What Yehuda Amichai and Samih al-Qassim have to say about Tuesday

Guest writer: Sarah Stern

Poetry has a way of saying things backwards so that feelings make sense. Facebook has a way of saying things frontwards so that feelings turn to nonsense.

I decided to post two poems on Facebook in sequence: one the evening after four Jews were murdered while praying in synagogue, and one the morning after, because the first poem felt incomplete without the second.

The first poem I posted was by Yehuda Amichai, a Jewish Israeli poet, a favorite of mine and many others. A podcast of his poetry, him reading in a thick German accent and reflecting on mortality and judgement, got me through the fasting of Yom Kippur this year. The poem I posted yesterday, struck me in how joyous and ethereal it was:

Whoever put on a tallis when he was young will never forget:
taking it out of the soft velvet bag, opening the folded shawl,
spreading it out, kissing the length of the neckband (embroidered
or trimmed in gold). Then swinging it in a great swoop overhead
like a sky, a wedding canopy, a parachute. And then winding it
around his head as in Hide-and-Seek, wrapping
his whole body in it, close and slow, snuggling into it like the cocoon
of a butterfly, then opening would-be wings to fly.
And why is the tallis striped and not checkered black and white
like a chessboard? Because squares are finite and hopeless.
Stripes come from infinity and to infinity they go
like airport runways where angels land and take off
Whoever has put on a tallis will never forget.
When he comes out of a swimming pool or the sea,
he wraps himself in a large towel, spreads it out again
over his head, and again snuggles into it close and slow,
still shivering a little, and he laughs and blesses.

I came across this piece as I googled for some personal text study on the tallit, which had turned to burial shroud after the attack. Rabbi Moshe Twersky, Aryeh Kupinsky, Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Goldberg, and Rabbi Kalman Zeev Levine all had their last moments in these cocoon parachutes during the amidah prayer of morning shaharit. The image of a bloodied tallit, threw me hard into the realm of “identity,” if not a “side,” as Mori talks about in his “Revenge Attacks” piece. The first line of Amichai’s poem, “Whoever put on a tallis when he was young will never forget,” explains what I was feeling. Wearing a tallit as a bat mitzvah ensured that I would be wrapped in one forever.

I felt that poem from a place of mourning – mourning for the slaughtered, mourning for what my identity means to another people, for how a joyous, comforting religious symbol is felt as an indicator of whose on what “side.” The next morning I woke up to news that a Druze police officer named Zidan Nahad Seif had also died, wounded while protecting civilians at Har Nof synagogue. I was disturbed to learn that Palestinian East Jerusalemites were being targeted and a man named Fadi Radwan had been stabbed. I want to explain to whoever stabbed Fadi Radwan that the men who perpetrated Tuesday’s attack may have hailed from East Jerusalem, but so do my friends, who are undeserved targets. I’d like to say to everyone that the sides we have made are senseless and lead to destruction for us all. In tallit, in police uniform, robed in whatever clothes or religion or politics – the violence is finding all these people. Moreover, in an act of useless retaliation, the Israeli Prime Minister is calling for deporting members of the families’ of the attackers and the demolition of their homes.
This made me think of another poem by renowned Palestinian Druze poet Samih al-Qassim that I’ve returned to many times since I came across it in August after he passed away in Safad:

The day I’m killed,
my killer, rifling through my pockets,
will find travel tickets:
One to peace,
one to the fields and the rain,
and one
to the conscience of humankind.

Dear killer of mine, I beg you:
Do not stay and waste them.
Take them, use them.
I beg you to travel.

Al-Qassim addresses his killer, but I see him addressing us all now, urging us, “do not stay.” We cannot stay only in mourning and frustration and pain. These tickets are offered at every bloody or difficult junction, and their use is finite. Those poets have seen times as bad as these and have died here. They have words for these things, even when we sometimes don’t.
Photo by Sarah Stern
Photo by Sarah Stern
The Hebrew of Amichai’s Poem is here:

מי שהתעטף בטלית. יהודה עמיחי

מי שהתעטף בטלית בנעוריו, לא ישכח לעולם
ההוצאה משקית הקטיפה הרכה
ופתיחת הטלית המקופלת

פרישה, נשיקת הצווארון לאורכו
(הצווארון לפעמים רקום ולפעמים מוזהב)
אחר כך, בתנופה גדולה מעל הראש
כמו שמיים, כמו חופה, כמו מצנח

אחר כך לכרוך אותה סביב הראש
כמו במחבואים
אחר כך להתעטף בה כל הגוף
צמודה צמודה
ולהתכרבל כמו גולם של פרפר
ולפתוח כמוכנפיים

ומדוע הטלית בפסים
ולא במשבצות של שחור-לבן כמו לוח שחמט
כי הריבועים הם סופיים ובלי תקווה
ואילו הפסים
הם באים מאין סוף ויוצאים לאין סוף
כמו מסלולי המראה
בשדה תעופה לנחיתת המלאכים ולהמראתם

מי שהתעטף בטלית – לעולם לא ישכח

And here is the Arabic of Al-Qassim’s poem:

تذاكر سفر

سميح القاسم

وعندما أٌقتَل في يومٍ من الأيام
سيَعثُر القاتل في جيبي
على تذاكِرِ السفر
واحدة الى السلام
واحدة الى الحقول والمطر
واحدة الى ضمائر البشر

ارجوك الّا تُهمِل التذاكر
يا قاتلي العزيز
ارجوك ان تسافر