Yakov Azriel’s poems illuminate the books of the Torah

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Can the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, serve as an inspiration for a gifted poet? The answer is a resounding yes if the poet in question is Yakov Azriel, who has just published Beads for the Messiah’s Bride: Poems on Leviticus, the third in an ambitious project to compile poetry collections on each of the books of the Torah.

Born in 1950 in New York as Gerald Rosenkrantz, Azriel received his bachelor’s degree in English literature at Brooklyn College in 1971, before moving to Israel, where he took the name Yakov Azriel. He studied at the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva in Jerusalem, and at the Har-Etzion Yeshiva in Alon-Shvut, Israel. He later earned a master’s degree with disinction and a doctorate in Judaica, concentrating on the stories of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav.

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St. Louis-based Time Being Books, headed by fellow poet Louis Daniel Brodsky, has published all three of Azriel’s volumes. In addition to the Leviticus-based Beads for the Messiah’s Bride, Azriel’s previous works in this series are: Threads from a Coat of Many Colors: Poems on Genesis, and In the Shadow of the Burning Bush: Poems on Exodus.

All three reflect Azriel’s unique combination of being a highly gifted poet and a serious student of Torah. With the same force as the great “Illuminators,” whose beautiful and colorful lettering amplify published volumes of Torah and Tanakh, so do Azriel’s words bring into sharper focus the immortal, divinely inspired words of the Hebrew Bible.

One can readily see how adaptable the already poetic and highly metaphorical Book of Genesis — with its stories of Creation and the origins of the Abrahamic people — are to the sensibilities of the poet, and Azriel puts his skills to effective use in Threads from a Coat of Many Colors. Similarly, the Book of Exodus, with its high drama of the confrontations between Moses and the Pharoah, the parting of the Red Sea, the receiving of the Ten Commandments, the incident of the Golden Calf and the death of our greatest and most humble Prophet before the entry into the promised land, is ready-made for Azriel’s talents.

But the Book of Leviticus, generally considered a rather parched compilation of arcane rules, mitzvot and rituals presents a greater challenge for the poet’s craft. Azriel manages to bring to life the dry pages of Leviticus in Beads for the Messiah’s Bride.

Azriel’s latest volume has won praise from St. Louisan Howard Schwartz, professor of English at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and an award-winning poet, essayist and collector of Jewish folk tales and mythology. “Azriel has managed to mine this difficult text and return with an inspired series of poems that disprove, once and for all, the assumption that the well of Leviticus is dry,” Schwartz said.

In Beads for the Messiah’s Bride, Azriel proves that far from being a dry and uninspiring compilation of rules and regulations, Leviticus is as richly textured as the first two books of the Torah. “The Offering of Thanksgiving,” which is based on the passage in Leviticus 7:12, is a prime example of how Azriel puts his poetic genius to work, enlivening the Biblical text. In these few lines, Azriel expresses what many people must feel when they reflect on what really matters among the gifts they have received from God:

I thank You for the basics, Lord: a bed,

A table and a lamp; a clock to tell

The time when infants must be fed; a well’

For water and a stove for baking bread.

I thank You for the basics: yellow, red

And blue, the letters I need to spell

My children’s names; the numbers which expel

A thousand zeros, kindling stars instead.

I thank You for the very basic things:

Your Words, which you have interwoven in

The texture of our lives, this cloth You bring

To us, Your people, Israel, who sings

A song of songs and hears Your mandolin,

O God, accept my thanks for everything.

We the readers, just like Azriel, movingly thank God for the gifts of the “basics” like yellow, red and blue,” and God’s “Words which God “have interwoven in/The texture of our lives,” we thank Yakov Azriel for using his God-given gifts of how to express the “basics” and his books which “have interwoven in/The texture of our lives.”

All three of these books deserve to be on the bookshelves of all readers who love poetry and the majesty of the Torah.

(Threads from a Coat of Many Colors, $14.95; In the Shadow of a Burning Bush, $15.95 and Beads for the Messiah’s Bride, $15.95, all paperbacks, are availble at local booksellers. For information contact Time Being Books, 314-432-1171 or http://www.timebeing.com).