A poem in the Jewish Women's Literary Annual

Reb Zalman's "All Breathing Life" - old liturgy, new poems


Zalman insists that the poems in this volume are not translations. They are, instead, free verse evocations of themes and imagery inspired by our liturgy and collective psyche. Their nuance marks the intersection of an often indecipherable tradition and contemporary life. They bring what might otherwise be lost into the light of everyday spirituality.

After all, that is what Zalman does, who he is. He takes old Jewish stuff (legend, mime, gibberish, and gesture) that people either didn't know existed or...didn't know what to do with it, and slips it back into our back pockets when we're not looking. And then we say, months, years later, "Oh, yes, Zalman taught me how to (sing, pray, meditate on, dance, understand) do that." Indeed, Zalman has been doing that for almost three generations of otherwise rootless and assimilated American Jewish spiritual seekers. He is our way "back in" and "back home." And these poems are a complete set of VIP entry passes.

So writes Rabbi Lawrence Kushner in the introduction to Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi's latest book, All Breathing Life: At the Interface Between Poetry and Prayer, edited by Dr. Michael Kagan (author of The Holistic Haggadah, and husband of Reb Ruth Kagan of Nava Tehila fame.) Zalman is, Kushner notes, a bridge figure. He bridges between two worlds, the world of contemporary American culture and the world of ancient Jewish tradition and classical Hasidut.

And "this rebbe," writes editor Kagan, "is a master -- a master of the word, a master of the letter, a master of the song, a master of the rhyme and the rhythm, a master of the niggun, a master of music, a master of intercession, and above all, a master of prayer." I completely agree. (I've written about Reb Zalman many times before -- most recently Ten minutes with my rebbe and last year's Shavuot post Reb Zalman: the Torah of our mothers.)

What does Reb Zalman himself have to say about this collection?

I remember how dismayed I was whenever I saw an anthology of spiritual writings in which there was a lot of material from Hindu, Sufi, and Christian spiritual writers, and in vain did I look for Jewish writings that would show heart, soul, and spirit. I knew well that they existed, but alas, only in their Hebrew originals. I was also aware of the fact that many of the editors of Jewish prayer manuals often translated or rendered the original liturgical material to be read by the discursive mind. However, the original Hebrew was never meant to be scanned silently with the eyes alone. There is something about sacred poetry that demands chanting in such a way that the words will arouse feelings in the heart of the worshipper.

There's much that I could say about these poems, but the best way to introduce you to them is to share one or two. Here is Reb Zalman's rendition of the yishtabach prayer which closes psukei d'zimrah (the part of morning prayer featuring poems and psalms of praise) every day:

Your Name be praised, always
Majestic One,
Powerful and gentle Source,
Making Heaven and Earth sacred.
It is our pleasure to dedicate to You,
Our God and Our parents' God,
Time and again:
Music and Celebration,
Jubilation and Symphony,
Fortissimo, Anthem,
Victory March, Largo Forte,
Paean and Hymn,
Sanctus and Maestoso,
Laudo and Aria,
Celebrating Your Divine reputation
In every realm.
We worship You, Yah,
Generous, Great, Regal One
Who is the One
To whom we offer all these.

God whom we appreciate,
Source of all wonder,
Fountain of all souls,
Author of all that happens.

I love the way this poem suggests both the rhythm and the meaning of yishtabach's long list of praise-words: Shir u-shvacha, hallel v'zimra, oz v'memshalah... And I love that final quartet of lines, which is a beautiful contemporary rendering of the spirit of the prayer's culmination.

Or, here, try this -- this is the beginning of Reb Zalman's rendering of the 16th-century piyyut (liturgical poem) Yedid Nefesh. This translation is designed to be sing-able to the same tune as (indeed, it can be sung at the same time as) the Hebrew, and I think it captures much of the Hebrew's resonance and nuance:

You who love my soul
Compassion's gentle source,
Take my disposition and shape it to Your will.
Like a darting deer I will flee to You.
Before Your glorious Presence
Humbly do I bow.
Let Your sweet love
Delight me with its thrill
Because no other dainty
Will my hunger still.

If you're so inclined, you can read the whole thing on Reb Zalman's blog -- scroll to the bottom of this post to read the whole prayer in Hebrew and in English. Or, better still: on the publisher's website is this list of recordings of Reb Zalman reading and singing these prayers; you can listen to him singing the whole prayer in his own words.

Reb Zalman has been my inspiration on many levels and in many ways, and this way of relating to prayer -- through contemporary English-language poetry -- is one of the ways in which I aspire to emulate him. Many of the liturgical poems I have shared here -- my Hallel series, the morning prayers series about which I blogged in 2004 (four of which are available online at my website) -- are, like these poems of Reb Zalman's, "free verse evocations of themes and imagery inspired by our liturgy and collective psyche." But I don't have his tremendous depth of knowledge; few people do. I couldn't have written these poems the way that he did. I'm so glad that he wrote them, that Dr. Kagan edited them, and that they found a publisher willing and able to bring the collection to life.

All Breathing Life is published by Gaon Books; find it online here.