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Seven poems by Zelda.

THE UKRAINIAN-BORN ISRAELI ORTHODOX POET ZELDA Schneersohn-Mishkovsky, better known as Zelda (1914-1984), belonged to a lineage of illustrious rabbis. Her father, Shelomoh Shalom Schneersohn, descended from the prominent Schneersohn dynasty of Habad hasidic masters, and was the uncle of the late rebbi of Lubavitch, R. Menahem Mendel Schneersohn (1902-1994). Her mother, Rachel Hen, was a descendant of the famed Sephardic dynasty of Hen-Gracian, which traces its roots to eleventh-century Barcelona, Spain. (1) Her maternal grandfather's grandfather, R. Elhanan ben Meir ben R. Elhanan, was a student of R. Shneur Zalman of Lyadi (1745-1812), the founder of Habad Hasidism. (2) In 1925 the family emigrated to Mandatory Palestine and settled in Jerusalem, a move followed by the traumatic death of both the poet's father and grandfather. Following her graduation from the Teachers' College of the religious Mizrahi movement in 1932, Zelda moved to Tel Aviv and then to Haifa, where she taught until her return, with her twice-widowed mother, to Jerusalem in 1935. In 1950 she married Hayyim Mishkovsky and from then on devoted herself to writing. Although she began writing in the 1930s, and publishing in the 1940s, Penai (Free Time), her first book, was not published until 1967. The book, with its rich emotive and contemplative images drawn from the world of Jewish mysticism, Hasidism, and Russian fairy tales, immediately established the poet as a major figure on the Israeli literary scene, popular with both religious and secular audiences. It was followed by Ha-Carmel ha-Ee Nireh (The Invisible Carmel), published after her husband's death in 1971, Al Tirhaq (Be Not Far, 1975), Halo Har Halo Esh (It Is Surely a Mountain, It Is Surely a Fire, 1977), 'Al ha-Shoni ha-Marhiv (On the Spectacular Difference, 1981), and she-Nivdelu mi-Kol Merhaq (That Became Separated from Every Distance, 1984). The books brought the poet several prestigious awards: the Israeli Brenner Prize (1971), the Bialik prize (1977) and the Wertheim Prize (1982).

The seven poems translated below come from Penai, Zelda's first book. (3) They depict religious rituals and their spiritual meaning, or seemingly mundane experiences that the poet explores as a springboard to metaphysical ones. Zelda was firmly embedded in the Bible. She especially drew on Psalms, as well as on Ezekiel, whose mystical visions inspired many a Jewish mystic. The ancient biblical songs of praise and supplication provided her with a ready model for interacting with and relating to the divine. Zelda, to the best of my knowledge, is also the first female orthodox Jewish poet to delve into the rich corpus of Jewish mystical writings, thought by both traditional and modern scholars to be written exclusively by men (unlike Christianity, Judaism has not had its female mystics). (4) She makes its symbols and imagery pivotal to her poetry. (5) The contemplative self of her poems, especially in Penai, is often portrayed as anchored in a domestic, physically narrow life, whose boundaries are the home, the balcony and courtyard, the shopkeepers and downtrodden of the neighborhood. And yet this very humble feminine self dares to appropriate the male-authored language of Jewish mysticism in its search for meaning, for the mark of God in the world.

Zelda's poetry can also be seen as a poetic expression of the tenets of the program of Habad, to which the poet was linked by family ties and spiritual leanings. A hasidic movement which originated in the late eighteenth century, Habad (an acronym for the Hebrew hokhmah, "wisdom," binah "understanding," and da'at "knowledge,") sought to know the divine through contemplation. (6) The contemplative lyrical self in Zelda's poems is often found observing a variety of daily, ordinary things and asking herself what is their hidden meaning. She thus expresses the hasidic association of the state of awe before a divine reality that surrounds us with a state of humility that stems from the awareness of one's "own nothingness against the only true existence and reality." (7) And yet, the very adoption of a posture traditionally formulated in texts written by and prescribed for men can be seen as a daring act of a female religious artist. Turning away from the cultural expectations that women limit themselves to the emotional and mundane, and specifically to the "feminine" cycle of love, passion, pregnancy, and motherhood, Zelda (who was childless) boldly sought on the totality of her familial and cultural heritage to express the fluidity of the divide between the emotional and the reflective, the mundane and the holy. (8)
 My Mother's Room Was Lit

