Tuesday, December 21, 2010

During the time I have been away from you the earth continued to turn.

The hottest August in the last 100 years hit Israel, the longest unending summer and the first rains meant to fall in October held back until late November.
Israelis dreamed of rain in their sleep. Sang of it, set forth prayers for rain from hearts and synagogues and from helium balloons carrying rabbis considered influental with the Lord.

Gale Sahara winds scorched the beloved green mountains of our ancient Carmel Mountain and we were suddenly set aflame. Within several days, an unprecedented forest fire destroyed one third of the Carmel's beautiful and variegated trees, brush and other vegetation. Forty four fire fighters died and countless forest creatures lost their lives. Towering flames were battled by fire fighting planes rushed to Israel from all over the world. Black smoke filled the northern skies.

While the country was still reeling in shock, Sahara winds turned into freezing gales and rain, flooding the northern settlements and hitting Jerusalem with cold fury.

Today the sun is shining. We lick our wounds and look forward to more happy events.
My first granddaughter's Bat Mitzvah.
The great bi-annual bird migration over Israel.

This poem appears in my new book, "Tales of Love and Ezile".


Against the backdrop of azure sky, in arrow formation

migrating storks return to kibbutz skies.

Sabbath Eve twilight tints

their long-legged embrace of the great palms,

wave after wave - a gentle invasion of the great tree limbs,

they alight on the palm grove branches

bordering the fish ponds and the green lawns.

A klackity-klack chorus,

their slender beaks declare the day's adventures,

tell of long flights from Northern Lands,

and set up a racket welcomed in every kibbutz bungalow.

And if you fly silent among them, I am told,

they will turn their noble heads to you

and gaze hello.

(C) Shira Twersky-Cassel

Monday, October 18, 2010

Time to talk about Cats

About Cats

I grew up in a Chassidic home. Following in the foot steps of King David in Psalms,
my mother and father instilled in me the love of animals. My father the rabbi would bring home a puppy from the home of a Bar Mitzvah student and Mom trying to keep a small railroad flat fit for human habitation, had to turn down keeping the sweet thing. But she did so with gentle regret and only after cuddling and feeding the small creature yesterday's challah soaked in milk. Abba and I would wander the then pastoral Bronx at 10:00 pm looking for an open pet shop, for my father would never abandon this puppy in a garbage bin.

So it was natural for me when making my home in Jerusalem to raise a dog and then her beautiful girl pup and later two cats. The latter came about when running up and down eight flights of stairs to walk the dog became a necessity after my son - the dog walker- got married Thank God. I missed life shared with a small creature and dreamed of a medium sized silky ball of fur that would follow me around the house talking to me in "meows" and bringing the wild into my home.

I was gifted with two kittens, the male brought to me from the shores of the Kinneret Sea in the north of Israel and so named, the female a sleak white Jerusalem lovely named Rachel for Israel's great poetess who is buried in the Kinneret graveyard with other well known historical figures

Here is a poem from my new collection, "Tales of Love and Exile".

Garden of Eden

It seems to me the peace that reigns
in my home, the days of affection
are as it was in Eden's Garden

Within my walls there is no bloodlust
we talk and think our thoughts
each in our common way

fur and skin, eyes and heart
deep in each hours' occupation
find the time to say hello

seek out the touch and the embrace
voices that speak and sing
bark and trill and coo with love
and tell the tale

the truths of our brother and sisterhood
that was God's true intention.

Shira Twersky-Cassel (c)


Sunday, July 25, 2010

Lament for Jerusalem

Several days ago Jews world-wide fasted and commemorated the Ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av. That date marks the destruction of both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, of the Israelite kingdom and the final expulsion of the Hebrew nation from the Land of Israel. Last Tuesday at the Wailing Wall - the last remnant of the Second Temple - 100,000 Jews gathered together from all over Israel and the world to weep and pray.

The story goes that Napoleon when told about this Jewish fast day said that a people who recall the exile from their land thousands of years past are destined to return home. The first Zionist?

Throughout the long exile, the Jewish people - homeless and oppressed - refused to relinquish their faith. The shock of the Holocaust caused the United Nations to vote for a Jewish state in the ancient Land of Israel. The Arab lands of the Middle East didn't take this well and declared war against the young state.

