Tag Archives: Jewish poetry

Mordechai Geldman

Translator’s Note:

Mordechai Geldman came of age as a poet in the seventies, a heady and auspicious time in the development of Modern Hebrew poetry. Young poets, such as Yair Hurwitz and Yona Wallach—friends and contemporaries of Geldman, with whom he shared a strong kinship—were publishing their first books, inspired by the freedoms their elders had established as a matter of course. These poets—David Avidan, Natan Zach, Yehuda Amichai, and Dahlia Ravikovitch—who began publishing two decades earlier, had turned away from the poetic conventions of their immediate predecessors, notably Natan Alterman and Avraham Shlonsky, who were still very dominant in the fifties and sixties. Avidan, Zach, and their contemporaries vehemently rejected the flowery, the hyperbolic, and the sentimental, along with rhyme and formal verse. They advocated for and embraced the modernism of Pound, Eliot, Auden, and Wallace Stevens, to name a few, and so paved the way for Geldman and his generation of poets.

Geldman’s poetic journey is transformative, and he seems to exhort us to pay attention, to be mindful, and perhaps share in the kabbalists’ vision that “There can be no perfecting above without the perfecting influence of humans when they are righteous and act from love.” (Zohar 2:155a). For Geldman, the determination to seek and to understand through the act of writing is equated with the determination to live. To feel and to formulate becomes not only his way of life, but his survival strategy. The devotion to the written word is sacramental and binding, impelling him toward precision, on the one hand, and toward humility, on the other.

Mordechai Geldman
’s poems, in my translation, have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Absinthe Literary Review, Cider Press Review, Modern Poetry in Translation, and in Poets on the Edge: An Anthology of Contemporary Hebrew Poetry (SUNY Press). Years I Walked at Your Side, spanning thirty years of Geldman’s work, is now under consideration with a publisher in the United States.

Tsipi Keller
(the translator) was born in Prague, raised in Israel, and has been living in the United States since 1974. The author of nine books, she is the recipient of several literary prizes, including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a New York Foundation for the Arts Fiction Award. Her short stories and poetry translations have appeared in journals and anthologies in the United States and in Europe. Her novels include Retelling, Jackpot, and, most recently, The Prophet of Tenth Street (2012). Her translation collections include: Poets on the Edge: An Anthology of Contemporary Hebrew Poetry; and The Hymns of Job & Other Poems.



What is his true voice?

Have words wrapped him
in murmurs
in forms
in worn-out constructs that came before him?
“Person” described him
better than “frog”
but the croaking of frogs in the night’s ponds
or the whistle of birds at dusk
or the sound of fruit dropping to the ground
drew him out better than Hebrew
as Being revealed itself to him in its fullness

And at moments of imposed openness
when fatigue dissolved his inhibitions
Yiddish melodies floated up in his mind
songs of mournful wisdoms
of a cursed chosen people of God
tunes of an exiled truth
and suffering and the rolling of the dead[1]

And at times other voices
voices of others
snuck surreptitiously into his secret cave
echoed in his voice and from within
infecting his voice with alienation
alien voices echoed in his voice, simulating his voice
his voice at times getting lost in simulation

But was it really simulation
was there really a voice that was not his voice
as it used his mouth, his palate, his tongue, his teeth
in order to set forth in the world
out into a vastness of odd-looking funnels

And wasn’t his voice muddled up
when adjusted to the auditory frequency of listeners
who had no intention to listen
and certainly never made the effort
and in fact never could

A suspicion played in him
annulling any pure sound
true like the roar of a river
virginal like the note of a reed
that has just been pulled from the edge of the swamp
or cruel and desirous like the wail of prairie wolves

But always an intense pain
an absolute final truth
whose voice was a scream or a shout
a voice distilled of dross
a voice of pure pain
pure voice of pain
four final words
and the chorusing of wasps
in landfills


In the end I couldn’t save her 

I who was appointed by her to save her
I who had saved her since childhood again and again
from the death that hummed in her
from the Poles, the Germans, from the neighbors, from Father
even from myself—
in the end I couldn’t save her
all my efforts fell short
for in the end her time had come

In the end she knew nothing
except her death
that surged from within her like a conquering killer
and she, as if yearning for him without alarm
placed herself in his hands

In the end she could only say—
“Shabbat is here”
as if all of time had been lost
and only Shabbat remained
a white dress she wore for her Shabbat
and all the days all day
she lit more and more Shabbat candles
and a Shabbat fire she lit on the stove
and eternal light she lit in the bulbs
and set the table for the Friday meal
as if waiting for me
as if waiting for him
lecha dodi likrat kallah[2]

In the end the candles dimmed
and the white dress perished as well
for it was stained with food urine and excrement
and I who had been appointed to be her grace and glory
could not in the end save her
for all my efforts fell short



          A monk asked Chao-Chu:
          Is the nature of Buddha in the dog?
          Ehhhh, said Chao-Chu



A car ran over the cat Chu
and I wept for my cat Chu
(affectionately I called him Chu-Chu)
as if he were my son or my friend-beloved

