in sea foam and the sport of laughing waves
in full midnight and silent falling stars
in a clatter of light at dawn, and turbulance
of sunset in an ocean aflame
Chaim Nahman Bialik, The Pool
The man in between the Double Mirrors is homeless and considered insane, yet I am sure he is the most enlightened man I've ever met. As I photographed him on the beach in Tel Aviv that night, he performed hand movements, lost in his own world, seemingly oblivious to the fact he was being photographed. To me, his gesture, fingers pointing upwards towards the moon, reveals the focus of the visionary. He is positioned between the parallel mirrors of sunsets over the Mediterranean Sea, an image which expresses transcendence through the ocean- through nature. He is a New Jew if I've ever seen one.
The New Jew is a phrase used first by early twentieth century Israeli writers to refer to the new breed of young Jews in Palestine who rejected the two thousand year old Jewish mentality of their parents and ancestors in Europe. The people of the book had become the people of the land. The descendants of shtettle Rabbis and intellectuals of European cities were now farmers and soldiers. Love of the Talmud, the bulk of the written Torah, was replaced with love of nature. Transcendence is now found through sacrifice for the community, the Other.
While many before me have spoken of the emergence of the New Jew as a sociological revolution, I see it as a spiritual one. It is a spiritual transition sparked with the Holocaust, unprecedented since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D. when Judasim transitioned from Temple to Rabbinic Judaism. The New Jew has managed to transcend the Jewish tradition of obsessive focus on memory, the past, and intellectualism; instead he embraces the present. Getting out of the past- embracing the present- was a prerequisite to the spiritual explosion that has taken place. Never before has another nation had the opportunity to witness the spiritual relief of returning to a national home after an exile of this length. This new mentality has led to a spiritual rebirth of a magnitude unparalleled in human history. The effect of 4 million sets of double mirrors instantly snapping into harmony is a light far to bright to capture in this essay.
Man's vision of the infinite is the central issue for not only all poets and artists, but all human beings. In fact, as Homo Sapiens- creatures of self reflection- we are all destined to spend a lifetime grappling with the problems and questions that our self consciousness creates. For a truck driver or basketball player the problem of the human condition might not seem urgent, but eventually we all fall in love, or at least have some moment of Truth, and inevitably, each in our own ways, have to confront the very same problems every poet, artist, and prophet who walked the face of the earth has been speaking of. God, Love, Truth- it's all the same thing.
Most people don't think of spirituality in these universal terms. This is because we are a product of 2000 years of organized religion which has taught us to intellectualize our spirituality, and to convert out innate desire for Love and Harmony into rituals and dead dogma. But I believe all this is changing. Ultimately, man's perception of God is a problem greater than any religion. Old and New "Jews" can also be found hiding in Christianity, Islam, and every other religion. But when all the rhetoric and dead dogma is put aside, man's vision of the infinite- God/love/truth- exists independent of organized religion, and is in fact rooted in the inherent Double Mirrors of our individual minds. We are living in times of spiritual revolution, and I call this new universal religion the New Jew.
So it with this in mind, I will begin my analysis of several contemporary Hebrew poems. I assume that nearly all would agree that poetry, as an art, aims to express spiritual ideas. It is no surprise, then, that the New Jew spirit that I have been speaking of is alive in every poem we have read. But who better to begin with than Chaim Nahchmun Bialik, the father of Hebrew poetry.
In this seven page poem, Bialik writes about a pool isolated in the middle of a thick forest. He introduces the pond simply:
I recall a forest: in the forest
I recall a single hidden pool
Although the English translation is slightly vague, the original Hebrew text implies a forest within a forest. I can only wonder if Bialik was also fascinated by the poetic implications of an infinite regression of reflections produced by parallel mirrors. Clearly, this first line is hardly enough of a hint, but Bialik develops the mirror theme throughout the lengthy poem. On p. 120 of Ruth Nevo's translation :
as if in joy to mirror the virile forest,
dreaming perhaps in secret, who can know?
that she is no mere nourisher and image
but the source of his whole being and his growth.
