war, which had erupted in Israel a few months earlier, had put the country into turmoil; all resources, including academic ones, were at an ebb. By the time the almond trees were blossoming in the countryside and the strawberries were tumbling from the greengrocers’ shelves, I found myself no longer able to make ends meet. And so, when I was approached by the editor of the international literary journal Ariel to translate the poems of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman known to her readers simply as Zelda (and not yet known to me at all), I did not stop to consider whether I would like these poems—and certainly not whether I would feel close enough to them to give them a new life in English. I accepted the commission and paid my rent the same day.

Up until then, I had assumed, with the poet Denise Levertov, that “I would never attempt to translate…poems that I could not at all imagine myself to have written.” I believed then—as I still do today—that to make a text one’s own one has to encounter it deeply, embracing its beauties and its flaws, ultimately giving oneself over to it entirely. It seemed to me at the time that such total surrender to the words of another required a fundamental affinity for that other’s voice. Yet here I found myself translating poetry that I would not—could not—have written, and that I was not even sure I fully understood. Religious lyrics infused with a visionary wildness, Zelda’s poems were utterly unique, not part of any poetic school in Hebrew letters. In both sensibility and form, they were not just unlike anything I might have written but distinct from anything I had read—as the poet herself was very different from anyone I had known.

Who was Zelda? The daughter and granddaughter of prominent Hasidic rabbis from the Habad dynasty, Zelda Schneurson was an only child, born in Russia in 1914. When she was twelve, she immigrated with her family to Palestine; shortly afterwards, both her father and grandfather died. In Jerusalem, where the family had settled, Zelda attended a school for religious girls and later a teachers’ college. It was during her years at the college that she began to write and publish poetry.

At the age of eighteen Zelda moved with her mother to Tel Aviv, where she took private painting lessons and befriended other young artists. When her mother remarried and relocated to Haifa in 1933, Zelda once again accompanied her In Haifa she developed a love for the landscape of Mount Carmel, to which she paid homage in many poems.

Zelda left her mother’s home for the first and only time in 1935, to pursue her dream of studying painting at the Bezalel Art Academy in Jerusalem. She worked as a housepainter to earn money, but jobs were scarce and she was unable to save enough for tuition. When her mother became ill, she returned to Haifa to care for her, never having had the chance to study art formally. She continued to paint on her own, however, and to write poetry and teach in an elementary school.

In the early 1940s, after Zelda’s mother was widowed again, the two women returned to Jerusalem, this time to stay. They settled in a small, dilapidated, ground-floor apartment in the religiously mixed neighborhood of Kerem Avraham (which later became part of Geulah), where Zelda taught school until 1950. That year, at age thirty-six, she married Hayim Aryeh Mishkovsky, and the couple made their home with Zelda’s mother in the Kerem Avraham flat. It was there that Zelda ministered to her mother until her death in 1965 and also cared for Hayim, who became ill shortly after their marriage.

Once married, Zelda gave up teaching and began writing more prolifically and intensely. Hayim encouraged her to publish, and in 1967 her first book of poems, P’nai (Leisure), was released to great acclaim. It was dedicated to her father and mother and contained many poems about them and about her childhood. Her second book, Hakarmel ha ‘inir ‘eh (The Invisible Carmel), was published shortly after Hayim died, in 1971, and was dedicated to him. It was to be followed by four more volumes, each of them a critical and popular success: Al tirhak (Be Not Far, 1974), Halo har halo esh (Surely a Mountain, Surely Fire, 1977), Hashoni hamarhiv (The Spectacular Difference, 1981), and Shenivd’hi mikol merhak (Beyond All Distance, 1984). Hayim’s death was devastating to Zelda, and the later books include many poems to him, giving voice to the deep sorrow and grief that remained with her until the end of her life. Especially poignant are the lyrics in which she calls out to her beloved across a chasm of silence to reach him in “the hidden world.”

Five years after she was widowed, Zelda left Geulah, which had become increasingly insular, and moved to a street that bordered the Orthodox area known as Sha’arey Hosed and the religiously mixed neighborhood of Rehaviah Situated at the boundary between two worlds, Zelda’s new location was more open to the many nonreligious friends who were among her frequent guests. The change proved felicitous in another way as well: the new apartment let in more daylight, which, as the poems reveal, was a healing presence for her. Zelda and Hayim had no children, but after Hayim’s death Zelda began taking in boarders—young women, often students, whom she treated like daughters. She was extremely devoted to these companions, as they were to her, and she supported them economically and in many other ways, even providing them with wedding celebrations. During her last years, when she suffered from cancer, she was surrounded by these women and their families, and by her many other friends. 9 Her final book, completed not long before her death in 1984, was dedicated “to the friends of my soul:”

Although she lived her entire life within the strictures of ultra-Orthodoxy—dressing modestly and, once married, donning a wig—Zelda’s admirers came from many corners of the heterogeneous (and predominantly secular) Israeli society. Her six books of mystical-religious verse were all bestsellers, meriting multiple reprinting’s and garnering numerous literary awards, including the prestigious Bialik and Brenner Prizes. Kibbutzniks, yeshiva students, academics, and soldiers— people of all ages, religious orientations, and political persuasions— were among her avid fans. As the popularity of her poetry grew, visitors flocked to her doorstep; her photograph appeared often in the newspapers; the words of her poems were set to music and sung. Naturally reserved and daunted by publicity, Zelda was an unlikely candidate for Israeli folk hero. Nonetheless, she emerged from the circumscribed world of her fathers and mothers to become a national phenomenon.

