BIRD YEARNING: SHIRA TWERSKY-CASSEL: A RETROSPECT
A few weeks before Tu Bishvat, 5780 (2020), I climbed for the last time the five flights of stairs to the apartment where Shira Twersky-Cassel z"l had lived for many years, where she had written of Jerusalem, of the birds of the land of Israel, of the wanderings of her ancestors, of the travails of the modern state; where she had celebrated Chanukah and Purim, Shabbat Shira and Tu Bishvat, with her son and his family and her friends. The stickers on the door proclaiming her loyalty to the land of Israel, her pictures, her books, her furniture were there, and I caught a glimpse of Ariel, the last of her cats. But she was gone.
A descendant of the Baal Shem Tov and Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, Shira Twersky-Cassel was born on Shabbat Shira (the Shabbat when the Song at the Red Sea is sung), in the year 5700 (1940). She grew up in New York in a home that combined devotion to Torah study and Jewish mysticism with openness to general studies. She earned her B.A. in ancient languages and journalism and made aliyah in 1969. In 1988, two years after she had begun writing began writing poetry in Hebrew she received the Newman Prize for her book Shachrur (Blackbird). A second book, HaChayyim HaSodiim shel HaTsipporim (The Secret Life of Birds) was published by Sifriat HaPo'alim in 1995, and Yoman Shira BeSulam HaGeulah (A Poet's Diary), which deals with the Oslo period, was published by Bitsaron in 2005.Legends of Wandering and Return, her one book in English, was published by Bitzaron in 2014.
Shira Twersky-Cassel's work is inspired by a deep love of Israel, of the birds who to her symbolize its spirit and its voice, and of Torah and Jewish tradition. Until 2019, when she was already suffering from ill-health, The Deronda Review was privileged to carry her work in every issue. Her spirit took flight on the 15th of Tevet, a month before Shabbat Shiva and Tu BiShvat.
Below are the poems and prose pieces that appeared in The Deronda Review. May the voice of her work long continue to sound in our world. – Esther Cameron
Tabernacle-bird, connect earth and sky
mantle tossed by the wind, your tides moon-raiment
traversing colors we have yet to learn
creatures locked in lines of firmament.
On autumn nights, pine cones speak to Jerusalem stone
rendering the tremor of creation to heated rooms
where men and women lie hidden in their beds.
In the morning, each pine cone
sculpts your form.
SHALOM - THE SEVENTH GATE
In the shattered years,
when strident deep-mouthed howls and caterwauls
let loose from evil stratosphere,
burned and crashed shrill upon the ear,
the racket of tormentor draped in clanging cacophony
silenced cadence of the spheres, –
or at least drowned out the arpeggio of wheeled celestial things
that sit beside the King of Kings and serve Him.
When the Destroyer was let loose
to attempt on the Lord, and on His people,
Then in timeless time,
the hinges of the Seventh Gate hung free.
Badly scorched the roots of heaven were,
but as every forester will say,
fire syncopates an invention of green that does not know Darwin.
Then came forth from earth, blackened by God's loam-lined fingers,
again the blessed covenant.
the city where a golden key
was dropped by ladder-climbing angels
lifting-off from Ya'akov,
one of His thousand names
that our lips are permitted to form
welcomes the Jew on each Sabbath eve,
Then we leave Creation be
and do not interfere – as was in Eden,
before we stole the fruit of ill-use,
and drank the bitter-waters of contention,
On Shabbat, Gifts of Grace and Offering
are placed on altars of luminescent stone,
and not one tear falls to wound one blade of grass.
In the real Jerusalem, heart of wholeness,
twilight is an opal-golden key.
Now, as every student of Kaballa will tell you, if he speaks at all,
each pulsating Hebrew letter
danced-forth from the breath of the Maker [who is Everywhere]
to compound the colors of our limitations, and to form life tangible.
The Hebrew letters for Shalom are harmony,
an agreement of sound,
a wholeness in contrapunt
synchronised in reverent awe,
to modulate and orchestrate the spirit, on its pilgrimage,
to crochet the heart striving for the Seventh Gate,
the Sabbath millenium of Israel, our bodies home again,
souls journeying towards ancient resonance of the Creator,
when halcyon birds come to nest on troubled seas, and begins
our soon to be apprenticeship in Childhood of Harmony.
THE WANDERING; SONG IN THREE VOICES
In autumn midnight hour
dark waves rising from the sea,
from northern lights and cold lands,
through isle of Cyprus and Turkey,
mighty migrations ranging south,
wing and soar, soar and wing
we follow dark blue ocean curve
to lands-rest to lands-end and back again
beneath star song and moony whir
in the night-sky eyes see
and each our own tongue also speak
clack or chirp or silence be
large and small keep to the flock
stay strong, upwards the long-sea
then land corridor narrow bridge of Israel,
Today, throughout the length and breadth of sky
high daybreak brings the great flocks
of those who live in firmament
Approach, approach and alight
sweet water drink and rest and eat,
each your worm or green or carrion
from Hulah wetland to Jerusalem and parched Arava
your boundless road of passage winds
we below call out and give care
on ground in water and sky-flight
till your send off
till your return.
For we are Jew-who sail-the wind
versed in the travail and joy
of the great wandering
Note: In Hebrew, the word “nedida“ means both migration and wandering.
Turn out the lights
and we will watch the flames
that rise from Chernobyl
on the shores of the Pripet River.
