Yakov Azriel was born in New York, in 1950, as Gerald Rosenkrantz. After receiving his B.A. in English literature, summa cum laude, at Brooklyn College in 1971, he moved to Israel, where he changed his name to Yakov Azriel. He studied at the Mercaz HaRav Kook Yeshiva, in Jerusalem, and the Har-Etzion Yeshiva, in Alon-Shvut, Israel, as well as in the Masters Program in Creative Writing at Bar-Ilan University. He later completed an M.A., with distinction, and a doctorate in Judaica, concentrating on the stories of Rabbi Nachman of Braslav. His poems on Biblical themes have been published in journals in the U.S., the U.K., and Israel, and his poems have won five prizes in international poetry competitions, most recently the Miriam Lindberg Israel Poetry Prize for Peace, in 2004. He was recently awarded a fellowship from the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture for his poetry. Yakov Azriel is married and has seven children.
The following poems are reproduced by permission from Threads from a Coat of Many Colors, his first full-length collection (Time Being Books [www.timebeing.com], 2005).
In the Beginning
"In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. "
First day: Do you wish to know how light
Can find a voice and sing,
How light can grow legs and dance?
The light emanating from the name
Of God, hidden and hiding in
Worlds within words, breaks out to shine.
Second day: The upper waters ascend from the shadows to shine
As they wash and separate heavy black Torah letters from light
White parchment. The lower waters, descending, sing
Hymns as they read the notes of music inscribed in
Molecules of water, accompanied by soft waves that dance
As they separate and divide to spell out the letters of God's name.
Third day: Are you searching for the Shechinah's throne and the name
She gives her kingdom? Find them not only in
The praise the light-green grass prays or in the psalms light-
Green seaweeds whisper as they sway; but her crown and scepter shine
In every living cell, as millions of genes sing
Her name, as chromosomes dazed by her glory dance.
Fourth day: If the righteous teach the crippled how to dance
And help each nobody find a sacred name;
If the moon reflects the sun, the sun reflects our deeds; if, in
Blinded or bruised eyes, the righteous allow light
To enter, so that eyes heal and see and shine
Again; if so, the sun can rekindle, the moon glow and sing.
Fifth day: When leviathans rebel; when snakes refuse to sing;
When peacocks mutate into vultures and refuse to shine;
When the King of the universe seems to abdicate His throne, king in name
Only; when Torah letters cease to swirl in Hasidic dance,
Freeze and petrify; when the only light
Is Job's night, open, then, the gates of the soul, invite faith in.
Sixth day: Who is audacious enough to believe “In
The image of God, God created Man?” The words dance
And teach the crippled to prance, too; the words shine
And teach moons and suns to blanz; the words sing
And give dust and ashes, fusing with God’s name,
The audacity and courage to ignite the light.
Shabbat: The Sabbath gives her crown, her name, her dance,
Her dreams to all who sing, who yearn to shine
With joy, in her palace of light.
Let There Be Light
"The earth was unformed and void,
and darkness was upon the face of the deep;
and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters.
God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light. "
As supernovas bursting, as red giants exploding,
As eleven ruby stars in Joseph's dreams,
Red is the Torah light. Its beams
Penetrate the cavern of chaos called the world,
To reveal structure:
Stratified layers of meaning,
Slowly dripping stalactites of insight,
Stalagmites of understanding, ascending.
As Jerusalem's summer skies,
As Joseph's entreating eyes,
Blue is the light of Israel,
Revealing in the depths of cavern-canyons
Underground currents flowing, converging,
Fed from fathomless sources: Joseph's fathers, Joseph's mothers,
Each drop a child of Joseph and his brothers.
A river of destiny cascades, turbulent,
Towards a tranquil turquoise sea of redemption, unseen
But not unforeseen.
As Jerusalem's noontime sun,
As eleven sheaves of wheat bowing to one,
Yellow is the light of the Soul,
Piercing, like x-rays, the skin of cavern walls,
To reveal ribs of God's concern,
God's caress, contours of His care
Supporting, uplifting, embracing
The anatomy of the cave.
O God, grant us fire.
In the dark chill of the cave, wrap us in warm fabric
Woven from a coat of many colors.
