Sami Shalom Chetrit
Jews: Translations from Hebrew 1982-2013
Červená Barva Press
ISBN: 978-0-692-33628-1

Reviewer: Ann Wehrman

          Jews—the 2015 English translation from Hebrew of Sami Shalom Chetrit’s poetry—raves, muses, laments, whispers, roundly scolds, kvetches, and praises. These poems sing of the longing for justice, humanity, brotherhood, and peace, and always for a God who is elusive yet somehow cannot be wholly denied. The book’s author page characterizes Sami Shalom Chetrit as, “Teacher, poet, writer, filmmaker, and scholar…raised in Israel, and [living] in New York City. He has been writing and publishing poetry for thirty years, with five books in Hebrew…Chetrit is Associate Professor of Hebrew and Middle Eastern Studies at Queens College, CUNY, and is on the faculty of Middle East/Middle East in America Studies at The Graduate Center, CUNY.” 

          Additionally, Chetrit is a Moroccan Jew, born in Morocco, but his family moved to Israel when he was three. His diverse, conflicting heritage and global stature as scholar and writer combine to give his poems a uniquely independent vision. Chetrit’s blunt yet sophisticated style speaks with free breadth, confidence, and quiet swagger, in tones light, satirical, deep, and musing. His concerns here range from those of the disenchanted international citizen, the intellectual, the wanderer/observer, and the passionate anti-war advocate to those of the gruffly sentimental lover of parents, children, and homeland.

          Early in the collection, “A Mural with No Wall” a five-page, dense, impassioned letter in verse to the famed Palestinian poet, Mahmud Darwish, ends with the following lines of brilliant transcendence:

I am not an Orientalist, I am Oriental, ya’ani aMizrahi Jew,
There is no atonement or redemption for me, not in this lifetime,
Perhaps, on the day that your three companions overcome their
fear of heights,
Lo,’ those inquirers into the secret of life –
Gilgamesh, Solomon, and Yeshua (Jesus, King of the Jews) –
And descend from the top branches of the tree of life down to the
land of the end of all,
On that day, which will nevermore come,
I will tear the mask off my face,
Benevolent of countenance and soul,
And be who I am,
Whoever I am I will be,
A Jew with no Jews,
An Arab with no Arabs,
A suitcase with no homeland,
A homeland with no suitcase,
A painter with no words,
A poet with no paint,
A wall with no mural,
A mural with no wall.

          Reaching the end, the reader must leap from his or her comfortable chair, crying, “Yes, I know, I am with you, never surrender!” Who could help but respond to this pitiless quest to liberate mind and spirit from the traps and burdens of the world, this internal struggle to attain a free, clear vantage point?

          Chetrit writes with quiet fury and scathing contempt of the lust for war and the ongoing conflict in the Holy Land, including the resultant oppression and destruction of peaceful daily life and sanity. “New Jerusalem” begins:

Bad Dream, Part 1:

The state, unlike an individual, has no conscience.
                                                                —George Kennan

A wild night,
Someone turned me to the gourds.
Scrambling through the forest of concrete and glass towers,
They’re here, they are there, everywhere,
Riding on black horses and waving truncheons
Calling out to me halt in Hebrew and I do not wonder...


I was caught like a rat in the corner of a dark alley.
(Shots in the air, sirens whining.)

          With similar anti-war venom, “Hey Jeep, Hey Jeep” powerfully depicts an Israeli military gang out joyriding in a jeep, finding and beating an Arab youth:

Eight soldiers, one a Hebrew major
eight soldiers, and one Arab minor.


They finally pitched him from the fleeting coach,
cast their spirit to the blinding night.

          The cowardice and bloodlust of the military and those thirsty for war sickens the speakers of these poems, as well it should.

          Often direct and bleak, and as often, eloquently oratorical, Chetrit’s style, diction, and tone also take imaginative turns; for example, in the sly political satire, “Midnight atop the Regional Garbage Dumpster,” which personifies enemy leaders as cats, like “…two big rogues,/ atop the regional garbage dumpster./ Between them one centimeter of terror,/ announcing in loud voices/ the camps are ready for war.” One at first might picture Disney’s Lady and the Tramp slurp-sharing a bowl of spaghetti in that alley as one reads about cats atop a garbage dumpster—but then the brutal reality of Chetrit’s subject asserts itself, driving away whimsy and innocence.

          The poems also speak tenderly of family, as in, “And Thou Shalt Teach Them Diligently to They Children” which touches on the father and son relationship and on the passing down of multiple traditions:

I am teaching my son to play soccer
in a strange land
I diligently teach my son soccer
in the land of baseball


Kicking a soccer ball
back and forth
as we remember Zion.

          The final, long poem, “And Only Love,” reaches beautifully into the soul, exalting romantic love and the “other”:

sing to me
sing to me again the same
sing to me again that same song


Let the Lord open my lips but to you I shall cry out my song
awake awake wakeup my divine voice
for only our love
only love
my compass
at sea
my heart

          Not just the human beloved, but the triumph of love over darkness, betrayal, and loss—these triumphs of love and all others, Chetrit’s speaker celebrates and holds sacred here.

          Readers of Sami Shalom Chetrit’s Jews might be uplifted or offended by his words, might agree or disagree—no matter. The reader is a witness to the poet’s need to express his perceptions of mind and heart. Chetrit’s work reminds us of the importance of freedom and inspiration, a plea for all poets to carry on this quest, to discover the Word within and give it life through their voices.

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