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Haya Esther
(Mandatory Palestine, 1941)   
 
 
 
Haya Esther

Israeli writer and artist Haya Esther is an explicitly mystical poet with an erotic bent. Last fall, at age 75, at a launch in Tel Aviv for her latest book, she described the vision that led her to begin to write poetry more than 30 years ago:

In a dream I saw a huge palace made entirely of flesh and understood that it was the palm of my hand, the pillars my fingers, everything illuminated. Suddenly a tall captivating man emerged between my index and middle fingers, with a creature to his right, half dog, half snake, winged. Strange, fascinating, he lay down in my palm.

The dream included a sexual encounter and an other worldly orgasm, Esther told the large audience, “freely, uninhibitedly and with an ounce of embarrassment,” according to poet and critic Eli Eliahu’s report of the event.

Haya Esther Godlevsky was born in Jerusalem to an ultra-Orthodox Jewish (Haredi) family. She holds a BA in Jewish history and an MA in education from Hebrew University. After the publication in 1983 of her first book, Soft Stones, she was fired from her teaching job in a Haredi school for girls. Esther turned to etching and painting, and to poetry drawn from her feminist-erotic take on Jewish mysticism, traditionally the interpretive province of men. Her art work has been included in more than 50 group and solo exhibitions, most recently at The Jerusalem Artists House in July 2017, and her work is part of the Israel Museum's permanent collection. The mother of four, she  is the recipient of four Israeli literary prizes and grants (Kugel, Tchernikovsky, Tel Aviv Foundation, and the Prime Minister's Award), has served as artist in residence at La Cité des Arts, Paris, and held a visiting fellowship at the Oxford Center for Hebrew and Jewish Studies.
 
In 2002, the poet told an interviewer how she felt about her departure from ultra-Orthodox society, a process which began [in the mid-1980s]:

People ask me whether I've become secular, and I respond by saying that I've become myself. I'm very much at peace with myself today. I've discovered the wisdom of Jewish texts. I come from a society in which there are many obstacles that block a person's understanding of the wonders of spirituality - when you're part of [ultra-Orthodox society], sometimes you recite [texts] and understand little.

Tamar Rotem commented on this background on the occasion of the publication of Esther's collected poems, her 18th book:

Out of a tradition of silencing and repression of the body, especially of women's bodies, we find Haya Esther, who herself grew up inside the Haredi experience. Kabbalah scholar Melila Hellner-Eshed, who wrote the afterword [to Esther's new book], says that the poet is in touch with the imagery and language of Kabbalistic literature. "She doesn't read these sources; she lives them. She takes the freedom to visit these regions, from which women have been excluded, to undertake these journeys as a woman with a body and [pronounced] sexuality. Including blood, [but] without despondency and without apologizing. This stand for individual freedom constitutes her daring."
 
Hellner-Eshed adds that while the [Kabbalistic volume] the Zohar is extremely erotic, its sexuality is coded and symbolic. "In contrast, Haya Esther…experiences sexual ecstasy filled with mystery. The body serves as her window on divinity, a tool with which to transition into the sublime…Her language is that of [Kabbalah] and the sages. It may be that if she were Christian or Indian, she would depict the world in their religious concepts. But Haya Esther is a mystical Hebrew poet who works within Hebrew culture and connects the holy tongue with street slang, high with low."  

Theologically, the poet challenges the traditional dualism of spirit and materiality, writes rabbi and scholar Aubrey Glazer. "Rather than escape her [material] self to flee to the [spiritual] realm", Glazer he states, "the poet chooses to draw forth the spirit from within the womb of her own embodied self. It is from this embodied positioning that she then experiences and embraces her cosmological self":

this cosmic composition of myself as
an embodied woman,
my body sitting in my soul
only you know this, I believe in you
and this is only the beginning
rejoice children of my innards       
                                                      ["My flesh speaks God" Tr. A. G.]

According to Ruth Netzer, an Israeli clinical psychologist and Jungian analyst:

In essence, Haya Esther's writing is a prime example of what Helène Cixous (the French-Jewish poet, researcher, theoretician and feminist) calls "the female's portion in the gift of grace", meaning an utterly unrestrained outpouring of cosmic libido, an embodiment of the infinite Eros of love and written in the white ink of mother's milk. Males write in black ink. Love-perfused writing, says Cixous, embodies the principle of pleasure (jouissance), which is at root a principle of the body, and this form of writing, soldered to the body and to the woman's desire for orgasm, is at once liberated and liberating.

In the following untitled poem, the speaker attempts to put an ineffable, divine experience into words and fails/succeeds, employing truncated phrases and the trope of the naked body:

How can I pour into words                                                                      
what I experienced above                                                                         
I stripped the heavenly body like a dress                                     
my soul remained a naked melody   
so much heaven I flowed without measure
tender white wind
and I have not...
the heights of divinity would end...
mounds of psalms cannot...
heavenly music...
I fell so much in love...
God's profound beauty
                                         
[Tr. Linda Zisquit]

Glazer, the author of a book about manifestations of Jewish mysticism in contemporary Hebrew poetry, has pointed to a broader definition of poets as "intuitive mystics" who are not "constricted by theosophic or cosmic terms". To these ranks Haya Esther surely belongs.


© Lisa Katz, Haaretz 25 October 2016; Beit Avi Chai online 16 November 2016; Haaretz English edition 15 February 2002

Biblography 

Books
Poetry in Hebrew
Eyal kahol/Blue Deer  Tel Aviv, Tamuz 1995
Ha-ruakh veh ha-dam/Wind and Blood Tel Aviv, Golan 1996
Key ha-ray-akh yesh loh mavoh gadol l'ahava/Odor the Grand Prelude to Love [poems + etchings]  Jerusalem, Merahef 1998
Elohe medaber basri/My Flesh Speaks God  Jerusalem, Carmel 2001
Henakhti otam beh hanionai hahistoria/I Placed Them in the Belly of History [poem + etchings] Jerusalem, Merahef 2002
Ma'aseh tahom/Story of an Abyss Jerusalem, Carmel 2004
Srifa/Fire  Jerusalem, Carmel 2004
Tsrakhat hayofi/Cry of Beauty Jerusalem, Carmel 2008
Tapukhay tohu/Apples of Chaos Jerusalem, Carmel 2012
Marah halom/Dream Mirror Jerusalem, Carmel 2014
Hablender bah-moakh sheli tanur/The Blender in my Mind is a Furnace: Selected Poems 1983-2014  Tel Aviv, 62 Press 2016

Fiction in Hebrew
Evanim rakot/Soft Stones  Tel Aviv, Akad 1983/1988
Kutonet orr/Dress of Light  Tel Aviv, Hakibbutz Hameuchad 1987
Tsipor hekhalot: masa/Shrine Bird: a journey  Jerusalem, Carmel 1989
Akdamot hashem: God's introductions: first notebook Jerusalem, Carmel 1994

In French
Poems - Dans le secret des odeurs  tr. Esther Orner  Paris, Caractères, 2002
Fiction - Le bain rituel  tr. Colette Salem  Paris, Caractères, 2008

Critical Reading
In Hebrew: Ruth Netzer in Meoznaim 77:2 2002, reprinted in Shalem veh-shvaroh, Jerusalem, Carmel 2009, 402-409.
In English: Aubrey Glazer, Mystical Vertigo, Boston, Academic Studies Press 2013, 154-176.

LINKS in Hebrew
VIDEO: Haya Esther talks about her life and reads aloud
VIDEO: Portrait of the poet in her home: December 2016
VIDEO: A 1998 telecast with critic Ram Evron
More poems



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