Acclaimed for her directness, precision and simplicity, and well-loved by her predominantly secular Israeli readership, the Israeli poet Zelda Shneurson (b. 1914) was the daughter and granddaughter of a prominent rabbi. She moved from the Ukraine to Palestine with her family in 1926, residing through much of her life in Jerusalem and living her entire life within the strictures of Hasidic orthodoxy. Zelda was relatively unknown for much of her life, but rapidly achieved fame throughout Israel after the publication of her first book of poems in 1967. Before her death in 1984, she published eight books of poetry and was the recipient of a number of literary prizes, including the Bialik Prize for Literature in 1978.

Zelda's poetry often depicts mystical experience, its imagery at once sensual and spiritual. In addition to abundant references to classical Jewish texts, her poetry is filled with imagery drawn from nature, and she has written many poems about trees.

Enjoy two of Zelda's poems about trees, accompanied by Marcia Falk's commentary.

Sun-Startled Pines

Sun-startled pines
wafted a wild fragrance —
the same stunning strength
from the inmost flowering
made the world my home again
but did not reveal the core,
the divine intention
in budding and wilting plants.
And the point of my life
and the point of my death —
I will not know in this world.

At once, the speaker is returned from ecstasy to isolation, as the world becomes a bewildering place in which answers to her questions will not be found. The disappointment and doubt that begin in the poem's sixth line may be understood as a part of a course of psychological events whereby nonrational experience is followed by attempts to analyze and explain it. But the doubt comes so soon upon the experience that one wonders whether it doesn't reflect an underlying pervasive conflict."


I don't like all trees equally —
my soul befriends
a sickly pear tree.
Everything moves, changes place;
I and it are planted
in a courtyard stuck in space
above a dark pit.
(Each night, King David's violated daughter[*]
yearns to die here,
because millennia cannot erase her shame.)
Yes, this is the very courtyard
but without the face I loved.
In this yard, I stand
before a tree whose end is near —
the crown of its freshness has fallen,
and its once sweet, once fragrant fruits,
which delighted and freed the soul,
are brown caves
swarming with tiny snakes.

But all this sorrow
belongs to quiet nights.
On the day of God's wrath,
I don't beg mercy for it,
I do not beg for it,
for my soul is removed from the plants.

And yet, how I suffered
when a small peach tree
that I raised in a bucket
was trampled
on the eve of Judgment Day.

The speaker's ambivalence here is profound; the movement of the poem turns not once but twice, as she first expresses (lines 1-3), then denies (lines 20-25), then reclaims (lines 26-30) her affinity with the suffering of the trees. This back-and-forth movement points to the spiritual struggles of someone authentically immersed in the world, a consciously religious person whose explicit theological belief-system does not account adequately for all the truths of her own experience. To the God from whom she will 'beg mercy,' the tree is not a proper cause for petition. Yet she cannot escape the awareness of her own suffering, which she feels to be a response to the suffering of the trees.'

*King David's violated daughter Tamar was raped and then scorned by her half-brother Amnon (2 Sam. 13: 1-22). [back]

Translation and commentary, Copyright © 1991 by Marcia Lee Falk. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Marcia Falk, Zelda's translator and friend, is a poet, translator and Judaic scholar. She received a Ph.D. in English and Comparative literature from Stanford University. Her books include The Book of Blessings: New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, the Sabbath, and the New Moon Festival (Harper Collins, 1996; paperback edition, Beacon Press, 1999), The Song of Songs: A New Translation and Interpretation, and With Teeth in the Earth: Selected Poems of Malka Heifetz Tussman. Further information is available at

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