If the child is the father of the man, what then is the young adult? In the case of theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, his poetry in Yiddish – penned in his early 20s –- provides the first glimpse of his greatness.
Many of the themes he would later develop in his teaching and books, about prayer, wonder and social justice, are first hinted at in his early poems, which were published in English a few years ago, with translations by Morton Leifman, “The Ineffable Name of God.” More recently, composer, musician and singer Basya Schechter set the Yiddish poems to original music and recorded “Songs of Wonder.” Full of yearning, the beauty of his words is apparent, even for those who don’t understand a word of Yiddish. “Every Word Has Power: The Poetry of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel,” the new documentary that premieres on Saturday, June 13th at 1:30 pm on ABC (watch it or record it) features the accomplished Schechter in concert, along with interviews with some of the leading experts on all things Heschel, including his daughter Susannah Heschel, a professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth; Rabbi Shai Held, author of “Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence;" biographer Edward Kaplan and a former student, Peter Geffen.
Schechter explains that she spent 9 months reading the poems nightly, until the words “started to lift off the page” and she knew that she had to record them.
As Held says, “the poetry has a specific function, which is again to tear the calluses off our souls, to break through our indifference, to shatter our selfishness, all of that he thinks is made powerful by the sheer power of language.”
Debra Gonsher Vinik, who created, produced and wrote the documentary (Diva Communications) and is the recipient of many Emmys Awards for her work, explains that few people know that Heschel wrote poetry.
There’s some disagreement among the speakers about how Heschel would feel about these poems of his youth resurfacing, whether proud or embarrassed, or some combination.
“I would say that my father spent his whole life exploring what it means to be a religious person, what it means to experience God and how one can cultivate in ourselves the ability to perceive God's presence,” Susannah Heschel says. “That was my father's whole life. So he begins it with the poetry and it continues for the rest of his life.”