 The pale painter mixed in the wet paint
 the faintest of pinks
 the glory of apple blossom, a babe's smile.
 Silver clusters he put, and brass crowns engraved
 in the candlesticks of inheritance, glittering on the chest,
 reflected in a round mirror,
 (orchards of love from generation to generation and the crowns of
 lineage and tears).
 And on the table, through the tales of the righteous, the golden
 (that Rabbi Zevin gathered, collected),
 a mountain breeze leafs slowly slowly,
 mixing snowy landscapes with an arid landscape.
 My mother is praying--on her head, silken checkers.

 The big inner room is as dark
 as Rabbi Shim' on bar Yochai's cave.
 In it, a sea's silence--
 in it, Sabbath, as if it were the world to come.
 The entire flat is still.
 My husband went to his office. My mother is in the palace of her
 I'm in the kitchen.
 And in the tin can, a geranium overflows like blood.
 In the paved courtyard, by the plants,
 a cat is pacing like a landlady from the old generation.

 Slowly slowly
 the door opens
 to milk, to bread, to candles,
 to taxes, to a letter.
 Friday is the day of a laughing eye painted blue,
 and the day of the sad mouth.
 Friday is the day of the poor.
 So pass the days,
 so pass the years.
 Faint light shall cover pain, helplessness,
 So pass the days and the roaring life,
 abounding with desires, buds, babes, seas and forests,
 stealthily deserting my limbs, spilling like blood.
 When I die,
 God shall unravel my embroidery
 thread by thread,
 and to the sea throw my paints,
 to His warehouses in the abyss.
 And perhaps He shall turn them to a flower and perhaps He shall turn
 them to a butterfly,
 dark-nocturnal-soft; dark-nocturnal-alive.

 On That Night

 On that night,
 as I sat alone in the still
 and gazed at the stars--
 I resolved in my heart--
 I almost took a vow--
 to devote every evening
 one moment,
 a single tiny moment,
 to this shining beauty.

 It would seem
 that there is nothing easier than this,
 simpler than this,
 still I haven't kept up
 my oath
 to myself.
 Surely I've already discovered
 that my mind carries to its palaces
 the sights I see,
 like that bird that carries in its beak
 straw, feathers and dirt to repair the nest.
 Surely I've already discovered that my thought
 uses (if it doesn't have anything else)
 even my ailments
 to build towers.
 That it uses my neighbor's
 and the paper rolling in the courtyard,
 and the cat's footsteps,
 and the vacant look of the vendor,
 and that verse quivering among the pages of the book,
 and out of all this, yes, out of all this,
 out of all this, makes me.
 Why haven't I kept my oath
 to myself?
 Did I not believe
 that if I gazed one tiny moment
 at the heights of the starry skies,
 my mind would carry to the palace
 the light of the constellations.
 Did I not believe
 that if I gazed so
 night after night,
 the stars would
 slowly slowly
 become my neighbors.
 The stars would become
 my kinsmen.
 The stars would become
 my children.
 Why haven't I kept my oath to myself?
 Did I forget
 how envious I was of the seafarers
 and of those whose house was by the ocean shore.
 For I said in my haste
 the fresh sea breeze
 penetrates their lives,
 the fresh sea breeze penetrates their thoughts; the fresh breeze
 penetrates their relationships with their neighbours
 and their relationships with their family members.
 It glitters in their eyes
 and plays with their movements.
 For I said in my haste
 the yardstick of their deeds
 is the yardstick of the sea and his glory
 and not that of the human street,
 not that of the human alley.
 For I said in my haste,
 they see eye to eye
 God's works
 and feel His presence
 without our barriers,
 without our distractions.
 I wept constantly
 for I was imprisoned
 among the walls of the house,
 among the street walls,
 among the walls of the city,
 among the walls
 of the mountains.

