- The Roads Taken
Standing in the wood-paneled library at the Yaddo Writers and Artists Retreat on a rainy day in the fall of 1989, I idly browsed the eclectic collection of books that had been placed there by former residents of this haven where solitude, natural beauty, and creature comforts have coaxed the best out of generations of artists.
Suddenly, my eye caught a name: Chana Bloch. (The book was, as I recall, The Window, translations with Ariel Bloch of Dahlia Ravikovitch's poems.) I picked it up and started reading, now in earnest. I knew Ravikovitch's poetry, or at least I thought I did, until I met it in its English cloak and saw things I had never seen before in the original Hebrew. It was comforting to find a Jewish/Israeli voice among the American cadences in that library—especially as I was working at the time on an essay on the poetry of Dan Pagis and could find no echo, in that majestic retreat, of his German-accented and Holocaust-inflected Hebrew lines. But all the while, the name of the translator and the timbre of her voice were testing my brain and a synapsis struggled to form: was the young woman named Chana Faerstein, whom I had known years before in Jerusalem, now Chana Bloch the translator?
With some effort, I unearthed her address (no email then) and wrote to Chana Bloch asking if she was, in her earlier incarnation, Chana Faerstein. And that is how Chana came back into my life on a gloomy autumn afternoon in Saratoga Springs, New York. From that day to this, with years and continents between us, she has never been far from my consciousness, though now it is death itself that separates us …
We had started together at Leib and Esther Rochman's Jerusalem tisch in the mid-1960s, we women with English on our tongues, Yiddish in our DNA, and Hebrew in our hearts. We were surrounded in the Rochman home by the ghoulish graffiti of their daughter, Rivka Miriam, who would go on to become an accomplished poet but whose adolescent charcoal murals of emaciated figures from Over There belied the [End Page 21] energy, the humor, the melodies, and the stories that kept us coming back to Rochman's table.
And then, Life happened, to us both. By the time we reconnected, we were each somewhat bruised but also much wiser—and funnier. We met over the years in our respective homes in Berkeley and Jerusalem; at a Jewish writers' conference in San Francisco; at a colloquium on the poetry of Yehuda Amichai in Durham, North Carolina. But most of our encounters were on the page, as I pored over Chana's translations of Ravikovitch and Yehuda Amichai, which she did with her namesake and soul sister Chana Kronfeld, and of the Song of Songs with her first husband, Ariel.
Then, as Chana's own poetry began to accumulate, I came to realize that at nearly every turn in my own life, she had been there just before me and had managed to craft those intersections into magnificent verse: in divorce, in "late love" and remarriage, in the efforts to create something new and beautiful out of the fragments of our parents' (and then our own) broken and reconstituted lives, in our desire to transmit our secrets and struggles to our children in ways that would enable and not cripple them:
I wanted to save the two of youfrom the misery that filled our house.Even smoke-blind,I saw your serious faces asking.It was you who saved me.
Would it help youto know the scope of my confusions?The journals are full of secretsbut maybe you know them without my telling.
The key to the safe is under the sugar bowl.1
That sugar bowl stands in all our kitchens …
And then came the cancer. Helplessly, we witnessed Chana's dogged determination not to let the beast devour her spirit as it took chunks out [End Page 22] of her body. It was not in the clichéd "battle" against the Grim Reaper—as if...