Zelda Was One of the Greatest Modern Writers of Religious Experience in Any Language https://mosaicmagazine.com/observation/arts-culture/2019/11/zelda-was-one-of-the-greatest-modern-writers-of-religious-experience-in-any-language/

Lauded in Israel but unknown outside, Zelda’s poetry provides an alternative to the desacralized cosmos in which most of us live.

November 26, 2019 | Michal Leibowitz

In the world of modern Hebrew letters, some names have achieved international recognition: from S.Y. Agnon and Ḥayyim Naḥman Bialik to, more recently, Amos Oz and Yehuda Amichai. The names of others, whose contributions to Hebrew literature may be no less significant, tend to resonate in smaller, more localized circles.

Among the latter figures is the poet Zelda Shneerson Mishkovsky (1914-1984)—known simply as Zelda to her many devoted readers in Israel. Indeed, her place in the world of Hebrew letters is secure, having been recognized through the award of both the Bialik and the Brenner prizes, two of Israel’s highest literary honors. That place is also unique: more than three decades after her death, Zelda remains one of the greatest modern writers of religious experience—in Hebrew or in any other language.

Who was she?

 

Zelda’s rendering of religious experience was undoubtedly informed by her early life. Born in Russia in the waning days of the tsarist empire, she spent her first decade under the new dispensation of the Bolsheviks. Her formative childhood environment, however, was the world not of Communist atheism but of Chabad Ḥasidism. Zelda’s first cousin, older than she by a dozen years, was Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who in 1950 would become the seventh leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch dynasty: the “Lubavitcher rebbe.”

At twelve, Zelda emigrated to mandatory Palestine with her family. The Schneersons settled in Jerusalem (“bejeweled in the sun,/ smiling like a bride—”), where she would spend most of her adult life. Nor did the spiritual world of her early years ever leave her. She remained devoutly religious her whole life and would often allude to ḥasidic themes and symbols in her poetry. That poetry depicts a world of divine sparks and miracles, a world in which God is at times a living entity, as solid as a human lover or friend. But hers is also a world of profound loneliness and isolation, a world in which death maintains an unshakable presence and God is often hidden.

Zelda’s father died about a year after the family’s move to Jerusalem, and her grandfather soon after. In Jerusalem, she attended a religious girls’ school and then the Mizraḥi Teachers’ Seminary. It was while a student at the latter that she first began writing and publishing poetry in newspapers and magazines.

Over the next two decades, Zelda lived in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa, teaching Hebrew to new immigrants, caring for her ailing mother, and working as a teacher in an elementary school. Even as a teacher, she brought her radiant vision to her work, calling small kindnesses—like lending an eraser, or handing out drawing paper—“making sparks.” Among her second-grade pupils was Amos Oz, who many years later, in his 2002 memoir A Tale of Love and Darkness, would write:

[Zelda] revealed a Hebrew language to me that I had never encountered before. . . . A strange anarchic Hebrew, a Hebrew belonging to stories of the pious and to ḥasidic 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.

Despite her pedagogical gifts, Zelda felt teaching stifled her poetry. When she married Ḥayim Aryeh Mishkovsky in 1950, she gave up teaching and began writing more intensely. Still, it wasn’t until 1967—after much urging from her husband and friends—that Leisure, her first book of poems, was released. She was fifty-three years old.

Leisure launched Zelda from near-anonymity into the heart of the Israeli literary world. Some of the excitement was undoubtedly due to the novelty of her biography, but her work also gained attention for breaking poetic ground. Ignoring the genre boundaries and rhythmic patterns that then still largely governed the writing of Hebrew verse, her work, as the singer Chava Alberstein would observe, sounded a “new melody on the Hebrew poetry scene.”

From 1967 onward Zelda published prolifically, releasing a book of poetry every three to four years. Her second book, The Invisible Carmel (1971), was dedicated to the memory of Ḥayim, who passed away shortly before its publication. In the following years, death—always a major theme—became even more prominent. Her preoccupation with mortality led to one of her most brilliant poems, “Heavy Silence,” a meditation on language, meaning, and grief.

Here and throughout, the translations are by Marcia Falk in The Spectacular Difference: Selected Poems of Zelda (2004):

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.

Few would have expected Zelda’s poems, which, like this one, brim with allusions to biblical and mystical texts, to resonate with readers across all segments of Israeli society. Yet she was never exclusively either a “poet’s poet” or a “ḥaredi poet.” Indeed, each of her six books was a national bestseller, and the ranks of her admirers included kibbutzniks, soldiers, yeshiva students, and academics.  Her verses have been put to music in popular Hebrew songs, most notably by Alberstein, and one poem in particular, “Each of Us Has a Name,” is a frequent feature of Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremonies in Israel.

