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Hebrew poetry for healing and connection

How critical a tool poetry is to understanding the diverse voices of Israeli society; how wonderful the unexpected personal connection of online classes

If there’s even a slight silver lining to this horrific pandemic, it’s the plethora of online classes and programs available worldwide over Zoom. From history and archaeology to literature and foreign languages, the choices can sometimes be overwhelming. Like a kid in a candy shop, how do you decide what to sample and whether the taste will measure up to your anticipation?

One option, though, seemed obvious to me in mid-March when I was invited to a Zoom Hebrew poetry class. I’ve always loved Hebrew poetry, and often relax by listening to my CD collection with poems of H. N. Bialik, Leah Goldberg, Rachel the Poetess, Natan Alterman and others sung by such singers as Chava Alberstein, Yehoram Gaon, and Arik Einstein.

So I immediately jumped at the opportunity to study with Israeli scholar and educator Rachel Korazim whose lecture tour in the U.S. had been cancelled because of COVID-19. Over the years, during her visits to the Boston area, I had always enjoyed how she brings Hebrew poetry to life, incorporating history, Bible, narrative, and music with insightful literary analysis.

At the time, though, I never anticipated that four months later we would remain in a state of emergency, with more than 13 million COVID-19 cases worldwide, more than 3 million in the US, and over 40,000 cases in Israel. I never imagined that in mid-July I would still be sheltered at home and that my entire life would revolve around Zoom including: virtual classes, meetings, shul, bar mitzvah celebrations, birthday parties, dinners, and visits with family and friends.

Neither did I ever expect to still be studying with Korazim 18 weeks and more than 60 classes and over 200 poems later. Most of all, I never anticipated how studying poetry would provide such tremendous healing, comfort, and a sense of community during this painful period of social isolation and physical disconnection from the outside world.

During this global pandemic, as my emotions ranged from sadness and anger to hope and gratitude, Hebrew poetry has enabled me to transcend time and place instead of focusing on our broken world. As I read the words of Yehuda Amichai, Natan Alterman, Ronny Somek, Adi Keisar, and dozens of other poets, I found myself connecting to their dreams and aspirations, empathizing with their pain, anxiety, and suffering in the face of personal losses, Israel’s wars, the Holocaust, injustices, and the complexities of Israeli society.

Now, despite continued social distancing and physical isolation, I have expanded my personal world beyond my immediate circle of friends, family, and community. I have connected with hundreds of adult learners from North and South America, Israel, and the UK, whose names, faces, and voices I now recognize. And I feel a sense of wholeness as part of a global, interwoven Jewish community brought together on a computer screen by a teacher in Israel and bonded through Hebrew poetry.

By sharing her personal story as the Israeli-born daughter of Holocaust survivors and an adult in search of her Hungarian-Jewish roots, Korazim has encouraged us to connect with each other from across the globe. We have shared our thoughts on the Zoom chat, after-class discussions, and Facebook postings, comfortably expressing our diverse views and opinions.

To commemorate Yom Hashoah, when we read Holocaust-related literature by such poets as Agi Mishol and Dan Pagis, some classmates shared their personal experiences growing up as children of Holocaust survivors. In preparation for Yom Yerushalayim, when we read poems related to the Six Day War, two classmates recounted their experiences as IDF soldiers who liberated the Kotel.

What has this experience taught me? I gained fresh insights into familiar poets and became acquainted with new poetic voices. I came to recognize how poetry is a critical tool to understand “the other” and the diverse voices that constitute Israeli society. I also learned why it’s important, especially during this time of crisis, that online classes foster opportunities for personal connection.

Finally, I understand why the same Hebrew word, “shir,” connotes both song and poem, which both transport my soul to a higher place. And it’s why, as the pandemic continues to surge, I plan to keep singing the words of Israeli singer, Yehoram Gaon, “lo nafsik la-shir” (We shall not stop singing).

About the Author
Paula Jacobs is a Boston area writer. She has published in a variety of digital and print publications including Tablet Magazine, the Forward, and The Jerusalem Post.
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