Today, a fundamental element of Arab anti-Israel PR is their claim that there never was an Israelite nation or a First and Second Temple on the Temple Mount of Jerusalem [on those ruins the Moslem Golden Domed Mosque now stands]. No prophets, no King Saul, no King David, no King Solomon. All figments of our imagination. The Jews are just some European colonial tribe that invaded a region foreign to them in the twentieth century. Ishmael was the inheritor of Abraham. [By the way, there was a constant Jewish presence in the Land of Israel - later called Palestine - throughout the centuries of exile.

The following poem-story appears in my English language collection, "Poems of Love and Exile."


In the year 70 AD Titus's army
set up camps on Mount Scopus
and the Mount of Olives
that overlook the Temple Mount,

dragging great wooden posts
round the walls of Jerusalem,
the Romans laid waste the bright gardens
and orchards to prepare for murder and siege.

Our resistance gathered on the Temple Mount
fought the bitter fight, the stubborn battle,
but on the 8th of Av the Roman Legion broke through
and many of us were killed that day.

Titus's legionnaires brought tens of thousands
the Jews of Jerusalem onto the Mount,
and on the place that we had rejoiced and
prayed to the Almighty,

for eleven days we lay dying, without food and water
as Titus selected who would be sold into slavery
and who left to starve and die on the Mount
and cast into the ruins of the lower city

After that Titus set about the destruction
of the beautiful upper city and
of the Holy Temple, burning and smashing
everything in his wake

for that was his way,
to conquer a people who would not
bow down to Rome's false gods
and to leave desolation and destruction.

In the year 70 Titus looted the Temple
he carried off the great Golden Menorah
and the Holy Temple treasures
to his camp at Ceasaria,

and from there to Rome.
[from the Book of Lamentations
written by the prophet Jeremiah
after the events described above

Our skin burns with the famine
the children faint with hunger on the streets
they cry to their mothers
- where is our corn and milk,

young and old lie on the ground
the dead fill the alleyways and burnt houses
fallen by fire and the sword.

Our inheritance has been given to strangers
to those who hate us without cause.

Fallen is our crown, we are captured
like caged birds, to be taken to distant lands.

(c) Shira Twersky-Cassel

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Israel's Coat of Many Colors

Jews settled in every corner of the globe during thousands of years, and in those diaspora lands of exile they were always singled out as the outsiders, as Jews. Yet in Israel, we bring with us the scent, the look and the mind set of the countless lands we wandered through.

A miniature United Nations, we come in every shape and color and language. There is friction between different ethnic groups but never hatred or violence. We are a family.
Current DNA research has proven that Jews are all related, linked to the gene pool of the Israelites of the Biblical Land of Israel.

This gives me a real kick and I especially feel privileged that my own family are multi-ethnic Jews. My beautiful grandchildren come in all colors and enjoy a genetic mix of Africa-Ethiopia, Spain, Venice, Poland, Russia and the US, back to the Middle East.

This poem appears in my current volume of poems, "Stories of Exile and Love"


First came dreamy-eyed Rachel
at the well, a jug on her shoulder,
she shyly offers water to Eliezer
to find a bride for Jacob.

Next is our wild-eyed clever beauty

dark as Queen Sheba and as wise,

don't try to trick her,
she will
catch you in it.

Three is twinkle-eyed
and pigtailed mischief,

the child her father was
with riddles and comic relief.

Four is our Greta Garbo,

pearl complected and grey-eyed,

she is Russia, haloed blond hair

frames her cameo face.

Five is our
bright boy, a prince born,
with the green-eyes
and high cheeks of my father,

who brought him to me in a dream.

Six returns us to Ethiopia
a round-eyed beautiful babe

with fat black toddler legs
running towards me

Sometimes they play-walk
in a row, "like we were born,"
connecting each to the other
in a golden chain of love,

that reaches back
that reaches forward.

Oh Lord, that I would be allowed
to see the generations
they will bring forth.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The gift of Music

Due to technical difficulties. . . . I have been locked out of my electronic fix for almost two months. So hello once again!

