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Poprayer: Parody in Israeli Prayer Poems

A lecture delivered at an international conference
On political and social satire at Haifa University, May 1, 2012
by Gilad Meiri & Noa Shakargy

Israeli prayer-poems – a category of poetry we will attempt to define in just a moment – draw heavily on parody. This phenomenon is an expression of the influence of popular culture on prayer, a phenomenon that we have termed “poprayer” – in Hebrew, “popiyut.” Poprayer presents an opportunity for ancient Jewish poetry (piyut) to make an historical and poetic leap into another period, taking on modern trappings in order to regain relevancy for poets and readers. We would like to describe this phenomenon through two poems, one by David Avidan, who was part of the 1950s generation of Israeli poets, and another by Admiel Kosman, of the 1980s generation. In the process, we will characterize key terms in our lecture: prayer poems, Israeli poetry, popoetics and parody.

In Kirvat Makom, an anthology of “prayer poems”
that we edited, we defined the expression as referring to poems that have at their basis a request or entreaty, since the cognate of the Hebrew word for prayer, tefila, f-l-l, points to the main significance of prayer, namely, to make a request, and because the first prayer appearing in the Bible is a request (Gen. 20:17). Generally speaking, it can be stated that prayer poems are a double request to God. The first request is to merit God’s proximity, while the second is usually a specific request of the poet, for example, for redemption, for his team to score a goal, or for the bus he is waiting for to arrive.

Modern Israeli poetry is a unique poetic-historical period in the history of Hebrew poetry. We will focus on two main stylistic characteristics of the period: communicativeness and humor, which is itself a pleasurable type of communicativeness. These characteristics are manifestations of the effect of the political independence of the Jewish people on literature. The establishment of the state made it possible for the multilingual nation in the Diaspora, living without sovereignty and outside of time, to create a crystallized identity through Israeliness. Israeliness required a discourse rooted not only in the national mythological sources, that is to say texts, but also in daily life, in civil society, in the universal, and therefore, it had to be communicative, less pathetic, enigmatic and rhetorical. Communicativeness and humor are also a manifestation of the influence of popular culture. The State of Israel hopped on board to join the family of nations during a period when popular culture was becoming a dominant social force. Therefore, popular culture is a birthmark of Israeliness and it can be discerned, inter alia, in Israeli literature.

The poetics of popular culture is “popoetics.” Popoetics is the literary parallel of pop-art. Popoetics is poetics influenced by popular genres, such as cinema and television, and their products, for example, the screenplay, the skit and the popular refrain. One of the key characteristics of popoetics is the extensive use of parody, due to its facets of communication, humor and performance germane to popular culture. Poprayer is a form of popoetics.

Parody is a cultural creation that imitates another cultural creation in a polemic and usually humoristic manner. The parody text identifies in the original text characteristics that are easily mocked (fixed, sentimental forms, archaisms, mannerisms and the like) and distorts them, through exaggeration, minimization, debasement of the lofty and elevation of the base, and the like.

Parody also uses laughter and humor that are aggressive and often demeaning. These include ridicule, giggling, disdain, and black humor, as well as a variety of humoristic effects, such as irony, satire, the grotesque, and nonsense. Usually, parody of a particular work is not an expression of humor for its own sake, but rather of humor with an agenda to reinforce the polemic and corrective message of the parody (Dentith, 2000).

Parody has the role of inverting literary norms at an historical literary junction. This is a political and critical role within the literary system, which expresses the need of the present generation to break free from the models and laws that preceded it. Stated otherwise, parody is a symptom of the transition between historical periods, and serves the young generation as a tool for practice and for control of previous texts in order to decrease their greatness.

Although parody is mainly a subversive literary form, it is based on a conservative perspective that not only believes in the existence of a canon, but acts to preserve it; without a canon, the reader is unable to identify the original, and interpretation of the text suffers. Therefore, the tendency is to create parodies of popular works (Hutcheon, 1985:18). This situation gives rise to the “parodic paradox”: through a parodic quote, parody brings the original to life, and even preserves it as a new and relevant work through the later text. This paradox can even explain why there are parodies that arise from admiration of the original (Dentith 2000: 189). Parody identifies the nucleus of strength in the original, and strikes at the original text through its own source of strength. However, the strength of the original text is the same source admired by the author of the later text. In the spirit of the rabbinic saying: “Tell me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who you are,” one might say ironically: “Tell me what you are parodying, and I’ll tell you who you are.” This is the essence of the paradoxical parody: the creator of parody defines his literary identity by way of his rival.

