Poem of the Week / What Zelda Took With Her When She Died

One of Israel's most admired poets tackles the question of life after death.

The Invisible Carmel

Zelda

When I die,
moving into a different mode,
the invisible Carmel that is wholly mine –
wholly the essence of joy,
where the needles and cones of the pines,
the flowers and clouds are engraved in my flesh –
will split from the visible Carmel
and its avenues of pines sloping down to the sea.

Does delight in the crimson sunset
come from death’s hidden nexus within me?
And delight in the fragrant herbs,
the moment of the water’s haze
and the moment of return
to the stern gaze of Jerusalem’s skies,
to the Supreme over all –
do these come from the hidden nexus of death?

Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden.

***

Zelda Shneurson Mishkowsky (June 20, 1914 - April 30, 1984) was born in Ukraine to a Hasidic family and came to Jerusalem with her parents in 1926. She lived all her adult life in the ultra-Orthodox world, in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem, and she also she had many friends and admirers in the secular world. “The Invisible Carmel” is the title poem of the second of the six volumes of poetry she published in her lifetime.

The complexity of the single sentence that constitutes the first stanza embodies the outer world, the inner world, this life and life after death, as the poet imagines it – a mode of being in which the beauty of her experience of the Carmel will accompany her.

The second stanza contrasts the deep pleasure that comes from contemplation of nature in Haifa with the sternness of the life of a religious person in Jerusalem, pervaded with the consciousness of the “Supreme over all.” As is characteristic of much modern Hebrew poetry – for example, see Dory Manor’s poem in this column last week – there is tension in the poem between “here” (Haifa) and “there”(Jerusalem). The conclusion suggests the possibility, albeit in the tentative form of a question, that the two kinds of perception can be reconciled by the pre-existence in the living soul of awareness of both death and of nature as a manifestation of the divine. Zelda’s work is steeped in Hasidic thought: The English word “nexus” is used here to clarify the concept of “Yesod” (literally “foundation” and in modern times an “element” of the periodic table), a kind of transmitter between God, the world and the individual that a Chabad site defines as “the divine attribute which binds G-d to His creation in a bond of empathy and love.”

The best-known of Zelda’s poems, which has become a standard for Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Day, is “Lekhol ish yesh shem” (“Every person has a name”), set to music by Hanan Yovel and performed by Hava Alberstein.

Musings:
*Imagine Zelda drinking tea in that “different mode” with Emily Dickinson, with whom she shares an eye for nature, deceptive simplicity of language and aplomb in writing about the transcendent.  

Vivian Eden
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