After the second intifada, I was in Israel for a round of conferences, and as usual I buy the various local Hebrew papers for Shabbat. In one of the papers, there was a write up of a young poet Eliaz Cohen (b. 1972) of Kibbutz Kfar Etzion, a student of Rav Druckman, who wrote poetry. The article emphasized his then new poem Shema Adonai, which is a lament and proclamation to God that He is bound to the people Israel even as its blood is shed in the bombings. The article noted how the poem was read in some synagogues that year because it captured the mood of the intifada, that God should remember the committment of his people. The article also mentioned his early work Nigi’ot Rishonot (2000) on the tension, desire and distance of observing the laws of Niddah. I was hooked and started collecting his works, learning about the unavailability of contemporary Israeli poetry in America, and which select Israeli book stores carry new poetry. So, I was delighted when I received notice that a volume of his poems translated into English was about to appear Hear O Lord: Poems from the Disturbances of 2000-2009 (Toby Press, 2011).
Eliaz Cohen is part of a new generation of religious poetry writers. When the New Religious Zionists turned in the 1990’s toward individualism and the self they emphasized creative writing, poetry, and film. Think of the products of the Maaleh film school. Creative writing is considered a religious activity for the religious Zionists since poetry comes from the Jewish soul. This romantic individualism is even acceptable in many Charedi Leumi circles and among settlement hilltop youth. Rav Shagar z”l includes among his disciples several poets. However, self-expression in the back of beis medrash is not the same as good poetry. Eliaz Cohen has honed his skills to excellence against Yehuda Amichai and Mahmoud Darwish, Uri Zvi Greenberg and unnamed collections of American free verse. He is an editor of the “Mashiv Haru’ach” journal of poetry and author of four published collections of poetry.Cohen was the recipient of the “Prime Minister”s Award” for literature in 2006
Cohen is a second generation settler and committed to Jews living in the entire Biblical land. But wants to do it, seemingly integrated into bi-national landscape. He has an entire cycle of poems on the pain of the disengagement from Azza and imagines his own Kfar Etzion being evacuated. He dreams about reserve duty and the Utopian or apocalyptic life in the settlements, consisting of Palestinian refugee camps, suicide bombers, dangerous missions, and an elusive hope for peace. He stresses his knowledge of Arabic and interconnections with Palestinians
Cohen uses the language of Biblical verses, midrash, and the liturgy stretching them to new contemporary usages. Cohen emphasizes the commonplace tragedy amidst the cycle of life. He sees the transitory nature of things that seem permanent and which the transitory nature is itself permanent. He has a series actually called “Poems written in Sand” capturing the ephemeral quality of life in Israel. He rewrites classic Israeli songs like Bashanah Haba’ah and Eli, Eli she-lo yiga-mer le’-olam into meditations on the transitory nature of things. The Hebrew poems are well served by the translator,Larry Barak, especially the addition of the adjectival richness of English.
Here are three stanzas of a three page poem about the pain and loss of army duty in Lebanon
With Me From Lebanon
(a memorial poem)
Every one has his own Lebanon
a handsome dead soldier carried on my shoulders
with me from Lebanon.
His names mumble to me I do not want to remember
why has your face darkened Lebanon the dawn does not rise caught
in the fog lowering a curtain on memory, a heretic flash.
Sitting in a patrol jeep long flexible legs gathered to
the deer-like body of a good Ashdod boy.
Doing a radio check with God.
God come in, over.
After havdalah he makes me coffee. Infantry instant.
The difference an instant makes?!
All night the fire burned consuming the cedars of Lebanon
identifying Danoch by the white teeth of his smile
This one came out the day of the bombing of a Passover Seder in 2002 and became emblematic of the event.
A Palestinian Passover
Until when will the evil not pass over our homes
look, we have already anointed the entrance with blood
each man enwrapped in his ancestral home, we cried out
in human silence
look, our four cups are filled
with flushed boiling wine
our tongues have become tongues of fire
like a slaughtered lamb
if our head is also bowed – and sadness surrounds us
let us flare up:
lush Jews burn well
and what will remain of us until the morning?
An empty chair. In the courtyard of the church of the dead messiah
waits for the Rais to be released
to come and redeem
I see him as before, Ishmael mocking
on that night
there is no house in the holy land where there is not
now he adds another measure
to the bowl of blood
soon will be baked the bread of great affliction
of both nations
This poem appeared in the holiday supplement of the newspaper “Makor Rishon” which came out on Passover Eve 2002. On that night the horrendous Seder night terrorist attack at the Park Hotel in Netanya took place. Less than 48 hours later I was on a tank preparing for battle in Nablus.
In this one, as in many of his other poems, we see Cohen wanting to be like his role model Amichai capturing the tension between the natural and the historical memory. A bloody universalism bespeaking religious symbolism tussling with the beauty of life.
