Marcia Falk is a poet, translator, and liturgist whose knowledge of the Bible and of Hebrew and English literature informs the feminist spiritual vision of her work. She is widely considered one of the foremothers of, and foremost contributors to, the Jewish feminist movement. An exhibited artist who brings a sense of visual imagery and balance to her writing, she has produced a series of pastels to accompany passages from her books. She is the author of two books of liturgy, two books of poetry translations from Hebrew and Yiddish, several editions of her translation of the Song of Songs, three collections of her own poetry, and one book pairing her blessings and poems with her paintings. Originally from New York, Falk lives in Berkeley, California.
Personal Life and Education
Marcia Lee 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 (1911–2013) 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 (Lit. "room." Old-style Jewish elementary school.heder) at her Orthodox synagogue. Thus, a 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. Along with Frieda, he encouraged Falk’s early study of Hebrew, as well as her first efforts in poetry and her childhood and adolescent study of painting at the Art Students League in Manhattan (where today 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.
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 has been a Fulbright Scholar and a Postdoctoral Fellow in Bible and Hebrew Literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and was a professor of literature, creative writing, and Jewish studies at Stanford, Binghamton University, and The Claremont Colleges. In 2001 she was the Priesand Visiting Professor of Jewish Women’s Studies at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.
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). The 1990 edition, The Song of Songs: A New Translation and Interpretation, contains a full-length scholarly commentary.
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 not only be based on Bible scholarship and linguistic investigation but would affect modern readers the way she believes the original Song must have affected the people of ancient Israel. Her process led to skillful 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 wrote, “It is always a thrill when (as rarely happens) the scholar’s mind and the poet’s soul come together.” Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer observed, “I thought until now that the Song of Songs could not be translated better than the King James Version. Marcia Falk really managed to do an exceptional poetic job. She has great power in her language.”
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 blessings because she was uncomfortable with the patriarchal images of God in the traditional Jewish liturgy. She did not, however, make commonplace feminist changes, such as referring to God as “mother” or “queen.” Instead, she created nongendered metaphors for the divine, which offer fresh imagery for concepts that most Jewish and Christian children today are taught: that God is neither male nor female, and that words like “father” and “king” are merely figures of speech. Maintaining that anthropomorphic patriarchal images are not only exclusionary but do not represent the beliefs of the majority of Jews today, Falk draws much of her imagery from the natural world, creating metaphors like eyn hahayim, “wellspring, or source, of life.”
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 experiences. Its challenge to the hierarchy that is implied in traditional Western theologies has had a 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. Author 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.” Excerpts from The Book of Blessings have appeared in the standard prayer books of the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements, as well as in the publications of many Jewish Renewal communities.
At the urgent requests of many readers of The Book of Blessings, in 2014 Falk published a follow-up volume, The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season. About this book, Rabbi Naamah Kelman, Dean of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem, writes, “Marcia Falk has captured the essence of our ten Holiest Days—a journey from reflection to renewal to resolve. Her exquisite poetry and prayer will speak to the contemporary seeker looking for language that opens the heart and soul.”
Among Falk’s many translations of poetry by 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 was 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 A member of the hasidic movement, founded in the first half of the 18th century by Israel ben Eliezer Ba'al Shem Tov.Hasidic rabbis, Zelda wrote poetry with vivid, numinous imagery that reflects a unique personal vision of the Creator and creation, which only Falk could have captured so ably in translation.
Poetry and Paintings
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, Prairie Schooner, Women’s Review of Books, Zyzzyva, Fire and Rain: Ecopoetry of California (Scarlet Tanager Books, 2018), 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 collections It is July in Virginia: A Poem Sequence (1985), This Year in Jerusalem (1986), and My Son Likes Weather (2006)—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.
As a painter, Falk has created her own art form based on the traditional decorative Jewish plaques called mizrachs, which are hung on the eastern walls of homes and synagogues to indicate the direction to face during prayer. In Western countries one faces east during prayer, the direction of Jerusalem. Falk’s new mizrachs pair her paintings with her poems and blessings to inspire viewers to enter a contemplative, prayerful state, i.e., to find the “inner east” within themselves. In 2018, she published Inner East: Illuminated Poems and Blessings, which contains painting/poem and painting/blessing pairs, such as those in her mizrachs. This is the first book in which Falk’s paintings have appeared.
Selected Works by Marcia Falk
Inner East: Illuminated Poems and Blessings. Oak & Acorn Press. Berkeley: 2018.
The Book of Blessings: New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, the Sabbath, and the New Moon Festival. With a New Preface by the Author and New Afterword by Rabbi David Ellenson, Rabbi Naamah Kelman, and Rabbi Dalia Marx. CCAR (Central Conference of American Rabbis) Press. New York: 2017.
