“My homeland, a poor and fair land The Queen has no home, the King has no crown And there are seven days of spring-time a year All the rest are rain and chill...”
No, not my despair for a dystopian post-Brexit Britain, but rather the yearnings of one of Israel’s most famous poets, Lea Goldberg, whose fiftieth yahrzeit we commemorate this week. Born in Koenigsberg (Prussia) in 1911, she studied in Lithuanian and German universities, gaining her PhD in Semitic languages and German before moving to pre-State Palestine in 1935. Her family knew many languages but not Hebrew, but the young Leah was determined to learn it and mastered it as a teenager. Working first as a teacher, she kept writing and in 1954 became a lecturer at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Rising through the ranks she became professor and head of the department of Comparative Literature in 1963.
Mixing melancholy and hope, her poems epitomise the bittersweet nature of the Jewish outlook. And it is fitting that her yahrzeit falls this week, when we read the portion of Beshallach with its Song of the Sea on a Shabbat that is known as Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of Song. For in Hebrew poems are also “Shirim”, songs, and many of Lea Goldberg’s poems have been set to music and become popular in Israel and beyond.
For all of us in Singapore, who feel far from their homelands, or who feel split between two places as I do, her poems resonate. In Singapore I believe there are no pine trees, but I am sure you can imagine her fondness for the snow-topped pines of Northern Europe.
“Here I will never hear the cuckoo's call.
Here trees will never wear the shtreimel-snow.
Yet here in the pine's shade I can hear all
My childhood, brought to life from long ago.
The needles chiming: Once upon a time
"Home" was the word I gave to snow, not sand,
And the brook-fettering ice- a greenish rime
Of my song's language in a foreign land.
Perhaps the voyaging birds alone who find
Their own route hanging between the sky and earth,
Know how I pine between two lands of birth.
In you I was transplanted, O my pine.
In you I branched into myself and grew
Where disparate landscapes split one root in two.”
Pines are also to be found in Jerusalem, they grow in sand as well as in snow. And ultimately Goldberg’s message brings hope. That like trees we can have branches and grow, despite the inevitable splitting of our roots. As ex-pats you doubtless know this, how you never quite leave your homeland behind, however far you go away. And in reading our Torah portion - in singing at the crossing the Sea - we leave behind Pharaoh knowing that some part of us will always be in Egypt. “You can take the boy out of Egypt, but you cannot take Egypt out of the boy.” As we reenact our sacred narrative each Passover, we return to our Egyptian roots, even as we hurry towards the Promised Land. And of course, the reverse is also true, that a Jew in the diaspora is ever returning home to Israel.