Thursday, January 1, 2009

song of hope


When they sang the song of hope
in Bergen Belsen, bodies which
had not yet been transformed to soap
or shoveled off into a ditch
to burn, could not sing with the living
the message that survivors could,
or join them later in forgiving
as many of them later would.

The dead can’t praise the Lord, as David
declared once in a famous Psalm;
and as for halleluljah––save it
for people who are out of harm,
because the song of hope is built
upon the bodies of those who
did not survive. Recalling guilt
is surely to survivors due.

In the song of hope are tears
because the Temple was destroyed,
anticipating better years
when Zion would replace the void
in Jewish hearts, that are still sick for
the deaths of millions for whom hope
that’s known by all as the Hatikvah
became so tragically the trope.

Those who sow in tears were told
in Babylon that they would reap
with songs of joy, and would behold
so many sheaves they would not weep
remembering of the past. We too
expect a happy ending to our song,
inspired by the eastern view
for which at western walls we long.

Inspired by an article, “The Friend Role,” by Michael Ordoña, in the LA Times, January 1, 2008. Discussing the movie “Good,” based on the parable by C.P. Taylor, he recalls the Reverend Leslie Hardman’s visit to Bergen-Belsen after the camp’s liberation:
The story didn't start at last year's observance of National Holocaust Memorial Day in Liverpool, England, but it did provide a key moment. There was Jason Isaacs with, as he called them, "the great and the good; ministers, archbishops" and the like…, a local hero taking part in the presentation. Organizers apologized profusely that this famous actor should have to share a dressing room. Isaacs shrugged it off, hoping he'd "get someone fun to hang out with." He'd recently finished a years-long trek to bring C.P. Taylor's Nazi parable "Good" to the screen and could probably have stood some light socializing….

There were years of false launches that saw the project repeatedly founder, with Isaacs even putting in his own money to try to keep it afloat. Once the film was on course for, well, good, Isaacs found a way to make his character's world deeply personal. "I have this recording of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, the camp, in which a British Army rabbi called Leslie Hardman describes what he can see," he said. "There were tens of thousands of bodies all over the place and about 300 Jews came up to him and asked him to record a Friday night service. He didn't want to do it because these people were very, very near death and needed help, but they insisted. He recorded them singing 'Hatikvah,' which is now the Israeli national anthem. "I listened to that over and over again. Each time I tried to pick out a different individual voice and imagine their relationship with Maurice. I would like to think of them as individuals who played the piano and didn't like broccoli and had likes and dislikes and partners and loves; it became much more real to me." So there was Isaacs, months after the making of "Good," at National Holocaust Memorial Day, waiting for his dressing room mate, hoping for some lively company. "In walks this 95-year-old man," he said with a bit of a chuckle. "My heart sinks slightly and I go, 'Hi, I'm Jason Isaacs.' He goes, 'Hello, I'm Rabbi Leslie Hardman.' "I can't even tell the story without choking up, it's ridiculous. . . . He started telling me about that day. He told me a number of people died from the effort of making the recording; they were still on their feet when they died. "I felt, whatever the film does or doesn't achieve, my participation allowed me to have an extraordinary encounter like that. And to be challenged into thinking about who I am and what I do in my life. Just that meeting has to mean the whole experience is worthwhile."

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 1/1/09


  1. very nice!

    The poems reference to David made me think of the original refrain of Imber's version of haTivka:

    עוֹד לֹא אָבְדָה תִּקְוָתֵנוּ,
    הַתִּקְוָה הַנּוֹשָׁנָה:
    לָשׁוּב לְאֶרֶץ אֲבוֹתֵינוּ,
    לָעִיר בָּהּ דָּוִד חָנָה

  2. Thank you, Netanel. I was of course thinking of Imber's original version, which is also the one whom the Reverend Leslie Hardman was able to record singing, I think on a Friday evening, just before Shabbat. But on the whole Imber's version is more sorrowful than the verse you cite. I paste it in its entirety below:

    כָּל עוֹד בַּלֵּבָב פְּנִימָה
    נֶפֶשׁ יְהוּדִי הוֹמִיָּה,
    וּלְפַאֲתֵי מִזְרָח קָדִימָה,
    עַיִן לְצִיּוֹן צוֹפִיָּה.
    עוֹד לֹא אָבְדָה תִקְוָתֵנוּ
    הַתִּקְוָה הַנּוֹשָׁנָה:
    לָשׁוּב לְאֶרֶץ אֲבוֹתֵינוּ,
    לְעִיר בָּהּ דָּוִד חָנָה.