And again, on p.130:
Below, a pool, translucent, glassy, calm,
a silver mirror framed in fresh green grass
encloses yet another second world
and at its center, facing that above,
a shining agate fixed: two summer suns.
So there is no question Bialik is interested in the metaphor of the mirror. In fact, there are even hints of a doubled mirror: On p.122, the pond is described as "redoubling in her sleeping, mirrored waters." This reference, in addition to the hint of the first line of the poem seems to suggest that at minimum, Bialik is flirting with this idea. But many different writers use the metaphor of mirrors to express many different ideas. Is Bialik necessarily using the mirror as a metaphor for human spirituality? At times in the poem it would seem that the pond might be a metaphor for an introspective, secretive woman with a "hidden heart" under the protection of her husband, the forest. When a storm strikes, and the trees begin to shake, she is worried, but has a moment of doubt, concerned that her fear is not for her husband, but rather selfish, and that "for her own small world she trembles." (p.126)
In fact, there are numerous possible interpretations of this poem. It is romantic in nature, and appeals to a wide spectrum of human emotion and experience. The association the poem conjures in my mind of a Doubled Mirror is no more appropriate than any other connection a reader might develop. But this relativity only exists when translating the poem into our own experience. Nevertheless, the poem has a spiritual life of its own, and on this level, the poem becomes all encompassing. Put simply: on the most fundamental level, the pond is a metaphor for the human soul, and this realization will allow us to examine the poem further.
Bialik turns the description of the poem inward in the middle of the poem, and for the first time mentions himself. As a young boy, he writes, "brushed for the first time by the spirit's wing," he would roam in the forest, and enjoy his "heart's communion with divinity." The climax of this spiritual meditation is when he encounters the pond. The poem then, is actually about the spiritual awakening of the writer himself.
The last stanza of the poem provides a crescendo-like conclusion to the poem, and dispels any remaining doubts as to the meaning of the pond:
concealed in shadow, tranquil, clear and still,
reflecting all things and containing all,
transfigured as she transformation finds,
she seemed to me to be the gazing eye
of the spirit of the forest, deep in thought,
in meditation and in mystery
After accepting the pond as a spiritual entity, a "gazing eye of the spirit," other interpretations are not ruled out. The poem, like the pond, is after all, "hidden in meditation and in mystery." In fact, if one reads a little more into the poem, it becomes possible that the pond is actually a symbol for Bialik himself. Protected by the 600,000 gusts of wind by the trees of the forest, seems to be a prophetic foreknowledge of the 600,000 Israelis who would defend their new state in the War of Independence of 1948, but it is ironic that Bialik refers to them as the storm and not the trees, leaving this interpretation on somewhat shaky ground. What is certain is that Bialik the poet and prophet, is a "gazing eye" of the Jewish people. He is a mirror of New Jew spirit embodied by the pond in the poem, and a self reflective force capable of capturing this energy in his art.
I didn't get the light for free
If there is any doubt after reading "The Pool," over whether Bialik is writing about prophetic notions of the soul and spirituality, there can certainly remain little question after reading his poem .
He begins with an almost ironic sense of humor, writing that "the light" didn't come to him for free or from an inheritance from his father. No he writes, it comes from his troubles, and he "quarries" his vision out of his heart. In the tradition of all the Biblical prophets (as well as every other human) Bialik's is an internal vision. His spirituality comes from within. But is this a preoccupation with the self? Is his vision merely internal, an energy wasted on a narcissism of a single isolated self centered pond in the middle of the forest? If this was the case, Bialik could hardly be considered a New Jew prophet, and indeed, the rest of the poem makes it clear that his vision is anything but a self focused energy.
