- Bridging the Divide: The Selected Poems of Hava Pinhas-Cohen transed. by Sharon Hart-Green
Bridging the Divide: The Selected Poems of Hava Pinhas-Cohen is the first comprehensive bilingual edition (Hebrew and English) of eighty-nine poems published by the Israeli poet Hava Pinhas-Cohen over almost a twenty year period (1989-2008). As the editor-in-chief of Dimui (Image), a journal of literature, art, criticism, and Jewish culture; the founder and the artistic director of Kisufim (Yearnings), the Jerusalem conference of Jewish writers and poets; and a columnist for one of Israel’s daily newspapers (Ma’ariv), Pinhas-Cohen (b. 1955) has been an active public presence for over three decades. She has been awarded several prestigious prizes for four of her poetry books, as well as Israel’s Prime Minister Prize for excellence in literature (1995). Sharon Hart-Green’s translation is to be commended for providing English readers long overdue access to Pinhas-Cohen’s prominent work.
Pinhas-Cohen’s poem “A Mother’s Prayer before Dawn” became one of Israel’s most beloved poems following its publication in the best selling Tefillat Nashim (2005; A Jewish Woman’s Prayer Book), a collection of classical and modern Jewish prayers, composed for recitation by a synagogue community or as individual prayer offered in a family’s home kitchen.1 The words “Prayer” and “Dawn,” entwined into the title of the poem, refer to Shachrit, the first Morning Prayer. Hence the daily obligation and devotion of the religious service and the mother’s first toil of the day are equally sacralized. Consequently, for a reader who identifies the semantic environment in which dawn is not simply the beginning of the day—the time before sunrise “when I am about to cook porridge”—the basic porridge ceases to be a standard breakfast of grains in milk but calls to mind an element of Levitical sacrifices and thereby the tragic drama of Jewish parenthood reflected in the binding of Isaac (p. 53).
As she does in “A Mother’s Prayer before Dawn,” Pinhas-Cohen typically derives her poetic language from the religious semantic field. [End Page 300] Nonetheless the opening sentence of Hart-Green’s introduction—“Hava Pinhas-Cohen’s poetry charts a new course in modern Hebrew verse, reflecting the dialectical tension between religion and secularism at the core of modern Jewish life”—is somewhat misleading (p. xv). Modern Hebrew poetry began in 1891 when an Eastern European yeshiva (orthodox seminary) student, H. N. Bialik, initiated the exchange of one Jewish raison d’etre with another, moving from an international diasporic religious existence among different peoples and languages to a Jewish national independence and the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language.2 Modern Hebrew poetry, as part of the reclamation of an ancient language, has always incorporated an awareness of belonging to an ancient community with the complexity and fragmentation of modernity. While several generations of canonical Hebrew-Israeli poets attempted to compose “pure” poetry and distance themselves from the religious experience (including Rachel Bluwstein, Nathan Alterman, Leah Goldberg, Nathan Zach, David Avidan, and Yona Wallach), the struggle between religion and modernity reflected in Pinhas-Cohen’s poetry is a well-established aspect of the newly developed heritage (see, for example, the poetry of Uri Zvi Greenberg and Zelda Schneersohn Mishkovsky).
The divide that Pinhas-Cohen did chart, but not necessarily bridge, rests elsewhere, in a different tension. Paradoxically, while most of her poetry studiously avoids expressing political positions and while she locates her focal drama between the walls of a family home, the prominence and reputation of her poetry does not merely reflect her talents but also her ideological commitments. Between 1982-1986, Pinhas-Cohen exemplified a shift in the ideological center of Israel. She moved to Anatot, a small settlement in the West Bank, outside of the 1967 “green line” border, built on privately owned Palestinian land and shortly afterward, she chose Jerusalem over Tel-Aviv (a sanctuary...