It is true, however, that today, despite her popularity, she is more likely to be mentioned by the keepers of advanced Israeli culture as a token curiosity (“Israel’s first religious female poet”) than as a serious literary artist. Nor was she ever recognized with the Israel Prize, the nation’s highest cultural honor. In 2004, the literary critic Alit Karper wrote in Haaretz that “Twenty years after her death” from cancer, “Zelda is mainly a very forgotten poet.” And outside of Israel, as I noted at the outset, her work is virtually unknown.

 

Countless forces contribute to the making of a writer’s reputation and cultural longevity, some of which have little to do with the actual work. (The Canadian scholar H.J. Jackson once listed such fame-enhancing factors as dying young, having a politically contentious youth, and living in a pretty, pilgrimage-friendly place.) As for Zelda, one might speculate that her work has been overlooked in part because her poems seem so simple.

In contrast to poets whose work cries “Decipher me!,” Zelda’s poems—particularly those rooted in concrete images—exhibit a straightforwardness that makes them approachable despite their often antiquated language, minimal punctuation, and erratic line breaks. Thus, a poem titled “The Crippled Beggar 1” is about a crippled beggar; another, called “Strange Plant,” is about a strange plant. Nor is this an artifice: according to her translator Marcia Falk, Zelda’s poems “are never put-ons, never show-offs, and above all, never artificial. . . . They seem, rather, to have been born whole and delivered to us in a single breath.”

This accessibility is one of Zelda’s greatest strengths, for her poems can be read and appreciated by readers of various skills and levels of Jewish literacy. But the fact that her poems do not declare themselves as difficult has undoubtedly led some who should know better to dismiss her work after skimming only the surface. Take, for example, the following untitled poem:

In the morning, I thought
“Life’s magic will never return,
it won’t return.”
Suddenly in my house, the sun
is a living thing,
and the table with its bread—
gold.
And the flower and the cups—
gold.
And the sadness?
Even there—
radiance.

Simple enough. The poem contains no obvious allusions or impressive formal displays, and its main technical achievement seems to lie in its use of abrupt line breaks that, in emphasizing the moment’s transience, curtail any hint of sentimentality.

But, as always with Zelda, there is more here than meets the eye. In her system of personal symbols (other instances include “The Sun Lit a Wet Branch,” “The Old House,” “Strange Plant,” and many more), gold is associated with light and divine presence: a connection most likely adapted from the kabbalistic idea of the infinite light of God overflowing through metaphysical emanations to the lower human world. In this poem, the idea of an impassable gulf between the earthly realm and the realm of the divine is openly challenged. God, Zelda suggests, can be found not only in the synagogue but in the small nouns that make up our world: the table with its bread, a bunch of flowers, cups.

But there is more. The quiet lines “and the table with its bread—/ gold./ And the flower . . . —/ gold” are borrowed, nearly word for word, from Kings 1 7:48-49, a passage describing the golden table and vessels in the Great Hall of Solomon’s Temple. The terms, almost seamlessly incorporated into the body of her text, carry theological weight, implying not only that God is present in the mundane but that discerning the divine in the mundane is in itself an act of worship.

Embedded within this unassuming poem is thus a distinctively ḥasidic theology, an alternative to the desacralized cosmos in which most of us live. That theology is communicated through reference to Judaism’s sacred texts, deployed so deftly as to be nearly invisible. Zelda’s work can be read and enjoyed without knowledge of her specifically ḥasidic background, but it cannot be fully appreciated without a sense of her religious world.

 

In this same connection, it’s important to stress that some of the best notes struck by this poet of religious experience reflect the moments when that experience fails to line up precisely with theology. Take, for example, “Who Can Resist the Beauty of the Light”:

I bore my anger to show to the light,
seeking comfort in its beauty,

but I was not worthy in its eyes,
I was not worthy in its eyes.

“Why is your life dark?” it said.
“You are not in the depths of the pit.
This must be a lack of love.”

And I wept.
I wept deeply.

Like many of Zelda’s poems, this one has a patina of childishness. The poem is filled with simple contrasts: light/dark, comfort/disquiet, life/(intimated) death. As in a children’s story, the light speaks. As in a nursery rhyme, the poem doubles and repeats. But the simplistic structure and fable-like images belie the complexity of the literary and emotional framework.

Most obvious in this respect is the reference to Psalms 88:7: “Thou hast laid me in the nethermost pit, in dark places, in the deeps.” This psalm is itself one of the darkest in that biblical book, its mood described by the religious historian Martin Marty as “a wintry landscape of unrelieved bleakness.” Unlike other psalms dealing with themes of death and abandonment, Psalm 88 is essentially nineteen verses of unmediated gloom—which makes it a fitting background to the emotional state of Zelda’s speaker.

