Revisiting Tazria-Metzorah, after death and after birth
Teachings for the new month of Iyar

Ostriker and Amichai

As Yom Ha-Atzma'ut -- Israeli Independence Day -- approaches, I find myself reading a lot of poetry about the Middle East and/or written by Israeli and Palestinian poets. Here are two poems  which have particularly moved me this week.


A Meditation in Seven Days, part IV.

For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. -- Isaiah 2:3-4

Here is another story: the ark burned
The marble pillars buried, the remnant scattered

A thousand years, two thousand years
In every patch of the globe, the gentle remnant

Of whom our rabbis boast: Compassionate sons
Of compassionate fathers

In love not with the Law, but with the kindness
They claim to be the whole of the Torah

Torn from a whole cloth
From the hills of Judea

That rang with praise, and from the streams
That were jewels, yearning for wholeness, next

Year in Jerusalem, surely, there would be
Milk and honey, they could see

The thing plainly, an ideal society
Of workers, the wise, the holy hill flowing

Finally with righteousness --
Here they are, in the photographs of the 1880s,

The young women with their serious eyes
Their lace collars and cameo brooches

Are the partners of these serious young men
Who stand shaven, who have combed their hair smoothly

They are writing pamphlets together, which describe
In many little stitches the word shalom

They have climbed out of the gloomy villages
They have kissed the rigid parents goodbye

Soon they will be a light to the nations
They will make the desert bloom, they are going to form

The plough and pruning hook Isaiah promised
After tears of fire, of blood, of mud

Of the sword and shame
Eighty generations

Here in their eyes the light of justice from Sinai
And the light of pure reason from Europe

-- Alicia Ostriker, from The Book of Life: Selected Jewish Poems, 1979-2011


Jerusalem, 1967

On Yom Kippur 5728, I donned
Dark holiday clothing and walked to Jerusalem's Old City.
I stood for quite a while in front of the kiosk shop of an Arab,
Not far from the Nablus Gate, a shop
full of buttons, zippers and spools of thread
Of every color; and snaps and buckles.
Brightly lit and many colored like the open Holy Ark.

I said to him in my heart that my father too
Owned a shop just like this of buttons and thread.
I explained to him in my heart about all the decades
And the reasons and the events leading me to be here now
While my father's shop burned there and he is buried here.

When I concluded it was the hour of N'eilah
He too drew down the shutters and locked the gate
As I returned homeward with all the other worshippers.

–-Yehuda Amichai, from Achshav B' Ra'ash ("Now, Noisily", Schocken 1975), transl. Richard Silverstein

(That book appears to no longer be in print, but if you are interested in Amichai's work, there's a lovely Selected Poetry edition.)