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Yakov Azriel

Yakov Azriel was born in New York in 1950, and has lived in Israel since 1971. He has published four full-length books of poetry in the USA: Threads From A Coat Of Many Colors: Poems On Genesis (2005), In The Shadow Of A Burning Bush: Poems On Exodus (2008), Beads for the Messiah's Bride: Poems on Leviticus (2009) and Swimming In Moses' Well: Poems on Numbers (2011), all published by Time Being Books. Over 180 of his poems have been published in journals in the USA, the UK and Israel, and his poems have won thirteen awards in international poetry competitions, as well as two fellowships from the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture.


“The column of cloud by day, and the column of fire by night, did not depart from before the people.” (Exodus 13:22)

                               Warsaw, August 1942

At the Umschlagplatz, the train to Treblinka,
Ready to transport the Jews of Warsaw
To where people are transported through chimneys
As smoke,

Smoke from the locomotive,
Gray, thick, in an amorphous column
Rises, then drifts, then disperses and dissipates in the summer air;
Like Polish Jews;
Like hope.

Our fathers taught us
The Jews were led in the desert to the promised land
By a column of cloud by day,
And a column of fire by night,
Hiding the God of Israel’s glory.

But in the desert of Poland, the Jews are led to their final solution
For the greater glory of the Third Reich
Packed in cattle cars on a train
(Or is it a mobile cemetery with iron wheels
For filaments of smoke who do not yet know they are smoke?)

The passive locomotive impassively emits a column of smoke
As prosaic as despair,
As transient
As hope
Embodied in a work-certificate ignited by a match.

If only our fathers had learned
From columns of cloud and fire in the desert
How to reveal the hidden glory,
How to retrieve and reverse and revive
Wisps of smoke.

"Smoke" is from In the Shadow of a Burning Bush: Poems on Exodus, by Yakov Azriel. Copyright 2008 by Time Being Books.


"There shall be one law and one judgment for both you and the stranger who dwells in your midst." (Numbers 15:16)

We have some things in common. You and I
     Are strangers in this world, we don't belong
     To echoes of the noise we hear. Your song
Is not my song — its music is too high
And rarefied for me — but still I try
     To catch its melodies and hum along
     As best I can. I'm sure the world is wrong
When it ignores these notes, or lets them die.

You are, in fact, beyond the songs I rasp,
     Beyond notations that I scrawl on sand.
          You dwell in exile, though. I feel I'm odd
And out of place, a man who doesn't grasp
     The sounds that fill this world. You understand
          A stranger's plight; I sing to You, my God.

The Parable of the Phoenix

"Therefore they who speak in parables say, 'Come to Heshbon! …." (Numbers 21:27)

Out of the pyre, we see the phoenix rise,
Out of the fumes, the glaring flares, the blaze,
Out of the fire, the flames, the phoenix flies.

The cruelty of man has scorched our eyes
And blinded us with dread, yet still we gaze:
Out of the pyre, we see the phoenix rise.

Although hot coals of evil agonize
Our nights and burn the minutes of our days,
Out of the fire, the flames, the phoenix flies.

Can we go on believing, when a child dies
In pain? But even then, when grace decays,
Out of the pyre, we see the phoenix rise.

Is this the vision sages prophesize?
The phoenix lives! Out of the smoke, the haze,
Out of the fire, the flames, the phoenix flies.

Her silken wings unsinged, the bird defies
The certainty of death, and sings life's praise;
Out of the pyre, we see the phoenix rise;
Out of the fire, the flames, the phoenix flies.

Rosh Hashanah

"And in the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall have a sacred convocation; you shall do no manner of servile work; it is a day when the shofar is blown." (Numbers 29:1)

The play will soon begin — eleven, ten,
     Nine, eight, seven, six — soon the chatter dies,
     Quite soon you'll stand upon the stage, all eyes
On you alone. You read the script again
In hope you won't forget its wording when
     The spotlight shines — five, four — it is unwise
     To worry, but your costume can't disguise
Your trembling, so you say a prayer, amen.

A shofar blows. The curtains rise. Within
     The confines of a narrow stage, you go
          To say your lines the best you can. The sun
And moon, the day, the night, are actors in
     The drama of your life — three, two — you know
          You stand before an Audience of One.

North of Damascus

"He that touches the dead, even a human corpse, shall be impure for seven days." (Numbers 19:11)

"When Abram heard that his brother had been taken captive, he mustered his trained followers born into his household, 318 in number, and went in pursuit as far as Dan. He and his servants split up against them by night and smote them, and pursued them as far as Hovah which is north of Damascus." (Genesis 14:14-15)

Reaching the enemy's encampment after midnight, we could hear the captive women
Scream while being raped; the commander split our forces into two and like a pincer
We squeezed until the nut of their resistance cracked; north of Damascus, face to face,
I killed a man.

In his flight, the enemy soldier, panting, his helmet fallen, double-tracked and ran
Across my path, not knowing he had stumbled unto death. He saw me too late;
He pulled out his dagger, but I, quicker, stabbed with my sword; north of Damascus,
I killed a man.

His head jerked, his arms twitched, and the innards full of blood fell out, staining
The soil whitened by moonlight, like dark wine spilled on an infant's linen blanket.
He would have killed me as he and his had butchered children; still I shuddered;
I killed a man.

One day, south of Jerusalem, these hands which held a sword will hold a wife,
Will cradle an infant I will father, will plant a vine whose dark wine I will drink.
But I shudder still; though no one may smell or see or perhaps even suspect it,
Death has stained my hands.

This Room and the Next Room

"And he stood between the dead and the living …" (Numbers 17:13)

Mr. Death sits at our table
Dressed in a three-piece suit and silken tie,
A top hat and kid gloves,
His shoes — shined
And an old-fashioned pocket-watch in his vest,
As proper for a true gentleman.

