February 22, 2020

The Great Israeli Poet You Never Heard Of

“In the world of modern Hebrew letters, some names have achieved international recognition: from S.Y. Agnon and Ḥayyim Naḥman Bialik to, more recently, Amos Oz and Yehuda Amichai. The names of others, whose contributions to Hebrew literature may be no less significant, tend to resonate in smaller, more localized circles.

Among the latter figures is the poet Zelda Shneerson Mishkovsky (1914-1984)—known simply as Zelda to her many devoted readers in Israel. Indeed, her place in the world of Hebrew letters is secure, having been recognized through the award of both the Bialik and the Brenner prizes, two of Israel’s highest literary honors. That place is also unique: more than three decades after her death, Zelda remains one of the greatest modern writers of religious experience—in Hebrew or in any other language.

Who was she?

Zelda’s renderingof religious experience was undoubtedly informed by her early life. Born in Russia in the waning days of the tsarist empire, she spent her first decade under the new dispensation of the Bolsheviks. Her formative childhood environment, however, was the world not of Communist atheism but of Chabad Ḥasidism. Zelda’s first cousin, older than she by a dozen years, was Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who in 1950 would become the seventh leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch dynasty: the “Lubavitcher rebbe.””

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