Yakov Azriel: Poetic voice from the Torah

An Overview
by Mary Harwell Sayler

When we think of the Torah, we often think of rules, regulations or commandments, rather than the written or oral “instruction” the word intends. We might think of Law as God ordained it, set in stone and bound by impartiality, justice, and mercy, but not poetry. And yet Yakov Azriel looks beneath the seemingly rigid surface and beyond our assumptions to give a fresh, flexible look at the Torah in shaping and reshaping the people of God: people who lived thousands of years ago–or right now.

As a person of God in the world today, Gerald Rosenkrantz received highest honors in English literature from Brooklyn College in his native New York before migrating, at 21, to Israel where he changed his name to Yakov Azriel. Continuing his studies in Jerusalem, he received a doctorate in Judaica with special emphasis on the teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Braslav (1772-1810), who believed that the leading Tzaddik (righteous man) or Tzidkanit (righteous woman) of each era is meant to be the “Moses” of that generation.

Unlike action heroes, this modern-day Moses battles pride, power, and oppression, but, like Hollywood heroes, the Tzaddik defends the underdog. No doubt this rabbinical teaching, an empathic nature, and the blessed task of parenting seven children had some influence on the writing project to which Yakov Azriel was led – a series of poetry books giving voice to the Torah, including those people who seldom get heard.

In the projected five-book series to which Time Being Books has committed, each book speaks clearly from the Pentateuch:

Threads from a Coat of Many Colors: Poems on Genesis

In the Shadow of a Burning Bush: Poems on Exodus

Beads for the Messiah’s Bride: Poems on Leviticus

Swimming in Moses’ Well: Poems on Numbers

In Jerusalem I Hear the Ocean’s Waves: Poems on Deuteronomy, tentative title scheduled for publication in 2013

The titles themselves illustrate the poet’s commitment, not only to the Torah, but to the lyrical beauty of poetry. Indeed, each of the books, including the one yet to be published, brings a variety of forms from free verse to syllabic verse to traditional metered patterns such as the sonnet, sestina, ballad, and villanelle. This variation of forms also creates visual interest as line lengths change from page to page.

But the unique perspectives and contemporary ties create more than visual interest. In the first book, for example, a poem considers “The Sacrifice of Sarah,” rather than the typical view of faith shown by Abraham. Another twist entitled “Asenat” has Joseph teaching his Egyptian wife how to be Hebrew. Then, in the book of poems on Exodus, “The Drowned Child” reminds us that every Hebrew boy did not have a mother who made a waterproof basket to set her newborn son afloat on the Nile, nor did the daughter of a Pharaoh come to the rescue of every infant.

Years later, but still in Exodus, God asked Moses to rescue His people, despite a speech impediment, and so another poem addresses “The Stutterer,” saying, “Of course you stutter, our teacher Moses;/ How heavy/ Is the Word of God, this mountain/ Which leaves you panting/ As you carry it on your back and shoulders.”

Appropriately, poems from Leviticus begin on a biblical theme of offerings with the “Sacrifices Made” to give up “former truths” as “The Kosher Pig” oinks loudly, begging, “Let me in, I want to learn.” Levitical laws also evoke an unusual view in “The Prayer of the Lame Temple-Priest,” who is not allowed to serve because of physical imperfection, and “The Leper’s Wife,” who is very aware each time “The bell around his neck clanks and clinks.”

Similarly, the poems on the book of Numbers have such uncommon persepctives as “Delilah, After Samson’s Death” interspersed with humorous pieces such as the “Documentary Proof,” which says “It really is a shame” Aaron’s sons didn’t have video cameras to film the “splitting of the Red Sea.” Other poems, however, tell of familiar scenes in a contemporary voice. For example, the last section of the opening poem “Family Haiku” invites readers to enter a cozy setting where you find “children with matches/ and candles in a dark room,/ in my wife’s eyes, Light.”

As that Light continues to shine through each of the four books of poems on the Pentateuch that have been published, readers may wonder if the fifth book on Deuteronomy will be as bright, but this reader certainly recommends finding out!

Meanwhile, a peek at the poetry hiding in Deuteronomy comes unexpectedly in “The Ten Commandments” where “fields of peonies…spell out: / Remember The Sabbath, To Keep It Holy” and where “Palm trees have been planted as words that declare:/ Honor Your Father And Your Mother.” Surely such perfect law as the Living God gave us was not meant to remain in stone but to be planted as flowers or carefully placed in the hands of a poet as skilled as Yakov Azriel.

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© 2012, Mary Harwell Sayler, reviewer, writes in all genres for traditional publishers of poetry and Bibles and helps other poets and writers through critiques and a variety of blogs on Bible topics and writing too. Her poems appear in journals, anthologies, and e-zines, and in June 2012 Hiraeth Press published her book Living in the Nature Poem. As a lifelong lover of the Bible in almost every English translation, she writes Bible people poems in free verse, metered forms, and prose poetry.

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