Let my left hand grasp a Torch
And my right the prism of Faith, Joseph’s prism,
To transform and unify Red, Blue, Yellow
Into radiant illumination,
The Tikkun of the Moon
"And God made the two great lights: the larger light to rule the day
and the lesser light to rule the night. . . "
(Genesis 1: 16)
"May it be Your will, O Lord, my God and the God of my fathers,
to heal the moon's deficiency so that she no longer be flawed;
may the light of the moon be again like the light of the sun
and the light of the seven days of Creation,
as she was before her diminution, as it is written: 'the two great lights.'
May there be fulfilled upon us the verse:
'They will seek the Lord their God and David their king.' Amen. "
(traditional Jewish blessing for the new moon)
a wrinkled, elderly seamstress sitting in an unheated hovel,
cries as she sits by the bed of her sick granddaughter,
Her granddaughter lies motionless, pale and emaciated,
unable to awaken, her pulse scarcely detectable.
shivering, exhausted, returns to the antique sewing machine,
where she stitches the luminous satin wedding gown
her granddaughter, is to wear
under the canopy, on the day of her marriage.
knows when the dress is finished,
she will be able to heal and escort
her granddaughter, smiling, stepping quickly,
almost dancing, to the wedding canopy,
And the true beginning of time,
The day of the moonrise,
"And God blessed tbe seventh day and sanctified it;
because on it He rested from all His work that God in creating had made. "
for Shoshanah Ehrlich, Jacob Rechnitz, and S.J. Agnon
Inside the study hall
(Windows shut and doors closed),
The six brothers sit,
Each one bent over his volume of the Talmud.
That one reads a commentary in the back;
This one argues with his brother about a word's meaning;
Another asks the rabbi for his opinion:
"Why does the verse use this phrase?"
"Where is there a parallel passage?"
But outside the study hall,
The seventh child, the youngest,
In her father's garden
Amidst the shadows of the eucalyptus and willows,
Dipping her hands into the pond in the middle of the garden,
Laughing as she fails to catch the tadpoles
Slipping between her fingers.
When she thinks no one is watching,
She wades into the water
And plunges headfirst
To gather water-blossoms on the bottom.
After counting to seven,
She emerges, laughing, adorning her drenched hair
With a garland of white lilies of the pond.
If you should manage to catch her (before she slips between your fingers);
If you should bend over, bow and ask her humbly;
She may agree to teach you
How to dance in step with the wind orchestrating the leaves,
to hear the leaves whispering her father's secrets to the wind,
to gaze at clouds transforming from camel to weasel to whale to dove,
and on the wings of clouds,
"They heard tbe voice of the Lord God
walking in the Garden toward the cool of the day;
and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God
in the trees of the Garden. And the Lord God called out to the man,
and said to him, 'Where are you?'"
I had found such a good hiding place
That I was sure He would never find me.
I had managed to dig out the heart
Of this tree in the middle of the garden,
Then seal the hole with thick, heavy stones.
I heard Him calling out to me,
"Where are you? Where are you?"
And as He kept searching, kept trying to find me,
"What a joke."
Time passed -- hours? days? years?
But I wouldn't budge.
As He kept searching, kept calling out,
"Where are you?"
When I finally didn't hear His voice anymore,
I came out
But the garden – all the trees leafless and withered, their branches
broken and brittle;
No flowers, no grass, burnt stumps for bushes, gray ash everywhere,
As if some cloud of radioactive fallout
Had descended, had enveloped
And the river, with its countless cataracts and rapids, which had gushed and
With the waters of four tributaries –
I walk over the dry, cracked riverbed, searching
For what? For whom?
I can’t see the sunset because of the fog
But it’s getting dark
And I’m hungry
And I’m cold
And there’s only silence.
Can it be that He’s given up on me,
That he’s found a really good hiding place?
Hey Mister – Sir –
Where are You?
To Irrigate the Desert
"Isaac brought her to the tent of his mother Sarah;
he betrothed Rebecca and she became his wife, and he loved her. "
Beneath meters of baked desert sand and scorched rock,
Of untapped waters, cool, almost ice,
Wait for the well to be dug.