    כָּל-עוֹד דְּמָעוֹת מֵעֵינֵינוּ
    יִזְּלוּ כְגֶשֶׁם נְדָבוֹת,
    וּרְבָבוֹת מִבְּנֵי עַמֵּנוּ
    עוֹד הוֹלְכִים עַל קִבְרֵי אָבוֹת.
    עוד לא אבדה...

    כָּל-עוֹד חוֹמַת מַחֲמַדֵּינוּ
    לְעֵינֵינוּ מוֹפָעַת,
    וְעַל חֻרְבַּן מִקְדָּשֵׁנוּ
    עַיִן אַחַת עוֹד דוֹמָעַת.
    עוד לא אבדה...

    כָּל-עוֹד מֵי הַיַּרְדֵּן בְּגָאוֹן
    מְלֹא גְדוֹתָיו יִזֹּלוּ,
    וּלְיָם כִּנֶּרֶת בְּשָׁאוֹן
    בְּקוֹל הֲמוּלָה יִפֹּלוּ.
    עוד לא אבדה...

    כָּל-עוֹד שָׁם עֲלֵי דְרָכַיִם
    שַעַר יֻכַּת שְׁאִיָּה,
    וּבֵין חָרְבוֹת יְרוּשָׁלַיִם
    עוֹד בּת צִיּוֹן בּוֹכִיָּה.
    עוד לא אבדה...

    כָּל-עוֹד דְּמָעוֹת טְהוֹרוֹת
    מֵעֵין בַּת עַמִּי נוֹזְלוֹת,
    וְלִבְכּוֹת לְצִיּוֹן בְּרֹאשׁ אַשְׁמוֹרוֹת
    עוֹד תָּקוּם בַּחֲצִי הַלֵּילוֹת.
    עוד לא אבדה...

    כָּל-עוֹד נִטְפֵי דָם בְּעוֹרְקֵינוּ
    רָצוֹא וָשׁוֹב יִזֹּלוּ,
    וַעֲלֵי קִבְרוֹת אֲבוֹתֵינוּ
    עוֹד אֶגְלֵי טַל יִפֹּלוּ.
    עוד לא אבדה...

    כָּל-עוֹד רֶגֶשׁ אַהֲבַת הַלְּאוֹם
    בְּלֵב הַיְּהוּדִי פּוֹעֵם,
    עוֹד נוּכַל קַוּוֹת גַּם הַיּוֹם
    כִּי עוֹד יְרַחֲמֵנוּ אֵל זוֹעֵם.
    עוד לא אבדה...

    שִׁמְעוּ אַחַי בְּאַרְצוֹת נוּדִי
    אֶת קוֹל אַחַד חוֹזֵינוּ,
    כּי רַק עִם אַחֲרוֹן הַיְּהוּדִי
    גַּם אַחֲרִית תִּקְוָתֵנוּ!
    עוד לא אבדה...

    לֵךְ עַמִּי, לְשָׁלוֹם שׁוּב לְאַרְצֶךָ,
    הַצֱּרִי בְגִלְעָד, בִּירוּשָׁלַיִם רוֹפְאֶךָ,
    רוֹפְאֶךָ יְיָ, חָכְמַת לְבָבוֹ,
    לֵךְ עַמִּי לְשָׁלוֹם, וּרְפוּאָה קְרוֹבָה לָבוֹא...

  3. That longing is so forgotten now... I think of the deep nostalgia for what hadn't happened yet when we used to sing Eliyahu Hanavi after Shabbat. Then it happened and the minor key became increasingly major. Hatikvah used to be like that too. With longing comes a longing for peace and kindness, and we absolutely don't have it. How it's changed us. Happy New Year. L.

  4. Excellent point. You can't transpose Schubert's B Major piano sonata to B minor, though you might feel it would be a better sonata if it were written in a different key but people have transposed the Hatikvah from a minor to a major key!

  5. People here in Israel are not without hope. There is a more global approach to the current situation here. Looking at the history of political zionism and the early state, there were many points that seemed more hopeless than our current situation. But in the end, we moved forward towards greater levels of independance and autonomy.

    To be honest, the main problem today is not one of international politics but rather of national identity. There is an internal struggle within Israel between those whose conciousness is primarily Israeli and those who conciousness is primarity Jewish. Between those who simply want reprieve from the fighting and those who feel that there is a higher ideal worth fighting for. As mishlei says: בְּאֵין חָזוֹן, יִפָּרַע עָם and what Israel is lacking is a Hazon.

    Of course, social machinations may already be in play that will change the internal balance of forces in Israeli society for as of today, more than 57% of first graders in Israel are learning in a Torah instatution of one flavor or another - the Jewish demographic is moving towards a Hazon and with that will come inevitable victory.