After being awarded the Prime Minister's Prize for poetry, Jerusalem poet Eliaz Cohen began a tour of Israel's schools. At first, he is reluctant to tell his story. He finally agrees, but still refuses to say where the incident happened, saying only that it was a "very 'Zionist,' and elite high school, with a very good, well-educated and dedicated teacher, who was as sad and horrified as I was." Cohen was lecturing on his poetry, which he describes as " Jewish in its perspective and connotations." He alludes to a test of sorts, which he presented to the unknowing high-school students. He read them some of his latest poems, including the haunting, Shma Ado-nai (Hear, O God.) He then asked the students what they understood from the text. Not one of them understood the metaphors or the cultural-social motives and context. "I felt awful," he recalls. "These were good kids, well-educated, with high marks, from good 'Israeli' and 'Zionist' families, and not one of them understood. I was very close to some kind of despair - issues like those mentioned in the poem didn't mean anything to those kids. Nothing. No memories, no recall from the past - let alone from the present. As if anything Jewish had been wiped out from their brains." Eliaz Cohen was born in 1971 to what he calls "an average middle class religious Zionist family" from Petah Tikva. His family was, he says, "very open, very : very tolerant, very urban, nothing special. And then, in 1979, within the framework of the first settlements and the Gush Emunim movement, my parents moved to Elkana, where they were amongst the founders. From then on, I had a very 'pioneer' childhood." Like thousands of other young people in the settlements in the West Bank, Cohen attended a high school yeshiva and went to the army in the framework of the "hesder," where he combined his religious studies with his army service. Even while following the most typical program young for Israelis from the settlements, Cohen says he felt the needed to write. "I always wrote, mostly prose, but then, during my service in the tanks, the writing literally burst out of me.I remember that once I even wrote while doing guard duty. I just couldn't stop myself. "I came to poetry much later, while I was sent as a shaliach (emissary from the State of Israel) to the Jewish communities of the Caucasus. It was there that I discovered the writings of Mikhail Yur'yevich Lermontov [the Russian romantic writer sometimes referred to as "the poet of the Caucasus" - P.C.] and met Efrat, who later became my wife. Since then, I only write poetry." Cohen is part of a group of poets and intellectuals known as Mashiv Ha'ruach, based in Jerusalem. The group also publishes a bi-annual review of Israeli poetry and organizes the Mashiv Haruach Festival in Jerusalem. The festival, which took place this week in Jerusalem, is a three-day happening devoted to poetry, poets and poetry-reading. In addition, the Festival profiles the annual "harvest" of Mashiv Haru'ach's on-going poetry workshop, "Mizmor," which attracts dozens of young and gifted poets most of them, but not all of them, from the settlements in the West Bank. The Mashiv Haru'ach Festival began in 1995, and, except for a two-year break, has continued annual. So this is, Cohen notes, "the bar mitzva festival. Participation has been high since the first event. Cohen recalls that first festival, with dozens of young poets sitting on stairs and window sills. "We had not advertised very widely. From the large crowd, we understood that there was a tremendous need for what we were offering." Not the founder of the group, Cohen joined after several years. Together with founders Yoram Nissinovitch and Shmuel Klein he has managed to gain recognition of the Education and Culture Ministry and has gained a warm space in public awareness. "Israeli poetry has made space for a different language - for poetry that is at peace with our Jewish roots, with the use of Jewish symbols, Jewish context. Above all, it has made space for poetry written by young people who live and create in the settlements, whose environment are the hills of Judaea, who today, like me, like in Gush Etzion. Today, these voices are heard." Questions about the relationship between Israeli literature, and especially modern Israeli poetry, and Judaism are not new. Poetess Yona Wallach raised these questions years ago in a letter written in September 1967 to Zelda, a religious poet: "…You are creating a world, Zelda, this is the utmost a poet can do, and the beauty you bring leaves me longing… and I remember very much that I am Jewish…" The debate continues. "For those for whom Judaism means halacha and political struggles, or wether the Bat Sheva dancers should or shouldn't cover their bodies when they perform for the 50th Independence Day of Israel - this is an unnecessary discussion," writes Hamutal Bar Yossef recently in an article entitled, Is Israeli Poetry Jewish Poetry? "...But if we agree that there is a place for the examination of the feminist, ethnic or homosexual aspects of a text, then we should, in my opinion, with the same legitimacy, uncover the Jewish aspects and roots of an Israeli text." Does these questions point to a profound change in Israeli society's attitude towards Judaism? Is Israeli society moving from its secular Israeli language to a new Jewish-Israeli language? Or is this merely a new fashion, a trend - part of a wider, "hip" but temporary phenomenon that will fade away after a while and gives room for another trend? Is something new taking shape? Something, for example, that Bambi Sheleg, editor of the bi-monthly Eretz Aheret magazine, refers to as the "Renaissance of Judaism in Israel?" "I see it more as a legitimacy to use judaism" says prof. haviva petaya and adds: "these motives were hidden aside for years, the motives from the cult, the jewish tradition, the jewish culture and I recall that when I published my book "from a scelled box (?)" in 1996, this kind of use was very very rare". The truth is that pedaya's book, did cause a kind of revolution at the time and in a long article dedicated to the book in "hadarim", helit Yeshurun wrote that the book was closer to a prayer book than to a poetry book. "it has burst a way " admits pedaya, "suddenly there was a legitimacy to bring in the religious world, and it was something totally different, especially if you consider it versus the culture of denying the diaspora that existed here since and even before ben gurion's days". In fact, it was the first time that a poet could make use of jewish motives without being automatically catalogued as a "religious poet", it was the first time that poetry using religious themes and motives was not labeled under "religious poetry". "it's not that there were no one else who wrote in this framework - we already had avot yeshurun, uri tzvi Greenberg, amir gilboa and of course Zelda - but although all recognized their greatness, they were not "in", compared to other "fashionable" poets and authors. Later, haim