The hammer of his troubles strikes the stone of his heart and produces the spark of his vision. This spark is translated into his poetry, and the next crucial step is when the transition from the Self to Other occurs. Others read his poetry and the spark continues into their hearts, starting a spiritual fire that builds off itself. With every spiritual offering there is a sacrifice, and here the sacrifice is his own flesh and blood, his suffering, the fuel for this spiritual explosion.
It is hard to imagine any poem that talks about prophecy in a more direct way short of the writer saying straight out that he is Jesus, the Messiah or some other prophet. Bialik doesn't have to say this though; he is comfortable speaking about his vision in poetic and metaphoric terms. He has come a long way since the days of his youth mediating in the forest and peeking at God by the mirror of his pond. In fact, I would argue that the two poems should be read as a chronology- a chronicle of Bialik's own spiritual quest, beginning with a spirituality born from the self reflection of the pond, and culminating in a Jesus like prophetic existence as the Visionary Poet. The visionary in this poem is certainly a Jesus like being, self sacrifice and suffering being the source of his transcendence. Bialik seems to have no problems with writing with what some might call Christian influence; for him, clearly, he is writing from his soul which transcends all other religious connotations. Spiritual experience is the same for us all.
As I have explained in my own work with the metaphor of Double Mirrors, , it is self consciousness that produces spirituality, but this same energy, if not channeled fully into Life, becomes the fuel that can burn into self destruction and Deadness. Humans, as self reflective beings, therefore have an infinite potential for not only spirituality, but self destruction as well. Self discovery leads to achieving an inner truth that can transcend to a harmonious relationship with the Other, but without a harmonious infinite regression of Double Mirror images, a dissonance is projected with infinite qualities as well. Self destruction is the side affect of spirituality, so it is not surprising that in addition to the themes of visions and communion with God, Self Destruction is a major theme in the poems we have studied.
Perhaps the most blatant example of this theme that we have encountered is the poem by Meir Vizulteer, untitled, beginning, "take my poems and don't read them." The poem is full of denigration and self desecration. Spit on this book, pinch it, kick it, . . . throw this book into the sea, put it into the fire to see if it is fireproof. . . this book is a rag of paper, and words are like flies.
This might seem to be the polar opposite of the two Bialik poems, but each share the same roots. The poem is a personification of the writer, and when Vizulteer begs the readers to pinch his poem, it is like a depressed masochist pinching himself to see if he is alive. This sensation is not enough proof, so he cuts himself. And Vizulteer goes on: kick me, through me into the sea, burn me, etc. . . all this self destruction to try to feel alive. By trying to destroy his deadness, he is actually destroying himself. The spiritual dissonance of his soul produces a tension between his body and soul, but by hurting his body he is really hurting his soul at the same time. This downward spiral is the anti-thesis of the transcendence embodied by Bialik and his vision, but is no less of an accurate portrait of the human condition.
The Jewish people seem to have an overdose of this humanity. It is not surprising that the very same New Jews who have set an example for the potential of the human spirit, are now demonstrating the dangers of self destruction. I will leave off with an excerpt from an editorial I wrote for The Columbia Spectator last Monday:
"Ain Breira," there is no choice, a phrase used for decades to describe Israel's need to survive its struggle with Arabs, should now be used to describe its struggle with itself.
The fact that a country can be in more danger in times of peace than in times of war- the threat of its own self destruction being more potent than any external enemy, and that a man devoted to peace and the betterment of his nation could be shot in the back by one of those he has devoted his life to protecting, is the saddest indictment of human nature I have witnessed.
Yitzhack Rabin is a true hero and his legacy will live on. The dream of peace is more powerful then the bullets of a single assassin. Shimon Peres, who has been appointed acting Prime Minister, has a massive responsibility, but just as it will take more than one murderer to destroy the peace, it will take more than one man to keep the peace process alive. Perhaps it will take a miracle. But Israel is the land of miracles for three religions, and as long as the human spirit which produces these miracles is stronger than the self destruction of the misguided few, the spirit of the New Jew will survive. Ain Braira.