 On that night, when I sat alone
 in the silent courtyard,
 I discovered suddenly
 that my house too was built on the shore,
 that I live on the bank of the moon
 and the constellations,
 on the bank of sunrises and sunsets.

 The Silver Candlesticks

 The silver candlesticks, the radiance of inheritance,
 turned my room to an ancient castle,
 to a heavenly castle, to a lofty abode on a starry nothingness.
 The silver candlesticks are songs of glory,
 crowns scoured by tears,
 which gladden the heart
 with their engravings,
 brighten the darkness
 with wreaths of forged roses.

 They are vessels of sensitive greatness, which absorbed
 bitter pain,
 a weeping uprooting
 the voice of praise and hope.
 To silver flowers I likened them,
 to ancient silver flowers,
 whose calyxes hold the light of peace,
 the joy of babes
 and a candle of blessing to the Eternal One.
 Their living flames
 kissed my soul,
 and my thoughts became a river of rose-colored
 became fowls from the wild forests,
 became lightning.

 And all of me is a burning being
 free, happy in God,
 who has thrown off herself the tatters of conventions,
 and my heart is again wide as a white cascade.
 Where is the winsome one who fashioned
 this diadem to rest,
 who cast rejoicing and trembling like ornaments
 for the Sabbath?
 In metal he set down yearning for ancient holiness,
 his desire for a living God,
 I will hold in my hand.
 These silver stems
 are a prayer, a confession.

 Bring forth wine, pour to the hidden!
 I will beseech him, I will atone,
 for I've forgotten that he is a silent crescent
 in Death's forests,
 that his name is buried in snow and his memory,
 the storm blotted out,
 only his tear is still warm,
 and from my eye is spilling
 at night, this evening,
 with the flickering of the candles.

 A Sabbath Candle

 My heart asked the evening,
 my deep and compassionate companion:
 How can fire
 sprout golden wings
 and embark on a magical flight.
 What is its secret?

 A lonely flower replied to the heart:
 Love is the root of fire.
 The sea breeze
 answered my thoughts:
 The lily of all freedom in the universe,
 this is the fire of wondrous light.

 My blood hearkens--
 and weeps bitterly.
 Woe, a flame--even an auto-da-fe.
 It was also said--
 fire is a wondrous mockery of dust.

 Is it proper for a mortal woman,
 soft of heart,
 to roam and wander
 in the garden of fire.
 How dare she
 in the smoke of waste conjure
 the ember of peace,
 an ember with which Sarah Bat Tovim would light
 a Sabbath candle in the gloom of pain.
 Between the walls of nightmare
 it would bloom, burning slowly
 in the crumbling house, in the pit.
 Facing it, the woman of sorrowful depths
 shut her eyes,
 to worry, to mourning, to shame, to the mundane.

 The candle's sparks are palaces,
 and in the midst of the palaces
 mothers sing to the heavens
 to endless generations.
 And she wanders in their midst
 toward God, with a barefoot baby
 and with the murdered.
 The soft of heart comes in dance
 in the golden Holy of Holies, inside a spark.

 Sabbath and Weekday

 To light candles in all the worlds
 this is Sabbath.
 To light Sabbath candles
 is the leap of a soul pregnant with secrets,
 mysterious with the fire of sunset,
 to a magnificent sea.
 As I light the candles, my room
 turns to a River of Fire,
 my heart sinks in emerald waterfalls.

 But on the first day of the week
 my soul is thrown
 from the ocean's heart to a land's shore
 long, narrow, and desolate.
 When I come to the store the grocer immediately senses
 that I've come from another planet, and with dismay
 surveys my looks, foreign to him, the remnant of the abyss--
 and in his cold pupils, as if in a black mirror,
 I see my crumpled scarf, my embarrassed smile.
 And in the store stands another woman, a round lady,
 slowly selecting golden fruit,
 a creature of a distant world.
 I wake up from a daydream
 when the tone of the air, the rhythm of
 voices, change for the short one discovered
 that her money was gone ... Woe to me!
 The dark grocer pours dung of suspicion
 on my disheveled, neglected looks. Before his gaze
 my future wilts like a flower, my past withers.
 My dreams are dying.
 Woe to me for I'm alone in the thick of the forest,
 in the darkness, a roaring lion answers my weeping, and mute trees
 set on me from all sides ...
 The door is open, but I cannot get out
 from the store's trap.
 Now I see with cruel clarity
 how little a person knows about one's fellows--
 even your household members, even your dear ones, may
 in a moment of eclipse
 find in you any wicked fault.
 I drown in the darkness ...

