Marcia Falk is a poet, translator and liturgist whose knowledge of the Bible and of Hebrew and English literature informs the feminist spiritual vision present in her work. A practicing artist who brings a painter’s sense of visual imagery and balance to her writing, she is currently working on oil pastels to accompany passages from her books.
Marcia Falk was born in New York City on September 20, 1946, and moved with her family to New Hyde Park on Long Island when she was two years old. Her parents, Frieda Goldberg Falk (b. 1911) and Abraham Abbey Falk (1918–1978), raised Marcia and her brother, Samuel (b. 1950), in a Conservative Jewish household, where both secular and religious education were highly valued. Frieda Falk, an elementary school teacher born in New York City, spoke Yiddish fluently and during her childhood was the only girl to attend Hebrew school at her Orthodox synagogue. Thus, commitment to women’s religious education was passed to Falk from her mother and grandmother. Abbey Falk (as he was known), also born in New York City, was a rehabilitation counselor for the blind and, along with Frieda, encouraged Falk’s early study of Hebrew, as well as her first efforts in poetry and her study of painting as a child and adolescent at the Art Students League in Manhattan (where she is a life member).
Falk received her B.A. in Philosophy, magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, from Brandeis University in 1968, her M.A. in English from Stanford University in 1971 and her Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature from Stanford in 1976. She has been a Fulbright Scholar and a Postdoctoral Fellow in Bible and Hebrew Literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and has taught at Stanford, the State University of New York at Binghamton and the Claremont Colleges. In 2001 she was the Priesand Visiting Professor of Jewish Women’s Studies at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.
In 1984 Falk met Steven Jay Rood (b. 1949), a Los Angeles attorney and poet, who wrote to her after seeing her poetry in a newspaper. They married in 1986 and in 1988 moved from Los Angeles to Berkeley. Their son, Abraham Gilead Falk-Rood, was born in 1989.
Falk won international acclaim for her translation of the Song of Songs, originally published in 1977 as The Song of Songs: Love Poems from the Bible and subsequently released in several editions, most recently as The Song of Songs: Love Lyrics from the Bible (2004). Falk’s translation represents a radical departure from that found in the King James Version of the Bible and the subsequent versions of the Song of Songs that have tried to improve upon it. Her goal was to create a translation that would affect modern readers the way she believes the original Song must have affected the people of ancient Israel. The resultant process led to lavish use of assonance and alliteration which are abundant in the original, as well as to interpretation of obscure images for modern readers. An example of such an image is that of the “company of horses in Pharaoh’s chariots,” which appears in 1:9 of the King James translation. Falk points out that the Hebrew actually says “mare” and translates this image as “a mare among stallions,” because, as it turns out, all of Pharaoh’s chariots were pulled by stallions—something that would have been known to the ancient people of the Middle East—and stallions would be distracted if a mare were set loose among them during a battle. Poet Adrienne Rich called Falk’s Song of Songs “one of the great classics of the art of translation” and went on to write, “It is always a thrill when (as rarely happens) the scholar’s mind and the poet’s soul come together.”
In 1996 Falk published The Book of Blessings: New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, the Sabbath, and the New Moon Festival, a groundbreaking prayer book on which she had worked for thirteen years. The Book of Blessings offers new, egalitarian Hebrew and English blessings, along with poems and meditations, as alternatives to the traditional Jewish liturgy. Falk began to write new blessings because she was uncomfortable with the patriarchal images of God in the traditional Jewish blessings. She did not, however, make commonplace feminist corrections, such as referring to God as “mother” or “queen.” Instead, she created nongendered depictions of the divine, which are consistent with what most Jewish and Christian children today are actually taught: that God is neither male nor female, and that words like “father” and “king” are merely figures of speech. The Book of Blessings has earned high praise from distinguished scholars, authors, poets and rabbis, as well as from women who have longed for prayers that speak to their own experience. Its challenge to the hierarchy implied in traditional Western theologies has had great impact on contemporary Jewish thought and on feminist theologians in other religious traditions. But The Book of Blessings is for a much wider audience than feminists and feminist theologians. Cynthia Ozick wrote, “Even those who do not hear the traditional liturgies as exclusionary will respond to the meticulously flowering poet’s passion of Marcia Falk’s wholly original contribution.”
Among Falk’s many translations of the poetry of Jewish women is a volume translated from the Yiddish, With Teeth in the Earth: Selected Poems of Malka Heifetz Tussman (1992). The varied moods of Tussman’s poems, ranging from the humorously playful to the serenely reverential, are sensitively conveyed in Falk’s English. Tussman’s diverse images of God—an ever-homeless wanderer, a big father, a small child, and even a poem created by humans afraid to be alone in the world—resonate with Falk’s own vision of the divine as an omnipresence that can take on any and all aspects of creation. Falk’s mother is among her trusted advisors for her translations from the Yiddish.
Another of Falk’s major translations is The Spectacular Difference (2004), a volume of selected poems from the Hebrew of the twentieth-century Israeli mystic poet Zelda. The daughter and granddaughter of prominent Hasidic rabbis, Zelda wrote poetry with vivid, even surreal, imagery that reflects a unique personal vision of the Creator and creation, which only Falk could have captured so ably in translation.
Falk’s own vision, characterized by clarity and quietude, shines forth in her poems, which have appeared in the American Poetry Review, Choice, Moment, Poet & Critic, Poetry Society of America Magazine, Her Face in the Mirror: Jewish Women on Mothers and Daughters (Beacon Press, 1994), September 11, 2001: American Writers Respond (Etruscan Press, 2002), Voices Within the Ark: The Modern Jewish Poets (Avon Books, 1980), and many other magazines and anthologies. Her poems—which can also be found in her two published collections, It is July in Virginia: A Poem Sequence (1985) and This Year in Jerusalem (1986)—are highly visual and evoke the beauty, mood and sacred essence of place. Above all, like Falk’s blessings, they remind us that we must open our eyes, ears, hearts and minds to let the ineffable enter our lives.
The Song of Song: Love Lyrics from the Bible. Hanover and London: 2004; The Spectacular Difference: Selected Poems of Zelda. Translated, with an Introduction and Notes. Cincinnati: 2004; The Book of Blessings: New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, the Sabbath, and the New Moon Festival. San Francisco: 1996; With Teeth in the Earth: Selected Poems of Malka Heifetz Tussman. Translated, edited, and introduced. Detroit: 1992; The Song of Songs: A New Translation and Interpretation. San Francisco: 1990; This Year in Jerusalem. Brockport, New York: 1986; It Is July in Virginia, A Poem Sequence. Riverside, California: 1985.
Day, Lucille Lang. “Reimagining the Sacred.” Poetry Flash: A Poetry Review and Literary Calendar for the West, April/May 1998; Day, Lucille. “In the Hidden Garden: Two Translations of the Song of Songs.” The Hudson Review 48.2 (1995): 259-269; Day, Lucille. “With Teeth in the Earth: Selected Poems of Malka Heifetz Tussman. Translated, edited, and introduced by Marcia Falk.” Calyx 15.1 (1993): 105-107; Ellenson, David. “Marcia Falk’s The Book of Blessings: The Issue Is Theological.” CCAR (Central Conference of American Rabbis) Journal, Spring 2000, 18-23; Hoffman, Lawrence. “Marcia Falk’s The Book of Blessings.” Prooftexts: A Journal of Jewish Literary History, 19.1 (1999): 87-93.