Other allusions in the poem are similarly apparent only in the original Hebrew, and then mostly to readers deeply familiar with Judaism’s foundational texts. Since this presents a common problem in reading Zelda’s work in translation, we may pause here for a word about Marcia Falk’s efforts to overcome it. Although her renderings excel at conveying the intimacy and simplicity of Zelda’s work, more subtle references are sometimes elided. Here, for instance, the word translated by Falk as “my anger” (רגזי) might better be rendered as “my disquiet.” The phrase appears in Exodus, Proverbs, and Job, among other places, but its root form appears most notably in Samuel 2 19:1—together, significantly, with a form of Zelda’s archaic “ואבך” (“and I wept”), another highly inflected word in the poem.

This is the only verse in the Bible in which both words appear in conjunction, and at a moment of extreme intensity: “And the king was much moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept.” The verse marks the start of David’s lament for Absalom, perhaps the most famous of all biblical expressions of grief: “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!”

Yet the context of the king’s outcry—in particular, the fact that Absalom was killed as he attempted a coup—is sometimes overlooked. In fact, the lament is itself followed by a considerably less famous passage in which David is reminded by his nephew Joab, who is also the commander of the royal army, that had Absalom lived and the coup succeeded, the king’s wives, sons, daughters, and servants would all have been slaughtered.

In other words, “Absalom, O Absalom!” is an expression of inappropriate grief. And it is precisely in that sense that Zelda’s references to Samuel align her “I” with David. Like David, Zelda’s speaker senses that her grief—or at least the depth of it—is misplaced, uncalled-for. She mourns, like David, but believes she ought not to. Her life is dark, but she, like him, is not truly in the nethermost pit.

Also critical to understanding “Who Can Resist the Beauty of the Light” is some knowledge of the Chabad approach to grief and joy, and in particular Chabad’s emphasis on divine providence: the belief that, for the faithful, all that occurs is ultimately the result of God’s benevolent care for us. Complete trust in that benevolence allows an individual to welcome suffering with joy and love, for everything has its origin and its end in God, the “Infinite Light” invoked in the poem’s title.

For Zelda, these ideas were not abstract theological concerns. The death of her husband Ḥayim left her bereft. Even years later, many of her poems describe the pain of widowhood. As letters exchanged between her and her cousin Menachem Mendel Schneerson reveal, the opposing spiritual valences of suffering and grateful happiness were at the forefront of her mind. At one point, Schneerson writes, “From the spirit of your letters, I get the impression that though I keep writing you to take a more joyful perspective, . . . my words have made no mark. . . . But I will persist, and repeat myself even 100 times, and you will forgive me.”

Despite these urgings, Zelda was unable to subsume her pain in faith. Her poems suggest that she saw this “lack of love” as a spiritual failing. And that brings us to the core of “Who Can Resist the Beauty of the Light,” which lies precisely in the speaker’s sense that she has failed to live up to ideals she feels are impossible but cannot relinquish. Caught between what she believes (all that occurs is the result of God’s will) and what she experiences (darkness and pain), the speaker’s only recourse is tears: “And I wept./ I wept deeply.”

In less skilled hands, that thought, along with the poem that expresses it, would have tipped into sentimentality, or blasphemy. But Zelda navigates the tension with grace. By suffusing her lines with words from sacred Jewish texts and Hebrew liturgy, she creates a work that, even in its angst, reads also as an expression of stubborn, stiff-necked love. If “Who Can Resist the Beauty of the Light” does not end with a reevaluation of the speaker’s disquiet, neither does it conclude with a rejection of the light. Instead, pain stands alongside belief, neither one dislodging the other, neither one offering resolution.

 

Religious experience is notoriously difficult to express in words. The reason may owe in part, as Wittgenstein suggested, to the difference between how we use and relate to religious language and how we use and relate to everyday speech. In part it may also owe to the fact that the most meaningful religious experiences are often characterized by paradox: think of the medieval Christian mystic Julian of Norwich’s vision of a small hazelnut that somehow also contains “everything that is made.”

Of all the possible modes of linguistic transmission, perhaps the one uniquely suited to the expression of religious experience is poetry—precisely because of poetry’s capacity to convey paradox, holding multiple contradictory ideas open at the same time. It’s therefore unsurprising that almost all of the Hebrew Bible’s most moving expressions of religious experience derive from the poetic books: Ecclesiastes, Psalms, Job, Song of Songs, Proverbs, Lamentations. These are not the texts that give us answers, but the ones that best present our questions while assuring us that we are not alone in asking them.

Like those biblical books, Zelda’s poetry speaks to the tension of a lived religious life, the places where theology and experience refuse to meld. In her work, the divine is at once radically immanent and hopelessly distant. Death negates human instrumentality, but also allows for the discernment of wonder. A righteous God permits the faithful to suffer.

Theodicy, suffering, redemption—it’s all there. And that is what entitles Zelda’s work to a place at the center of the modern Hebrew canon and to be recognized for what it is: a masterful expression of religious experience that, refusing both blasphemy and sentimentality, offers instead a form of prayer.