The love of Israel is hard to put into words. Fortunately, Israel has been home to many great poets who have spent their lives--and talents--attempting to do exactly that.
The elegant new anthology Israel: Voices from Within gathers works of two dozen of Israel's most revered, beloved poets. It is designed for an American reader; each poem is in Hebrew, with a line-by-line English translation. Each page also explains the poet's references to the Torah, prayers, historic figures, or geographic places.
Here, you can revisit the works of Hayim Nachman Bialik, Yehuda Amichai, Lea Goldberg, and even Naomi Shemer's "Jerusalem of Gold." Each poet's section is prefaced with their life and times.
The book is arranged chronologically. First, we hear "Voices from Afar," dating back to the early 1900--and look "From Vision to Statehood." Some of these works were written in Odessa, Warsaw, and Vilna--about the idea of Israel. Then we review "The Birth of Israeli Poetry." New works come in the last section, with eight poets representing a diverse "Polyphony of Voices." Throughout, lesser-known poets are presented alongside the more famous.
Dr. Barry Chazan, one of the anthology's editors, is a professor of Jewish education at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, and the founding director of its Master of Arts in Jewish Professional Studies Program. Shai Chazan, Content Manager of the National Library of Israel, and Rabbi Yehudit Werchow, Director of Israel Engagement for the Union for Reform Judaism, co-edited the anthology.
Chazan was the chief architect of Birthright Israel's educational curriculum and has taught at The Hebrew University. He is the first of three generations of his family to serve in the Israeli army. "The genesis of this book was my love for education, especially Israel education." he said. "I wasn't happy with the way the voice of Israel was represented. It's important that 'the problems of Israel,' do not become 'the problem of Israel.' But poetry presents an accurate view from within."
In his introduction to the book, Chazan explains how much Israel loves its poets, and honors them for reviving Hebrew as a modern language by naming streets after them.
"Poetry books are some of the highest-selling in Israel," Chazan said. "Poets were published in newspapers; they were consulted by prime ministers. Their work was heard on the radio and on television, and regularly sung by children and adults. Much of the Israeli songbook is poetry set to music."
The poems range from Nathan Alterman's well-known "Silver Platter" to Erez Biton's "Yom Kippur at the School for the Blind," with its cantor who "drains sorrows and paves the way/ between us and veiled hopes/ his prayer transforming the pain of solitude into bashful beauty."
"Contemporary Israeli poetry is secular but is still born from traditional phrases; it is dripping with this rich tradition," Chazan said. "We can't free ourselves from the melodies of the past."
The book was published by the JUF-supported iCenter, based in Northbrook, which promotes Israeli and Hebrew-language education in the schools. Its website provides a curriculum incorporating the book, with six discussion questions on the themes of home, memory, belonging (or not), tradition, and hope.
While the anthology is certainly accessible to the general reader, "it was written with education in mind," Chazan said, for the upper-elementary student up to the university level.
Chazan once spoke with Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, who told him, "Education is above everything."
Amichai also said, "Once I write a poem, it is not mine anymore." Thanks to Israel: Voices from Within , these poems can be in all our hands.
For more information, visit theicenter.org/voicesfromwithin .