I would like to talk about the great joy of music which has been my "high" all my life
. How lucky to live in a time of free access to music, to have experienced the miracles of radio, TV, records, tapes, CDs, and the countless electronic musical babies being born every minute, a source of constant excitement.

In ancient times the chanting plays of Greek theatre were a center of community life. An important element of the First and Second Jerusalem Temple service were the poems and songs of the Levites. In exile, Jewish synagogues and homes continued this tradition with the hymns and songs of the Sabbath and holidays

Once upon a time, people waited with anticipation for traveling bards or for the local talent to appear in the square. If they lucked out, there was genius. I visualize the "salon" of Felix Mendelsohn's family, reveling in his and his sister Fanny's musical plays.
The courts of the nobility and royalty enjoyed musicians, jestors and actors at will.

In my childhood, my brother's 76 speed records introduced me to the crooner Frank Sinatra. I remember my brother furious when I sat on one and cracked it.
When I was a teenager Frank made a great comeback. Then I loved him on my own and collected all his LPs which remain today on my shelf. By then I had my own room and could listen all night to that funky radio wizard, Symphony Sid, who blew my mind with Latin and Cuban rock and jazz - before the word funk was a word. Classical music entered the picture when I was fifteen. A guy friend who had a bit of a crush on me gifted me with an LP of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, leading me to the New York Times guide and its classical radio station, WQXR.

In the 1960's my first Bob Dylan was the 45 speed single "Positively 4th Street" The Beatles, Joan Baez, Crosby, Stills and Nash, the original Santana. Then I fell into the loving arms of Jazz. Mongo Santa Mario, Thenonious Monk, Miles Davis, the list goes on. And of course I married a musician who dragged me from club to club to hear the Jazz greats live.

My passion for Israeli culture brought Hebrew Folk into my heart, oriental and Yemenite singers, and poetry-songs being written by the builders of Israel. A beloved art form in Israel is Hebrew poetry set to music. I have enjoyed the dream of having my own poems become musical lyrics. These classics, the Cantorial and secular and other new songs, music rich in the vibrant marriage of Jews coming together from the two thousand year diasporas of the world - Ethiopia, the Arab Lands, Russia, Spain, South America, the United States and every other corner of the globe - have given birth to a renewed library of Jewish music that is constantly growing.

The great Hassidic Master, Rabbi Israel Ba'al Shem Tov said, "Music is man's link to the highest spiritual spheres." Although human history has been laden with much pain and suffering,
this truth strengthens us.

The following poem which appears in my latest English language collection delivers "a little piece of my heart."


I often think of Beethoven
deaf to sound at his Third Symphony
which I fell in love with at a whistle
repeated over and over
by a student sharing
a City College Classroom with me.

Deaf Beethoven went on to write
nine symphonies, sonatas,
clarinet, piano, violin conchertos,
string quartets, and so on,
but the Ninth was his Ode to Mankind
that he loved.

He dreamed of a world community
and said, "I do not need to hear my music
with my ears, I hear it in my mind,"
- can you imagine that?

He hid his deafness
and did not get along well with the world,
it was a time of stigmas.

He died many years before the Devil
would force Jewish musicians
to play Beethoven's Ninth Symphony of Love
to Jews marching into
Auschwitz ovens.

Was Beethoven forced to witness this curse to his genius
this shattering of his dream, or did the Good Lord
have pity and cause The Old Master
to sleep during those horror years
when his dream of love went up in flames.

[c] Shira Twersky Cassel

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Walls Fall - May 1967 Jerusalem

When I first took the bus that climbed the hills from Tel Aviv to the then divided city of Jerusalem I was nineteen. My first glimpse from afar of the legendary city that my people had dreamed of for two thousand years was breathtaking. I was enchanted and I knew it would be my home.

My parents married in pre-State Israel, then called Palestine.
They emigrated to the United States during the Great Depression and my brother and I were born in New York City. I was raised with an eternal dream posed like a flame before me - a beloved land of eternal blue skies that awaited.