For today the soul of that town
has been cast into the hollow of fate's sling,
and it screams, from one end of the earth
to earth's end, "Oh God, I did not understand !"
Scorched rain, fallout rain
thin and blasted by the east wind
falls now in the Ukraine
on the graves of my grandfathers,
winds from great ovens dance now
in the Ukraine, in the fields
where saintly men once danced,
and the feet of firemen in their high boots
are melting in radioactive incandescence.
Once, in the melancholy meadows
in somber forests at dusk,
and brooding unbroken, boundless steppe
of snowbound plains not crossed on foot
the captive spirit of Hassidism
spectral and divine
Rav Nahman, can you see how this rage of destruction
that will bring desolation
has been forged in the furnace
of Jewish pogroms and suffering?
Then came gangs, came Haidamacks,
Zhelesnyak and the Cossacks
came Petlyura and the Ukrainian Nazis
dressed in black
For the dream of the simple peasant
- is to tuck the edge of one's pants' uniform
- into well polished boots.
- This perfects the job.
Then out of Chernobyl
a clamor rose up from the flame-drenched earth
weeping tore the air and reached into firmament
cutting wide and deep swaths of suffering
in the celestial company – again and again,
flowering in twisting arabesques
of Jewish death throes
Did you hear it Rav Nahman?
Are you listening, Rav Yisrael Ba'al HeShem?
Today the forests you loved
the woodland and marshes
that shared your joyous songs of piety
are empty of Jews.
Today, the Ukraine again burns.
[Note: In a letter to the Russian poet Yevgeni Yevtushenko, author of the poem “Babi Yar” which commemorates the massacre of Ukrainian Jews during the Holocaust, S.T.-K wrote: “I am a direct descendant of the Ba'al Shem Tov, the founder of the Hassidic Movement. My grandfather was the last Rebbe [Grand Rabbi] of the town of Uman. He and almost all the Hassidic rabbis and families, fled the Ukraine during the Bolshovic Revolution. My aunt, his youngest daughter who was then in her seventh month of pregnancy, was slaughtered but she managed to save him. His name was Reb Baruch Twersky of Uman, and he was brought to Brooklyn where he lived to the age of 95, and I had the privilege of knowing him. He was a spiritual and gentle man.
“My family is very large, consisting of all the Hassidic courts, and our branch of the family which reaches from the family tree of the Ba'al Shem Tov has always been called "The Chernobyl branch".!!!
“Although the Jews of the Ukraine suffered pogroms and massacres since the 18th century, Petlyura's gangs finally forced the Hassidim to flee to Europe and the United States. The bloody history of Uman by the hands of the Haidamacks is referred to in my poem. I understand that Jews from Uman were also brought to Babi Yar.
“My point is not [...] human vengeance, but [...] the vengeance of fate, for no deed goes unpunished or unrewarded in the consciousness of creation. The Hassidic Jews brought nothing but blessings and good deeds to the Ukraine. And what was their reward? I wrote this poem the very day the reactor at Chernobyl melted down.” The poem was originally written in Hebrew and translated by S. T-K herself.]
SMALL TREASURES: MORNINGS IN MAHANE YEHUDA*
Soon we'll go down to stroll in the weather
on a carpet of sage and three-leaved Yemenite clover.
It's a stormy day, skies hurry into laundry drying in the wind
fold fragrance of distance and horizon into your closet
sachet of skies-one-hour-before-the-rain between your cloths.
You talk to the rising storm, dark clouds are reflected in your eyes,
they embrace the rain.**
After rainfall, bright calm of perennials washed clean
and hallelujah bird-song pair heaven and earth.
Begin your day in the shuk
the fruit and vegetable vendors call out – Pure Heart
you measure a full weight in your hand
two kilos of dew and ambrosia
a thousand fruit jewels in your basket.
walk down Etz Hayim*** Alley,
there grandfather-prophet guards the Tree of Life
he kisses the fringes of his prayer shawl
and whispers a blessing,
"You are the first
to bring the perfume of sage to me this day."
*Mahane Yehuda (“camp of Judah”) – a neighborhood in central Jerusalem, where the city’s largest open-air market is located.
**Winter is the rainy season in Israel – no rain falls during the summer.
***Etz Hayim (“Tree of Life”) – this phrase, among its many other uses, is the title of an important Kabbalistic work
A little girl in the Rebbe's court is free to run with the boys,
to enter the Beit Midrash when the men study at "seder"
and sit on her father's lap.
Only five years old and doesn't know
she's still forgiven future temptations
and she forgives, for soon they will enclose her
into a cycle of life
the mass of auburn curls and braids will be enfolded
in swaths of silken threads
and there would be days when burning tendrils
long for her eyes and for the sun.
but for now, her braids bless the new almond blooms
plaited like roses into her hair.
And now, she runs with her Court-brothers
– walnuts whorled and twisting like the secrets of the brain
– dates honey-bee sweet as words of Torah
spill from their mouths and pockets,
bet-yud* Breshit Barah,** their consciousness is honed,
a bee-swarm that will never leave the hive.
On Shabbat morning she slides down rusty banisters
on the metal verandas of Beit Yisrael
and Aharonchik pulls her hair,
laughing in the silken mud puddles of Jerusalem's winter
they wear the blessed rain of Shvat,
still running free.
