Gondos on Fishbane, 'Embers of Pilgrimage'

Eitan Fishbane
Andrea Gondos

Eitan Fishbane. Embers of Pilgrimage. Panui Poetry Series. San Francisco: Panui, 2021. 170 pp. $18.00 (paper), ISBN 979-85-13-43059-9

Reviewed by Andrea Gondos (Freie Universität Berlin) Published on H-Judaic (July, 2022) Commissioned by Robin Buller (University of California - Berkeley)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57317

“We listen to our inmost selves—and do not know which sea we hear murmuring,” notes Martin Buber, calling attention to the inherent ambivalence between myth and reality, the imagined and the lived.[1] Embers of Pilgrimage, Eitan Fishbane’s first volume of poetry, reflects the author’s intimate connection with the sea—a consciousness woven together from the disparate mythical elements of Zoharic and Lurianic tropes, murmuring songs from the abyss of a fractured world. Embers of Pilgrimage unites the scholar and the poet, Fishbane the son and the father, the lover and the beloved, in a world where love can so easily be stolen, darkened, and shattered. Creatively drawing on a web of mythical associations and mystical language forged by generations of kabbalistic authors from medieval scholars to Hasidic masters, Fishbane picks up the sparks that have fallen away to weave a new myth. By engaging in the literary production of a primary source, the scholar of Kabbalah moves from the quest of knowledge acquisition, organization, and representation to a newly hewed space consecrated by the self’s devotion to being and becoming.

Fishbane has been deeply invested in the welding together of the intellectual and the spiritual textures of his scholarly identity. His brilliant analysis of the Zohar’s poetic cadence in The Art of Mystical Narrative: The Poetics of the Zohar, published in 2018, appears alongside volumes where the ineffable is encountered in the quotidian experience of Jewish life and praxis. The Shabbat Soul: Mystical Reflections on the Transformative Power of Holy Time (2011) reveals his deep commitment to the Jewish tradition, highlighting its intellectual, communal, and performative facets.

The poems in this collection are organized into six sections, each comprising four to eight poems: the prologue, devoted to exploring the meaning of poetry, is followed by "Mystic Hymns," "Passage," "Nostalgia," "Lanes of Memory," and finally "Arc of Light." Thematically, these poems intertwine the personal voice of the poet drawn from his own life story with that of the scholar for whom the language of Kabbalah constitutes a boundless reservoir of inspiration. The volume is about movement, not merely a journey but a pilgrimage infused with religious, existential, and spiritual seeking. As with any pilgrimage, the journey is as much about the external—reaching a place of sanctity—as it is about connecting with an unknowable place within, where we have never been yet we are compelled to go in order to rebuild fragments of the self. In this sense, the poems are building blocks offering a gestalt that reconnects the self with the larger world: nature, family, the Jewish tradition, Shabbat, prayer, carnal love, a cafe in Jerusalem or a street in New York, and scattered divine sparks. The deft flow of images, biblical verses, kabbalistic allusions, and poetic rhythms are syncopated by silences, through which the poet reaches to touch the ineffable.

The transition from thinking into being is deftly articulated in "Gilgul" and "Faces." In the former, Fishbane evokes the idea of the multiple geneses of the soul, reshaped again and again in different epochs, yet embedded in it we find accumulated visions and experiences of earlier generations and future ones to come. Never stagnant or stationary, the spirit rolls in the effervescent cycles of a circle that changes but does not change, expanding only to return to its ontological source: "I am suspended, weightless / In this amniotic fluid of mystery / nourished, sheltered / gestating in the eternity / Before this birth / quarry of souls / through dimensions of becoming ... / Wood-chip, oil-on canvas, marble and clay – / apprentice angels bent over their work, / dreamy afternoon light of that divine city / of fire ringed chariots and / a dark breath floating over the deep / waters of no-time / eternal opening in the barely visible / horizon, cloaked in vanishing light / divine rhythms pulsing like an / unconscious remembering of Sinai" (pp. 5657).

