NaPoMo April 6 – “Love Psalm”

Love Psalm

in the form of quassams, flung over
our prison walls, slingshots of sugar and
fertilizer, rockets whistling our tune,
carrying the words of our song:

          We will come back, we will come back
          We have not forgotten you, Mother, Land
          to whom we know we belong

And when they touch you, having burrowed through
the cement that pretends to be your tombstone, they deliver
our sweet kisses, our lips to yours sealing
our oath:

          We have not forgotten you, Mother, Land
          that rises to meet our lips
          that will never agree
          to be exiled from us

You open yourself to us
You will swallow these houses on the day we post notice
of the date of our return


another attempt at making a list poem come to life

I’ve been working on various incarnations of this list poem for three years. The idea was good, but it’s been flat and flat and too long and even more too long. Then today, catching up on the activities of the amazing Israeli group Zochrot/Remembering I found a question that made me try again to breathe life as a poem into the spark of “something must be said.”

How Do We Say Nakba in Hebrew?
title of a Zochrot study guide

what we then said:

Israelite invaders
Assyrian invaders
Babylonian invaders
Persian invaders
Greek invaders
Roman invaders
Arab invaders
Christian invaders
Ottoman invaders
British invaders
Jewish invaders


what we now say:

what we must say:
Israeli Jew
Jewish Palestinian
Christian Arab
Israeli Christian
Palestinian Christian
Israeli Druze
Israeli Muslim
Palestinian Israeli
Palestinian Arab
Israeli Arab
Israeli Palestinian
Arab Druze
Palestinian Muslim
Jewish Arab
Muslim Arab
Arab Jew
Israeli Palestinian
Palestinian Jew

what we will say:
an olive tree
a lemon tree
from the river to the sea

In which I let Rabassa and Barnstone duke it out about memory, error, and the ethics of translation

In his book If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents, Gregory Rabassa asserts lots of interesting and valuable stuff, then this clinker on pp. 61-62:

The completion of work is best done in translation, where the translator can work at things denied the author in his own language, even the way Saint Jerome mistakenly implied the cuckoldry of Moses which Michelangelo then wrought in enduring stone.

In case you don’t spend hours a day considering the history of Christian Anti-Semitism, Rabassa is referring to St. Jerome who mistranslated the Hebrew word for “ray” to mean “horns,” leading to a tradition of picturing Moses with horns coming out of his head, which Michelangelo then made flesh (marble flesh) in his famous statue of Moses. Horns on the head are, in some pagan traditions in Europe, understood to mean than the man wearing them has been cuckolded—that is, his wife has had sex with other men.

That cuckold charge, which is not common when discussing Jerome’s “horns,” is not as important to me as Rabassa’s assertion that the mistranslation which came to be both a statue and a common, enduring myth that Jews had horns was a good thing, a “completion” of something the original text could not say. Huh?? The issue is that the Hebrew “couldn’t say” that Moses had horns, or that his wife/wives were not faithful? Are you kidding me? And that’s without understanding that plenty of Christians see those horns as images of the devil, not images of a cuckold.

While translations do build on each other across time, this is not, by far, always a positive thing. Mistranslations, for nefarious, controlling, purposes, can be introduced into texts and mutate from there until the product people “know” is more a history of prejudice or ignorance than a translation. For a crystal clear example of this, I turn to translator Willis Barnstone’s The Poetics of Translation, to his sub-chapter “How through False Translation into and from the Bible Jesus Ceased To Be a Jew.” While his argument, incredibly well-documented, is lengthy, these little excerpts carry the spine of it:

Since early Christian leaders, saints, and followers were both Jews and gentiles, pursuing the Jewish dream of an announced Messiah, how could two thousand years of Christian anti-Semitism be based largely on their Scriptures, that is, on the New Testament, a collection of revolutionary texts born from the depths of the rabbinic tradition?

By sleight-of-hand editing and translating, only certain figures of the Christian Scriptures remain clearly identifiable as Jews—not John the Baptist, not Mary, not Jesus, nor James and Paul: even their names are not Biblically Jewish. This disguise is in place by the time of the Greek Scriptures and is reinforced in translation into other languages. […] The Christian scriptures are different because, in the Jewish world that they describe, all the good people are Christians and the evil ones Jews. […] How could Jewish authors produce such a fearful world of fatal hatreds? They did not. The original stories, in the process of telling and writing, redaction, and translation, were transformed to produce a narrative that excluded Jews from the messianic happenings in their land.