I, too, eventually became one of Zelda’s admirers, though I could not have predicted that in the beginning. The first time I opened a book of her poems, I was struck at once by their emotional power and their density; I was drawn to the work but not always sure what to make of it, One of the things I noticed right away, and which became a source of fascination and puzzlement to me, was the abundance of seemingly symbolic figures that populated these poems. I am not speaking here of Zelda’s frequent borrowings from classical Jewish texts—biblical, talmudic, midrashic, liturgical, kabbalistic, and Hasidic—which are accessible to readers familiar with Jewish sources. I refer, rather, to images that seem drawn from elsewhere, elements of the natural world such as the strange plant, the golden fish, the enchanted bird, the black rose, the orange butterfly—simple nouns matched with plain adjectives, some of them preceded by the definite article, lending them an archetypal air. Where exactly had these figures come from? From which realms of folklore, fable, fairy tale? And what were they doing here?

Eventually I would come to see that Zelda’s poems, like the lyrics of Emily Dickinson and IT.D., or the early poems of William Blake, contain a world of personal symbols—images at once evocatively sensual and suggestive of a deep spirituality— which have great resonance within the poet’s oeuvre but which are not necessarily rooted outside of it.

In the early days of translating Zelda’s poems, I was hungry for information, not just about their imagery but about every aspect of their contexts and origins. And I could not help but be curious about the woman who had written them. Finally, I emboldened myself and called Zelda on the phone, asking if I might visit her. She invited me to come to her home the next day.

I showed up at her doorstep in a knee-length skirt and a sleeveless blouse, a kerchief on my head. I had debated with myself about the skirt and blouse, knowing that the very religious do not approve of women revealing bare arms or legs; but the heat was oppressive that day, and I had heard that Zelda was tolerant by nature. I didn’t give a thought to the kerchief, which looked, I later realized, like the traditional tikhl worn by some Orthodox married women to cover their hair when in public. I had worn it only as protection from the beating sun.

When Zelda opened her door to me, a bemused smile spread across her face. “You have a secular body,” she commented wryly, “but a religious head.” Her poems had not prepared me for her sense of humor. But then, little about Zelda turned out to be predictable. In that first visit, I found her to be softspoken, unassuming, and even shy, but more than anything else, she was utterly original. I had never heard anyone speak quite the way she did, and I was almost in awe of her for this, although in truth her persona was anything but awesome. She smiled frequently, and when it was time for me to leave she invited me to return. I accepted and returned not once but many times, for although I could not help but be aware of the extreme differences between her world and mine, I felt truly welcome in her home.

Zelda and I were having tea and cookies in her living room the day I attempted to fulfill a promise I had made to the members of my poetry reading group. They were curious about one of her images—the golden fish—and I had agreed to ask her what she had meant by it. Obviously startled by my query, Zelda turned her eyes away from me and toward the windowsill. Pointing to a newly blossoming geranium, one of the many houseplants that filled her apartment with an ethereal green glow, she said, “See that plant in the window? It doesn’t speak.” She paused briefly before continuing, “Is it any less a miracle than a plant that speaks?”

Then she grew silent, and I waited for what felt like long minutes until she turned back to me. “Why,” she asked, looking at me with an expression of genuine bafflement, “do people always seek what is complicated? I always intend the simple. By ‘golden fish’ I meant a golden fish.”

Alas, much of what Zelda claims as simple can give her readers pause, and certain characteristics of the Hebrew language only increase the difficulties. Hebrew offers no distinction between uppercase and lowercase letters, leaving punctuation to be the main orthographic indicator of sentence structure, yet Zelda largely avoids punctuating her poems. And parts of speech are fungible in Hebrew as they are not in English, allowing for multiple possibilities of meaning; for example, the words ahuv noshev in one of her poems can mean “breathing (literally, blowing) lover” or “beloved breather” or even “beloved, breathing”—a double adjective modifying the preceding noun. In Zelda’s verse, it is often difficult to determine which of several meanings she is after—though the translator, of course, is often forced to choose only one.

To my own surprise, I ended up translating Zelda more literally than I have translated other poets. I simply felt that a higher degree of literalness was demanded in order to ensure that the strangeness of her lines not be diluted. For those who may suspect that I am exaggerating the oddness of Zelda’s idiom, I offer the words of Israeli novelist and essayist Amos Oz, once Zelda’s adoring second-grade pupil. In a recent memoir, Oz described Zelda’s language this way:

A strange, anarchic Hebrew, a Hebrew belonging to stories of the pious and to Hasidic tales and folk parables, a Hebrew overflowing with Yiddish, violating every rule, mixing feminine with masculine, present with past, noun with adjective—a sloppy, even muddled Hebrew. But what vitality there was in these stories! When a story was about snow, it seemed written in words of snow. And when it was about fires, the words themselves burned. And what strange, hypnotic sweetness there was in her tales about all lands of miracles! As though the writer dipped the letters in wine: the words went spinning in the mouth.