Snow on bleeding Jerusalem
as though bandaging her wounds
all rests in tranquility now
filling the cracks of yearning in the Wall
children in your streets, Jerusalem
the sons of Isaac and Ishmael
are staging white wars
(and their blows are soft)
even the pigeons are hurrying today
cooing because they have found new footprints
on the way leading up to the Gate of Mercy
I am not sure that I need him to be Amichai since I already have Amichai. Instead, I need him to expand the language of religious Jews. To open up new religious insights via Midrash or human experience. I did not include excerpts from his long Midrashic poems, which would not work well in this terse blog format. But here is his rereading of Abraham covenant of the pieces with God. These are the exquisite pieces that easily translate into class discussion of modern midrash.
Among the fragments of the bus and your burnt
Jews I make a covenant with you saying:
to your seed you gave, your seed who shall be counted and numbered
according to the multitude of suffering and wrath
like stars ignited before their fall
(O who will be able to bear the wish)
to your seed now an old man forgetting his glasses
(which are on his chest or his forehead)
and unable to return to the agreement or to
those words of the play
Among the fragments of the bus I make a covenant with you saying:
do not slaughter the bird
This next poem Ultrasound is closer to his poems from Negiot Rishonot, Cohen uses the Biblical imagery from Exodus to apply to a very personal situation. I think he captures well the way religious imagery actually enters the minds of young couples fresh from Yeshiva when starting life.
“And all the people saw the sounds”
look, we do too: a tiny heart dancing in red and blue
the spine a pearl necklace
(or sun rays)
five fingers searching
and five more
the sex organ is hidden
(in any case we didn’t want to know)
something is trembling inside us
wanting but unable to touch
And finally, the sort of poems where he becomes personal about life, love, and poetry.
And at night
I hide poems in the secret parts of your body
(like notes in the Wall)
a breeze caresses us healing limbs weary
from labor and pregnancy.
Soon it will be morning
the children will come in under the covers
and find the poems
Eliaz Cohen was 7 years old when his family moved from Petah Tikva to Elkana in western Samaria. He later studied at the Or Etzion hesder yeshiva under Rabbi Haim Druckman. For nine years, he has been leading creative writing workshops in Gush Etzion and for the past four years has also been working as a social worker in various institutions. His first books of poetry caused an uproar. “Mehumashim” (“Pentagons”), published by Tammuz, was essentially constructed as an encounter between his personal biography and the weekly Torah portions.
His second book, “Negi’ot Rishonot” (“First Touches”), contained an erotic tension that some of the religious public found difficult to digest, while his most recent book, “Shema Adonai – Poems from the Events of 5761-5764,” has been interpreted in part as an alternative prayer to the traditional prayers. For example, Cohen offers a version of the familiar “Travelers’ Prayer” written in the singular instead of the plural. In this book, Cohen also holds a kind of dialogue with God, a dialogue that contains a broad spectrum of emotions, including, at times, defiance and anger. After the book was published, Cohen lost his job as a social worker in one of the well-known ultra-Orthodox boarding schools in Jerusalem’s Geula neighborhood.
From the start, Eliaz Cohen and his colleagues were banned from some of the yeshivas, but their pioneering work paved the way for others who wished to express themselves in this manner. Cohen was moved to write “Hazmana Lebekhi” (“Invitation to Cry”) out of “existential anxiety,” he says. Some of his relatives personally experienced the fall of Gush Etzion in 1948. He says that, in light of the anticipated evacuation, this poem and other such poems by him and his colleagues are filling a fundamental void in Israeli culture.
“There’s a pathology in this culture, that turns its back on everything that is supposed to be derived from the Jewish fate,” he explains. “It has directed all of this repressed pain toward identification with the other, with the Palestinian who is perceived as a victim, who is a product of our story. I also see the direct relation between our independence and their nakba. The question is how much you allow yourself to undermine your narrative. I long for the day when the ruling elite in our culture will show the same openness toward us as we have shown toward it, both in the last issue of Meshiv Haruah about the disengagement, and in previous issues.
“Over the years, playwrights, poets and cultural people have scolded us: `You’re settlers! How dare you write poetry after you’ve devoured two Palestinians for dinner?'” Cohen says. “As they see it, there couldn’t possibly be any art coming from the right, since we’re busy killing Palestinians all day long. I’m purposely exaggerating, but this is definitely the feeling that has been blowing our way for years. As I see it, when my friends and I write about a settler who is experiencing existential distress, whose friends are being killed, who loses almost his whole family and is now about to be evacuated, it’s more authentic than a famous poet who tosses a sock filled with money and medicines over the separation fence.”
As a side note, the author of the introduction David C Jacobson is working on the following book:
Beyond Political Messianism: The Poetry of the Second Generation of Religious Zionist Settlers
Coming to Terms With a Religious Upbringing: Yoram Nissinovitch (1965-), Naama Shaked (1970-), Shmuel Klein (1971-), Eliaz Cohen (1972-) Avishar Har-Shefi (1973-), Nahum Pachenik (1973-), Sivan Har-Shefi (1978-), and Elhanan Nir (1980-)
Go Buy the Book. If you want to comment, then comment on poetry not politics.