 Suddenly, in the very heart of blindness,
 I heard a voice:
 Truth will not die with the grocer,
 Truth will not die with the short lady,
 Truth will not die with your death.
 My soul awakened, and trembling
 sensed that the King of Glory was with her
 in the foul store.

 I always said:
 The voice of God is over the mighty waters,
 The voice of God is in the song of the morning stars,
 The voice of God is in the whirlwind.
 And here
 in the heart of the tumult, the Lord of Winds gathered me,
 on the waves of hatred as on a viscous stone
 I came in dance before Him,
 I raised my voice in song
 to truth, whose footstool are sun, moon, and stars.
 I almost kissed the grocer,
 for behind his worried back was revealed to me
 the view of shining freedom,
 the freedom of the lands of the Sabbath
 which burns in the songs of the palace dwellers.

 I did not lose favor with the butterfly
 in paradise and with the winds
 that roar above the sea.
 I did not bow before the glance that sees
 in my cheeks the wrinkles of defeat
 but doesn't see my soul that roams
 in the fullness of the universe, doesn't know
 that my soul is a ray of the sun
 and will not be caught in the palm.

 Like the Bud of the Valleys

 If your soul is impartial
 like the bud of the valleys,
 you will reach the heart of the matter
 by a miraculous shortcut,
 you will reach the heart of the matter.

 If your soul is impartial
 like the bud of the valleys,
 you will reach the heart of the world,
 you will reach
 the colorless

 If your soul is impartial
 like the bud of the valleys,
 the pacing righteous man
 shall bring you a secret key;
 Rabbi Leib Sarahs shall bring you
 a holy key
 to the light of lightning
 and to the stirrer of storms.

 If your soul is impartial
 like the bud of the valleys,
 you will not drown in the darkness
 to the root,
 you will not drown in the present
 to the innermost point.

 A Drunk, Embroiled Will

 A drunk, embroiled, bleeding will
 that imposed itself on constellations,
 on the world's secret,
 is blazing in my generation's heart.
 Fettering the free, festive air,
 with a strict hand.
 The sun and the deeps are wheel horses
 on its farm.

 It is strange to be a woman,
 simple, domestic, feeble,
 in an insolent, violent generation,
 to be shy, weary,
 in a cold generation, a generation of wheelers and dealers,
 for whom Orion, Pleiades, and moon
 are advertisement lights, golden marks, army badges.
 To march in a shaded street
 reflecting, slowly, slowly,
 to taste China
 in a perfumed peach,
 to look at Paris
 in a cold movie theater,
 while they fly
 around the world,
 while they fly in space.
 To be among conquerors
 and conquered,
 while every creature is ashamed, afraid,

 It is strange to wither before clouds of enmity,
 while the heart is drawn
 to a myriad of worlds.


1. The major study of Zelda's life and work is Hamutal Bar-Yosef, 'Al Shirat Zelda (On Zelda's Poetry) (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House, Ltd., 1988). For a recent provocative analysis of her poetry in the context of the Statehood generation, see Hamutal Tsamir, Israeli Statehood Generation and Women's Poetry in the Fifties and Sixties: Poetry, Gender, and the Nation-State, (Ph. Dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 2000), pp. 168-191. I thank Naomi Seidman for this reference. For two studies in English, see Hillel Barzel, "Elegiac Romanticism and Ironic Romanticism (a Comparative Study of the Poems of Zelda and Bat Sheva Sheriff," Modern Hebrew Literature 2(1976), pp. 10-16; "Luminous Mirror of the Human Spirit," Modern Hebrew Literature 10(1984), pp. 35-37. Both studies focus on Zelda's later books. Barzel's essay on Zelda's first two books is available in Hebrew, in his Meshorerim bi-Gedulatam (The Best in Hebrew Poets: Essays on Modern Hebrew Poets) (Tel Aviv: Yahdav, 1979), pp. 404-426.