*bet-yud – two letters of the Hebrew alphabet
**Breshit Barah – the first two words of the Torah
TO MY MOTHER: BIRD YEARNING
"For a small moment have I forsaken thee, but with great mercies will I gather thee." [Isaiah 54, 7]
Above time's prism,
where waits the city's perfect soul,
suspended and concealed,
at this moment, hearts and wing,
you and I will capture the autumn wind.
To fly with you Lark-Mother
living as a bird, wing to wing,
for one short moment to learn, to soar
and together sing,
to hunger for our temporal bodies.
As the light lives within the light
the soul lives in our bones and blood,
the illuminated soul sent forth
to occupy the burning flesh.
And I will call this light "To Yearn"
and your name is "Bird Yearning."
TO MY MOTHER: TALES OF LOVE AND EXILE
When we told my mother
that Meir Provizor died
her father had died [in Ahuza on Mount Carmel
in Eretz Yisrael,]
she raised a muffled moan
the simple dark cry
of a wounded forest creature that does not
know why and how this end had come.
She collapsed her bones into the wooden floor
soft knees struck the polished parquet exile of New York
– a small heap of daughter-junk.
In our parlor [in our house of man-made brick,
as in Egypt, as suits any respectable exile]
in our living room, her friends [the landsleit, the survivors]
clasped arms to shield their beloved shtetl child,
["Drilj" they called their town, once Jews lived there
in Polish "Ilje" for a dead queen's tears that flowed down the barg]
the beautiful daughter of Meir Provizor
unwilling did he succumb to death
after eighty-four years of battle with life.
My own father
[his heart already then expanding and burning through
like an apple of Sodom]
bent to take her in his arms,
but she did not allow his cries to heal her,
"Your pain is my pain my Ninotzka!"
Ah, pogrom-child, Pnina, your head far-tossed
on pearl white throat
as luminescent as your name,
the wine-colored gown
worn to welcome friends
you tore from one bitter silken end to the other,
and with cruel fingers of stone
you tormented your mouth, your cheeks
to change their form forever,
– no longer Daughter of Meir Provizor.
b a r g - mountain in Yiddish
Pnina, Pearl, Pninotzka, Ninotzka variations on my mother's name
A SONG OF LOVE
From the Cave where Hebron’s Patriarchs sleep
from that womb did I emerge into the world
and there I will return when my voyage ends.
My beloved land, flesh of my flesh
fragmented by a cruel hand,
together we lie bleeding,
from your dust my innards were formed,
your hills and rivers, the desert and the oasis
have nourished the veins of my heart,
Golan winds billowing down the Basalt mountain slopes
carved the shapes of my limbs
water‑polished stones worn down by tempests raging,
my face was formed by Lebanon’s melting snows
that pour into the Jordan waters.
Your image is my own and forever have I seen myself in you,
– dark eyes, azure sky over Beit Lechem
– heart, fire-stone of golden Gilboa wheat fields at close of day.
Eretz you are mother and father, brother and sister,
– each daybreak brings the promise of our Creator,
– twilight prayers embrace foundation stones, the secrets of our fathers.
At time of midnight Tikkun, hewn Temple stones
and un‑hewn stones of Mount Moriah
– roots of the Temple Mount
– [from here God raised creation]
weep tears of bitter mourning.
– How long this Kina of Zion?
For it is not a foreign oppressor that casts our people
like slain infants to the destroyer
and rends the land asunder,
it is they
they who fought but did not believe
and did not trust the wisdom
of their own hearts.
Beloved, will your people choose death’s shadow?
Eternal land, will they not embrace you?
My land, comrade of my soul,
today my heart is breaking.
Tikkun midnight prayer
Kina verses of mourning
[Note: this is the version of the poem that was published in The Deronda Review vol. II no. 2 (2009); In Legends of Wandering and Return there are slight changes in the first part, and the second is omitted.]
OPAL: SONG TO JERUSALEM
They call you Gold
I name you Opal,
I sing of tattered shadow and light
which consummates on nights of haloed moon,
I speak of ebony blackbird and swift
that come to roost like jewels set in opal stone.
And we shall gather tremors in sanctuary ruins
your crystal eyes to weep no more.
And once again the loyal caper-tree
will climb your Templed-Mount,
SPARROW AND SWIFT
The plain, the clever Sparrow
walks through the air
turns a corner easy,
the Mountain Swift
cuts across the veils of time
enters our dimension now and then
to take our breath away,
but the Sparrow, the D’ror
whose Hebrew name is Freedom,
the D’ror has chosen man.
Rabbi Meir said,”T’chelet is likened to a rainbow.”
In the Zohar it is written, “The beauty of David’s eyes were as the t’chelet”
Until we found the Murex snail that gives us t’chelet
we were mistaken to think
that our lives had become a metaphor.
Sealed in our beloved tractates of learning
forgotten was the feel of a transparent snail
in the palm of our hands.
Lost to us was the bitter-sweet fragrance of the Yoreh - the first rainfall -
and the embroidery of gnarled olive trees on the hillock,
the harvest, the vintage, the olive picking
time of almond blossoms, for the Benediction of the Trees
and the ripening fig.
When we discovered the Murex snail
we had not yet recalled the luminous skies over Jerusalem.
On that day we opened the diaphanous heart
which awaited the touch of light,
and turned to gold, to chartreuse, was painted blue-green
was stained royal purple,
then we revealed the window to our translucent hearts
and saw there all the colors of the rainbow,
for like the eyes of David, they were stitched in all God’s hues
and no more pleasing sight was seen
in all the wonders of Creation.