The Roman conquerers renamed the ancient Land of Israel "Palestine" [for the Philistine tribes who had occupied the land before the Jewish Kingdom] in order to de-Judaize it. Following their destruction of the Second Temple and exile of the Judeans who survived the violent massacres, they wished to erace the nation's identity. This was common Roman practice following conquest.
But the Hebrews were different, they went into exile with the eternal Bible wrapped in their ragged baggage and in their hearts. During the long exile, their identity underwent many changes but endured.

During my first years in Jerusalem - the early 1960's - the city was divided. In 1948, the United Nations had voted Israel a member State including the Old City of Jerusalem. But the Arab countries surrounding the tiny enclave instantly declared war on the fledgeling state. When finally the cease-fire was declared after many bloody battles, Jordan held on to the Old City of Jerusalem. And so it was for 19 years. During that interval, Jews were denied access to all Holy Places. -- first and foremost the Wailing Wall where we had come to weep for thousands of years and above the Wall, the Temple Mount, the site of the destroyed Temple, usurped and covered by a mosque with a golden dome during the rise of Islam.

Between 1948 and 1967 the city was divided by a barren no man's land, cement blocs set up in the center of neighborhoods particularly vulnerable to Jordanian Legion gunfire. I took a job at the Israel Radio newsroom, there I heard many stories of the Old City where Jews and Arabs once shared lives. I wrote poems about living in this haunted city and imagined what lay hidden under the arch-covered streets and alleyways on the other side of the walls.

Next week we celebrate the unification of the city of Jerusalem recaptured in the 1967 war forced on Israel by the armies of Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon. The joy of return on that day was evidenced by the throngs from all over the country streaming to the Wailing Wall to weep and pray and blow the ram's horn. Many removed their shoes and approached the remaining wall of the ancient Second Temple in their bare feet.

Again, as in 1948, Israel was not destroyed by the invading Arab armies but emerged victorious. Today Jerusalem is a vibrant bustling city, ever- growing and changing and welcoming all who wish to visit or settle here.
But the sacred soul of "Ariel" one of the many names of this city found in the Bible, remains constant and faithful to its people.

Here are some lines from one poem written during "the silent years of separation" which I translated into Hebrew for the journal "Jerusalem" published by the Hebrew Writers' Guild:


Rounded blue hours sift down

into dusk from a pale sky

dusk is as dawn

veined marble trees

transparent twilight stone.

At night the hills are lit with other lives,

from another court

bells peal pear shaped sound

through narrow latticed leaves

tattered in moonflame

thorned walls creep overgrown

with barbed weeds and wire.

Luminous city spires and ancient towers

gleam and play ivory chess games

on the purple hours.

In the last watch

bittersweet reeds

pierce high.

(C) Shira Twersky Cassel

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Mystery of Senseless Hatred

In April Israel is caught between two memorials, Holocaust Day and Memorial Day for those fallen in Israel's wars of defence and the victims of terrorism.

This week Israel commemorated the memory of six million Jewish men, women and children who were lost to us, slaughtered by the Nazis in Europe during the Second World War. The war ended before the Nazis were able to make inroads on the populations of Jews who had settled in Greece and the Sephardi [Arab] lands but that was certainly their plan.

As a child I suffered recurrent dreams. Nazi boots stomped up the stairs to our apartment in the Bronx, broke down our door and dragged us out of our beds. I had been exposed to the outspoken memories of survivors from our family and of childhood friends from my mother's home town in Poland. I have Sephardic friends who had similar fears. That "other planet", the Holocaust experience is inscribed on Jewish DNA.

On Holocaust Memorial day, a two minute siren sounded
at 10:00 a.m. All over the country we stood silent, traffic stopped and people emerged from cars and buses and stood in the road. At home, I went up to my roof to connect with my fellow countrymen and with them said a quiet prayer. We united in memory and love, wept and returned to our daily routine.That night we tucked our children into their beds behind secure Israeli doors that we will never again allow to be violated by the brutality of miserable wretches who are filled with hate.

The mystery of senseless hatred and of evil continues to threaten us today.

Below is a translated excerpt of a Hebrew poem which appears in my book, "The Secret Life of the Birds", published by Sifriyat HaPoalim, Tel Aviv. The subject is the return of the Jewish people to their ancestral land. If at that time - during the 1930's and 1940's - we had a home, i.e. the State of Israel - the Holocaust would not have taken place.

