I want Victoria Hanna to teach me how to read Hebrew.
Though I have read and spoken Hebrew since the age of seven, Hanna, the Israeli performance artist and vocalist, has renewed my deep interest in the Hebrew spoken word and the letters of the Alef-Bet, the Hebrew alphabet. Born into a Sephardic ultra-Orthodox rabbinic family from Jerusalem, she draws upon Jewish mystics’ fascination with the Alef Bet as the mystical source of divine creativity, an idea to which she was exposed in childhood. Her music and videos combine the raw emotion and lilt of Mizrachi (Middle eastern) vocals with images and dance motions that reinvigorate ancient Hebrew liturgies and texts. Hanna makes these prayers’ phrases, words, and especially their letters, pulse with the musical and poetic energy with which they were originally endowed, yet which has been buried under the dust of rote ritual and literary obscurity.
Hanna’s early life was marked by a debilitating stutter which, together with her love for singing and for word sounds, motivated her to use vocalization as a form of speech therapy. Today, her music videos, spoken word and singing performances, and scholarly presentations on the physicality and mystery of Hebrew poetry, sound and song, are recognized worldwide. Hanna is more than a master world musician, she is a true word mystic following in the tradition of medieval Kabbalists like Abraham Abulafia who emphasized Hebrew letter and sound play as primary techniques of mystical meditation and insight.
Hanna’s break out video, Hoshana, provides an excellent example of her efforts. In it, she recites two of the seven hoshanot, or salvation piyyutim, (liturgical prayers) that are used on Hoshana Rabbah, the final day of the fall holiday of Sukkot. One piyyut (liturgical prayer, sing.) is recited during each of the seven marches that worshippers take around the synagogue as a final petition to God for rain, fertility and life in the coming year. These piyyutim were written by master poets such as Elazar Kallir in the land of Israel during the sixth and seventh centuries CE. The first mention of Hoshanot processions in synagogues is found in the literature of the Geonic leaders of Babylonia from that time period. However, the Hoshanot ritual is much older, dating to second Temple times before the Common Era, as recorded in the Mishnah (the oral Torah), Tractate Sukkah 4:5.
Hanna re-appropriates these traditional texts and rituals in a manner that shows reverence for their spiritual power while simultaneously pushing the boundaries of women’s voices and physical presence in traditional Jewish society. In reflecting upon Hoshana, I make no claims of expertise in Jewish liturgy or performance art, and I welcome others’ differing interpretations of her exciting work. With some exceptions, my translation of one of the two Hoshanot prayers that she uses is taken from the Artscroll Mahzor (liturgical anthology) for the Sukkot holiday, (1992, Mesorah Publications, Brooklyn, New York):
Please save Man and beast,
flesh spirit and soul,
sinew, bone and skin,
likeness, image and bodily tapestry,
splendor resembling futility,
compared to the likeness of beasts,
luster, figure, and stature.
[For Man’s sake],
Send renewal to earth’s face,
planting trees in desolate lands,
winepresses and stands of grain,
vineyards and sycamores,
Send renewal to the favored land,
to heal it with powerful rains,
to give life to forsaken wastes,
to sustain it with trees,
to enhance it with sweet fruits,
to invigorate it with flowers,
to rain on its sproutings,
to pour on it a stream of cool waters,
to cloak it with droplets;
Elevate the thirsty earth
which is suspended on nothingness.
Even in translation, this petition to God is remarkably impassioned, and we sense that passion even more powerfully in the original Hebrew. The entire prayer is an acrostic that begins each phrase with one letter of the Alef-Bet in order, repeats the use of the open syllable, mah, at the end of each phrase, and maintains a near-consistent number of syllables and words in each phrase as well. This creates a feeling of weeping while moving. These rhythmic qualities fit the ritual context of the Hoshanot, which are recited as the entire community is moving in a circle around the synagogue, all the while building a sense of being emotionally moved. The literary heart of this prayer which was accentuated by later kabbalistic liturgists is the Alef-Bet: the twenty two primary letters of the alphabet are seen as God’s building blocks of the universe. Our utterance of them in various combinations during prayer, meditation and Torah study helps God to create, maintain and repair the world.
The theological content of the prayer is striking. The poet begins it with a plea to God to save humans and beasts from starvation. However, the ensuing metaphors, many of which are derived from intricate interpretations of biblical verses, are exclusively about human beings. “Human and beast” quickly merge into the sole image of human beings who are both “divine and beastly”, spiritual and physical: flesh, spirit and soul//likeness, image and bodily tapestry//splendor resembling futility//compared to the likeness of beasts. We humans, a mix of the spiritual and the physical, ask God to save us in the coming year by making our vegetation and water supply succeed, for without them our bodies cannot survive. The boundary between physical survival and spiritual consciousness is blurred entirely. This kind of imagery and ritual being evoked is almost the Jewish version of an autumn rain dance – a classic melding of ritualized movement and incantation. During this dance, we grab hold of vegetation, especially willows, which symbolize life and fertility, yet also fragility and death.