2. On the Schneersohn dynasty, see "Schneersohn, Family" in Encyclopaedia Judaica (Jerusalem: Keter, 1971), vol. 14, col. 982, for a family tree, and "Schneur, Zalman of Lyadi," ibid, col. 1432-1440, for more detailed biographies.

3. Zelda,' Penai (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz. Hameuchad, Publishing house, Ltd., 1967), later republished with ha-Carmel ha-Ee Nireh (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House, Ltd., 1971). I thank Hamutal Bar-Yosef for her comments on the translations.

4. On the reasons for the absence of Jewish female kabbalists and its complex repercussions on the formation of the kabbalists' projection of feminine positive images on the divine, with which they sought to unite, see Moshe Idel, "ha-Ra'ayah ve-ha-Pilegesh: ha-Ishah ba-Mistikah ha-Yehudit," David Yoel Ariel, Mayah Leibovitz, and Yoram Mazor, eds., Baruch she-'Asani Ishah? ha-Ishah ba-Yahadut me-ha-Tanach ve-'ad Yameinu (Blessed Be He Who Has Made Me a Woman? Women in Judaism from Biblical to Modern Times) (Jerusalem: Miskal, 1999), pp. 141-157.

5. The non-orthodox Israeli poet Daliah Ravikovitch (b. 1936) in her Ahavat Tapuah Ha-Zahav (Love of the Golden Apple) also used mystical sources (I thank Hamutal Bar-Yosef for this insight). However, Zelda was the first orthodox poet to do so and to write mystical poetry. In a recent anthology of studies of Jewish women's writings, Judith Baskin wrote that "to become a Jewish woman writer was to become a cultural anomaly." See Judith R. Baskin, ed., Women of the Word (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994), p. 18. Significantly, Shmuel Niger identified the engendered divide between Yiddish and Hebrew, with Yiddish becoming the language of women's religious literature. In an interesting parallel to Zelda, he found that most early modern Yiddish female writers of ethical works and supplicatory prayers (tkhines) were of rabbinic descent. See Shmuel Niger, "Yiddish Literature and the Female Reader," trans, and abridged by Sheva Zucker, ibid, pp. 70-90.

6. For a measured survey of Habad in English, see Rachel Elior, "HaBaD: The Contemplative Ascent to God," Arthur Green, ed., Jewish Spirituality: From the Sixteenth-Century Revival to the Present (New York: Crossroads, 1987), pp. 157-205.

7. Rivkah Shatz Uffenheimer, Hasidism as Mysticism: Quietistic Elements in Eighteenth Century Hasidic Thought, trans. Jonathan Chipman (Princeton and Jerusalem: Princeton University Press and the Magnes Press, 1993), p. 76.

8. Indeed, according to Dan Miron, it was the contemplative nature of Zelda's poetry, not her religiosity, which hindered her acceptance by the editors and critics who wielded influence and power in the literary scene prior to the 1970s. These arbiters of literary taste and convention expected female poets to succumb to presuppositions which restricted female poets to the intimate and emotional, to the "feminine" cycle of love, passion, pregnancy and motherhood. And that subject matter, it was felt, was best expressed in short lyrical poems, neither too modernist nor experimentalist. Dan Miron, Founding Mothers and Stepsisters: The Emergence of the First Hebrew Poetesses & Other Essays [Hebrew] (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House, Ltd., 1991), pp. 160-177.

translated by VARDA KOCH OCKER

VARDA KOCH OCKER was born in Israel and is a doctoral candidate in Medieval Studies at Yale University. Her translations of modern Israeli poetry have appeared in European Judaism, International Poetry Review, Quarterly West, The Denver Quarterly, and Tikkun.
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Title Annotation:Zelda Schneersohn-Mishkovsky
Author:Ocker, Varda Koch
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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