[t’chelet – 1) color of the sky or the sea. 2) A blueish-purple dye extracted from the Murex snail and used to dye the fringes on the small tallit garment worn by Orthodox men. During the long exile from Eretz Yisrael this skill was lost and is now being revived.
“We spend our years like a tale that is told” – Psalms 90,9
As Rosh Hashanna draws near
the days grow short and we can feel the hours slip by.
In the month of Elul – time to examine the heart –
the moments become tangible
and in the mirror a woman measures her life.
On the Day of Judgment the sun’s morning rays
reach across the fields of late summer cotton
and purple vines of the sweet grapes of Autumn,
the scarlet pomegranate jewels are ready
for new blessings and to adorn the Sukkoth booths
I embrace each dry leaf
and together we traverse the wind.
The red fern berries – beloved by the bulbul birds –
have flowered into white fairy blossoms,
and in the rising shadows of Fall sun, Rachel the cat
has lost interest in the hidden crevices of the lemon and ficus trees
where ants march back and forth with winter burdens.
No more play with summer moths and like a bored child,
Rachel demands my attention – her summer games are over,
even the tiny snails brought up from the yard
in buckets of the good earth have gone to sleep.
In the late afternoon she curls up with Kinneret
on the broad window sill,
like mirror images – soft white into grey – together they gaze out
at the wide pine branches
now silent of sparrow and blackbird broods,
soon the fat drops of first rain will renew us.
Rachel has learned the seasons and in her hidden heart
knows these are the days I weep in supplication,
days that we pass before the King of Kings.
THOUGHTS ON SHABBAT SHIRA AND THE POETRY OF THE JEWISH SOUL
In Hebrew the word Shira is both poem and song.
In the Torah portion of Shabbat Shira, Moses and the Children of Israel sing their gratitude, “By strength of hand the Lord brought us out of bondage.1 On that Sabbath morning, the Almighty chose my spark of soul to join with a girl infant to be born. My birth was a traumatic memory of a spirit reluctant to enter the material world, but my father’s eye penetrated the veil of time and blessed me with the name Shira, granting me a remedy — the lucidity of lyrical purpose that would guide me through life’s upheavals.
What is the significance of Shira in Jewish tradition?
Our sages2 write that Shira is the deepest and most powerful expression of joy of the spirit when experiencing the enlightenment of a newfound comprehension of the Creator. The Hassidic masters3 speak of the soul, when caged in the temporal body, engaging in unceasing prayer and poetic song in longing for the all-embracing source of celestial radiance.
With the Torah, the Almighty wove a bridge of sacred Hebrew letters and words over the deep chasm between man’s mortal limitations and the Almighty’s celestial radiance. “And Moses spoke in the ears of the congregation the words of this poem.”4
This Torah bridge is called Poem, the root of all poetry and the true genius of the Jewish people, unlocking the maze of our minds and opening up vistas of uncharted human experience.
Immersion in this Torah-Poem, which holds the key to the secrets of our existence, has enabled Judaism to address the Creator of the universe directly and to intimately comprehend the many faces of the infinite Creator of the universe.
With the Prophetess Miriam, celebrating Israel’s emergence from slavery and leading the women in song, I play my timbrel. I learn the joy of a poem’s power to ease the pains of love and life and to navigate the terrible and magnificent wonders we confront daily.
I experience Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon’s words 5, [the poet is] “someone who is visited again and again by flashes of lightening,” and plumb the inner layers of my soul, striving to kindle the physical with a spiritual perspective.
Rabbi Abraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook6 anticipates the future time of Israel’s spiritual regeneration and writes that after the centuries of exile, the revival of the repository of our powers and of what has been latent in the heart of the nation will be the work of the wise of that generation. They will be joined by the writers and poets - the heroic prophets who see the future and raise up the nation from level to sublime level. “Shake off the dust and arise. Return Jerusalem.”
My prayer is to have a share in this work.
1- Exodus 2 - [Yalkut Shoftim, Midrash Shocher Tov.]
3 - The Malbim, Rabbi Meir Leibush Yehiel Mikal]
4 - Deuteronomy, 31. 5 - Guide to the Perplexed
6 - "Hador", The Generation
DRILJ - ILZA; THE QUEEN'S TEARS
Bonfires burning crop residue
cast curls of smoke and scent into the cold air.
Red-gold maple and elm leaves bathed in bright sunlight
bower the approach road to my mother's shteitle, Drilj.
South of Radom I see the signpost in Polish, "Ilza."
Nestled in a green valley is the town, narrow winding streets
ancient leaning houses and in the distance medieval castle ruins
on the barg -- the hill where my mother and her friends played.
Beyond the boundaries of time and place, I see her there.
Fearless girl, she defies a young sheygitz bullying
a heder child. Was it her fiery eyes or her fair girl-child face
that vanquished his Jew hatred for that instant?
In the here and now, I enter the village
to walk the cobbled streets of the Jewish quarter.
In Market Square Meir Provizor's house still stands.
On the wrought iron balcony of Sabah Meir's house,
Zev Jabotinsky joined Zionist meetings.
Like Herzl he looked out on the lands of exile
and said, "Here will be our tomb."
Unwind the hours. Between the red brick and wooden house fronts
peasants brandishing pitchforks storm the square.
Meir Provizor stands defiant, fists raised. He shouts,
"Townsfolk! Neighbors! What are you doing?"
My mother and her brothers and sisters huddle under the counter
of the family's fabric emporium. Yankel the eldest
runs out to the street to pull their father inside.