Palm Memories

When first she strode the sunlit land
- awaiting her return like a faithful lover -
a wail of sirens summoned the lost generations,

her tears rose like rain to fill the hollowed imprint
of her bare feet in the good earth.

When first she spoke the ancient living letters,
an articulation of rams horns renewed the festivals of life,

clicking palm trees bent to whisper wind legends
of what had been and the light of days to come.

Shira Twersky-Cassel (C)

Monday, March 22, 2010

Passover - Past and Present

The Talmud writes that the Temple of Jerusalem was whitewashed annually in preperation for Passover. It is recorded there that the Israelite families trekking on foot on one of the three annual pilgrimages would call out in excitement when they reached the foothills of the city of Jerusalem, "Look, the Temple is cresting the Temple Mount as brightly as the pure snow!"

When I first read this it amazed me as the solution to a riddle I had always wondered about. It is a racial memory-link to Jewish pre-Passover mad obsession with whitewashing our homes, more prominent among the Sephardic and Israeli Jews who did not wander as far as the cold exile of the European and Soviet continents when we were cast out of the Land of Israel.

At my home in Jerusalem the shlepping up and down ladders and getting rid of leavened products and kitchenware is at is most intense today. And although we grump through the ordeal and the feet hurt, I have taken a blog-break to express my feeling of joy and renewal.

We were enslaved, experienced exile from our homeland, suffered the Spanish Inquisition and countless pogroms and were almost wiped out in the unspeakable Holocaust. We were written off countless times, but here we are. Cleaning our houses, innovating and giving new life to a flowering and fruitful land that lay barren for centuries. And most important of all, raising beautiful and clever children.

For my graceful and slightly crazy cats, blue-eyed Kinneret, born on the shores of that northern sea, and his sister green-eyed Rachel, their 14th Passover cleaning is accompanied by lots of temporarily empty cartons lying about which as any cat knows are heavenly havens to scratch about and cuddle in while the world passes you by. For like children who do not live in great houses and have rooms for themselves, cat also have the ability to create a magical self-sufficient world under a table or inside a carton.

This is the translation of my poem about Passover at my father's table which appeared in the Israeli poetry journal "Mashiv HaRuach," [translated loosely as "Master of the Winds".]

Dad passed away when I was twenty-one and with each passing year I grow closer in memory to him.


At my father's Pesach table

the ten plagues burned into my living flesh,

the wine spilled to signify each plague.

No small drop from one finger

the wine flowed into each Pesach saucer

taken down from locked closets

and polished till it shone

then poured into a great crystal bowl.

For the wine becomes our own blood,

when we weep and recall the slavery,

the treachery of Egypt which betrayed Father Joseph,

and we remember the blood of the infants of our wombs

buried alive between the great slabs of pyramid stone

worked with our hands.

At the Pesach table of my father

I fled Pharaoh's legions to the burning light of Moses's eyes,

I danced to freedom with the Prophetess Miriam

on the shores of the parted sea.


*Pesach – Passover in Hebrew

© Shira Twersky-Cassel

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Childhood Memories

Cooking for Purim and hosting a house full of guests from all Israeli walks of life - from my son's Ethiopian students to our childhood friends -- return me to my early years when my parent's small railroad flat was the central homey meeting place of friends and family. And especially to thoughts of my mother.

Our flat was in the first elevator house in the Bronx, a once luxurious building that had been dissected into long narrow railroad flats. We were not well off but our refrigerator was always full of food. As a small child I would often wish that I could be allowed to sleep through the night without being constantly lifted and moved from chair to couch and on and on. My bed was in a room that opened up into the living-dining area where the many guests congregated.

My childhood was peopled with the faces and voices of the many friends and relatives who constantly visited our small apartment. There were my father's Chassidic Ultra-Orthodox family, my mother's Israeli relatives, her "landzleit" - those who had survived the concentration camps and managed to enter the US or Canada. My mother's family left their small Polish town, Ilje, for Palestine - the Land of Israel - after the First World War. My grandfather who was an active Zionist predicted that disaster was imminent for the Jews of Europe.