In Hoshana, Hanna draws generously upon the sounds and ideas of the prayer, while adding new, provocative meanings to it. The video begins with her, dressed modestly as an Orthodox women’s seminary teacher, teaching a group of young, very religious yeshiva girls to vocalize the entire Alef-Bet using the full range of nequdot, Hebrew vowel symbols. The entire class and their teacher then launch into a hauntingly beautiful chant of our prayer, ending each segment of the poem by wailing the traditional refrain, Hoshana, “Please, Lord, save us!” Sitting among the girls in the center of the class, and at the video’s center of focus, is Hanna, dressed as one of the older students, who is singing solo while leading them.
Accompanying the wailing vocals and Hanna’s persistent dual presence as teacher and young student, are images that repeatedly evoke the mysteries of human fertility and mortality. The teacher grows branches from her fingers that are spread out on the blackboard; a student pores over a sacred text as honey is poured on it and into her hands; she eats it, then the image is played backwards and the honey begins to disappear; willows are beaten against the blackboard, an echo of the visceral willow beating ritual performed on Hoshana Rabbah; the entire class moves in a line dance that simulates willows waving; split second views of Hanna and the other girls holding Jewish ritual objects are flashed on the screen; the teacher grasps in her mouth dice with ten dots on them (alluding to the sefirot, the ten kabbalistic dimensions of divine creativity unfolding in the world) as well as a dice with the male gender symbol on it; she digs into and scatters clods of earth with her hands. The video ends with the entire class chanting Alef-Bet again, and Hanna, the student, sitting alone, in silence, gazing contemplatively at the thunderstorm that has begun outside the classroom window.
Hanna seems to call us viewers, her real-world students, to uncover the universal spiritual truth embedded in these Hoshanot prayers. Human life is a roiling entanglement of the spiritual and the physical, of fertility and death. Ultimately, we are subject to the same fate as all other beasts: we age, decompose, and die like the most fragile willow branch, yet we also perpetuate life. It is in our most intensely plaintive moments of prayer that we can admit how dependent we are upon God and the forces of nature for our lives, even as we face the reality of death. Hanna emphasizes these truths by fusing repetitive focus upon the Alef-Bet with the recitation of this specific Hoshanot poem. Hebrew letters and words have a dual purpose in her work, in that they are mystical tools and physical instruments for expressing our rawest desires and needs before God. We cannot live forever, and the life we have is fraught with fragility. Reciting, repeating, and even wailing the letters and words of these prayers gives us the individual and communal power to recapture our role as God’s partners in keeping humanity and the universe alive.
Hanna is also engaged in a more personal quest in this video. At the same time that she is the adult teacher showing these girls that they have a voice and a presence in Jewish spiritual endeavors, she is recording one part of her spiritual autobiography by revisiting her own mystical yearnings as an adolescent woman in the very traditional world of the Yeshiva. We might imagine that, as a young girl, her voice and presence edged uncomfortably against the imposed strictures upon ultra-Orthodox women’s self expression in dress, voice, art, sexuality and movement.
The images in her video strongly hint at a creative betrayal in which she and other women remain within normative boundaries and conventional roles, while simultaneously up-ending them. For instance, Hanna’s dress and appearance are modest and demure, yet she leads dance motions that are quite physical; theirs is a kind of primitive ritual dance which quietly defies how young religious women are assumed to have to behave. The honey-dripping scenes echo the traditional practice of signifying to new students that Torah study is sweet by giving them honey to eat off of an alphabet board, while also hinting at sexual symbolism. The entire scene is one of conventionally gender segregated Torah study, yet Hanna and her fellow students are using their singing voices and their bodies in direct contravention of traditional modesty rules to engage in the study of kabbalistic Torah which would likely not be open to women at that level of complexity in ultra-Orthodox Jewish society. In Hanna’s rendering, women are the vehicles for the mysterious power of physical fertility – the very heart of what the Hoshanot prayers yearn for; yet their fertile intellectual and spiritual yearnings transcend the restrictions placed upon them by biology and by male religious authority.
Hanna could have dispensed with her video altogether and her interpretation of this powerful Jewish religious poetry and ritual would still be significant. This, in fact, underscores the problematic nature of adding performance art and imagery, particularly through video, to presentations of music and poetry. They at times impose too many visual distractions upon listeners, thus diminishing their role as active interpreters by suggesting too much to them, rather than making them work at the exegesis themselves. However, Hanna’s work should be credited with helping to reconnect us to a critical aspect of ancient Jewish liturgy which has largely been suppressed over the centuries: the expression of our deepest emotions and our confrontation with the deepest mysteries of existence through a synthesis of language, movement and visual symbolism. Like any thoughtful artist, she reveals to us the universal human journey through the particular lenses of her own story and the stories of women like her. Like any faithful expositor of Jewish tradition, she places the old wine of our finest texts into the new bottles of modern ideas and forms, further revealing their greatness.