They push the counters forward to bar the wooden doors.
Imprisoned for Zionist incitement, when he is released
Sabah Meir orders the family to pack -- Sifrei Kodesh
and what they can salvage from their lives, from their livelihood.
Temporary and enduring, transient and perpetual,
of the moment and unceasing,
beyond the boundaries of time and place,
I am with them on the perilous trek home to Eretz Israel.
My brother and I would raise eyebrows at our Imma's longings
"for the sweet waters of Drilj,"
and how could a miserable shteitle be so charmed?
Beyond the measure of time and death, the transience of life,
I beg your forgiveness Imma, for here I am in the beautiful Ilza.
Pure spa waters course down the bright mountainside.
This is the wooden bridge over the "luskhki," a quiet stream
set in the green glen leading to the synagogue – no longer –
where the family took Shabbat afternoon shpatzirs.
Hourglass sands slide forward. It is 1946.
The survivors, Imma's childhood comrades
and Zionist shuleh classmates, now appear in her dreams.
After such a night, the phone will ring,
dear voices will call up from the street below,
"Pnina, Pninichka." In our small Bronx flat
the beloved faces of Imma's photo album take voice,
Night after night, I listen as they relive a shared childhood
-- Drilj's bright waters, the happy times.
Mute cries tell of the Ilza German Slave Labor munitions camp,
of Jewish fingers bleeding from the corrosive burn of gunpowder.
Can human voice resonate such endless pain that a six year old child
listening in her sleepless bed will forever call it her own?
'ILZA; Queen Casimir's Tears
Did King Casimir's bride weep centuries of sweet waters
down the jagged hills of Ilza to mourn the destruction of her castle
or for the cruel fate of her shteitle's Jews?
THE ARROW OF TIME; AFTER EDEN I
Primeval plants anchored in the basin of rich red loam
reach up tendrils to become orange‑barked limbs
of canella cinnamon, squirrels scamper up the trunks,
Fruit bats suck the sweet asparagus berries, poke their dog‑like
faces into the fleshy flowering claws of cactus flowers.
Within the convolute of sepals and whorled rosette cluster
heart shaped leaf coronas of daffodil trumpets twist
sun‑tinted golden petals to adorn the woody base of
the first fragrant pomme suffused with purple in full sunlight.
Was the fruit of the tree of knowledge an apple or a pear
or the whirling cosmos of that dimension which
partaking thereof cast us into the progression of time
where decay and destruction became the mechanism of life.
In Eden, past, present and future was comprehended
and shared with the Creator.
Given Freedom of Choice, we were bound
‑- like that cat that leaps out of a 8th story window
to catch a passing bird in flight –
to choose curiosity.
‑ ‑ ‑ ‑
Adam and Eve when the first sun set
wept to find themselves in eternal darkness.
The Sabbath sun rose and The Creator spoke,
“You have chosen the material world,
now seek the key to your living soul.”
THE ARROW OF TIME; AFTER EDEN II
Cast into time, into the orderly disorder of birth
the stars, the planets and galaxies emerge from
great explosions into giant suns,
destined to die in smoldering embers and
collapse into themselves.
The arrow of time opened windows
for life to flourish, heat and energy
to grind down and then slip away
to feed other life forms coming into being.
How can we comprehend the birth of the universe
and our coming into being,
when our rationale and wisdom
depend on a morning cup of tea.
And He has allowed us the intellect to grasp
hidden things, to view a red dot at the far end of time
that was a dying sun.
Given us recall, to remember lying down beneath the
thorned wood to embrace radiating aromatic rosette clusters
of goose and whortleberries and each other.
In a time when white‑tailed deer and viper
fed on star‑shaped violet flowers, living in harmony,
and the deep‑throated red and honeyed lotus lilies
sweetened the fragrant waters of Eden.
That very day, like golden wings
the leaves shifted in the wind
endless chimes rang and parted from the pines
and from the season of love.
The eucalyptus cast twisting roots into the limbs
of the hidden stream to slake their thirst
into the roots of the rock arms of the mountain.
Beneath the shadow of the mountain the valley slept
deep in contemplation of that sirocco day,
the sun grew old, dimming into a polished pearl of light
and not one bird voice could be heard.
Pale gold, the trees were kindled by comets
of leaf and bud, blinded by the rising flames of autumn.
Day darkened and soon night rested upon his boat in the stream
upon the flow of dark waters.
The halo of his hair, crowned with a garland of stars
became a corona of keen splendor.
For the soul, memory is an awakening
a voyage of pain and joy,
but it is not memories that the weary heart seeks.
Oarsman, he cleaved the gleaming river
as he would a burnished leaf.
LANGUAGE OF LONGING
The great and sequestered light
moves through us in tremors of longing,
yearning, ardor and great stirrings
of languish and we are sick of love.
Raindrops beyond number, each contain a world
ten thousand windows of spectrumed light.
to awaken the flowering fruit of the brave Caper
likened to Israel, it thrives undaunted among sharp rocks,
stamens, petals and fruit berries, strong scented spider flowers
to intoxicate pollen bearing lives.
When it is time
how shall I part from this parched and beloved land
so sorrowed of longing
from this scented earth that languishes with desire.
After winter rains earth stirrings can be heard.
A kiss of dew brings forth new song.
Shaking out the bedclothes,
I turn to meet your stare.
Wild eyes, for love you took me on.
I lift you and you fear the air,
when I hold you close
you turn your face to me.