The chasm that separates the analytical subject from the emotive one is bridged in "Faces." The poet’s internal emotional state becomes the canvas onto which anthropomorphic images of divine countenances organized around the supernal family (Abba Imma, Ze’ir and Nukvah)—central theosophical nodes in the Lurianic speculative system—are projected. The title of the poem suggests reflexivity, a vision in which the one who gazes meets the face of the one who is gazed at, creating an intimate bond between these entities. Ontological correspondences between the human and divine Anthropos—articulated first in the biblical narrative of Genesis 1:27, and later reformulated into an esoteric system of the Shiur Komah tradition and its various texts—constitute the mystical basis of the poem. The sexual unification of the divine couple, which melds the male and female energies of the universe, overflows into the human embrace of the earthly lovers, whose erotically charged encounter is vividly depicted by Fishbane. Yet the coda of the poem is the idealized Zen-like iteration of the divine persona, Arikh Anpin, who is impervious to jolts of sudden emotions like anger or rage and sits garbed in a stoic mantle of impassioned service as the long-suffering Creator. The title of the collection hints at this attribute, with the image of the ember alluding to a stage in the human life cycle when fiery passions are gently transmuted into a calm glow and “the hot sweaty tangle of sex” dissipates into the equanimity of soft but steady heat (p. 59): "Arikh Anpin, the face of kindness and calm deep within, / releasing the fire-heat and smoke of pent up angers, / leaving the pure exhale of meditative peace – / love, only love.... / Arikh Anpin, reminding me now, as perhaps / I knew then, that I and you each are called to the force / of this cool white flow of grace, / giving in virtue and in patience, / calming the embers of fire hushed and tamed / but still warm" (p. 65).

In writing Embers, Fishbane is not the first to traverse the sometimes ambiguous boundaries between Jewish mystical scholarship and creativity. The tangled relationship between poetry and Kabbalah has prompted several scholars in the field to engage in artistic creativity and the rich symbolism, myth, and associative language of kabbalistic literary production.[2] The scholarly creation of poetry and other artistic endeavors can be seen as responses arising organically from the discursive and dialogical relationship between text and reader. Once manifest, creativity as an impulse demands to be confronted, cultivated, and reintegrated into the consciousness. If honed and treated holistically as natural extensions of a person, the creative impulse provides a potent tool for enriching scholarship by merging learning with the subjective self. Among previous generations of scholars, Gershom Scholem wrote poetry, published posthumously in the collection Greetings from Angelus (2017). Following the literary tradition of German philosophers who eschewed writing for broad public appeal, Scholem's poems reveal his lyrical side. Covering the period from 1915 to 1967, they expose his enduring friendship with Walter Benjamin, his passionate political voice as a critic of Zionism, and his frequently acerbic tone against thinkers and philosophers of this time.[3] Similarly, Isaiah Tishby—Scholem’s first student at the Hebrew University—made a name for himself as a published poet, playwright, and journalist in Transylvania and Hungary, before his eventual aliyah to Mandate Palestine in 1933.

One might even argue that a scholar’s production of primary sources, which will be read and studied by others, is a form of “soul-making,” implying that scholarship, apart from the veil of objectivity and impartiality, has a soul that informs not only what we choose to study, and questions we ask from the material before us, but also how we integrate this quest with other aspects of our identity and society.[4] Furthermore, such a conjecture would necessarily prompt us to admit that we are creatures deeply embedded in educational, religious, social, and political structures alongside deeply personal ones—the network of family, friends, and community—all of which shape us in indelible ways.

Ezra Pound, the politically controversial yet defining figure of the twentieth-century literary landscape, once said that the poet’s main task was "to build us his world."[5] In Embers of Pilgrimage, Fishbane has achieved just that. He has built us his world from the ashes of shattered dreams and hopes into embers, words that glow like the radiance of the sky, like the radiance of our oft-broken souls.


[1]. Cited in Paul Mendes-Flohr, Martin Buber: A Life of Faith and Dissent (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019), 70.

[2]. This circle includes published authors, such as Elliot R. Wolfson, Haviva Pedaya, and Ruth Kara-Ivanov Kaniel, as well as yet unpublished ones, such as Leore Sachs-Shmueli and me.

[3]. Peter Constantine, "Greetings from Angelus: Poems by Gershom Scholem," World Literature Today (May 2018): https://www.worldliteraturetoday.org/2018/may/greetings-angelus-poems-gershom-scholem.

[4]. I borrow the phrase "soul-making" from Ariel Evan Mayse’s review of Jonathan Garb’s book, Yearnings of the Soul, where he calls for integrating scholarly discourse with the cultivation of religious and spiritual sensibilities. Rather than considering these facets of academic analysis as antagonistic, Mayse highlights that “for the researchers, writers, and creators of knowledge in the humanities, and of religious studies and intellectual history in particular, scholarship need not be scholasticism. We must remember, says Garb, that our yearning hearts must lead us on a quest for wisdom and understanding. This is the soul of our scholarship and the greatest of gifts we can bestow upon our students.” Ariel Evan Mayse, “The Soul of Scholarship: Jonathan Garb’s Yearnings of the Soul,” Journal of Religion 97, no. 3 (2017): 411.

[5]. Ezra Pound, Selected Prose, 1909-1965 (New York: New Directions, 1973), 20.

Citation: Andrea Gondos. Review of Fishbane, Eitan, Embers of Pilgrimage. H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews. July, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57317

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.