I’m grateful for the existence of this non sequitur genre that was the first language that allowed me to fully articulate what is difficult to express, to Marcela for revealing the gorgeous world of hybrid literature to me, and to my dearest Geula– the best type of friend a writer could have– for the feedback that helped me polish it. It feels like a second birth seeing it out in the world.
Here is a clip from the piece:
I left home before graduation and moved in with him when I was seventeen. My mother called the police and said he was “harboring a minor.” The police car picked me up at his apartment to take me home. I went back the next day. She also took my passport. I reported it as stolen, and he bought me a new one. We went to the courthouse on my 18th birthday and signed the marriage certificate. A month later, we were on a plane to Israel.
The first compasses did not always point north. Early compasses pointed east.
Mother: “You need to ask yourself, why did you decide to marry him, and go to a foreign country with him? Why have you stayed together this long? Do any or all of these reasons still exist? Whatever you have done or not done, or whatever he has done or not done, is it forgivable? Can you move on and stay together?”
Compassare, from Vulgar Latin, “to pass or step together.”
I left him when I was 25—when I met Sasha.
Elisheva: “Some of the things you say sound eerily familiar. I tell you when a man or woman does not feel satisfied it takes on a life of its own. I’m glad about the way he has made you feel. Every woman wants to feel lost in love (or lust) as you are.”
It has a magnetized pointer free to align itself with Earth’s magnetic field.
Mother: “I know this may sound strange to you, but somehow I feel that I am to blame for your present situation. Maybe if I had been a better parent, or maybe if I did not give you money to go out, you would not have met or become involved with this guy.”
In the summer of 2019, I had the most powerful dance experience of my life with Orly Portal‘s Swiria (סוויריה). I didn’t go back the following year because I’d decided to take on becoming a homeroom teacher and Sundays, the days we had the Swiria course from the morning to the afternoon, were required work days at the school. For two years since, I’d been eating my heart out on the regular. I would see the women that I started with progressing, dancing on rooftops or in the forest during lockdown, performing on the stage, fulfilling the dream that I had come for in the first place.
I asked myself “How could I do it?” How could I have taken this away from myself? For what? Was the task I had taken upon myself worth the dream deferred?” (Especially since what was supposed to be a four year journey as a Waldorf high school homeroom teacher came to an abrupt end after its second year–but that’s a topic for another post.)
And then, on Wednesday, October 6th, I entered the studio in Ein Shemer for the first time after a two-year hiatus. I felt the return home. Already, at the beginning of class, during the stretches, I had tears of gratitude in my eyes. What’s most important is that I am here. What’s most important is that I returned. What’s most important is that I have learned my lesson, to never say “no” again to what is good for my entire being. But rather, to always say an enthusiastic yes, with a full heart, no matter what, with faith that the rest will work themselves out.
After that performance in August 2019, I wrote a piece that I never shared publicly. In honor of my return, it is time for it to come to light. At the end, I have a little surprise. There is a hint in the title.
How do I begin to process what Swarriya סוויריה has meant for me? ובאיזו שפה? (–and in which language?)
זאת המילה שמלווה אותי כל הדרך. (This is the word that carries me along the way.)
In Hebrew there is no satisfactory translation because it misses a cultural significance.
בעברית הפירוש הוא “עדות” אבל באנגלית, בתרבות של הכנסיות האפרו-אמריקאיות המשמעות היא לבוא מול הקהל ולהעיד על איזה נסים נעשה בחייך עלי יד הכוח העליון. לספר איך הגעת לכאן ומען באת. איך רק זכות האמונה ניצלת.
(In English, it carries connotations of the African American church, meaning to come in front of the congregation and “give a testimony” on the miracles done in your life by the higher power. To tell how you got here and where you came from. How only by the power of faith were you saved.)
My story with Swarriya begins over four years ago  when I saw it performed: The Gnawa trance called me to the stage to dance it; the fusion with Gill Scott Heron’s spoken word spoke to my soul—beats of the descendants of slaves from the east meet voice of the descendants of slaves from the west. I wanted to jump on stage and thus begin the obsession. זרע החלום ניטע. (The seed of the dream took root.)
