Chana Bloch’s name has been a familiar one at UC Berkeley over the decades, as she taught Hebrew on campus in the early 1970s and returned numerous times to deliver lectures, recite her award-winning biblically themed poetry and collaborate with other scholars now mourning her death from cancer at her Berkeley home on May 19.
Her translation of the book Open Closed Open, by the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, with colleague and friend Chana Kronfeld, a UC Berkeley professor of Near Eastern studies, won several awards, including the PEN Translation Prize.
Kronfeld recalled working with Bloch on another big translation project, for the comprehensive anthology The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai by Robert Alter, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus of Hebrew and comparative literature. Together Bloch and Kronfeld translated dozens of poems, including some that Kronfield said Yehuda initially thought couldn’t be translated.
Kronfeld also paid tribute to Bloch’s “stunning translation” (with UC Berkeley emeritus professor of Near Eastern studies Ariel Bloch) of the Song of Songs in the Hebrew Bible, that returns Eros, young love and vibrant dialogue to a traditionally allegorized poem.
Bloch’s own poetry, Kronfeld said, “was very much in the tradition of Eastern European and Middle Eastern cultures, and perhaps of Jewish culture in particular, where poetry continues to be incorporated into the fabric of everyday life, and can be useful to anyone, not just the elites… Her irreverent allusions offer us humorous yet rueful meditations that resonate as in an echo chamber and make us rethink orthodox beliefs of all kinds.”
Kronfield said Bloch’s poetry was deeply engaged with the Bible, from her first book, The Secrets of the Tribe, which included a sequence of poems reimagining tales from Genesis, to Swimming in the Rain, where many poems continued a theme of rewriting biblical stories while interjecting an expanding historical and philosophical perspective.
Many of Bloch’s poems and translations were set to music, including Chana‘s Story, which premiered at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, and the late Jorge Liderman cantata The Song of Songs, which was performed by the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players and the UC Berkeley Chamber Chorus.
Bloch earned a Ph.D. in English from UC Berkeley and taught for more than 30 years at Mills College in Oakland, where she headed the creative writing program.