But my weeping distressed me—
how can you, I said, cry for a cat
while death consumes people in its thousand mouths
the land is filled with widows and orphans
and many parents lost their sons
and he who didn’t die in the war died in a terrorist attack
and he who didn’t die in a terrorist attack
died in a car crash, floods, fires

And he who didn’t die in those died from old age or illness
and he who didn’t vanish in death
is now blind and lame or scarred with burns
and all are awaiting the next war
that will destroy even the birds and cats



The cat Chu like most of the cats in our land
was a fourth-world citizen
living at the bottom of society’s ladder
below the beer guzzling foreign workers
below the shaking drug-addicted whores
together with the litter-nibbling hobos

But I raised him from the gutter
to be a domestic noble tiger
a green-eyed striped tiger
daintily stepping on pillows and armchairs
feeding on Italian preserves
and preferring to catnap with his head in my palm
Am I an orphic poet who seeks
his beloveds in the lower worlds
who favors a stone the builders refused[3]
who imports his poems from the lands of death?



At night Chu came to me in his spirit
and said in the language of humans:
“Now that you’ve written two poems
you want to forget me
but I’m a cat of three poems
if not more”

[1] Refers to the belief that when the Messiah arrives, Jews who had died in the Diaspora would roll under their graves, through tunnels and caves, to Israel for the Resurrection

[2] From the liturgy, a song recited in synagogue Friday evening to welcome the Shabbat, referred to as a bride and queen: “Come my beloved to greet the bride”

[3] From Psalms, CXVIII, 22: “The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner.”

Yiskah Rosenfeld

Yiskah Rosenfeld received an MFA in poetry from Mills College and an MA in jurisprudence and social policy from UC Berkeley. Poetry awards include the Reuben Rose Memorial Prize and the Anna Davidson Rosenberg Prize for poems on the Jewish experience; her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her poetry appear in publications such as Lilith Magazine, The Bitter Oleander, The Seattle Review, Yentl’s Revenge: The Next Wave of Jewish Feminism, Bridges, Kerem, and Maggid. Yiskah taught Jewish literature and writing at Temple University, and served as poet-in-residence at the Brandeis Collegiate Institute in Los Angeles and on the Arad Arts Project in Israel. Yiskah serves on the faculty at the Tauber Center for Jewish Studies in San Francisco and teaches workshops combining Jewish text, mysticism, and creative writing around the Bay Area and beyond.


Four Klippot

The way a snap and two chewed pistachios gave us these.
The way they resemble teeth, but husked and unmouthed.

The way I need five to make a flower but they come in pairs.
The way my son looks to me for instruction, to know why.

The way we hold them to our heads and call them ears.
The way we hold them over our eyes and call them eyes.

The random urge to paint pupils on them.
The soft fingertip rub of their backs.

The way they stay on the table for weeks, reconfiguring,
now in a row, now scattered, now stacked.

The way we are told to cast them off, our klippot,
but they are rain coats, they are wings,

they tell the story of the nut that was, they cradle
emptiness in their baskets as well as any mother.

Cinderella’s shoe, a cap for a mouse, castanets,
my son and I quiet in their presence; we know holiness.

The way I say shell as if it were fact.
The way he says it, like a ship at sea. 

*Klippot is the Hebrew word for shells or husks. It is also a Kabbalist term, denoting the places that block us from Divine light.



Two by two the words step out
of your mouth’s arc
testing the dry invitation of air.
Your tongue sets out in search of peace
licks the tender under-salt of olives
returns a messenger, a god, a bird.

When home is a boat
to settle is to set sail
what feels like gentle rocking is a slow lilt
in some tidal direction
no matter how hard your palms press
no matter how still you become.

When home is a red cabin on a hill
its windows bowing in three directions
and the river stretched on her back below
like a lazy cat, you will unanchor
the glass sheeted with autumn rains
all your languages wiped clean.

One morning you will awaken,
alive, alive, go down to the river
rest your fertile body against
the one made of light—
male and female, sky and sea
Yahweh and Elohim, raven and dove—

two into one into two into one,
embraced, all, in the water’s soft lullabies
feathered into one heartbeat by your hands’
joyful swift-slapping on the drum
steady and quick like the old women fashioning bread
on the side of the road to Beersheba.

Did you think you would end where you started?
Did you think it was that kind of door?
Come through, come close, come home,
kiss that complexity back to its rooted whole.
O Righteous One,
then you, too, will walk with G-d.

 *Naamah, in Jewish lore, was the name of the wife of Noah.


How the Sun Makes Love to the Moon

Your fingers trail sleepy and long like saxophone notes.
Songs slip under my skin.

Nerves on the soft insides of my arms
wake up slow and innocent like children.

I dream in your bones, hear my body the way you do:
a rounded, silken hum in the dark.

Everything in the suitcase of your skin belongs to me.
The rest of you goes on traveling, missing us.

In your country, the moon called to you like a lover.
Here you sleep even when the moon is full.

That radiant fullness, that pale beauty—
you think you see it in me.

Premiere Issue

Issue 1.1: Summer 2012

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“Photosynthesis” Photo by Gin Conn


“Gray with Warm Lights”
Photo by Robin Grotke