“It’s your rhythm.”
(She told me once at a workshop in Jerusalem.)
“זה הקצב שלך,”
היא אמרה לי פעם בסדנה נדירה בי”ם.
The story of my rhythm spans decades—from being told I couldn’t dance to being told I was born to dance, to recognizing my own rhythm.
She was always too far, too out of reach, but when Swarriya came for reincarnation, I couldn’t resist. With the help of Ella’s faith, I made the pilgrimage to Ein Shemer.
אורלי אמרה פעם, “תעשו מחקר. תראו מאיפה באנו. המקור של ריקוד היה לסיבה הזאת בלבד, להזמין את הרוחות לעזור לנו. כולכן באתן—בין אם ראיתן את סוויריה או לא, בין אם ידעתן או לא—להתחבר לדבר הזה.”
(Orly said once, “Do some research and look where we came from. The origin of dance was for this reason only, to invite the spirits to come help us. All of you came here—whether saw Sawarriya or not whether you know it or not— to connect to this.”)
On April 30th I sprained my ankle. I couldn’t walk for weeks. I couldn’t dance for two months. I never posted about this. I mourned the performance in between physical therapy appointments. I undulated between hope and despair. One month before the show I was told I could dance again. The 2nd rehearsal day that I returned I entered a trance in the last ceremony and felt orgasmic joy surge through my chest and pour out in tears of gratitude. This is a testimony.
“She’s on it,”
Orly said the week before the performance about “New York” and I started messing up what I knew well. The performances were on Thursday and Friday. I was crying from Sunday, Monday I had a panic attack, and cried myself to sleep קניתי רסקיו לפעם הראשונה. On Tuesday, I called Ella crying.
שוב אלה בעלת אמונה הרגיעה אותי. אין מלווה יותר מסורה. עבודת קודש היא עושה.
(I bought Rescue for the first time. Again, faithful Ella calmed me down. There is no more dedicated accompaniment than her. What she does is holy work.)
On Wednesday, the day before the performance Orly pulled me out to the front with one instruction: “יש לך מצב.” (You’re under a spell.)
אז קיבלתי מצב. (So, I fell under a spell.)
Like a magician, a conductor, a mad puppeteer, she pulled out of me what I didn’t even know I had in me to do. And yet it was what I’d been waiting for my entire life, only I did not believe I was worthy.
I went from a sprained ankle to a solo. This is a testimony.
I lost my voice the night before the show. I drank zaatar tea and prayed and held my lapis lazuli. I coughed half the night. My voice came back. And on Thursday I sang “lord have mercy” with all my might; I sang of being healed. I learned to appreciate every functioning part of my body. This is a testimony.
“I thought you were going to melt and turn into butter,” the old lady said, “I thought you were going to just, poof, disappear.”
“זה נכון, היית אנרגיה טהורה,” אורלי אמרה. (“It’s true, you were pure energy,” Orly said.)
“I tell you: one must still have chaos within oneself to give birth to a dancing star.”
~Thus Spoke Zarathustra
“אדם אשר אין בו כאוס
לא יכול להוליד כוכב רוקד.
יש בך כאוס, יש בך כאוס!
יש. יש. יש.”
I confess, I’d never felt so connected before to the continent that was sometimes too proud of its lineage to take in a bastard of the West. But these slaves who made beats with their chains and transformed them into praise songs, I know these songs; my soul has heard them before; they call me home.
Swarriya is more than Gnawa meets Gil Scott, more than dancing, Moroccan singing, krakebs (qraqeb/garagab) and zills. It’s my story. It’s where all of my parts could finally meet. I danced who I am.
“תודה שראית אותי,” (“Thank you for seeing me,”)
I told her after it was all over.
“איך אפשר שלא?” (“How could I not?”)
אני אסירת תודה אין קץ על המתנה שנקראת “סווירה” מאורלי פורטל האחד ויחידה.
אלף תודות לאלה, שאמונתה הבלתי פוסקת החזיקה אותי מההתחלה ועד הסוף.
