Personal Patina
The JERUSALEM POST (January 20, 1995)

EIGHTEEN GATES by Issachar Miron. Foreword by Elie Wiesel. Illustrations by Arthur Szyk. London, Jason Aronson. 242 pp.

By Richard F. Shepard
New York Times writer and cultural news editor (1923-1998)

I must confess right off the bat that I am a friend of Issachar Miron, the author and composer of this extraordinarily handsome collection of poetry and music - 120 prayers and 22 zemirot and niggunim.

Usually, one should not review a friend's book, but it is difficult to find anyone interested in Jewish culture who is not Miron's friend. On any given night, he and his wife may be hosting a salon in their New York apartment for the brightest and also dimmer lights of arts and letters, or out visiting talent prominent in English, Hebrew or Slavic esthetics and intellect.

Indeed, what is there not to like in this collection? Miron's fertile imagination wraps the modern around the ancient and the result is an eloquent transmission of those “dor v'dor’ values in a manner that loses nothing in translation from traditional language into modern idiom.

Eighteen Gates is organized around 18 Jewish holidays and festivals, a yearly cycle of life that achieves the happy “hai’ total by the inclusion of what the author describes as five "present-day festivals: Yom Hashoah, Yom Ha'atzmaut, Yom Yerushalayim and Today and Every Day (an every-day-without-fail holiday)."

The creations are arrayed in the style of a manicured garden, with meticulous attention to graceful typography in the presentation.

I doubt if a more attractive volume dealing with this subject can be found.

The 25 magnificent illustrations by Arthur Szyk embellish the printed word as well as they complement it. Each segment, introduced with brief, pithy comments by scholars and epigrammatists, features a piece of Miron music written mostly to accompany a traditional text from the Hebrew liturgy.

Miron created all the prayers that make up the bulk of this book in a two-year period; they are all in English and original because, as he explained, he does not translate from his Hebrew work, or vice versa, in acknowledgment that poetry cannot be translated.

On every page, the product of his imagination leaps out to pull on yours. Here, among the Purim offerings, a descriptive passage from "Tongue-in-Cheek":

The Megillah,
a salient story holding
the adult and teenaged audience rapt,
makes young girls scream
and little boys
skip like wild goats

It concludes
most un-Jewishly with ...
a Hollywood world of fantasy-like
moving-picture solemnity,
revving up a romantic,
state-of-the-art happy ending
an exuberant anti-climactic sequel,
and tummling at a screwball party lasting
one hundred eighty pompous days and nights.

Contrarily to this impish tumble of words are these thoughts from "The Trial of Seismic Gravity," a Yom Kippur meditation:

“The prophet's oracle!
It portends that,
without forgiveness,
the supplication for the impending verdict
to be determined
might be lost and your case

reciting psalms,
or studying a chapter
of the Mishnah
wouldn't change
one bit of the writ.

Yours is a trial
of seismic gravity.
Now is the time
to seek the meaning of life,
cling fast to the soulfulness
of our heritage,
holding on faithfully
to the fervency of our humanism
turning the corner,
reversing the tide,
and starting the divine-partnership ball rolling
on every field and on every court in our hearts"

Again, here is Miron, last survivor of a Holocaust-extinguished family, giving a cry from his depths for Holocaust Remembrance Day in "A Kaddish of Whys," a three-page prayer that starts with a short stanza and in progressively longer verses queries the Almighty to explain His silence while we are "bearing the unbearable."

This is a large-sized book that will grab you the first time as you sit down with it. But you will not read through it at that first sitting. There is too much to absorb, to much to muse upon, because this is not simple read.

In the best sense of poetry, an economy of words compresses lengthy philosophies in a blend of intellect and emotion. It may be possible to sport a poem or hear a piece of music and say, that is a genuine Miron.

But the wonder of it is that the Miron patina may be imposed on such a multitude of themes in such a plethora of moods.

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