Poet brings biblical Noah into familiar territory of urban Israel, and climate change

‘The Book of Noah’ is Yoni Hammer-Kossoy’s ode to the environment and his backyard, along with the high-tech industry he left behind

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Artist's image of Noah's ark (Javier_Art_Photography via iStock by Getty Images)
Artist's image of Noah's ark (Javier_Art_Photography via iStock by Getty Images)

Yoni Hammer-Kossoy has almost always been a writer, remembering things by writing them down — absence notes for his younger brother, then notes telling him off when they were older, along with ideas, thoughts and musings.

But the idea of “trying to be a poet,” he said, came much later.

“The Book of Noah” (Grayson Books) is Hammer-Kossoy’s first collection of poetry, officially on shelves (and Amazon) this month.

He has captured an artful pile of moments, specifically about the biblical Noah, the ark he built and the coming flood as a metaphor for our times of climate change.

This is extremely accessible poetry, even for non-poetry readers. Much of Hammer-Kossoy’s work is written in prose, without line breaks, but with the fragments, repetition, metaphor, and rhyme that’s associated with more classic poetry.

Hammer-Kossoy says he likes the accessibility of prose poetry, as it allows “a sort of storytelling arc.”

The cover of ‘The Book of Noah,’ a new book of poetry by Yoni Hammer-Kossoy, launched June 2023; cover art by Cindy Stewart (Courtesy Grayson Books)

“In many ways, prose is the mutt of the poetry world, because nobody knows what it is,” said Hammer-Kossoy. That said, “it leaves you lots of space” to maneuver with words.

His aim was to capture and distill a moment, said Hammer-Kossoy, “hearing a particular voice and bringing that out, not trying to make the full story — just capturing moments.”

He’s done that, as “The Book of Noah” is often funny and real, as well as pensive, emotional and entirely familiar. Hammer-Kossoy writes about the biblical Noah and the flood as a metaphor for our times, of raging forest fires and overwhelming floods.

Mrs. Noah, the yin to Noah’s yang, appears in several poems, along with common items like a plastic backyard shed that poses as a sort of modern ark. There’s a prayer for sunscreen and thoughts about what it must have been like inside the ark.

There are short essays and works that easily connect biblical times with the modern era, reminding a reader that Noah was just a man, trying to fulfill a commandment from God.

Hammer-Kossoy is somehow able to take the most mundane of thoughts, such as the conversion of Fahrenheit to Celsius — constantly carried out by American immigrants to Israel, like Hammer-Kossoy who hails from Brooklyn — and then write about temperatures and what those rising temperatures can mean in today.

The idea of writing about Noah wasn’t obvious at first.

Newly minted poet Yoni Hammer-Kossoy launches first book of poetry, ‘The Book of Noah,’ June 2023 (Courtesy Rebecca Kowalsky)

Hammer-Kossoy, who is married to Meesh Hammer-Kossoy, an Orthodox ordained rabbi and teacher of Talmud and rabbinics at Jerusalem’s Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, has a love for the weekly Torah portions, writing and midrash, interpretations of the Torah.

Each year, hearing the Torah portion about Noah read in synagogue, Hammer-Kossoy would think about the different aspects of the story, from the environment to PTSD. He wrote one poem about Noah years back that was published in a small poetry journal, imagining what it was like on the ark.

As a fledgling poet, he “kept writing terrible poems about the environment,” said Hammer-Kossoy.

“I’d write a poem and my wife would be like, ‘That’s great but stop doing the monologuing, soapboxing thing.’ It is very tempting to step into that, it’s easy,” he said.

Hammer-Kossoy eventually made some major changes in his life, deciding to leave the high-tech world after 25 years and earn a master’s in poetry in the Shaindy Rudoff Creative Writing MA Program at Bar Ilan University.

The two-year program, which Hammer-Kossoy was enrolled in during the coronavirus pandemic, finally allowed him to focus on his work, as he “tried to hear a little bit more about what Noah has to say.”

“To me, the idea of a poem that works isn’t so much a poem where I tell you what I’m feeling about the world, but the idea of trying to get you to feel, it has to be accessible,” he said. “Poetry is a compressed form of words and connections; every poem is a little exercise in mindfulness, what does this do for me and for the person reading it?”

Slowly, “The Book of Noah” began coming together, with poems about technology and disillusioned dreams around the idea of the biblical Noah, who doesn’t utter a word but instead is poked at by Hammer-Kossoy or by Mrs. Noah.

“There’s some fun in that,” he said. “I didn’t want a collection of nature poems, or any kind of navel-gazing poetry thing. I knew a lot of what I didn’t want to do.”

What Hammer-Kossoy, who also teaches in addition to writing poetry, did want to accomplish was to capture what it’s like living a urban-suburban life in Israel and what that does to one’s relationship with the natural world.

The last portion of “The Book of Noah” includes research about glaciers and plastics, carbon and the oil industry, but he keeps returning to Noah, a man given 120 years to build the ark, and wondering what those around him thought about his actions and their own responsibilities to the world around them.

The book is an ode to activism to a certain extent, as Hammer-Kossoy wants people to read it and ask questions of themselves about their relationship to the world around them. But he’s not telling them to go out and protest; that’s up to the reader to decide.

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