And this, too, from Oz’s pen:

I loved the way Teacher Zelda placed word next to word. Sometimes she placed one ordinary, everyday word next to another, equally routine and common, and suddenly, in their being joined, from the mere fact of their being side by side, two completely ordinary words unaccustomed to standing next to each other—it was as though suddenly an electric current ran between them, exciting my spirit, which sought the wonders of words.

Yes—if we read poetry to encounter wonder, Zelda’s words give us more than we could hope for; if the experience catches us off guard, that is simply part of the adventure. These are poems that take us places, take us away; poems that go to the edge—and then some. And yet they are never put-ons, never show-offs, and, above all, never artificial. They seem not to have been “made” but to have been born whole and delivered to us in a single breath. They contain no guile, no trickery, no cleverness for its own sake. They are, in short, the real thing— which surely explains, at least in part, why they have had such a profound impact on their native audience, an impact that is arguably as great as that of any Hebrew poetry in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Marcia Falk’s last book was The Book of Blessings, a groundbreaking Hebrew-English prayer book written from a nonhierarchical, gender-inclusive perspective. Her now-classic translation of The Song of Songs will be published in a new edition by University Press of New England/Brandeis University Press in the fall of 2004.

Heavy Silence

Death will take the spectacular difference
between fire and water
and cast it to the abyss.

Heavy silence
will crouch like a bull
on the names we have given
the birds of the sky
and the beasts of the field,
the evening skies,
the vast distances in space,
and things hidden from the eye.

Heavy silence will crouch like a bull
on all the words.
And it will be as hard for me to part
from the names of things
as from the things themselves.

O Knower of Mysteries,
help me understand
what to ask for
on the final day.

Strange Plant

At midnight, a candle glowed
in the heart
of a blood-red flower,
At midnight, on the grief
of my face,
a strange plant’s celebration
streamed like gold.

When Yearnings

When yearnings dishevel
her light hair,
she whispers to them,
“Stop.
You have burdened me.
I am betrothed
to a nocturnal river
more awesome than the sea,
the river called compassion.”

Uncombed Hair

A single word
shattered all the lights,
a single word
turned a lit street
into a dark forest.
The angel who revealed himself to Hagar
came to the terrible forest,
came to the end of the world
to touch her hand.
But she fled from the angel
as from a mirage,
crying,
“You don’t exist, you don’t exist,
you don’t exist—
don’t tempt me with empty secrets.”

A fountain rushed toward her,
shimmering with water,
bearing branches and leaves,
but she, completely soaked, cried,
“My poor soul,
delusions again!”

Little sister with uncombed hair,
do not flee from the sound of angels.
Your life hums with yearning,
your flesh is not a fable,
and the red-haired man,
friend of the sun,
knows you are summer,
knows you are a fruit-bearing tree.

The Orange Butterfly

When the orange butterfly wends its way
through a river of colors and scents
toward its flower-mate, and clings
as though this flower were the star
of its secret self—
an inexplicable clamor of hope
rises in every heart.

And when that beautiful flutterer
abandons the weary petals
and vanishes in space,
the lonely moment wakens in the world,
a soul vanishes in infinity

In the Hospital

1. When a horse is sold in the marketplace

When a horse is sold in the marketplace
no one asks the horse-soul
if it will allow a strange hand
to open the horse’s mouth,
to touch its limbs.
They set my shamed flesh
before the dragon of science
without asking my soul.

Ten heads of the lofty dragon
observed my misery
without asking my soul.

2. Beyond the wall, a sick old woman

In her broken, tortured voice—
no poison,
no wail of abandonment.
Even in a moment of filth, of revulsion,
she weeps
the way a child weeps for mama,
without fear of mockery or scorn.
In the evening, a thin laugh
flies toward me from her room—
a memory of another existence.
And suddenly a lonely growl in the dark—
her terror of sleeping
and of waking.

At dawn, once again the old woman
is quiet as a wilting flower.
The nurse’s smile comforts her.
This old woman has not,
out of anger,
turned away from people
or from God.
Like her, my mother
was faithful to heaven
while in the valley of the shadow of death.
But my mother was filled with dread.

3. You are mistaken

You are mistaken—
even in death’s cradle
the fog did not dissolve.
Even when the end was near,
terrifyingly near,
I was miles and miles away
from the riddle.

4. My soul peered through the lattices

For Rut! Freudiger

My soul peered through the lattices
within the desolation and devastation
of my illness.
From its captivity it called
to Was-ls-Will Be.
In the dark, it whispered,
“In Your hands, I place
my spirit, my pain,
my honor, my life, my death.”

5. When the woman

When the brown-faced woman who
was, at that moment,
polishing the floor—
heard the doctor’s words,
she said to me,
“I will pray for you.”
A sudden, new friend
said to me, 
“I will pray for you.”