beer said that the poetry opened the door for the prose literature and one of the critics on pedaya's book even wrote: "after petaya's poetry, a silence has come on us, just like the silence that came down after we met Nathan zakh's poetry", no more no less. And today, this is not only in poetry: the success of authors like haim beer, the books of haim sabato, who is rosh yeshiva and a Talmudic scholar, and many many others. "it's almost as if it has become" in" says, somehow amused, eliaz cohen. In this year's mashiv festival, crowded evenings were dedicated to one of the most "Israeli" poet - dan pages, and one of the most honoured guests was another very "Israeli" poet - haim guri, the "ultimate palmachnik and secular sabra". On another register, Eliaz emphasizes some other results of "mashiv" influence: "we have created a new language for erotism - what we have gained is the creation of an erotic-believer (emunit) language. This has had the result of getting closer many young religious people, who could make a direct link between the biblical texts and poetry, which are full of erotism and the modern Hebrew they use for actual poetry. It has helped many young people who live in a secular world and surrounding, and needed these new tools. We know that, because we have received, all these years, tons of works, sent by young people, from the settlements, from the yeshivot, not only the Zionist yeshivot, I know we have received material from students in yeshivot like mir and the like. It's there, it's alive, coming out, and mashiv is serving as a shelter and a home for them". Eliaz adds that he is convinced that Mashiv has served as a staircase for a new expression - "a personal and individual cultural expression for people who still are part of a collective - the religious collective, the settlers collective and the possibility to use the jewish motives has given these people a way to find their own way between the jewish language and the Israeli language". Indeed, since the "jewish bookcase" has become a trend, it has touched almost every field: literature, poetry, theater, music - being jewish has become almost a "must" - just try to find a place in one of the evenings of studying for Shavuot, or even in the special events for tish'a be'av, and you'll see the huge numbers of people attending, from all the nuances of jewish-israeli identity, including a large part of people who still defines themselves as "secular". This trend being of course, much more noticeable in Jerusalem than anywhere else, but it can be found also in tel aviv, the first Israeli city and somewhere else. "There is a huge request, a real starving and thirst for this" continues petaya, "We should all be very cautious, not to overuse these motives. But it is clear that we are witnessing a process where something new is emerging from the kibbutz galuyot. The question is how far this is going to be serious, because we shouldn't be blind to the (samuy) struggle in the society and the culture. There are some winds which still try to hold it back. It is important that we don't forget - cultural revolutions need and sometimes depend on vectors like critics and journalists to convey their messages. Like a woman that gives birth who needs the professional around her to help her deliver. The mother herself is not enough. It hasn't happened yet, I am still waiting for it to occur. But I am sure it is coming, I know it is close to us and I am optimistic and I am convinced that in a way, this cultural revolution is going to influence also the academy. In that context, the "mizrahi" issue and the place the academy allocates to the mizrahim authors and poets is inevitable: "If this process is done seriously and honestly, it will have to make a different room for the mizrahi tradition" says petaya. "first because it is not there that the jewish bookcase has been sealed and its keys thrown to the ocean. It is not there, amongst the mizrahim that the denial of the dispora occurred, so the academy will have to rethink the place attributed to the mizrahim (yotzrim) and traditions, for sure". On one issue, petaya is certainly optimistic: "look at the phenomena of the batey midrash - they are everywhere, and again, you see the thirst for the studying of Talmud and Judaism, it means something, and I see it also with my students: I see a new profile of young students emerging, in which the jewish identity is becoming an important part of their idendity, as Israelis, it's happening to people who never thought, only a few years ago, to bother themselves on these issue". As said before, this phenomena is happening in different fields, one of them being the theater. We have had already jewish theater ( firstly groups of women playing for female audiences) , and now we have the "kvutzat Ta'ir, a company of young religious performers who work with traditional and jewish topics. Works performed by Gabriela lev and aliza arieh, on jewish stories and issues ( maase bruria, for example and more). And now, at the acco theater festival this succot, we have a play written by Abigail gretz, daughter of a conservative rabbi, who wrote a play based partly on her personnal experience: life between the religious and the secular societies. The play, "o'naat dvarim" is based on a well-known Talmudic issue, opens a tiny window on the the world of midrash and talmud studies for a lay audience, "so that secular Israelis will understand that you don't need to wear black clothes or a yarmulke in order to enjoy Talmud studying" explains gretz. The whole play follows a secular Talmud lesson shared by a brother and a sister, who meet again after long years of separation. "these texts are my link to my family, my home, my parents" adds gretz, "how could I put it otherwise?" in gretz' play, comes in another "actual" issue connected to the renaissance of the jewish identity: the women status and the participation of many women, including orthodox (modern) in the process of studying, which was' for centuries, forbidden for them. Will this new jewish language replace the Zionist-secular language that has been in use since the beginning of the Zionist movement? "I am not sure" answers petaya. "And in any case, I would be much happier to see a new and various (meguvan) language emerging here - that way it will have an influence and an impact on all fields - for example, my hope is that this could lead to a new replacement of Israel (hitmakmut) in the region. It should enable us to build a new attitude and a new look at the junction between our jewishness as a spiritual space (merhav) and our israelishness. But that will only happen if this process is accompanied and based on true and serious study of the texts (mekorot). Otherwise, we will witness a situation in which there will be a use of the jewish motives without any real profound and serious knowledge, without a real basis" continues pedaya.

Relevant to your professional network? Please share on Linkedin

Think others should know about this? Please share