With patience and God's help,
I'll locate the site, dig the well,
And subterranean waters
So too is my mouth a desert -
Yet underneath layers of silent skin and tissue,
Of untapped feelings and countless unheard songs
With patience and God's help,
I'll utter the unexpressed words, release hidden melodies,
And submerged emotions
Thus my love for you:
Buried deep within,
Waiting to be excavated and exposed,
The songs of my love for you
Well up, flow out,
The two deserts of our lives.
JUDAH, FOR FATHER
(From "Twenty-Two Letters for Jacob")
Inside me, incarcerated, hides a
Finer me. An exquisite Greek statue,
Locked in a slab of marble, awaits the
Sculptor's chisel, to whittle, cut, pound, hew
Away unwanted rock and liberate.
I, the only sculptor, armless. My true
Hands, knowing of craftsmanship and art, wait
Helpless in the stone. Visions of a Jew
serving God in truth, serving people in
Compassion – in my mind, these visions blaze.
But the chip, chip-away of rock, of sin
How? The tools to chip – where? My father's gaze,
His voice, his words reverberate in me;
Let these, my fingers and my chisel be.
(The following poems appeared in The Neovictorian/Cochlea.)
ABRAHAM, AFTER THE BIRTH OF HIS TWIN GRANDSONS
My grandsons sleep. And as they stir, the years
When my wife and I could not conceive a child,
When my son as well seemed cursed, bewitched, beguiled,
When our lives were ruled by sterile, barren tears,
Are pushed aside. My grandsons sleep. My hairs
Are gray and few; my voice, now soft and mild,
Has lost its former force, when words were piled
Like stones on walls erecting forts of prayers.
My grandsons sleep; I look at them and cry,
Then bow before my God who's shown me grace,
Who let me know today that all the pain,
The sacrifices made, the scoffers’ "why,"
The stubborn faith that God will show His face –
It hasn't been in vain, no, not in vain.
You, who were the Shield of Abraham, shield
Us now from waves of arrows which precede
The cavalry's assault, and intercede
To stop barbed clubs the enemy will wield.
For You, who shielded Isaac and concealed
Him underneath Your armor, see we bleed
From piercing darts; our father's God, we need
Your ointment for our wounds which have not healed.
As Jacob's Shield, You saved him from the sword
His brother held by giving him the strength
To wrestle with an angel in the night;
Endow us with our fathers' faith, O Lord,
And shield us, as we struggle in the length
And breadth of life, with bucklers of Your light.
(The following poem received an Honorable Mention in the 2005 Reuben Rose Memorial Poetry Competition)
Moses encountered a bush ablaze, whose light
Bestowed upon the shepherd speech and sight;
The bush brought forth a spark that would ignite
An inner fire inside the man; he heard
A voice within a voice that uttered the Word
Of God, which fluttered and hovered like a bird.
Samuel often dreamt he saw a bird
Flying and gliding upward toward a light.
But once, the little boy awoke and heard
A voice that called his name; the voice's word
Transformed into a candle that could ignite
The failing lamp of God, and grant him sight.
Elijah inside the cave had lost his sight,
His sense of hearing and his hope; yet the Word
Returned in a still small voice that lit the light
Of faith, that faith which once had brought a bird
To feed him meat and bread; the voice he heard
Extinguished fires that flames of doubt ignite.
Isaiah found the words which would ignite
Belief and trust that Zion, like a bird,
Should surely fly again, taught by the Word
Of God to find its nest and home; the light
Enkindled by his words gave blind slaves sight
And hope to hear the bird they once had heard.
Jeremiah cried, lamented, mourned; he heard
Too well that Word of God whose sparks ignite
A fire that scorches every tree and bird,
A fire which bums a prophet's throat and sight,
A fire all heat and flame without the light,
A fire which singes every human word.
Ezekiel received in awe the Word
Of God, and bowed in the valley when he heard
Dry bones rattle; he trembled at the sight
Of flesh and skin; he watched his words ignite
The spark of life within the risen bird
Of Zion, a phoenix soaring toward the light.
The Messiah waits for God's Word to ignite
White flames, the sign for a bird to bring him sight.
If only prophets heard where shines his light!