What are you thinking, long gaze
burning into my own.
Ariel’s love languishes
he casts his head back
into the bend of my shoulder
jade eyes slit,
fur fragrant of cedar and cinnamon
his great tail—silken ebony—
wraps royal about us.
I push my face into his fierce world.
Kinneret born, you come to me
from runs along that pebbled shore,
your name speaks of poets and pioneers,
the azure waters of your bright eyes
bring seascape into this walled city.
On laundry days, joyous baths take the place of sea spray,
a run at the washtub—my hand lifts a splash,
shaking off the drops, cat-happy, you search out my eyes
and play ask for more.
Shabbat morning, wait at the door
to welcome each babe and child, each grownup.
The family, they climb the many stairs to enter your domain,
Resting at our feet you share table chatter.
With all gone home, we close the door
and settle into the peace of Eden
Nights of pain, at my bedside,
long legged cat, lines drawn in silver.
“Look,” I say to David, “he will sit there now for hours.”
In his wisdom my son decides, “He does for you what he can.”
Too soon, life’s end, a failure of the flesh.
Reluctant still to leave my embrace,
— fragile skull pressed into my warm fingers
and caressing palms.
Your essence which would never part from me
is released from my arms and gone.
When they lift your frail body, a soft whimper
so distant, is the sound of a stranger,
no longer that dear voice that was your own.
Soul spark lit to share my life,
you have done well
to heal the many wounds of my days.
The lost animals sent for me to love,
live all in my dreams,
sharing our human lives,
theirs can never be as ours.
Small hearts, small beings,
where is centered your love,
what is the secret source
of that cleaving to myself ?
The Divine Symphony/TO BEETHOVEN
Dedicated to the artist Yoram Raanan
“The saintly lover of God acts as the foundation of the cosmos. The whole world joins in his ascent motivated by his dynamic inner personality.”
Orot HaTorah, Rav Avraham Yitachak Ha’Cohen Kook referring to the Ba’al Shem Tov.
Ba’al Shem Tov – 1700 – 1760
Beethoven – 1770 – 1827
Mozart – 1756 - 1791
When clouds lay bare a moonlit sky
like fireflies born of the unbroken beam of celestial light
divine sparks cast up the heart
to repair the fragmented world.
The Ba’al Shem Tov, sent to temporal time
to elevate the mundane, to open the portal to dormant wonders,
infused with the radiant word of God
the dark and the inarticulate.
Then men were born whose passion
to script the human soul brought forth
music of the spheres, the stars
the moon and the grandeur of the earth.
Then a man will be born to redeem with his music
each stroke of the human spirit
the sorrows, joys and suffering
that echo the Divine Symphony.
2. Sea Journeys of Consciousness.
Like the prophets, you did not know
the cause of your music
the utterance of your emotions given voice and form,
thrust into our hearts and offering up
the beauty of your mind.
And when your listening ear betrayed you
affliction invoked a greater passion.
You could not know that as a schoolgirl
I would love you through a young student's
winsome whistling of the Eroica,
through the lilac laden Spring nights, I
a teenager, legs slung across an armchair
immersed in your Pastoral and Joseph Conrad's sea journeys.
Forced to share our fate before the gates of Auschwitz,
the exalted Ninth dragged down to the inferno,
- Jewish fiddlers in a death extravaganza,
did you shout out from the captive earth like Akiva,
"One more note and I will turn the world to ashes."
Now we can return your sounds to you
as we have been returned.
And I, after a lifetime of musical paths traversed
it is you, the mad, the dream-beset, who does endure,
who will accompany me into my old age.
FLIGHT—FOR ILAN RAMON
"When once you have tasted flight you will forever walk the Earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been and there you will always long to return." -- Leonardo da Vinci.
Ilan Ramon was a fighter pilot in the Israel Air force and Israel's first astronaut. He and the six other crew members were killed during re-entry of the US space shuttle "Columbia" on February 1 2003. Miraculously some pages of Ramon's diary survived the heat of the explosion and the cold of space, fell 37 miles to earth and were later recovered.
Weightless we circle Earth.
In the quiet that envelops space,
sent forth into the unmapped and obscure,
the silence is sublime.
Closer to God time loses relevance,
here Shabbat will be ninety minutes,
I hurry to light candles
in non-gravity each flame burns tight
rosebuds that will not bloom.
We pass above the Dead Sea, the Sinai Coast,
and when Jerusalem comes clear, I cloak my eyes
with trembling hands, I recite, "Shema Yisrael."
In ninety minutes the Sun will again emerge
from the darkness beyond Earth.
Sunrise as seen from Space
is as the devouring fire on top of Mt. Sinai
when Moses, freed from the confines of time,
rose to meet the glory of Hashem.
I hold close the small Torah scroll
brought out of the gehinom of Bergen Belson.
It is here with me in the bright depths
that surround the glowing gem that is home.
The hours are filled with high energy particles
that flash fireworks before our eyes, the mind cannot sleep.
In free-fall my crystals have grown more perfect shapes.
With Israel's children I have studied the dust of the Sahara,
watched the splendor of powerful thunderstorms over Asia.
At sixteen days we will descend the mountain,
the world is watching.
In Eretz Yisrael it is Shabbat.
At sixteen minutes, at re-entry
a great joy fills my heart.
The Earth opens wide its arms to embrace.