Our home was also frequented by the "Hebraists" working with Eliezer Ben Yehuda to create a modern spoken Hebrew, the Yiddish theatre crowd and chazanim [cantors] who were often well known opera singers.

My mother was constantly in the kitchen, preparing meals for the many guests and for the Sabbath and the sound and fragrance of fish being chopped in a great wooden bowl with a curved cleaver remains in my memory.
When I was five, my father bought home matching mother-daughter aprons and a low stepladder for me to stand at the sink and help Mama - a task I loved.

Mama was a "beautiful dreamer" who, although she deeply loved my father and her children, had been deprived of her childhood dream of joining the Yiddish stage. Hers was an immortal beauty or as my father recalled their young years, "Who could look directly into her eyes?" He forever loved and saw her in that way.

Her eyes were the key - their far-away gaze set her apart, seeking a vision beyond the horizon of her everyday life. Her night-dreams were filled with herself as a bird soaring. She taught me to love and care for her beloved birds and this defined my inspiration when I began writing poetry.

Her prophetic dreams predicted who of her childhood friends had survived the concentration camps and very soon after each dream that very man or woman rang us on the phone or shouted up from the corner of Valentine and Webster Avenue, "Pnina, Pinchas ! We are here !" My father ran down to bring them up in the creaky elevator to our flat which became their second homes.

Below is one of my poems about Mama which appeared in The Deronda Review published by Esther Camaroon.


TO MY MOTHER: Bird Yearning
by Shira Twersky-Cassel

"For a small moment have I forsaken thee, but with great mercies will I gather thee." [Isaiah 54, 7]

Above time's prism where waits the city's perfect soul

suspended and concealed,

at this moment, hearts and wing,

you and I will capture the autumn wind.

To fly with you Lark-Mother

living as a bird, wing to wing,

for one short moment to learn, to soar and together sing,

to hunger for our temporal bodies.

As the light lives within the light

the soul lives in our bones and blood,

the illuminated soul sent forth

to occupy the burning flesh.

And I will call this light "To Yearn"

and your name was "Bird Yearning."

Sunday, February 21, 2010

It is said that with the coming of the Hebrew month, Adar, we are joyous. Adar, which usually coincides with the month of March, brings with it Purim. This festival signifies the prevention of a massacre of the Jews of Persia in 486-465 B.C. planned by Haman, the Grand Vizier of the King of Persia, Achashverus. Believed to be King Xerxes, at that time Achasverus chose a new wife from the Jewish community, Esther. The name Esther is derived from the Hebrew word "hester", i.e. "hidden," hinting at the hidden turn of events.

Esther was able with the help of her brother Mordechai to foil Haman's plans by disclosing them to the king at a feast which she organized. And since Haman's evil was turned "upside down", against him, it is a Jewish custom to dress up as something or someone else in a fun way. A celebratory feast is eaten to commemorate Esther's feast, much wine is imbibed by the adults and laughter and silly behavior are engaged in by both old and young.

But Purim is totally unlike Halloween in that gory or frightening costumes which glorify death are not the custom. Costumes based on word games and puns are popular. For instance when the Secretary General of the UN was Kofee Anan - Anan is "cloud" in Hebrew - my son was the first to appear as a coffee can with a cloud suspended above his head.

Last week at my grandchildrens' school each class chose a Purim family theme and went with it. On Monday, the first graders all dressed up as grandmothers, the second grade as teenagers, the third grade as babies, the fourth grade as bride and groom, and so on.

For myself, Adar marks the month when the Mountain Swifts return to nest in Jerusalem and I anxiously await their call. Below is the translation of one of my many Hebrew poems about this beloved bird which appear in my book, "The Secret Life of Birds":

Conversations with Birds

At six of a morning
a sharp cry of clamorous delight,

the season's first troop of Mountain-Swifts
has entered my dream,

fled into the wind, into blue mists breaking,
they call out
- Adar is here
and we have returned to you.

(c) Shira Twersky-Cassel

Thursday, February 11, 2010

What I missed most during my visit to Miami were the pitot, the pitot of the shuk, Mahane Yehuda, the open air market built when Jews began setting up neighborhoods outside the walls of the Old City.

