Detail of the cover of "Am Yisrael Chai: Essays, Poems, and Prayers"
Detail of the cover of "Am Yisrael Chai: Essays, Poems, and Prayers"

Post-Oct. 7 anthology edited by ex-Berkeley rabbi testifies to Jewish resilience

My heart is in the east
And I in the uttermost west:
How can I find savor in food?

These lines from Yehuda HaLevi, a poet and philosopher who lived in medieval Spain, open “Am Yisrael Chai: Essays, Poems, and Prayers,” published just nine days after the Oct. 7 Hamas massacre in Israel.

HaLevi’s lament is familiar to anyone who lives in the diaspora but feels connected to the Land of Israel. What happens there affects us. And now our hearts hurt; they bleed.

“The entire Jewish world is in trauma,” Rabbi Menachem Creditor, the book’s editor, writes in the introduction. “My trembling fingers are trying not to continue typing. I cannot breathe. My heart is stopped. It cannot fathom what I have just written. Which is why an anthology like this is so necessary, however terrible the subject. We bear witness. We must.”

Rabbi Menachem Creditor (Photo/Courtesy)
Rabbi Menachem Creditor (Photo/Courtesy)

Creditor, formerly of Conservative Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, now works as scholar in residence at the UJA-Federation New York. He brought into this project more than 60 writers from across the spectrum of Jewish observance — and geographically as far flung as Australia, Canada, Sweden, the U.S., and, of course, Israel.

Northern California contributors include poets D. L. Lang and Louise Moises, psychotherapists Gloria Saltzman and Heidi Hartston, and Rabbi Ben Herman of Mosaic Law Congregation in Sacramento. A second volume was published on Dec. 14 and includes a poem by Zack Bodner, CEO of the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto.

The pieces collected in the first volume of “Am Yisrael Chai” are raw, unvarnished and often uncomfortable to read, but that’s why testimony is powerful: It is a reflection that itself is an experience.

There will be time in the future to process, to contextualize the events and to compartmentalize the pain, but right now, these writers, poets, and liturgists are bearing witness to what is.

Like Lauren Hammer in New Jersey (“Never Again”):

I’m looking for the life at the end of the tunnel, but I do not see it.
Trying to find my way through the darkness of feelings
But lacking the words to express them.

Or Rabbi Annie Lewis in Maryland (“Heart of Many Rooms”):

What if I am running out of room in my heart?
So many displaced …
Faces frozen in terror
Faces
I can’t say it
They warned us not to look.

Or Chaya Lester recalling in “I Wept at the Shuk” her conflicted impressions of the Jerusalem market emptied of its Arab workers:

And there’s that familiar cocktail of feelings going down
Of colossal relief and the grief
The nagging guilt, the utter disbelief …
Because the truth of truths
Is that we must do what we must do
To protect ourselves.

We have traveled this road before — the destructions, the expulsions, the pogroms. And we have borne witness and documented our feelings again and again.

The destructions are built into the Hebrew calendar. Every year at Tisha b’Av, for instance, we read Prophet Jeremiah’s Book of Lamentations and the mournful elegies of the Kinnot written by the rabbi and poet Eliazar HaKalir. Four times a year, at Yizkor, we recite memorial prayers that originated in response to the persecutions of the 11th-12th century Crusades. There are also echoes of past calamities and martyrs in the weekday and Sabbath prayers, such as Av HaRachamim and Avinu Malkeinu, in which we appeal for God’s mercy and forgiveness for the sake of those “killed for Your holy name.”

Despite the anthology coming together so quickly following the massacre, “Am Yisrael Chai” offers glimpses of the future too — forward, always forward. It testifies not only to the suffering but also to the resilient, indestructible optimism of the Jewish soul. The title itself references a song that translates into the “People of Israel Live,” which has become an anthem among Jews following Oct. 7.

“We ache and pray” and go on doing what needs to be done is the refrain repeated throughout Stacy Beyer’s poem “Sitting Shiva.”

In her essay “Thoughts from the Uttermost West,” Esther D. Kustanowitz, J.’s former TV columnist, lays out a list of practical steps that can be taken even half the world away from the site of the tragedy.

She suggests engaging politically, sharing helpful, trustworthy sources and supporting others in the community. But no less important is the following: “I can err on the side of kindness with my friends and colleagues, understanding that a sharp word, pained exclamation, or other emotional outburst thrown in my direction wasn’t about me. I can keep on searching for ways to connect, to share empathy, humor, and love, to fulfill my responsibility to the rest of humanity.”

“Am Yisrael Chai” leaves an eloquent, lasting record of the individual and communal responses to a devastating tragedy. Hold it in all its complexity. There is hope in the light of memorial candles.

“Am Yisrael Chai: Essays, Poems, and Prayers, Vol. 1” (293 pages, self-published) and Vol. 2 (233 pages). $18 each. Proceeds of book sales benefit the Israel Emergency Campaign of UJA-Federation of New York.

Lane Igoudin
Lane Igoudin

Lane Igoudin, a Stanford graduate, is a professor of English and linguistics at Los Angeles City College and the author of “A Family, Maybe,” a journey from foster adoptions to fatherhood.