THE BIRDS AND THE JEWISH SOUL
a magical mystery tour
[During the fall and spring migrations, half a billion birds pass over the land bridge of Israel each year. In the fall of 2006, the directors of the Israel Ornithological Society, Dr. Yossi Leshem and Dr. Dan Alon, planned a seminar during the November migration in the north of Israel featuring poetry and music focusing on birds in the Hebrew Scriptures and Jewish tradition. Among the participants was Shira Twersky-Cassel, who read out some of her many poems which link birds with the spiritual and hassidic world, and gave a presentation on the role of birds in the Jewish sources. Following is her report.]
“Kuack, kuack“ the loud fragmented calls of small coots, frog-like croak of teals and fluty resonance of avocet resonate over the Hulah Agamon pond and bring to life the pre-dawn darkness.
At five a.m. that morning we piled onto a bus and after a short drive descend to begin our magical mystery tour, entering a world of muted clucking and chattering of tens of thousands of cranes, pelicans, egrets, dark plumed cormorants, and other sea birds.
To the east a dim glow casts a slight yellow-red haze over Mount Hermon, and beyond that, the Golan Heights. Led by our guides, Yossi Leshem, Nir and Dan Alon, large telescopes perched on their shoulders, our group of about sixty “birders“ begins a silent trek along the narrow road winding between the marshlands. Heavy mists shroud the landscape, constantly moving and forming envelopes of curling fog. All speak in hushed tones - cast into this primordial landscape, we recall creation.
It is bitterly cold, and although we are in Israel, in the Middle East, the feeling is Europe along the water routes of Holland and France. After a while my hands and feet seem useless. My nose needs a tissue but I can't seem to drag one out of my jacket pocket.
As the day begins its approach, soft light permeates but does not break the spell. Each moment brings a different scene. The smaller water fowl, shelducks and marbled ducks paddle soundlessly past us, creating soft furrows in the shallow brackish water. It becomes clear that the great islands at the center of the Agamon are huge concentrations of cranes and pelicans, the family groups and “bachelors“ united as a flock.
The air is filled with the racket of crane talk, but only the pelican young join the chatter. Pelican adults are silent birds. The birds exchange morning information about the day's feeding grounds and who will set off today on the southern migration to winter feeding grounds in Africa.
The sun, not yet visible, scatters reddish gold dust over the great expanse of tundra and mist surrounding us. Individual birds can be discerned through the fog; a glossy ibis tunnels through the water; a cormorant flutters wings in place; a grey heron preens each feather to shining perfection with his beak, getting ready for the day. His survival depends on the wellness of each part of his body.
To the left, the mist and sun create an optical illusion. The reflection of a spur-winged plover posed nearby in a hunched position is sketched onto the water, and ricocheted-mirrored up into the mist envelope. The haze, now stained with faint rainbow hues becomes more and more like a moving theatre of sculpture, shape-shifting and forming a life of its own, in harmony with the variety of birds. The lacy green foliage, tall Egyptian papyrus and reed-beds, set off by the blue water, begin now to be visible. I am breathless and I give thanks to the Lord for having eyes and ears, and for having given me this moment.
An egret poised on a pond rock can be distinguished with a large fish in its long beak, waiting patiently for the morsel just swallowed to be digested. No food goes to waste. Life is survival, even within this protected haven of the re-flooded Hulah pond.
Our guides have set up two telescopes to enable a more intimate view of the long legged cranes who sleep standing up and the huge white pelicans, the largest migrating birds to pass over Israel. The pelican young are still in their darker feathers, huddling close to their parents. An emanation of daylight is moving in spectral wraps around them.
The racket of crane chatter increases. At that moment, a fiery sun cracks the layered horizon – slowly-rapidly revealing itself. The distance between planet Earth and the core of our solar system seems inconsequential. Many of us react by quickly shielding their eyes. Does this sun carry with it the blinding potential of an eclipse? The shout and loud cackle of tens of thousands of birds are their response to the morning miracle. Soon they will begin slowly to lift off to their feeding grounds.
The moments following sunrise are dazzling. The mists are aflame, enveloping us in a cold-hot burn. It takes a while for our eyes to be able to see again, just in time to view the first lift-off of a contingent of cranes.
In family units of parents who mate for life, and one or two young who remain with their parents for as long as a year, they join to form a broad V formation. The first three groups rise over the water and cast themselves into the sky. We throw our heads back to view the phenomena. They are followed at close intervals by periodic waves of crane V formations; a spectacular which repeats itself over a time span of two hours. Our guides explain that the first to lift off are those who have located good feeding grounds the previous day. They inform the flock, which will follow in their stead. It is a community life for them: the Jewish ethos of the strong looking out for the less fortunate. All through November they will return to the Hulah Agamon before dusk. In December, except for several thousand birds who winter in Israel, most will continue the migration south to Africa, returning to the Agamon during spring migration north.
To stand, freezing fingers and toes, with your head thrown back for hours, watching tens of thousands of cranes and pelicans lift off – again and again – and to hear their loud and lovable trumpeting and clanging amazes the soul and pierces the heart. For the poet it is the challenge to describe the indescribable. And perhaps the hassidic saying that “Only a nigun [melody] can aspire to the highest sanctuary“ teaches me again that my words are a poor instrument to transmit a miracle. The community song of bird honk, clack and flute has struck me down.