So, soon after my return home I took my eleven year old granddaughter, Hedva Pnina, to share one of my great pleasures of living in Jerusalem, a walk through the shuk.

For centuries the fear of bandit gangs who roamed the deserted expanses outside the Old City Walls had created a crowded, intimate environment of Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews living in close proximity with the Moslem, Christian and Armenian communities inside the old stone courtyards.

The Jewish philanthropist Moses [Moshe] Montefiore financed and built the first neighborhood overlooking the walls, Yemin Moshe, in the late 19th century. Other neighboroods soon sprang up and today this network of picturesque buildings decorated with mosaic symbols and handmade iron grilling are at the heart of modern day Jerusalem.

Such is the shuk which in this era of the supermarket remains our colorful and slightly raunchy alternative. Vendors sing out the best tasting tomatoes, corn, aberguines, apples, bananas, the delicious of whatever is in season at the cheapest prices.

Great chunks of yellow and white salt cheeses, the scent of colorful spices pouring out of jute sacks, barrels of pickled veggies and herring whet the appetite. The fragrance from giant trays of cheese and spinach and potato burekas, honeyed cinnamon and cocoa "rogalech" emerging from the ovens of small bakeries which line the street fill the air. After Purim, braids of fresh garlic suspended from the booths, and baskets of giant strawberries anticipate Passover.

But my favorite are the vendors - comedians, philosophers and showmen all. Their natural wisdom tests your own and you know you are a real Jerusalemite when you learn to exchange wisecracks with them while shleping your cart from the fallafel stand at the bottom of the shuk to the assorted roasted nuts and dried fruits shop at the entrance.

Below is my translation from the Hebrew of a poem that appeared in my book, Blackbird:

SMALL TREASURES; Mornings in Mahane Yehuda

Soon we'll go down to stroll in the weather
on a carpet of sage and three-leaved Yemenite clover.

It's a stormy day, skies hurry into laundry drying in the wind
- fold fragrance of distance and horizon into your closet
- place sachet of skies-one-hour-before-the-rain between your clothes.

You talk to the rising storm,

dark clouds are reflected in your eyes
that await the rain.

After rainfall -- bright calm of perennials washed clean
and hallelujah bird-song pairs heaven and earth.

Begin your day in the shuk,

the fruit and vegetable vendors have named you Pure Heart,
for you can measure a full weight in your hand,
- two kilos of dew and ambrosia
- a thousand fruit jewels for your basket.

Walk down Etz Chayim Alley,
there grandfather-prophet leans on his worn wooden crate,

in prayer he kisses the fringes of his prayer shawl
and turns to whisper a blessing,
"You are the first
to bring sage-fragrance to me this morning.

(c) Shira Twersky-Cassel

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Jerusalem in Winter

During my stay in Miami in early January, there was an unprecedented cold wave. Miamians were outraged at this breaking of the unwritten rule: Hurricanes between June and November OK, but below 50 degrees farhenheit for 12 days ! The coldest period since 1940.

For me that was a warm winter. I returned in late January to my damp and freezing house - Jerusalem in winter is not what you may imagine the warm Middle East to be. My two cats, Kinneret and Rachel, dragged up to meet me at the door with teeth chattering. Since I have been home temperatures dropped to almost freezing and this morning rain has turned to hail.

Last night a rare snow forecast for the Golan and the Hermon Mountain - the northern heights - and Jerusalem caused Israelis from warmer Tel Aviv to pack up their cars with the kids and the warmest jackets they could shlep out of closets and make the annual pilgrimage to the capital. But in the light of dawn, dreams of charging around in the snow and "ahing" and "ohing" at the sight of ethereal stone buildings and Jerusalem Pines layered with a haze of misty snow had to be postponed. No snow yet.

Here's a poem I wrote about this season:


Roses do well in Jerusalem,
hardy beauties,
they withstand the winter gales
that whistle under stone threshold doors

they brave the wet snow that slows life down
when Tel Aviv joins us in wonder

and withstand the rise of High Holy Day winds

that tear into lesser blooms
overturning September's Tabernacle booths.

