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Exquisite poems, the 4th in a moving series on the Torah.

Swimming in Moses' Well: Poems on Numbers by Yakov Azriel, Time Being Books, St. Louis, Missouri, 2011. 113 pages, $15.95.

Yakov Azriel was born in New York, in 1950, as Gerald Rosenkrantz. After receiving his B.A. in English literature, summa cum laude, at Brooklyn College, he moved to Israel in 1971, where he changed his name. There he received an M.A. as well as a doctorate in Judaica. Over 160 of his poems on Biblical and Jewish themes have been published in the U.S., the U.K, and Israel. Many have received prestigious awards. His previous books are Threads from a Coat of Many Colors: Poems on Genesis, In the Shadow of a Burning Bush: Poems on Exodus, and Beads for the Messiah's Bride: Poems on Leviticus.

Swimming in Moses' Well: Poems on Numbers is his fourth in a series of what will be five volumes of poem/inspired by the Torah--one for each of the Five Books of Moses.

On Azriel's dedication page he quotes from the Talmud, Sanhedrin 34a: "Just as a rock hit by a hammer yields many splinters and sparks, so may a Biblical verse yield many meanings." We learn in Numbers that because the Israelites had lost their faith and mast in G-d, they were condemned to wander in the wilderness. The epigraphs that precede each of Azriel's splendid, well-crafted, and accessible poems, starting with Chapter 1, Verse 1, and ending with the final verse in Numbers, are followed by the poet's contemporary view on faith and family.

In his poem, "This Room and the Next Room" (Numbers 17:13), Azriel introduces us to the Faith bird that flutters and flies throughout the rest of the volume. Like a birdwatcher with binoculars trying to catch sight of a bird flitting from tree to tree, sometimes you see it; other times you are utterly frustrated. So Azriel, in his poems, tries with all his heart to seek and hold on to faith. "I don't succeed in decoding her chirping," he says in one poem. In another, he can "almost hear the Faith bird's voice" and knows he is not alone. Sometimes the Faith bird comes to him; sometimes he wonders how the Faith bird can sing at all in "the now empty ghetto." I found every poem alluding to the Faith bird moving, and I suspect many others will, too, especially those who question or wrestle with their faith. Even Mother Teresa, in one of the letters found after her death, wrote of her own battle, to the surprise (and maybe relief) of many.

Azriel's work demonstrates his tender devotion, gratitude, and love for family, most often in joy, sometimes in pain. In the opening poem, "Family Haiku," (Numbers 1:1-2) he pictures a member of his family on a Jewish holiday in each season, allowing us to remember and shep naches with him. In "The Land of Israel," (Numbers 33:34) Azriel honors his country and his family with passion:
 "The Land--
 Is my mother,
 Dressed in a thick quilted night-robe,
 Shutting off the lights
 And closing my bedroom windows
 To lock out winter winds.
 "Good night,"
 She tells me softly, "Pleasant dreams."
 After kissing my forehead,
 She goes to her room
 And reads in her armchair
 Until she falls asleep."

'The Land" sometimes is his daughter to whom he brings "a cup of warm chocolate."

He sits "by her in the dark / reciting story after story ..." Or it is his wife, "Who in the quiet of the night/Stretches out her arms,/And whispers without words" to him. On their thirty-sixth wedding anniversary, he writes to her.
 "Should I lay my hand on a key
 That unlocks a garden's gate,
 May we open it together:
 And should I merit another dawn and another dusk,
 Another Shabbat and a whole stretch of weekdays,
 May we grow old together."

As a fellow poet, I can commiserate with Azriel, when he sarcastically complains in Viral Infection" (Numbers 5:4): "When did I acquire the virus? / Who or what infected me? ... The virus of writing poem//At times makes me feverish / When it lodges in the brain. // Or is it the heart?" How lucky we are that Azriel is afflicted with writing these admirable free verse poems, sonnets, and villanelles, some of which sound like songs. Listen to the meter and rhyme in this exquisite sonnet based on Numbers 6:25.
 "Revive My Failing, Ailing Sight"
 Lord of all worlds, to You I turn in fear
 Of watching once-bright days transform to night;
 For all my sins have blotted out Your light
 While dusk and dimness darken everywhere.
 Lord of all worlds, to You I turn in prayer
 That you revive my failing, ailing sight,
 And let me glimpse the fading, waning white
 Before my last few candles disappear."

 Lord of all worlds, I see my eyes grow blind
 Through deeds misdone; yet turn, yet turn to me
 In grace, as worlds are cradled in Your palm;
 For You have planted in my heart and mind
 The hope, when darkness ends, that I may see
 Your shining face--in the world to come.

Yakov Azriel opens his heart to the reader and shares the love and deep faith that dwells within him. (Oh, lest I forget, a bit of humor, too!) You do not have to be a poet to appreciate Swimming in Moses' Well: Poems on Numbers. If you are a person who enjoys family, faith, and thinking about thinking, this book is for you.

ADA JILL SCHNEIDER's most recent book is Behind the Pictures I Hang (Spinner 2007). My Somerset is forthcoming in 2012. Ada directs "The Pleasure of Poetry, "a program she founded at the Somerset Public Library in Massachusetts.
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Author:Schneider, Ada Jill
Date:Mar 22, 2012
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