At the age of four­teen, I sat at a desk as the rabbi’s ser­mon about the Bind­ing of Isaac echoed in my head with a vol­ume of the Tal­mud in front of me; here, I wrote my first poem. It was unripe, clum­sy, and filled with lin­guis­tic play. Yet, its writ­ing was the begin­ning of an escape and a rein­ven­tion of self. I grew up sur­round­ed by Jew­ish texts, but my close­ness to them start­ed to wane in my teenage years. I was a curi­ous ado­les­cent, too curi­ous. I came of age in a home and yeshi­va where­in curios­i­ty was con­sid­ered innate­ly heretic. My sur­round­ings fought my inquis­i­tive­ness, and I fought back in return. I became a rebel,’ which made me feel both lib­er­at­ed and lone­ly at the same time. When a person’s inter­nal lan­guage changes like this, a vac­u­um is cre­at­ed, which needs to be filled with a new lan­guage, a form of expres­sion that can make sense of the world. This is where writ­ing and poet­ry began for me.

Poet­ry rep­re­sents the ulti­mate strug­gle with the inter­nal human land­scape. It tills the inner soil in order to dis­cov­er what grows with­in — our deep­est secrets, val­ued sym­bols, and trea­sured moments — and once the earth is plowed, our truest self and val­ues can grow to fruition. The lit­er­ary land­scape from which I come is suf­fused with Psalms, bib­li­cal sto­ries, and the intri­cate log­ic of the Tal­mud. These texts hov­er around me even now, many years after I’ve exchanged a strict­ly Ortho­dox lifestyle for a tra­di­tion­al one, made up of my per­son­al choic­es with­in the large body of pos­si­bil­i­ties pre­sent­ed by Judaism. Tra­di­tion­al Judaism val­ues the needs of the cur­rent time over strict adher­ence to Jew­ish Law. It seeks a bal­ance between Jew­ish val­ue and mod­ern every­day life.

For me, poet­ry and Hebrew poet­ry in par­tic­u­lar, have always been sim­i­lar­ly two-fold: an inves­ti­ga­tion of the per­son­al with­in a vast body of pos­si­bil­i­ty. For me, poet­ry is at once the place with the texts that nour­ished my child­hood, the hills of Samaria with their abun­dance of olive and fig trees, the live­ly bet midrash—house of Torah study — filled with the ecsta­t­ic voic­es of a hun­dred boys singing nigu­nim till one in the morn­ing; and also, poet­ry is the for­eign texts for which I yearned, the unknown city cen­ter and its elec­tric nightlife, the rock songs rous­ing the streets of mod­ern Jerusalem. The ancient feel­ing of home and the intense curios­i­ty of newness.

The lit­er­ary land­scape from which I come is suf­fused with Psalms, bib­li­cal sto­ries, and the intri­cate log­ic of the Talmud.

In my new col­lec­tion, Frayed Light, poems such as Set­tle­ment,” To My Moth­er,” Fri­day Mar­ket,” and Uni­ty” emerged from this inner fric­tion of a life that attempts to con­tain tra­di­tion and break with it at the same time. The wan­der­ing described in the poem Uni­ty” is the move­ment away from my child­hood, towards a stream of thought where the dif­fer­ent cer­e­monies, reli­gions, and texts of the East and the West merge into one riv­er. In those ear­ly years of ado­les­cent rebel­lion, the pur­suit to bring to light the spir­it with­in the mate­r­i­al I was study­ing devel­oped, and I began to real­ize that all spir­i­tu­al search is alike, stem­ming from the same desire for con­tact with mysit­cal. I am a child of that path:

…We are warm travelers,

our eyes unfurled, trav­el­ing in psalms,

in Rumi, in the say­ings of the man from the Galilee.

We break bread under the pis­ta­chio tree,

under the Banyan trees, under the dark

of the Samar­i­tan fig tree…

We sit cross-legged with­in the rocking

of flesh, the qui­et of the Brah­min, the bells

of Mass, the tumult of Torah…

I read the poet­ry and Has­sidic teach­ings of Ha’Rav Kook vora­cious­ly, along­side the Mahab­hara­ta, Bud­dhist and Zen-Bud­dhist writ­ings, and the New Tes­ta­ment, all while binge-read­ing con­tem­po­rary Hebrew poet­ry. I relate deeply to Yehu­da Amichai, a poet who argued and rec­on­ciled again and again with God and his reli­gious iden­ti­ty, and Amichai’s sense of aban­don­ment by that same God, main­ly after the Holo­caust. I under­stand Natan Zach, who searched for the music in Hebrew that reflect­ed the post-Inde­pen­dence War and Six Day War peri­ods, the post-faith spir­it. I embrace Dahlia Ravikovitch, who demand­ed moral stan­dards, like the bib­li­cal prophets, and Zel­da, who con­tin­ued the tra­di­tion of a soft­er Judaism, from Isaac and Rebec­ca to Han­nah and Solomon. These icon­ic poets taught me how the Mod­ern Hebrew lan­guage was able to rise again from its ancient flames, com­prised of both the tra­di­tion­al (the Bib­li­cal) and the contemporary.

