Mordechai Beck’s poetry

‘Moonsong’ is an attempt to express the Jerusalem author’s ‘inner struggle’... and more

Mordechai Beck: Poet, artist and arts editor of The Jerusalem Report (photo credit: Courtesy)
Mordechai Beck: Poet, artist and arts editor of The Jerusalem Report
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Already an accomplished painter, printmaker, essayist, journalist, musician and teacher, the Jerusalem-based Mordechai Beck – a regular contributor and the arts editor of The Jerusalem Report – chose poetry at this juncture, to express his “inner struggle,” his “attempt to “come to terms with the seemingly inexpressible… chaotic parts of my life.”

The result of wrestling with these eternal, universal issues defining our human condition is “Moonsong,”  illustrated by his own very fine woodcuts and drawings, adding the dimension of visual art to this  collection of poems, which are both informed by and echo these various disciplines.

Self-described as “a son, a lover, a brother, a husband, a father, a grandfather, a member of the tribe,” we experience the full range of human emotions in poems that are honest, intelligent and sensitive.

Finely crafted  and so concise they seem to be sculpted , these verses succeed in fulfilling the mission of poetry – responding to the difficult issues of our time,  by explaining ourselves to ourselves, rendering what is non-sensible, sensible, but also affirming and celebrating the basic verities of empathy, admiration, love, and wonder – the strangeness and mystery of who we are, warts and all.

In this world of cognitive dissonance, oxymorons (“education” and “information”) where we have a technology that functions on auto pilot, threatening to make us more and more obsolete, we are in desperate need of poetry, like Mordechai Beck’s, to interpret and explain our reality.

The poems are serious, but humorous, and often affectionately  irreverent as Beck encourages us, by example, not to take ourselves, or these topsy turvy times, too seriously. If you laugh and you won’t be able to help it, it is most often the bittersweet, incredulous laugh of Sarah when she was told she would bear a child.

“Because I am a Jew,” the first poem in “Confessions” Beck captures the contradictions of being a Jew with the self-deprecating humor so quintessentially Jewish, that ends with….

…Because I am a Jew
I argue with God
Because I am a Jew
I argue with myself
Because I am a Jew
I am tired of being  Jew                            
Because  I am a Jew
I go on
Being a Jew.

In “Recall,” Beck, pricks our conscience, reminding us that as Jews we have a genetic aversion to injustice when he describes “…a police van, one of ours, stopped opposite two or three Arab merchants and with military precision kicked over all their fruits and vegetables…”  
And in “Foreign Workers,” also an uncomfortable reminder of the ineqjuities of our human landscape in Israel, he says

If…a tribe of foreign workers
…should drift by in the misty morning
…Don’t forget that once you, too, were slaves in Pharaoh’s Egypt    

In the poem “Kiss,” in which love and the accompanying woodcut are exquisitely rendered, the poet ends with

All this my lips bring you
This silent gesture which goes
from one end of the world to another
and is not heard:
Take it as it is meant to be,
An unwrapped gift,
Yours forever.

“A Sort of Tarshish,” one of several endearing poems about his wife, (another poem that begs to be quoted in its entirety), Beck begins with “From time to time she’ll say:

I’m going.”/To where?/
“Back to my roots, to the sea of my childhood. Before I met you.”

In “Homage to Rothko” Beck celebrates the troubled, tragic  abstract artist

With that wide-brimmed hat, heavy on your jowled face,/and the Broad, dark oblong of a mustache across your sensuous lips-
…and you Rothko were said to be painting the shekhinah,
The Divine presence/
Hidden behind the parochet-the cover of the holy ark
And you painted her…
Suicide they said,
Since the doctors didn’t know the word
for revelation.
“Psalm 151” ruefully captures the contemporary immigrant experience, the heady idealism and disillusion of those of us who come not to till the land and drain the swamps, because not like them, we are

the strange children…
For you only forms…
Triplicate exposures to your own alien biographies;
For you the shout in the office,
The long, grueling lines, leading nowhere….
You hear the mountains sigh
You have returned
With your dreams sewn in your head like so many stars.
Who are waking up in tears
Bearing grudges,
Strumming your guitar,
one hand on your camera,
strangely laughing
that you came at all.

And yet, despite all that, the reader can’t help feeling, Beck is saying, strange as it is, we grin and bear it, and most of us don’t go back.

“Moonsong,”  the last section of the book, includes 12 poems, each one a commentary on a particular month, the holidays, our Biblical forbears, our elegiac history, modernity and antiquity reflecting each other.  

No one gets off easily here, not even and especially not God who invites us to wrestle with Him, as we wrestle with ourselves. And this from “Nissan:”          

We pulled out of Egypt, your face aglow, with us, kinder, kine, and candles for the long journey, and what was owed us after all those years of unpaid labor – with interest (this was before Sinai when interest was still permitted).  
We pulled out with the taste of bitter herbs smarting our gums and mouths and your fullness barely scraping
the gangling tops of the palm trees or the pyramids to which we’d
contributed our full share and which we finished by reciting a blessing:
“May they all be buried thus, speedily within our days.”
It was spring and the unknown birds sang us all the way down the Nile.  
We pulled into the first synagogue with our burdens and 4000 yearsof exile and hagadah re-tellings,
as though it all happened yesterday and the fresh shoots of flowers and grass shoved their tiny hands through the soil of our redeemed souls.    
Someone in our carriage started to sing “The Song of Songs” until someone else cautioned“What will the rabbis say?”
For at that very instant, the sages were
compiling a list of losses, of the four/fifths of our fellow slaves who
had no desire to leave the gefilte fish or brine-soaked cucumbers,
and who ended up in Egypt’s eternal dark. So the rabbis
commanded us to add Yizkor to the festive liturgy, and they concluded as follows:
Redemption yes. But incomplete.
Half a redemption.
And your glow, began to shrink.

“Moonsong,” the lovely title of this collection, hints at the poet’s use of the moon, whose waxing and waning is a metaphor for the phases of our lives when we are more or less aglow. Books can be bought directly from books can be bought directly from Mordechai Beck 972-508 854 282 or from Leah Tzivoni (the publisher) at 972-505547295.

Mordechai Beck
Tzivonim Publishing, 2020
101 pages; NIS 72