I admire and envy our guides and teachers, Dr. Yossi Leshem and Dr. Dan Alon, their lives devoted to conservation, to the study and ecology of the Land of Israel, the variety of local birds and the half billion migrating birds of many continents passing over the land bridge Israel forms between Eurasia and Africa. They are as excited as children every moment of every day in pointing out and explaining the lives and customs of God's creation, igniting us with their flame.
The cranes have returned to the Hula. The following history is taken from an article by Dr. Alon.
During the 1950's, as the young country of Israel was learning how to cope with the many problems of returning home to a land decimated by two thousand years of conqueror and occupation, it was decided to dry up the Hula marshland, the habitat of the deadly malaria mosquito, which killed hundreds of the early settlers. The science of ecology and land and animal preservation had not yet gained a foothold.
The Hulah, in the north of Israel, was the last important wetland in the Middle East. The source of the name Hulah is hilat, a word found in the Talmud which means: paper reed. Fed by rivers from the Galilee, the Golan and the permanently snow-capped Mount Hermon, it was a permanent lake-swamp – hosting unique wildlife – such as the biblical bison called teo in Hebrew, until the reclamation project as initiated in the late nineteen fifies. This project, intended to supply local agriculture with reclaimed land, was not a success. The dry turf and peat that had been uncovered resulted in endless turf fires, land wind erosion and pollution of the Kinneret basin. During the years of that failed attempt, the flocks of cranes decreased dramatically, until no more than 6000 cranes were observed during the fall migration.
In the early 1990's, the Keren Kayemet of Israel reversed the process. Throughout the valley a network of tens of drainage canals were dug to ensure an evenly high water level. This would enable intense agricultural activity over a large area, which for many years lay fallow, and the introduction of new plant growths. This project is called the Hulah Agamon.
In the fall of 2006 the situation has vastly changed. Twenty-five thousand cranes now take an autumn respite from their migration to Africa in the Hulah Valley, exulting bird lovers while posing some problems for agriculture. The IOC of the Society for the Protection of Nature and the Keren Kayemet of Israel provide mashed peanuts, chickpeas and corn to divert them from the local farmers' main crops and the fish ponds. The majority will be encouraged to move on after a short respite. For about 5000 cranes it will be their winter home.
From my presentation on the role of birds in Jewish sources:
From the time of the Tana'im birds have carried mystical connotations in the Holy Scriptures and in Judaism. The Tana'im, the great scholars quoted in the Mishna, who wrote during the time of the Second Temple, authored parables “Stories of the Sanctuaries“ dealing with the secrets of Creation (“Torah HaSod“). The teaching of these secrets were later expanded in the kabbalah by Rabbi Isaac Luria, called the Arie, [1534-1572] in the city of Safed in northern Erez Yisrael, and later in the Ukraine by the Ba'al Shem Tov [1700-1760], the founder of the Hassidic movement.
These ancient parables, “The Bird's Nest“ and “The Sanctuary of the Mashiach“, were not included in the scriptures and remain “external“ but not forbidden texts. They describe the highest sanctuary as where the Messiah resides, in the bird's nest among the fledglings who are the children of Israel.
The birds represent the two keruvim [cherubs], placed to guard Eden. [Genesis 3, 24] “Therefore, G-d sent him [man] out of the Garden of Eden . . . and he placed the keruvim at the east of the garden of Eden and the bright blade of a revolving sword to guard the way to the tree of life.“
Over the mantle of the Holy Ark containing the Torah scroll dictated to Moses on Mt. Sinai by the Holy Presence were two keruvim with outspread wings. They are the throne upon which the Divine Presence sits and the source of prophecy; the voice of holiness emerged from between them.
[Psalms of David 80, 2] “O' Shepherd of Israel, thou who art enthroned on the Keruvim, shine forth“
Rav Nahman of Breslav,  the great grandson of the Ba'al Shem Tov also used the parable in his many tales. He bound together the musician, the chazzan – the cantor [from the Hebrew word chazon – vision] and the prophet as stemming from the same source – use of the voice. The voice is the blood flowing in the veins of speech, giving it life. It is not definition or frame but the spirit, the wind-flow from man's internal self as it is plucked on the strings of the voice. [Lekutei Maharan 141 3]
[Midrash Rabba Leviticus 16] “And here the sound of music being played is drawn from the birds.“
In his tale, “The Seven Beggars“ Rav Nahman tells of pair of birds – male and female, who “are meant only one for the other“. The female is lost and they each search for the other. After a long time has passed and they do not succeed, each builds a separate nest near a different town. With nightfall, they begin to wail and weep until daybreak. The sound of their wailing causes the townspeople to wail and weep all night long.
This wailing is the longing of Israel and the Holy Presence to be reunited. The townspeople represent humanity which longs for the redemption as clarified to them by the yearning of Israel.
Rabbi Hanan Porat, one-time member of the Israeli Parliament, and Rabbi Pearl, Rabbi of the Ecological Yeshiva in Sussiya also spoke of the significance of birds and the ideal of man's harmony with the animal world in Jewish tradition and the Bible. Among many other things, Rabbi Porat noted that Noah symbolizes the spiritual connection between man and the natural world, animals, birds and growing things. In the Midrash, when Noah asks God, “how can I bring all these creatures to the ark, I am not a hunter.“ The reply is “I have said 'brought to the ark'. They will bring themselves to you. ' “ Regarding this Midrash, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, wrote. “All the creatures of the world are drawn to man, like a branch reaching back to its roots.“
For translations of six of ST-K's Hebrew bird poems, see www.pointandcircumference.com/kippatbinah/twerskycassel.htm