My poet­ry devel­oped as I did. My spir­i­tu­al and the­o­log­i­cal jour­neys diverged into new paths. A polit­i­cal one emerged as I left the set­tle­ment and grap­pled with the post-trau­ma trig­gered by my army ser­vice. The path of the trav­el­er, one who embraces the song of the road, mate­ri­al­ized as well. Dur­ing my post-army trav­els in Asia and South Amer­i­ca I expe­ri­enced intense social, lin­guis­tic, and geo­graph­i­cal aware­ness. I trav­eled to new cities and vil­lages, was sur­round­ed by unfa­mil­iar sounds, lan­guages and land­scapes, tribes and immi­grants. The expan­sive land­scapes of these coun­tries were so con­trary to the con­fined ter­rain of Israeli and Pales­tin­ian scenery I was accus­tomed to. This abun­dance of expe­ri­ence assert­ed with­in me a mul­ti-faceted and inclu­sive con­scious­ness, which is a cru­cial base for the inner life of a poet.

The expan­sive land­scapes of these coun­tries were so con­trary to the con­fined ter­rain of Israeli and Pales­tin­ian scenery I was accus­tomed to.

Poems like Hebron,” Post-Trau­ma,” Walk­ing,” and Epi­logue” were born dur­ing this time where my expand­ed con­scious­ness grap­pled with post-army real­i­ty. The poem Post-Trau­ma” moves through a night in Tel Aviv, where the Mediter­ranean heat and the sen­su­al body merge with mem­o­ries of Hebron, the vio­lence that stained the young man that I was:

Your shoul­ders, the silence, the weak light of the lamp. I left

with­out say­ing a word, to the sea at Jaf­fa, I drank a beer

and then anoth­er one, and fac­ing the ris­ing sun as it struck

the sand, I real­ized what hap­pened in Hebron.

Once I gen­uine­ly dis­cov­ered non-Hebrew poet­ry, I felt lib­er­at­ed. When I encoun­tered the Pol­ish poets Czes­law Milosz, Zbig­niew Her­bert, and Adam Zaga­jew­s­ki, it felt as if I had unearthed anoth­er inner lan­guage. All three poets com­pose in a seem­ing­ly sim­ple form but are com­plex in the con­tent of their craft. They achieve a per­fect blend of the indi­vid­ual and the col­lec­tive, between expan­sive, uni­ver­sal time, and the spe­cif­ic min­utes of the alarm clock on the night­stand by the bed. This stems from their desire for big words” as Her­bert called them — the­ol­o­gy, his­to­ry, phi­los­o­phy — inte­grat­ed with the inti­ma­cy of the indi­vid­ual fate and nar­ra­tive, what can be called the pri­vate his­to­ry” of a per­son. Milosz’ Cam­po de Fiore,” for exam­ple, pre­sent­ed me with a craft that blends the sen­su­al, indi­vid­ual image and nar­ra­tive with the col­lec­tive, moral dilem­ma of his­tor­i­cal horrors.

Jew­ish texts, in gen­er­al, sep­a­rate between the indi­vid­ual sto­ry and the gen­er­al the­ol­o­gy. The Bible can be seen as a nation­al col­lec­tive of human his­to­ries, and the Tal­mud main­ly focus­es on the law and reli­gious inter­pre­ta­tion of these sto­ries. In the sec­tion Water Pierces Itself” I delve into per­sona poems of bib­li­cal char­ac­ters and Jew­ish his­tor­i­cal fig­ures like Noah, Sarah and Hagar, Devo­rah, Mar­tin Buber, Gol­da Meir, and even my own par­ents, in an attempt to blend the per­son­al with the philo­soph­i­cal, the past with the present. In the poem Judah the Mac­cabee” I use a past nar­ra­tive of nation­al con­flict to reflect on the present state of Jew­ish nationhood:

We’re rest­less, like any oth­er tribe.

King­doms rise and fall…

No, there is no land beyond the land

no milk and hon­ey flow­ing down the hill­side, stain­ing the earth.

There is only desire

to mark eternity,

to beat time,

even through fire.