The parody in Israeli poprayer is an iconoclastic weapon with which modern Hebrew poetry can grapple with the sacred authority of the Jewish sources, and at the same time, a paradoxical attempt to preserve their relevance to the renewal of Jewish culture. Israeli prayer poetry adopted the parodic position in order to shape a contemporary spiritual identity suitable to the poet himself, the time and the place. This is a revolutionary endeavor in political and critical terms, since it is based on a split between the parodic-humoristic and the religious. Indeed, there is tension between the numinous or that which arouses fear of God, and the humoristic: we do not laugh with God or during the synagogue prayer service.

David Avidan’s poem “A Heart-to-Heart Prayer” is a clear example of parodic poprayer:


Lord our god lord you knew

we didn’t know a thing

make us a miracle now so we’ll know what you knew

everything you’ll know everything you’ll think everything you’ll feel

make us a miracle now so we can make miracles

for ourselves and for others and for the lord our god

and don’t limit our possibilities lord our god

more than you limited your own possibilities

and give us our own little world

that we’ll create in six days and won’t rest

on the seventh day more than a seventh of a day

and don’t pity us lord our god

have pity on the little ones and the fools

pity on the foolish of nations

and give us the strength to be ourselves

lord our god the one who knew, didn’t you

lord our god the one who heard, didn’t you

lord our god you are the one, aren’t you

and the lord our god is the lord our god

so give us the strength not to give up

and not to arouse pity unless needed

and even if needed lord because there is no need

lord our god who had no pity, did you

lord our god who won’t be pitied, will you

give us a strong heart and an open mind

and don’t think about us too much

blessed are you lord creator-of-humankind

you won’t rest and you won’t sleep my lord of hosts

blessed are you lord ever vigilant

blessed are you lord creator of humankind in his image

blessed are you my lord blessed of the blest

and the blessed mouth will bless and say amen

translated by Lisa Katz

This prayer poem by Avidan simultaneously preserves and rebels against the Jewish prayer tradition. That the poem is subversive can be seen in the mocking imitation of the accepted form of Jewish prayer. The parody breaks up the fixed hierarchies and dichotomies set in the relationship between the sublime and the comic. It even creates a surprising intimacy between man and God through autoparodic confessions, such as, “we didn’t know a thing,” and by shaping the discourse as taking place between two knowledgeable parties, between equals. One of the conclusions of the poem is that it’s easier to communicate with God, as it is with most people, through those patterns that are at work between people: speech and humor. The title of the poem implies this – God also has a heart.

The poem’s parody is multi-pronged. It touches on the small-mindedness of man, the insanity of God’s grandiosity, the monotone nature of Jewish prayer, the self-interest of the individual reciting the prayer, and more. And yet, it also has sincerity and depth, which are moving in a manner not characteristic of parody. Despite God’s anger, Avidan, in this poem, breaks through hermetic boundaries of parody and turns it into a love poem for God and man, thanks to the balance between the mystical and the parodic.

The poem succeeds in integrating the higher self, the prophet, with the lower self, the jester. The most moving parodic poems are those that create a complex self of this sort, containing both playful and lyrical-serious elements. The integration of humor and playfulness of refined feeling is not meant to set off anyone’s fuse, but to create fusion, a carefully rendered reflection of experience. Complex poems of this type arouse identification, since they reflect the state of existence in an authentic manner.

The parodic prayer poem is also a political and iconoclastic product of the New Age. The New Age is the universal religion of popular culture. The central characteristic of the New Age is the synthesis of different strains of mysticism. It is a manifestation of replication, or recycling. As stated, parody, too, is the product of text-recycling, recycling that sometimes seems to us to be eclectic like the remix between the sublime and the comic. After all, on the face of it, the sublime is the essential opposite of the comic: God, the exalted, the rational and the perfect are qualities of the sublime, while the human, the base, the irrational and the defective are qualities characteristic of the comical.