Wild Snapdragon and Caper Bush
clambering over Temple ruins these millennium
thrive with the Wild Rose, the mystic "Shoshana."

She holds head high

through Hamsin burn that lays waste the purple Fuscia bells
and the yellow Sharav sand-mists
that send us indoors
to contemplate eternity.

© Sole Copyright of Shira Twersky-Cassel

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Brother-sister reunion

The mystery of siblings, raised by the same parents, who are different yet the same fascinates me. I observe my own grandchildren, raised by my son and daughter in law here in Jerusalem, and wonder at how different each is, although they share the same way of life and values.

The variations between myself and my brother, ten years my senior, may be easier to understand. His formative years were during the Depression when my parents were new Americans not long arrived from Palestine, having previously escaped from the turmoil of Eastern Europe before the Nazis initiated their crusade against the Jewish people and the world. Wandering Jews. I was raised in a home spiritually rich and economically struggling, but the refrigerator was always full.

After the First World War, my mother and father joined my gentle and kind grandfather in Brooklyn, a Grand Rabbi of Hassidim [I will explain this term in future entries] who had escaped Petlyura's gangs rampaging pogroms in the Ukraine during the Communist uprisings. My brother was privileged to know him well. My memories of our "zeida" are dimmer.

Born into the first elevator house in the Bronx, as soon as I knew myself my dream was to share in the adventure of the new Jewish State of Israel. The return of my people to our ancestral home. As a child, I sensed that the centuries of not belonging, of wandering and suffering had happened to me personally.

So I have built my life in Israel as my brother has in the United States. Two weeks ago I returned home to Israel from a long awaited visit with him and his family in Miami, and will share with you the thoughts that will arise in me as I digest this adventure.

Still the same but different, my handsome and funny brother and his family are the taste to me of our long departed parents.

And best of all, I gained a new friendship with a neice who also offered me an additional gift.

This blog for me to write my thoughts and poems to you.
So long and Lehit'

Thursday, January 28, 2010

To Jerusalem - Opal

OPAL: Song to Jerusalem by Shira Twersky-Cassel

They call you Gold
I name you Opal,

I sing of tattered shadow and light
which consummates on nights of haloed moon,

I speak of ebony blackbird and swift
that come to roost like jewels set in opal stone.

And we shall gather tremors in sanctuary ruins
your crystal eyes to weep no more.

And once again the loyal caper-tree
will climb your Templed-Mount,

© sole copywrite
Shira Twersky-Cassel

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Blackbird of Israel - Inspiration for my poetry

ABOUT MY LOGO: Blackbird emerging from an inkwell

The blackbird - shachrur in Hebrew - was my first bird-love in Israel. Blackbird is the title of my first book of Hebrew poetry which won the prestigious Haim Hazaz poetry prize.

Although the local nightingale is the thrush identified with the Land of Israel in the Bible, within Israel's current borders we rarely enjoy a visit from the multi-songed nightingale whose habitat today is in TransJordan among the rushes of the Jordan river. So the blackbird our chief thrush.

It is with excitement that I await the season of the blackbird's unique song, which begins in the Hebrew month of Shvat - December-January for everybody else "out there." Shvat is the month of my own birthday so I feel personally serenaded when my courtyard jet black beauty with golden beak and throat begins his seasonal mating song from within the branches of the Jerusalem pine in my yard.

When the Beatles sang, "Blackbird singing in the dead of night," they approximated the truth. The blackbird begins his song in darkess one hour before sunrise, thus playing Orpheaus.

The source of the bird's name, shachrur in Hebrew, is "shachar", - sunrise - and "shachor" means black. Typically, in the Hebrew language, one word carries many meanings. This is reflected the writings of the Bible and the centuries of rich Jewish scholarship when Hebrew was a language of prayer and learning and was not spoken every day.

The rebirth of the Hebrew tongue is one of the miracles of modern Israel. I longed to write poetry in Hebrew in order to tap into the rich history of my people.

After publishing three volumes of Hebrew poetry, I enjoy writing again in English and have begun translating many of my Hebrew poems.

I hope to print some of these poems on my new site.

And as we say in Hebrew, Lehitraot, see you soon.

or in short