כמה ראוי היה לשיר את שבחיך בסוויריה. שיבחתי את שמך מכל ליבי ובאושר עד.
ותודה לשבט הנשים שלי, אחיות הטקס ושותפות במסע לכוהנות.
*[Translations were added for the purposes of this blog post. They are not always 100% accurate–because they cannot be, but aim to convey the essence of the message. Also at the time of writing it, I spelled it “Swarriya” vs. the “Swiria” on the work’s website, but there is no one spelling in English.]
At the “after party,” one of the girls asked me, “Do you know any gospel songs?” If there is a way to end a testimony, then this is it:
This is just a piece of what’s going on in the world. 276 Nigerian girls kidnapped, three Israeli boys kidnapped and murdered, a Palestinian boy kidnapped and murdered, burned alive. I live in Jerusalem, so the latter is more poignant; there has been rioting, violence, racist cries for death, ignorance, calls for revenge, and suspicions all over Facebook feeds and in the news. I am also a mother of daughters; I can’t forget–as it seems to be already forgotten– about daughters taken, god knows what is being done to them away from home and in the hands of violent men. And this is just a piece, there is more, always more–
At times like these, I think of the quote by the late great Maya Angelou,
“We are all human; therefore, nothing human can be alien to us.”
I think it means that we fail to recognize how easy it can be to go so low. We love to hail the beauty of the world, but there is ugliness, and a lot of it and it is all human. It is jarring, disturbing, heart-wrenching, when I allow myself to think about it. I normally don’t, I must admit. Sometimes, I am afraid that if I let in all the woes of the world it would break me in despair. But when I do, I want to fight the horrors; I still don’t know how. I find solace in poetry; others have as well. I don’t mean be naive. There is a level where poetry clearly won’t do a damn thing to change politics and the minds of murderers. And yet, there is great power in words– poetry is the epitome of that force. Poetry has a long history of documenting the times, telling legends, inciting, enticing, eulogizing; the danger of poetry, the sanctuary of poetry is well known; it crosses all boundaries and rises above–and the poets are healers. When we say ‘there are no words for this,’ it is poetry that finds the words. There is a way to know through the eye/I of the poet.
I want to share with you three poems–written out of that spirit in the midst of hate– that I believe have found the words. Two were written by friends of mine who live in Israel, one by me.
children die every day
Revision of life
Revenge or honor
We live to die
The homosexual boy:
in the crook of his father’sarms black sedan’s
back seat–a suspected execution
block–a coffin with seat belts and airbags
Burnt and bound–found
in a forest
[ put your heads down!
gunshots and Arabs singing ]
Three extreme zionist religious Jewish boys
deserved what they got
Murder takes back seat
as do point blank
Instead of words
a rocket will be sent from a schoolyard
and a missile returned to sender
They’ll get what’s coming to them
Two hundred and seventy six
will not be returned
without a war skirmish
Though their children will
with machetes and machine rifles
nestled in their dark slender arms
Hashtags won’t save our generations
round in the hand
is a mortar round
in the air
as we digress
our children suffer
We live by the sword
we die by the sword
No meaning changed
by our revisions
-m z friedline
Days, blurred into each other
Like there was no sleep.
of a hundred TV sets
of another forest fire.
on the fingers
of early-morning travelers,
the serious concentration
of the bus driver…
and children, searching for truth
in the faces
of surrounding adults.
Waves of pain
drifting through neighbourhoods…
Sparks of strength
running through city streets
and a soft, gentle stroking of each other…
a blinding light
calling us all
away from the darkness…
~Louise Harris- Zvieli
Stop the Game
I know it’s hard. You are sitting there thinking, those could have been my boys, my brothers, me. You are thinking, summer has barely started; schools just got out today and some are now on eternal break, broken eternally. No one has won the game anymore–if you’re going to stop the game, then *stop* the game, dammit–no one has won, just lost. But what they don’t tell you in the games, is that nations are made from suffering together–more than shared joys. Is this a good thing, or very, very sad? Perhaps it is a part of the human support mechanism–come closer when it hurts. All I know is, the news will be on forever, especially here–there are hundreds of girls missing too–and the news is forever on, forever on, there will never not be news, only, what is news is old, very old, ancient, never-ending and we have to fall asleep sometimes, but the news will outlive us all.
