To: The Compilers of the Siddur Tisha-b'Av by the Rabbinical Assembly
Re: The awful poem "Poland", by Menachem Rosensaft, mistakenly included in the siddur
My synagogue has had the good fortune, over the past couple of years, to pilot the new Siddur Tisha-b'Av of the Rabbinical Assembly (the rabbis' guild of the Conservative movement). I say "good fortune" not just because the siddur is a worthwhile endeavor, with many good points, but because it gives me the chance to be a kol koyre, a voice crying in the wilderness, warning against certain parts of this new publication that are a Really Bad Idea. Since people are more likely, as a rule, to engage in lukewarm praise than in honest and well-founded criticism, I will try to confine myself to the latter in what follows.
The major innovation in the siddur is the section entitled "Contemporary Poetry." This is a great idea. While the particular styles of the medieval kinot are obsolescent (or, as I like to hope, merely dormant and waiting for their poetic redemption), the art of Jewish poetic dirge continues into the modern age. This makes it all the more important for a prayerbook to navigate the straits of poetic ignorance. On the one hand, there's the Scylla of Artscroll, confusing dignity with dullness and rendering every translation in a style reeking of must and mothballs. On the other hand, there are those translators (and poets) who seem to think that poetry is either chopped-up prose with bits of self-confession thrown in, or mawkish and fumbling attempts at rhyme.
Unfortunately, those of us who have idly leafed through Conservative siddurim and machzorim during the occasional sub-par derashah (sorry, rabbis!) know that the Rabbinical Assembly is the Charybdis hinted at above. A certain type of Conservative Jew (all right, me and my friends), who actually bothers to read the prayerbook, can recite some examples of the "art" of the Conservative siddur-translator, starting with the noble effort from the High Holiday machzor (paraphrased, I fear; where's an on-line version when you need one?):
Enemies have pursued me, fast and fleet,
But none pursue me faster than my own feet.
I could go through Sim Shalom and point out similar guffaw-inducing sins of perdition, but I need to get to bed eventually. What I want to talk about here are two mistakes in the new siddur: a small error of translation and an almost unforgivable sin of poetic selection.
After Tisha B'av minchah is inserted a small section dealing with Naomi Shemer's song Jerusalem of Gold. Very nice, except when you get to the song itself and its translation, the two words "meyayelot rukhot [the winds wail, or ululate]" is rendered as "Winds meow"! Unless it's supposed to rhyme with "Jericho" two lines later (which would be even worse), I don't understand this choice. Are winds ever said to meow? What does this word do for the style or sense? This seems to be the work of a translator who thinks that any quirky, well-meant word will do.
The greater and infuriating mistake is in the choice of poetry in the Contemporary Poetry section, the poems in which seem to have been slapped together without a unifying organization. There's the translation by Y.L. Gordon of a poem by Byron, raising two questions. First, what's the point of a Hebrew translation? To justify the poem's inclusion in a siddur? To show that Hebrew poets have translated Byron? Second, a friend of mine points out that the poem is really meant ironically, and its treatment of the Jewish elegy is perhaps not to be taken at face value.
After a selection from "Ir HaHareigah" by Bialik (a good and obvious choice) and a poem by Uri Tzvi Greenberg (another good choice, though the poet's Yiddish work is inexplicably ignored in the biographical note), we get a poem so bad it leaves one breathless with horror. Written by a fellow by the name of Menachem Rosensaft, irrelevantly identified as "founding chairman of the International Network of Children of Holocaust Survivors", the poem, called "Poland", is a crude obscenity with no place in any publication. I speak this strongly because a bad poem in a siddur, and especially a bad poem that purports to be "about" the Jewish experience in the Holocaust, is immoral. It cheapens the language that is the currency of prayer, pollutes the clarity of sentiment and thought that should motivate us on a fast day, and desecrates the memories that Rosensaft has exploited in the poem.
My theory (since you asked!) is that this poem was included in the section in lieu of a Yiddish poem. Indeed, the lack of any poetry in Yiddish in this siddur is deafening. I would love to give the Rabbinical Assembly the benefit of the doubt and explain away this mistake as due not to any anti-Yiddish hostility, but to simple ignorance. But I can't: did none of the compilers know about David Roskies, one of the world's foremost authorities on Yiddish literature, who works in the same building? He would have told them that the shelves of a Yiddish bookcase, to our great tragedy, groan with the volumes of catastrophe and Holocaust poetry by such masters as Sutskever, Glatshteyn, Katsnelson, and Grade, not to mention the work by poets of our own day.
I don't know who of the Conservative movement will read this blog. Perhaps no one. But there might be a chance that this cry of offense and aggrievement, if taken up by enough people, might convince the Rabbinical Assembly to remove this text from the siddur. I realize that few of the blogreaders have a copy of the siddur, which is still in proofs. However, I fear that the siddur is close to its final version, and therefore I am willing to take the risk of sounding the alarm as loud as possible.