The poetics of Admiel Kosman are an expression of the continuity and development of Avidan-style parodic poprayer. His poem: “Installing you, My Lord,” is a graceful example of this, and of the contemporary discourse between the poet and God:

Installing You my Lord / Admiel Kosman

Installing You my Lord, in da middle of the night.

Installing You and all Your programs. Up and down

da night goes, in my Windows, slows, installing You and

da kruvim[1], installing you and da srafim,[2] installing all

da holy crew, until da morning


Installing You my Lord. Installing all my questions.  All

da darkest night.  Installing all de bites. Installing

all relations.  Troot.  Installing all

pretending actions.

Installing light, installing life, installing you

with love, with awe.  Installing all da night long below

until da end, my Lord.

Would we

finally be dead.

Installed togedder.

One of a series of poems by Kosman in which he transliterates English (in this case, broken English) into Hebrew letters.

translated by Lisa Katz & Shlomit Naor

Kosman’s poem is written in English, in Hebrew transliteration. Writing the poem in this manner parodies the God of the 21st century, the computer. In a manner similar to Avidan, Kosman, too, seeks to speak with God using the tools familiar and known to him – those of technology. He presents an ambivalent position towards New Age views that promise the believer that he can “install” God into himself through a brief action, in contrast to spiritual practice that is inherently an enduring process that ends only at the moment of death.

Like the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, whose revelations occurred at night, Kosman also asks God to reveal himself at night. In a parody on the verse “and it happened at midnight” (Ex. 12:29) from the Exodus story and the well known liturgical poem sung at the end of the Passover Seder by Yanai, a poet who resided in 5th or 6th century Palestine,  Kosman asks for revelation “in the middle of the night.” He also refers, however, to software that must be downloaded during the night. Thus does Kosman request to speak in languages, the ancient and the modern, in which he asks God for enlightenment, which, in technological paraphrase, is the installation of one within the other – of God into the speaker.

Kosman’s parody is dual and universal. At is basis is the human race’s worship of the computer and technology, the English language’s takeover of other languages, and global discourse in general. Kosman asks God, with the help of parody, to turn his body and soul into a computer that has all of the programs that one might need in order to become one with God: “Installing you and all your programs.” However, the understanding that he is unable to become completely unified with God, despite having appealed to Him in technological language, and in English (rather than Hebrew), leads to the understanding that the only possible installation is shared death. Death is the only possible relief from the longing for unity between the speaker and the addressee.

Kosman also uses parody as an analogue between man and God. In the first verse, the speaker enumerates God’s dedicated, holy objects, like a child counting his computer games: “installing you and da srafim.” Later, in the second verse, he enumerates man’s feelings: “Installing all de bites.”  In effect, Kosman is saying here to God, in a casual and fatherly manner, that each of us has his excuses for running away from the other, but we have no choice but to unite with one another without any means of bridging the gap in the likes of seraphs, cherubs, questions or fears.

The line “until da morning come” reinforces this message of parody. It alludes to the verse from Psalms (30:6), “At evening, one beds down weeping, / and in the morning, glad song.” The morning is indeed optimistic, and brings renewal, but it completely lacks a solution to the distress of separation from God; rather, it creates new needs and fears that must be dealt with in order to come close to God.

The poems of Avidan and Kosman are an expression of the parodic discourse between artists: between the poet, creator of the verbal environment, and God, creator of the world. The poet imitates God who, ostensibly, imitates the poet. Through parodic prayer, the poet can thus grapple simultaneously with longing towards and repulsion from God.

In the act of writing, the poet imitates the God within himself, and at the same time, contends with him in a poetic-creative manner. Thus does parody enable the poet to critique culture and the positions adopted in the past towards speaking with God. These positions in the past relied on awe, fear and reverence, and prevented the poet from saying what he felt and devoting himself without deception to a discourse with God. In this manner, the poems presented here illustrate how parodic reference to God assists the poet and inherently resolves his questions of faith. This is because the very turning to God is the poet’s grappling with both his internalized and external image of God.

In summary, the popoetic revolution in Israeli poetry granted new and refreshing opportunities for expression for the poet and the believer. This groundbreaking poetry might be likened to an accessible and aesthetic USB connection, which perhaps one day will become the literary continuation of sacred Jewish text.

[1] cherubim
[2] seraphim

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