We ignore him,
Pretending we don't see him,
Making believe we don't hear him
Inhale and exhale.

He waits patiently.

Mr. Death, a master of tact and etiquette,
Does not take part in our conversation,
Does not ask for a piece of cheesecake,
Does not drink coffee.
He closes his eyes as if he's drowsy,
Perhaps even bored
By our prattle
And our gossip about the neighbors.

Every now and then
Mr. Death takes out his pocket-watch.
He knows his hour will come:
Each one of us will rise from the table;
Mr. Death too will rise from his chair
And extend his hand
To escort us, one by one,
From this room
To the next room.

Mr. Death never gets upset or nervous — why should he?
If a bus is late,
A second bus will come and run over someone else;
If a window is stuck,
Another window will open for the next suicide.

Mr. Death doesn't get upset, but it pains him
To witness the sorrow of parting —
Husband from wife,
Mother from son,
Brother from sister.
It pains him
How no one in this room understands him.
He would like to explain
That in the next room

Miss Immortality is waiting
To dance with us —
One by one —
The tango
All night long.

Miss Immortality,
Dressed in a green and orange frock,
Has a garland of daisies in her hair,
Daisies which never wilt.
She sweeps, then washes
The dance floor every morning
After each night of tango.

Miss Immortality brings a glass of tea with milk
To Mr. Death
When they sit together in the kitchenette.
She tells him the latest news:
How the Messiah's wife practices playing David's violin,
How Lot's wife, no longer salt, has taken up singing,
How Jephthah's daughter is opening a dance school of her own.

While Miss Immortality hangs out laundry
On branches of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil,
Mr. Death goes down to the flower-beds of spices
To pluck lilies.

As well as the dancing hall,
Miss Immortality is responsible for the menagerie
Where she tends her pets,
Like the snow leopard of Art
And the unicorn of Hope.
Her favorite, though,
Is the Faith-bird.

Some say the Faith-bird is a canary
Given to Sarah as a gift by angels
At the feast Abraham made
When Isaac was weaned.

Others claim the Faith-bird
Revealed an escape route to Had Gadya,
Allowing him to flee the cat, the dog, the stick, the fire.

There is an opinion
The Faith-bird is a phoenix
Which flew to Miss Immortality from the Book of Job
After the birth of Yemima, Keziah and Keren-happuch.

Yet everyone agrees
That the Faith-bird can outfly hawks, having survived
The Great Devastation,
The Sacking of the City,
The Black Plague.

It's hard to fall asleep at night
With Michael to my right,
Gabriel to my left,
Before me Uriel,
Behind me Rafael,
And sixty warriors from the warriors of Israel
Surrounding my bed;
It's too crowded in a narrow bedroom,
Too crowded and stifling.

Sometimes all the angels and warriors vanish.
In the still, small silence
There is no voice, no sound at all.

I then entreat the Faith-bird:
'Come to me,
Build your nest on my window-sill
And sing
Here on foreign soil,
The way the exiled captives from Jerusalem sang
Songs of Zion.'

The Jealous Husband and his Wife


"Speak to the people of Israel, and say to them, 'If a man's wife goes astray, and she commits an act of infidelity against him; and a [different] man lies with her carnally, and it is hidden from the eyes of her husband, and this is kept undetected, and she is defiled, and there is no witness against her, since she was not caught in the act —" (Numbers 5:12-13)

The flame
wears a white hat
above her blue head —
a dazzling, luminous hat
to hide
her passions and desires.

A large and pretty bonnet
is no guarantee
her heart will not explode
in an all-devouring flare of heat, a burst
that turns her wick

Under her head-kerchief of light
she burns,
and fears
strange fire
may consume
her sacrifice.


"And so a fit of jealousy overcomes a man and he is jealous concerning his wife, who has defiled herself; or a fit of jealousy overcomes a man concerning his wife, although she has not defiled herself – " (Numbers 5:14)

I wrench Place.
I wrench Time. Memory. Future. Past.

I wrench Place.
I wrench Feelings — what you had hoped for,
                                 what you had expected,
          what you had wanted us to share.

I wrench Place.
I wrench our Kitchen, and the loaf of bread you baked,
   our Parlor, and your paintings that you hung,
   our Bedroom, and the blanket which you sewed.

I wrench Place.
I wrench the Orchard you planted,
              the Mountain you climbed,
              the Shore of the Lake in which you swam.

I wrench Place.
I wrench your Cloud, your Moon, your Star, your Sky.

And from the stones of Place,
I have failed to build a house of prayer or a house of study,
          a house for the needy,
                        a house for the sick.

From the stones of Place,
I have failed to build a monument. A barricade.
                                 A wall. A fence.
I have failed to build a stable. A cowshed.
                                                                Not even a pigpen.

From the stones of Place,
I will try
To make a pillow,
And to dream, in spite of the cold,
Of a ladder
Which will not fall down
On our heads.


"Then shall the man bring his wife to the Temple-priest, and he shall bring as an offering for her the tenth part of an ephah of barley meal; he shall pour no oil upon it, nor put frankincense on it, for it is an offering of jealousy, an offering of memorial, bringing iniquity to remembrance." (Numbers 5:15)

through desire
love –
            i …?

through loving
through consuming
desire –
            she …?

            love –
                        will –

"Strangers," "The Parable of the Phoenix," "Rosh Hashanah," " North of Damascus," "This Room and the Next Room," and "The Jealous Husband and his Wife" are from Swimming In Moses' Well: Poems on Numbers, by Yakov Azriel. Copyright 2011 by Time Being Books.

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