Barnstone continues, showing how yeshua (Joshuah) became Jesus, mashiah became Christ, and rabbi became Master, all intentional mistranslations to erase Jews from the text, and how “Jew” was slyly transformed description to the name of the enemy. Eventually, Barnstone says, the people who are allied with Jesus are just people, while the people who oppose him are “the Jews.” As Barnstone summarizes,

Christian anti-Semitism begins with and derives historically from the New Testament, from the falsifying translations into and out of the Christian Scriptures in which Jesus ceases to be a Jew. The result of this transmission of the history of Joshua the Messiah has been two millennia of hatred and extermination, from diasporas and ghettos to pogroms and holocaust.

So what has that to do with Rabassa’s St. Jerome saying “something” in translating that the original text “couldn’t say”? This: translating matters, and because it matters, it must be aware of culture, bias, social power, linguistic power, prejudice, hatred. To assume that my job as a translator is to say what the author couldn’t say in her/his culture seems dangerously arrogant, especially since I am the citizen of a (declining) superpower and the speaker of a language whose culture is an invasive species, wiping out native tongues and cultures daily. My job is NOT to say what some other culture couldn’t say, but to show, value, bring into my language what their culture CAN and DOES say, know, value, communicate, worship, want, need. The line from scriptural sources to St. Jerome to Michelangelo was not a good thing for my people, the Jews, which is certainly one big understanding I carry into this new skill I am building.

Against Rabassa’s assertion of finishing an author’s work by adding what a different culture knows, I assert Barnstone’s linguistically AND socially responsible analysis of the power of language to be used as a weapon:

The primary method of destabilizing and deracinating a people is to rename them and their land. Consequently, the first strategy of the recorders and translators of the Christian scriptures was to remove Jesus from his Jewishness.

Note from my own political life: one of the first actions of the Zionist government in the new state of Israel was to erase all Arabic village, street, and place names and replace them with Hebrew names, thus trying to physically erase Arab/Palestinian history from the land itself. For more information on this, see the wonderful Israeli activist group Zochrot (Remembering). In the photo below, Zochrot members are restoring the name of a Palestinian mosque in Arabic and in Hebrew.

Tisha B’Av – Reconsidering Lamentations 5

1Remember, O Lord,
what is come upon us.
Consider and behold our disgrace.
2Our inheritance
has been turned over to strangers,
Our houses to aliens.

       Lamentations 5

פרק ה

א זְכֹ֤ר יְהֹוָה֙ מֶֽה־הָ֣יָה לָ֔נוּ הַבִּ֖יטָ [הַבִּ֖יטָה] וּרְאֵ֥ה אֶת־חֶרְפָּתֵֽנוּ:
ב נַֽחֲלָתֵ֨נוּ֙ נֶֽהֶפְכָ֣ה לְזָרִ֔ים בָּתֵּ֖ינוּ לְנָכְרִֽים:

1Pay heed, O Lord,
to what we bring upon us
consider and behold our disgrace

2When we live from the inheritance of others
When we claim homes and lands as ours alone
and claim any people are alien.

      Elliott batTzedek

Tisha B’Av in Palestine

Tisha B’Av in Palestine
Elliott batTzedek

Homes destroyed.
Orchards flattened.
Buses and markets and buildings
         and children
Water tanks overturned,
and water, the breath of life to the desert,
spilled into the cracks of the dry and desperate Av earth.

May I build a house on my land?
May I travel from here to here
without fear?
May I have any assurance that my children will grow up
to be neither killed nor killers?
May I demand any way other than defend or destroy,
pillage or starve?
How many times did Pharoh say
before he became irrelevant?

Destruction after destruction after destruction;
It is time for history to record
someone saving Jerusalem.

This is one small part of an entire Tisha B’Av liturgy I’ve created that combines Jewish, Arab, and Palestinian voices all reflecting on the experience of exile. In the pieces, poems and liturgy speak back and forth to one another until the voices blend, a chorus of loss, yearning, and dreams of home. If you’d like a copy, drop me a note or post here.