The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season. Brandeis University Press. Waltham: 2014.
My Son Likes Weather. Oak & Acorn Press. Berkeley: 2006.
The Song of Song: Love Lyrics from the Bible. Brandeis University Press. Waltham: 2004.
The Spectacular Difference: Selected Poems of Zelda. Translated, with an Introduction and Notes. Hebrew Union College Press. Cincinnati: 2004.
The Book of Blessings: New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, the Sabbath, and the New Moon Festival. HarperCollins. San Francisco: 1996.
With Teeth in the Earth: Selected Poems of Malka Heifetz Tussman. Translated, edited, and introduced. Wayne State University Press. Detroit: 1992.
The Song of Songs: A New Translation and Interpretation (includes commentary). HarperCollins. San Francisco: 1990.
This Year in Jerusalem. State Street Press. Brockport, New York: 1986.
It Is July in Virginia, A Poem Sequence. Rara Avis Press. Riverside, California: 1985.
The Song of Songs: Love Poems from the Bible. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. New York and London: 1977.
Alpert, Rebecca. “Can Prayer Be Revolutionary?” Tikkun, May-June 1998.
Beck, Mordechai. “Prayer as a Form of Art.” Jerusalem Post, December 17, 1999.
Crumm, David. “Bible’s Song of Songs Is Given Beauty, Elegance It Deserves.” Detroit Free Press, January 9, 1991.
Day, Lucille Lang. “Creation’s Blessing.” Poetry Flash, March 2020.
Day, Lucille Lang. “Reimagining the Sacred.” Poetry Flash, 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.
Dirda, Michael. “The Bible Tells Us So.” Washington Post, April 19, 1992.
Ellenson, David. “Marcia Falk’s The Book of Blessings: The Issue Is Theological.” CCAR (Central Conference of American Rabbis) Journal, Spring 2000, 18-23.
Exum, J. Cheryl. “Love Lyrics from the Bible.” Journal of Biblical Literature, December 1985.
Furstenberg, Rochelle. “An Uncommon Poet in Everyday Struggles.” Hadassah Magazine, May 2005.
Griffin, William. “The Song of Songs,” Publishers Weekly (starred review), February 1, 1991.
Groner, Rishe. “Prayer, Illuminated.” Lilith, Winter 2019–2020.
Hoffman, Lawrence. “Marcia Falk’s The Book of Blessings.” Prooftexts: A Journal of Jewish Literary History, 19.1 (1999): 87-93.
Kirsch, Jonathan. “Falk Marries Her Poetry with Her Artwork.” Jewish Journal, May 22, 2019.
Kirsch, Jonathan. “A Poet’s Passionate Reflection in Prayer.” Jewish Journal, August 9, 2017.
Kushner, Aviva. “Legends of Zelda.” Literary Supplement of the Jerusalem Post, September 29, 2004.
Levine, Miriam. “A Little Place.” American Book Review, January 1994.
Lewis, Joel. “Tussman’s Life in Verse.” Forward, February 19, 1993.
Musleah, Rahel. “Herstory and the Jewish Tradition.” Publishers Weekly (starred review), April 12, 1993.
Meyers, Isaac. “A Poet’s Contradictory Properties.” Forward, March 25, 2005.
Niebuhr, Gustav. “Taking a Fresh Look at Sacred Texts,” New York Times, June 7, 1997.
Plaskow, Judith. “Traditions and Transformations.” Women’s Review of Books, January 1998.
Posner, Michael. “A Gender-Neutral Take on the Prayer Book.” The Globe and Mail, September 4, 1999.
“Forecasts: Religion. The Book of Blessings: New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, the Sabbath, and the New Moon Festival.” Publishers Weekly (starred review), July 29, 1996.
Sasson, Jack. “Unlocking the Poetry of Love in the Song of Songs.” Bible Review, February 1985.
Schneider, Ada Jill. “Zelda’s Poetry, Marcia Falk’s Translation.” Midstream, May/June 2005.
Singer, Suzanne. “Review of Inner East: Illuminated Poems and Blessings by Marcia Falk,” CCAR Journal: The Reform Jewish Quarterly, Winter 2020.
Solomon, Alisa. “Whose Sh’ma?” Village Voice, April 2, 1996.
Teutsch, David; Alpert, Rebecca; Eisenstein, Ira; Falk, Marcia. “The Poet as Liturgist: Three Reactions and a Response.” The Reconstructionist, Spring-Fall 1997.
Whitman, Ruth. “Humanities: Language and Literature.” Choice, May 1993.