Read­ing Amer­i­can poet­ry fur­ther inspired my writ­ing. Poets like Allen Gins­berg, James Wright, Robert Bly, Eliz­a­beth Bish­op, Robert Low­ell, Louise Gluck, and Robert Hass taught me how to shift from chrono­log­i­cal writ­ing, which is per­pen­dic­u­lar, to spa­tial, geo­graph­i­cal writ­ing, which is hor­i­zon­tal. Where­as the Jew­ish-Hebrew jour­ney is in its essence a move­ment of col­lec­tive chronol­o­gy — his­tor­i­cal mem­o­ry con­struct­ed out of text — the Amer­i­can expe­ri­ence moves through ter­rain, and this finds expres­sion in the poets’ deep knowl­edge of their nat­ur­al and often botan­i­cal sur­round­ings. I think of Gluck’s devo­tion to the for­est, trees, and gar­den in The Wild Iris”, or Bly’s snowy fields and chest­nuts. As Gins­berg demon­strates, this spa­tial knowl­edge doesn’t only exist in the field of flo­ra and fau­na, but encom­pass­es nature in all its aspects — clothes, records, elec­tron­ics, books, art, polit­i­cal opin­ions, drugs, restau­rants, cafés, foods, alco­hol, spit and semen. This scope of imagery is relat­ed to expan­sive­ness, a free move­ment with­in the wide open field, which is impos­si­ble in Israel, where the nar­row land and peo­ple are con­stant­ly hin­dered by bor­ders and walls, reli­gious bound­aries and con­flict. In the poem Dis­tance” I wan­der the con­strict­ed land of the West Bank in a some­what failed attempt to move freely, to walk with­out direc­tion, in longer poet­ic lines, with prayers in my hands:

I recall jour­neys to school through Ramallah,

a song on the radio about a boy whose eyes

are scared and hun­gry, a child my own age

sit­ting on a stool out­side a mosque.

The trees in my father’s orchard stand naked,

and I return home, hands stained with the blood of cherries.

I face the win­dow, a bon­fire burns, sounds from a wedding.

Is there a cer­tain moment when the wan­der­ing begins?

By read­ing Hebrew poet­ry along­side Pol­ish, Amer­i­can, and Greek poets, the desire grew to describe the indi­vid­ual against the back­drop of his­to­ry, and vice ver­sa, to write poet­ry where­in the free move­ment of the phys­i­cal indi­vid­ual body is of equal impor­tance to the move­ment of nation­al con­scious­ness and thought. By draw­ing close to the ancient, the pagan, the sym­bol­ic, and the mytho­log­i­cal — the poet can enter the great king­dom of the I”, the pri­vate folk­lore of man and woman, which is filled with imag­i­na­tion and doesn’t bow down to any trib­al lit­er­ary tradition.

The ancient feel­ing of home and the intense curios­i­ty of newness.

In the last two hun­dred years Hebrew poet­ry and lit­er­a­ture became the most impor­tant devel­op­ment in the Jew­ish canon, and, in my opin­ion, sur­passed rab­binic and reli­gious writ­ing. This devel­oped through an open­ness towards par­al­lel non-Hebrew lit­er­ary tra­di­tions, just as Mai­monides advanced his reli­gious thought and phi­los­o­phy through a close encounter with the Mus­lim world. With the poems in Frayed Light I hope to pro­pose an inclu­sive mod­el for read­ing and writ­ing poet­ry which is also a spir­i­tu­al and reli­gious mod­el, one where­in the lines from a prayer book can be placed next to Ginsberg’s Howl,” the writ­ings of Rab­bi Nach­man of Breslov along­side the con­tem­pla­tive human­ist poems of Milosz, the Bible along­side Louise Gluck’s The Wild Iris.”

This piece is a part of the Berru Poet­ry Series, which sup­ports Jew­ish poet­ry and poets on PB Dai­ly. JBC also awards the Berru Poet­ry Award in mem­o­ry of Ruth and Bernie Wein­flash as a part of the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Awards. Click here to see the 2019 win­ner of the prize. If you’re inter­est­ed in par­tic­i­pat­ing in the series, please check out the guide­lines here.

Yonatan Berg is a lead­ing Hebrew poet. He is the youngest recip­i­ent of the Yehu­da Amichai Prize and a num­ber of oth­er nation­al awards. He has pub­lished three books of poet­ry, one mem­oir and two nov­els. His lat­est book, Far from the Lin­den Trees, was pub­lished in 2018 and received excel­lent reviews. Yonatan Berg is a bib­lio­ther­a­pist and teach­es cre­ative writ­ing in Jerusalem.