Chana Bloch fought the cancer that would eventually take her life by wielding the best weapon she possessed: her pen.
Despite surgeries, chemotherapy and other indignities of treating her sarcoma, the Berkeley poet kept writing and fighting to the end. Bloch passed away May 19 at her home, surrounded by family. She was 77.
A translator of Hebrew poetry and author of five previous books of poems, Bloch completed her sixth and final collection, “The Moon Is Almost Full,” shortly before her death. Set for publication this fall, much of it confronts her mortality head on, and it is her best work, according to her friend Chana Kronfeld.
“It dares us, in its unflinching, heartbreaking courage, to stare at and to stare down illness, death and self-delusion of all kinds,” Kronfeld, a native Israeli, said of the poems.
Over the years, Bloch teamed up with Kronfeld, a professor of comparative literature at UC Berkeley, to translate the works of Israeli poets Yehuda Amichai and Dahlia Ravikovitch, and she also translated the Bible’s Song of Songs with former husband Ariel Bloch. She did all this while serving as a professor of English at Oakland’s Mills College and writing her own poetry.
A native of the Bronx, Bloch (born Florence Faerstein) grew up speaking Yiddish with her Ukrainian shtetl-born parents. She went on to earn a master’s in Judaic studies and in English literature from Brandeis University, and a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley. While she revered 17th-century English literature and could quote Shakespeare by heart, she also had an abiding love of her Jewish cultural roots.
“For her, the Jewish textual tradition, more than Judaism as a religion, is part of the set of associations that enriched her thinking,” Kronfeld said. “Hebrew and Yiddish literature, text and linguistics, were her bookcase.”
Bloch won numerous awards for her poetry and translations, among them the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award, the Felix Pollak Prize, and the PEN Award for poetry in translation for her work with Kornfeld on translating Yehuda Amichai.
Describing her friend’s work as “very much in the tradition of Eastern European and Middle Eastern cultures, and perhaps of Jewish culture in particular,“ Kronfeld praised Bloch’s “poetics of lucidity.”
“I value clarity,” Bloch once wrote, “an old-fashioned virtue — and concision. I like poetry that appears to be clear on the surface but has unexpected depths.”
Bloch lived in Israel at two points in her life, first in the late 1960s when she met future husband Ariel (and when she changed her name to Chana). She returned years later with her young children in tow.
Her son Benjamin Bloch, 44, remembers his mother as “an extremely curious, open-minded person,” adding, “She had an intellectual relationship with everyone in her family. She was very emotionally honest.”
Though busy teaching English at Mills College (where she ran the creative writing program), she never left home without a legal pad on which to take notes and capture stray turns of phrase that might end up in a poem.
Kronfeld loved working on poetry translations with Bloch, noting that her friend embodied the chevruta model of high-minded debate, based on the Jewish practice of studying in pairs and “befriending” the partner.
“The way in which she invited conversation that was critical but had no animus in it was extraordinary,” she recalled. “I was blown away by these incredible solutions she would come with out of nowhere from the depths of her poetic sensibility. She was so direct and brutally honest about herself.”
Bloch devoted time and energy to social justice matters, especially regarding Israel. She was a critic of Israeli policy in the West Bank, and wrote about it in her poetry. She also co-organized a series of poetry readings with Palestinian American poet Naomi Shihab Nye in the early 2000s.
In the past four years, she turned her creative eye on her own illness and mortality. Rather than be defeated by cancer, she chose to tame it with her poetry. The result is her final book.
“It was extraordinary,” Kronfeld said. “It’s not that she wasn’t sad to leave us. But [she refused] to turn it into a melodrama, with an almost analytical curiosity facing the implications of not having time, of the body coming to an end. It seemed to have unleashed a creativity that even for her was unmatched.”
In the title poem from her 2015 collection, “Swimming in the Rain,” Chana Bloch wrote:
Half the stories
I used to believe are false.
I’ve got the good sense at last
not to come in out of the rain.
Chana Bloch is survived by husband Dave Sutter of Berkeley, sons Benjamin Bloch of Oakland and Jonathan Bloch of San Jose, and two grandchildren. A public memorial will be held later this spring.