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Poems Echo History, and Hazards, in Israel

October 18, 2007 By:
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Rachel Tzvia Back

Whether she looks north or south from the windows of her house in the Galilee, echoes of history come alive, explained poet Rachel Tzvia Back, who also noted that she is reminded daily of all that has transpired in the hills she now calls home.

The cycle of violence in the region is brought vividly to life in the poems found in On Ruins & Return, the latest work by the the American-born Israeli poet, translator and professor of literature, who has made Israel her home for nearly 30 years.

In the book, Back captures the lives of everyday Israelis and Palestinians during the last intifada.

Back said that one time -- and not too long ago -- she used to mention the number of Israeli and Palestinian children killed, as well as houses destroyed and trees uprooted, during her poetry readings. She no longer does so.

"I've had enough of the numbers," she explained, attributing her feelings to apathy and numbness.

On Oct. 11, Back spoke to students and professors during an afternoon writing workshop at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote.

She later discussed her poetry with students from Kolot: The Center for Jewish Women's and Gender Studies, as well as members of the general community, at a coffeehouse in Chestnut Hill as the 2007-08 Henny Wenkart Writer-in-Residence. It was the last stop on her two-week book tour of the United States.

In her quiet yet strong voice, she read several of her poems, looking directly into the eyes of audience members. Her work describes, in poetic form, actual events that she's read about in the news, such as a strawberry field in Gaza, where 12 Palestinian boys were picking fruit, until a bomb fell and killed most of them instantly.

"Lost limbs again," she wrote in a poem titled their sons my sons, "this time in a strawberry field."

It may sound poetic and fictional, but it's true, she reported, leaving audience members visibly moved.

Yet despite such horror stories, Back said that she still has hope. She said that she believes there is a future goodness worth working toward -- an idea particularly relevant to the Middle East -- and for people to work with whatever means they possess. For her, that means poetry.

Back also noted that, in recent years, she's felt that if she works within a local context of family and geography, she can make a small difference and, therefore, not despair.

'Counter the Blackness'
In introductory remarks before the Kolot program officially started, Lori Hope Lefkovitz, director of Kolot and a professor at RRC, said that "poetry is one way to counter the blackness."

The quote had been e-mailed to Lefkovitz from Back.

Lefkovitz added that Back's poetry offers words of promise in times of hopelessness.

"Poetry helps me through the day," Back explained, though she also noted that, at other times, her energy-charged readings can leave her emotionally drained.

And then, perhaps for the benefit of the students present, she became an educator, offering a bit of advice.

The best way to fully grasp poetry, she explained, is to read it aloud and pay attention to line breaks, in order to hear and feel what the poem is doing.

Indeed, there's something artistic to it all, as Back said: "I believe in poetry as music."

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