~Shoshana Sarah K.
Moshe Ze’ev Friedline was born in Boulder Creek, California. He is currently studying English literature at Bar Ilan University in Israel. He is married and has a young daughter and younger son. He realized two years ago that he really enjoys writing poetry. He once found himself in an awkward conversation with a bull in a steakhouse.
Louise Harris- Zvieli says she’s just herself.
*Poetry shared with the permission of the authors. All rights remain to the respective poets.
Pico Iyer asks: “Where is home?” I say: “Home is Babel.”
In this amazing TED talk (I know, I know, ALL TED Talks are amazing, but this one is special!) Pico Iyer just articulated everything I already knew but am just beginning to coherently express about myself. I am debating whether or not to tell you to watch the video Pico Iyer Where is Home first or later. You decide. But if you are a citizen of the world or a citizen of Babel like me then you will feel finally and completely understood, it will feel scientific even.
It’s all the more powerful that I saw this after writing and performing my latest poem “Babili/Home” , my first macaronic language poem, mainly in English with touches of Hebrew, French, Russian and one phrase in Ukrainian. It’s about home. It’s about who I am. It’s an idea I’ve been trying to iron out since I wrote “Multicultural is the New Multiracial” for the Mixed Race 2.0 project (forthcoming) on ‘blackness’ (the African-American brand) coupled with the elusive feeling of detachment from it after (and honestly even before) living within another culture and disdane with having to be defined all of the time. Or what I wrote in “The Babel in Us” (Hebrew) in the multilingual, Tel Aviv based poetry journal “Space”. about how everyone is a little macaronic these days, multilingualism is everywhere and needs places to be expressed which is why I created Poets of Babel.
Speaking of multilingual or macaronic poetry, there are a couple of poets who I know would dig this talk. You should check them out too. One, I’ve mentioned often, Antoine Cassar, the author of the first macaronic poem I read and loved, “Merħba,” as well as the lingual adventures of the book Mużajk(Mosaic), or the powerfully open-hearted poem “Passaport” , which brought tears to my eyes with the line:
“no one to brand you stranger, alien, criminal, illegal immigrant, or extra-communautaire, nobody is extra, …”
Another poet I just met over the summer at a ‘Mini International Poetry Festival’ in Tel Aviv, is Johannes CS Frank, the author of Remembrances of Copper Cream, a trilingual poetry book, in English, German and Hebrew, which is simultaneously as cosmopolitan as it is a visceral authentically Jerusalem experience, right down to the copper highlighted sketches,
“a full scale model of the universe”
“Merħba”and Remembrances of Copper Cream both appear in the photo above.
You know what, just watch Pico Iyer’s video, & my poem “Babili/Home” and then reach out to me. If you’re a citizen of Babel, not just multicultural or multilingual but have been haunted by the feeling that you basically belong nowhere specifically but to so many places at the same time, collage people, mosaic people, Embrace.
I actually joined the event quite last-minute, but I was glad I did as I met a new poet and friend there (you’ll see her in later Poets of Babel videos) as well as learned what else is going on in the English speaking Israeli poetry scene.
Four months and 16 days later, the first meeting of Poets of Babel has finally taken place and it was amazing. We were only 7, but then again 7 is the number of perfection.
Ira, a Russian Israeli and Hebrew teacher arrived first. I met Ira at Hillel House in 2008 when I made my documentary film “Stranger” on stereotypes in Israel; it was love at first sight. I found her, in her flowing burgundy skirt at the table with the Mr. as I rushed in the door at 9:00. We were supposed to start at 9:30. Not long after, a girl with a sweet demeanor and a soft voice knocked on my door. She introduced herself as Isabella, a friend of Nadine’s. Isabella is a German student of philosophy and Middle Eastern studies (who hopes to switch the latter to musicology) learning in Jerusalem. I asked her “Where’s Nadine?” She didn’t know so I told her to make herself at home and the four of us chatted for well over an hour before Nadine arrived. Nadine, is the one who magically said “We should start a poetry club” on that fateful day in January.
