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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

And Now for Something Completely Different

                                                                                                February, 2018

Dear Family and Friends:

One of my rabbinic journals recently included an article about Israeli poetry, written by women.  I can’t say that I know much about poetry.  I wrote some while I was in college and pretty depressed, and read a bit while studying in Jerusalem.  Yehudah Amichai taught in our school there so I was introduced to his work.  This article in the CCAR Journal really caught my attention.  The author, Dalia Marx, introduces it by telling us that the poets she will present, “ …are not part of any organized religious community or observant of Judaism in any traditional sense.”  Yet the poems speak of God, are quite personal and spiritual. 

I had heard the name Leah Goldberg before, but never read any of her poetry.  She was born in Germany in 1911 and made Aliyah in 1935.  Eventually she moved to Jerusalem and was a literature professor at Hebrew University.  The author of the article refers to Goldberg as, “a praying poet,” and tells us that much of her poetry consists of prayers and negotiations with the desperate need and quest to pray.  I thought that was strange for a non-practicing Jew.  One of the poems cited is:

I Saw My God at the Café

I saw my God at the Cafe
He revealed Himself to me through the cigarette smoke
gloomy, remorseful, and frail
He signaled to me: "life goes on!"

He did not look anything like my lover
He was closer than him, and miserable,
As a translucent shadow of the starlight
He hardly filled the void.

To a Pale-reddish twilight
as confessing a sin before death,
He kneeled down to kiss the feet of man
and to beg his forgiveness.

Of course the Hebrew is beautiful, but the translation is right on.  When I read this I immediately thought of my days at Machon Greenberg in Jerusalem, 1969.  The coffee houses Leah Goldberg refers to still existed then.  Navah on Rehov Yaffo, and Atara on Ben Yehudah.  These were the places poets, writers, and intellectuals met to drink their tea through sugar cubes, smoke, and discuss.   I remember so well sitting in Café Atara on cold Jerusalem nights, loving the Ugah Gvinah (cheese cake) and Café Afooch (coffee with steamed cream) and trying to overhear and understand the Hebrew of the conversations at nearby tables.  And the last time I visited Atara, before it disappeared, with my mentor and colleague Arie Gluck.  Arie was an Israeli Olympic champion in the 1950’s, but I knew him half-way through and to the end of his career as the Director of our URJ Camp Harlam. 

The rest of the poem is remarkable to me in the way it describes God; frail, gloomy, remorseful and repentant.  This is certainly not the almighty, omniscient, master of creation we usually hear about.  Seeing God in this light stopped me in my tracks. And the poem was actually written before the Holocaust. 

BUT, in “Poems of the End of the Journey,” Goldberg writes:

Teach me, my God, to bless and to pray
Over the secret of the withered leaf, on the glow of a ripe fruit,
Over this freedom:  to see, to feel, to breathe,
To know, to wish, to fail.

Teach my lips blessing and song of praise,
Renewing your time each morning, each night,
Lest my day today be as days gone by
Lest my day become for me simply habit.

In the first poem Leah Goldberg is telling us about God, here, the poet is talking to God.  Using the language of believers (“bless and pray,” “blessing and song of praise”) she is asking for the proper language to express her awe of nature and recognition that each day is unique (“Lest my day become for me simply habit”). 

When I read the following quote from Leah Goldberg’s diary, I kind of understood how she could write two almost opposite views of God:

“How happy is the person who has his God, he does not have to look for Him.  How happy also is he who believes that there is no God, and indeed that he has no need of Him.  I, I know nothing.  I am miserable, I need some faith.  I shall not be able to live without such.  However, I am skeptic, and therefore I feel cold.”

Happy is the one who has faith.  Happy is the one who has none.  Most of us are somewhere in-between. 


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