Walking to Caesarea
My God, may it never end
the sea and the sand,
the plash of the water,
the brilliance of the sky
the prayer of man.
(Sdot Yam- Caesarea November 24, 1942)
Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden
Hannah Senesh (commonly spelled the Hungarian way, Szenes) was 21 when she wrote this ecstatic 13-word poem.
A secular Zionist, she had come to Palestine from Budapest three years earlier and was living at Kibbutz Sdot Yam, a short walk along the beach to the small Muslim fishing village of Caesarea, built on the ruins of the ancient Roman and Herodian city.
Her diary entry 10 days earlier noted that the kibbutz secretariat had approved her membership in a group planning to establish a pioneering settlement in Caesarea; about six weeks before that, her entry bemoaned the difficulty of finding “the right one.”
The concerns in her poetry then were those of any young woman – what to do with her life, and with whom. A rueful poem about wanting a perfect mate, “Loneliness,” is on the page of her notebook facing this one. “Walking to Caesarea” expresses elation.
Is she walking alone? With idealistic comrades? With a young man who might be “the one?” We cannot know, but can surmise that Senesh - educated at a Protestant school in Hungary - may well have used “My God” in an exclamatory sense. (Like English-speakers, Hungarian speakers often use “my God” as an exclamation of delight or despair with no religious reference, as in “Omigod, it’s Robert Redford,” or “My God, what a mess.”) The other possibility is that she was invoking the Deity.
Wishing the ecstatic moment could last forever – and aware it could not – she captured it in just 13 Hebrew words. The poem ends with “man” (meaning mankind, not boyfriend), in a realization that all people want and deserve that oneness with a beautiful world – a humanist, universal prayer.
And then history happened
Then along came history. Several months later, Senesh enlisted in the British Air Force. In 1944 she parachuted into Yugoslavia near the Hungarian border to rescue Jews, was captured and was executed by a firing squad in Nazi-occupied Hungary.
It was the Israeli composer David Zehavi (1910-1977) who set the poem to music. He doubled the first Hebrew word “Eli” – “my God” – recalling Christ’s words on the cross: “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me.”
Ariel Hirschfeld observes in “Notes on a Place” (Am Oved, 2000) that the voice rises a full octave between the first syllable and the second, and the composition transforms the young poet’s words into “one of the most important and meaningful melodies in Israeli song.”
Evidently, the right spot was found. Caesarea would develop into a posh town, where Israeli business and political leaders, including the Netanyahus , maintain second homes, and the song, commonly known as “Eli Eli,” became a standard at Holocaust and military memorial ceremonies.
*Bonus: Ofra Haza, who died on February 23, 2000, sings “Eli Eli”.
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