There were only two left who we were waiting for. Both Michal, a law student and English lit, and Adi a graduate of linguistics and translation working on her masters in translation, were friends from work where we used to teach English together at Wall Street Institute in Jerusalem. Michal has a business card that reads “Muse” and she fulfilled her role when she discovered that I write poetry and started sharing her poetry magazines, such as Rattle and Poetry which fueled my inspiration for quite a few months (especially since it took me quite a few months to return them). Adi used to make me drool over linguistics during our breaks together when she discussed her studies and made me crave a return to the university. When she introduced herself to the group she said of her studies, because writing poetry is just something she occasionally does but not what she is, “I guess that’s what earns me a place in Poets of Babel.”
We drew numbers from my Broadway hat from last year’s performance. I was 3. Three is the number of truth and connection. It also represents permanence like holy utterances that must be spoken three times.
I started off by telling them that even though this was my idea, in my house, with my friends I was terrified. It’s never easy to share but as Adi said later about her volunteer work, it’s a shlichut, a calling. Then I read Merħba, a poem of hospitality, the perfect beginning. “God sent you my friend, you brought the sun with you” is how I greeted them and the end which is really the doorway to embark on a new journey together assured that ” you will always find the door open.”
Adi started off- after trading numbers with Isabella- with a spontaneous selection from a new poetry book I had , Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith. The poem, “It’s Not,” pleasantly surprised us all by actually being good despite being impromptu.
This is the post that I started in May and now next Wednesday we will be having our 3rd Poets of Babel meeting. Third time’s the charm! I couldn’t seem to get this post out so now I’m just going to do it! Check out our Facebook Page!
The Berenstain Bears Learn About Strangers (c) HarperColllins Publishers
I have a confession: I’m afraid of the make-up ladies in SuperPharm. It doesn’t matter which branch; they are all the same to me.
Downtown Jerusalem at 21:47 on a Sunday just looks downright seedy in general. Everyone appeared shady tonight, just like a page out of the Berenstain Bears book about strangers. For example, everyone stopped, turned and stared at me when I approached the bus stop- after missing two of my buses- with empty, yet prying looks in their eyes. A man walked too closely behind me after I’d stepped off the eerily slow train. I stopped in my tracks and walked in the opposite direction. (Reading about international sex trafficking, forced prostitution, and systematic rape as a weapon of war has got me paranoid…though it’s a fascinating and inspiring book otherwise.)
Even couples seemed suspicious.
Maybe I was just tired. Today was a big BOO in my book and I was threatening tomorrow to be better.
My only consolation, as I approached my home- much later than I’d intended- was a woman who smiled at me as we simultaneously crossed the street. Somehow, in the seconds that we waited across from each other at the traffic light, we bonded. Perhaps it was the way we both had shoved our hands deep into our coat pockets to brave the Jerusalem winds: Me, in my teal patchy fleece with the elfin hood, her in her llama colored woolen jacket tied at the waist with a dark brown accented sash.
And yet, I knew there was undoubtedly something strange in this evening (even in the day co-workers spoke of the surreal feeling and I’d had trouble focusing on people during meetings, suddenly sensitive to the wall colors behind them) when I saw a pair in their early twenties behaving like teenagers under the influence of something walking smack in the middle of Hebron Road, which is busy even after 10pm. As I heard no screech of tires or smacks against the pavement, I can assume they survived…
Another strange man tosses a creepy glance as he passed me.
I’m almost there. “Mazal tov” is scrawled in colorful chalk on the brick sidewalk leading up to my apartment building; an arrow points straight towards the door of my entrance. ‘Stranger than a yellow brick road,’ I thought. If hadn’t lived there, I wouldn’t have gone in…not tonight.
Not my usual, but hey, gotta keep it real; there will be sunshine in the morning.