An award ceremony celebrating young poets

Awards ceremonies for two poetry contests reach a record audience via Zoom

Clockwise, from top left: Ester Belokurov, 18, first prize winner; Yaara Heller, 12, second prize winner; Haya Moukouri, 17, third prize winner; Bar Sagi, in whose memory the poetry competition was named (photo credit: Courtesy)
Clockwise, from top left: Ester Belokurov, 18, first prize winner; Yaara Heller, 12, second prize winner; Haya Moukouri, 17, third prize winner; Bar Sagi, in whose memory the poetry competition was named
(photo credit: Courtesy)
If the late Reuben Rose, one of the founders of Voices Israel Group of Poets in English, could have joined the recent celebrations and awards ceremony of the organization, he would have been amazed. For this unassuming modest man had no idea when he started promoting English poetry in Israel that the organization would grow, with 10 regional groups – two overseas – an annual anthology and an annual international competition in his name as well as a competition for young poets.
What would have amazed him most was the technology. At one time these events were organized in the center of the country, a social as well as a cultural event that allowed poets to network and enjoy the buffet supper. However with social distancing this year Voices has adapted and all meetings and events have been streamed into the poets’ own living rooms via Zoom.
So in late October, the awards ceremony for the Reuben Rose Competition and the first Bar Sagi Young Poets Competition (a new project for Voices Israel) reached a record audience including poets from the USA and the UK.
Judy Koren, the president who took over the reins from Susan Olsburgh, who had been instrumental in the contacts with the Sagi family, described the challenges of launching the new competition, saying that much was learned in time to open the next competition for 2021. The project was sponsored by Prof. Anthony and Denise Joseph in memory of their beloved granddaughter Bar Sagi, a talented poet who had passed away at the age of 15. Prof. Joseph shared some of Bar’s poetry that has been set to music. It was a very moving way for the family to handle their grief and memories of her illness and untimely death.
Wendy Dickstein, who administrated the competition and was one of the judges together with Susan Bell and Itamar Blumfield (at 24 the youngest member of Voices), said, “We just did not know what to expect when we launched the first Bar Sagi Young Poets Prize at the end of last year.” “We had an excellent team within Voices Israel, consultancy with award-winning poet Ricky Friesem and technical support from Mark Levinson who has administrated the Reuben Rose competition for many years, but our concern was how to reach young students who wrote poetry in English,” she said. “We were pleasantly surprised to receive entries from all over Israel, most of them encouraged by parents and dedicated teachers of English.
The first prize, “Fading Childhood,” was by Ester Belokurov, 18, from Rehovot. The poem is a reminiscence of making mischief with a childhood friend with whom she has now lost contact.
The second prize, “Doors of Life,” was a short philosophical poem by Yaara Heller, aged only 12 from Petah Tikva. She declares that nothing can stop her now for when a door closes, she opens a window and if the window is locked she breaks it down. Heller loves reading, music and playing the clarinet. She and her family spent five years in England when she was a small child and she says that she now prefers reading and writing in English. Her teacher Elizabeth suggested she send her poems to the Bar Sagi competition.
The third prize went to Haya Moukouri, 17, of Ashdod, who said that she always writes in English. She was born in Michigan and moved to Israel at the age of five. “As I grew older I became aware of the fact that I have a really hard time expressing ideas and feelings. I came to realize the power that words hold. Poetry and writing are a way for me to understand the big philosophical questions and my own feelings.” “Guide to the Traveler” is a more metaphysical poem about the journey of life in the context of the nature of earth.
The honorable mention, “Finally at Home,” by Liraz Elisda, aged 16 of Ramat Hasharon, is a moving story of her father`s escape to Israel from Iran at the age of nine. He was separated from family, very lonely, the promised land did not feel like home. Eventually he reunited with his family, grew up and had children of his own. The poem was sent in by Idit Haimoff, a teacher at Safra Children`s Hospital where Liraz was a patient for a time. Liraz explains: “We are the living proof that the journey wasn’t for nothing. But we still speak fluent Persian and eat the traditional cuisine.” Each of the young poets read their work in perfect English. There are certainly hopes that their poetry will be seen in the future.
Switching to a different age group, winners of the 30th Reuben Rose poetry competition, three winners and ten honorary mentions, took the stage. Mark Levinson, the administrator spoke of the legacy of Reuben Rose as one of the founders of Voices Israel and his dedication to promoting English poetry in Israel. This writer had met him soon after our Aliyah in 1974, in fact we had connections from our synagogue community in London, and I was impressed by his modesty and dry wit. He and his wife Susie were the sort of religious Jews who only did good for the community and are remembered with love and respect.
This year`s judges were the distinguished Canadian poet and literary critic, Katherine Gordon, and following tradition, the previous year’s first prize-winner John Gallas of the UK and Donna Bechar of Israel who had won the second prize.
Katherine Gordon sent a message: “Poetry is a powerfully unifying force for our needy planet, it transcends all self-imposed boundaries of race, gender and culture. The most satisfying reward for judging the prestigious Reuben Rose Competition was in the reading of hundreds of different perspectives, cameos of the human condition, emotions, yearnings and nostalgia.
“I am especially proud of the young writers of the Bar Sagi competition whose words will inspire a whole new generation to transform the world.”
The first three prize-winning poems were very diverse. Voices Israel encourages poets to write in varied genres and in fact in normal times organizes workshops to explore and experiment in a format perhaps not originally tried.
Judy Belsky, a veteran poet in Voices won first prize for “My Son,” memories of her 16-year-old son who died in an accident. She treasures the small incidents, “in his absence he is everywhere,”
Second-prize winner was Rumi Morkin (pen name of Miriam Webber) of Israel for her Villanelle, “Alzheimers.” This format and its rhythm describes so well the deteriorating mental and physical health of her late husband.
Not all the poems are personal memories. Third prize went to Jane Seitel of the USA for “The Torah Pointer.” She writes of a simple Torah pointer, not one of silver or brass, but carved out of a rough oak branch. After the fires set by the Nazis, a tailor found the wooden pointer behind fallen beams in the rubble of the synagogue.
It must have been a hard choice for the judges as the ten honorary mentions were poems of nature, satire, wit and human stories that were a pleasure to read.
The 2021 Bar Sagi Young Poets Competition opened for submissions on November 15, 2020 and closes on January 15, 2021. Young poets aged 12-19 are invited to submit their work. Details at, or contact Susan Bell at [email protected]