A Poem on the Middle East “Peace Process”

A Poem on the Middle East
“Peace Process”
Etheridge Knight ~1972

Israel à la Begin, begins, “We
             /  love  /peace-and-uh
That’s why we  /   drove  /
             the Palestinians off   /  their   /  land—
With the help of america and england’s evil hand.

In the Gaza strip an Arab boy sleeps,
              his knees /  are /  drawn  /  up to his chest.
His hands cup his crotch. He dreams of grenades,
And machine guns and prayers to Allah.

An Israeli boy sleeps in Tel Aviv. He dreams
Of the tales told to him by his  /  grand   /  father:
Nazi boots goosestepping on cobblestone, of lampshades
Made  /  from Jewish skin, of Jewish women—and men—
Naked and torn. He dreams too of blooming gardens
In the “promised land” and of killing Arabs
At his rabbi’s command.

And the “Peacemakers?” Ah, the peacemakers
Give guns to  /  one
And bombs to the  /  other
All contrary to the   /  cries  /  of the Mother.

On the Omer and counting

A piece I wrote several years ago, “For the Sake of the Innocent Fifty”, has been brought back to my mind this week because so many members of my Jewish tribe continue to believe and say such racist, horrible things about Palestinians as a people. Arguing the facts of 61 years of dispossession is never enough to break through the carefully constructed Zionist cover story, so sometimes, when I have the time and inclination, I try instead to argue from our own story, from the stories we’ve constructed and carried with us for thousands of years as Torah and commentary.

This piece, about counting and morality, was written for Shavuot in 2006: For the Sake of the Innocent Fifty

This, friends, is the central point

from a statement by Richard Silverstein and Jeremiah Haber:

We affirm the rights of both Israeli and the Palestinian peoples to self-determination and self-defense, as we affirm the rights of both Israelis and Palestinians to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

This, friends, is indeed the central point. It is not a question of “one state, or two states, or no states, or blue states.” Not a question of federation or union, and certainly not subordination or transfer. Not the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state, or, for that matter, the right of the Palestinians to a state of their own. All these political frameworks are means to an end, but the end is as [Daniel] Barenboim or we say it: equal rights and dignity to both peoples, without any privileging of the other side.

Once the end is accepted, the question then – and only then – will be what is the best political framework to achieve this end. A two-state solution in which one side dominates and controls the other is no better than a one state solution in which one side dominates and controls the other.

Until people of good faith can agree on this bottom line, and get a significant segment of the both the Israeli or Palestinian peoples to buy in, then all the wearying talk of a peace process will be doomed.

There are preconditions to successful outcomes – and the principle underlying both our statements is one of the preconditions for this one.

Wednesday night

Too much work to do still, getting ready for tomorrow’s workshop, and kinda too overwhelmed, to begin to review everything that went past today. Maybe later, if I still have the ability to string prose together.

Tomorrow morning I have a workshop (which is four students and one faculty discussing one poem by each student) with poet Martin Espada, for whom I have so much admiration I’ve barely been able to say two words to him here! I’m paying too much money for this experience, and rearranging my life too drastically, to let my fear win out over my strength, so the poem I put in is both a form that’s new for me AND explicitly anti-Zionist. (It’s up here already, called “With so much complexity, nothing was inevitable) Martin writes poems that are strongly political and deeply poetic, so I think the politics will be fine. The form, though, well, we’ll see. Tonight I was talking to one of the other students who’ll be in the workshop, and we came out to each other as Jews with long histories of supporting Palestinian rights and being horrified at what Israel does in our names. Really long, for Kathy, who organized her first Jewish/Israeli/Palestinian poetry reading against the Lebanon war in 1982. So I think I’ll have at least one ear that is able to help me wrestle with the form and the content. Yeah!

Went to the library today, where I can check out books for six months cause I’m a grad student. Embarrassingly enough, it has been so long since I’ve been in an academic library that I was stumbling about trying to recall how to read call numbers on shelf ends. Egads. But hey, six books that I don’t have to buy! And, finally, online access to the world of scholarly journals, closed to folks outside of The Academy.

Mainly, though, my mind is on Gaza, about which there has been so far near silence here. But now I know I’m not alone, so everything changes.