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The Rabbi Whisperer Ponders the Sermon

Friday, February 19, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Amy Gottlieb wrote about how the works of I. B. Singer and the “beautiful, perceptive” women around her mother’s kitchen table individually inspired The Beautiful Possible as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

For fourteen years I worked as director of publications for The Rabbinical Assembly, editing theology, sermons, scholarship, and liturgy. This dream job appealed to my intellectual and religious curiosity, while offering me a unique role. I wasn’t a rabbi or a congregant, but an iconoclastic Jewish seeker who was a stand-in for a rabbi’s most challenging layperson. In many ways, I represented the Haggadah’s Four Children—wise, rebellious, simple, and curious—in the guise of a hard-working editor armed with a red pen, Chicago Manual of Style, and a patient typesetter on speed-dial. Over the years, this livelihood morphed into a sequence of freelance gigs: I edited sermon collections, consulted on sermon writing, and revised countless words written for spiritual seekers. I even moonlighted as a spirituality ghostwriter and was hired to write accounts of Ayahuasca-inspired mystical visions. A friend jokingly labeled me "the rabbi whisperer," a motif that made its way into The Beautiful Possible.

Sermons—empty, flawed, inspiring, ghostwritten— are excerpted throughout my novel. As a lifelong sporadic synagogue-goer, I’ve heard many varieties of sermon-speak, and I tend to listen to these oral, pastoral essays as if I’m at a poetry reading, imagining the rabbi as a poet wearing a frayed sweater in a smoky coffeehouse, shuffling a stack of wrinkled pages. As a poet, I’ve learned that there’s no meaning without cadence, no art without nuance. The rabbis I know who compose the most lyrical sermons are well versed in English and world literature; a good sermonizer knows Shakespeare and Rumi, along with the words of the prophets and the Baal Shem Tov. And a little Mary Oliver, Jack Gilbert, and Louise Gluck won’t hurt either.

But what is a sermon in the first place? A prose poem smeared with a message? A textual analysis shaped into a digestible sound-byte? The art of the sermon is filled with contradiction; the audience wants some kind of takeaway, but without nuanced language words become insufferably clobbering and flat. Yet on the other side, too much subtlety threatens to disappoint the congregant who doesn’t want to leave the sanctuary empty-handed. Veer too far in any direction, and you’ve fallen off the map.

Both poets and clergy are in the business of working with language to express a deep love of the world in all of its wild and mysterious permutations. Both need to crack open the human heart in some way, to awaken the spirit. Yet poetry is invited to dance with silence, with doubt, with uncertainty and surprise. Metaphorically, the sermonizer takes on the persona of the rabble-rousing prophet, while the poet is the prophet’s little sister, rowing her flimsy yellow kayak across a lake. The prophet gathers the tribe, imparts a lesson, feeds the hungry; his little sister tunes into the music of the spheres, catching the cadences of the lived world. But when the prophet ignores his kid sister and underestimates the power of her flimsy kayak, his message is imperiled.

Throughout The Beautiful Possible, I weave in quotes by Heschel, Tagore, Rumi, and Dickinson that invite readers to experience the possibilities of poetic language. The character of Walter stakes his claim in the poetic, the between, the uncertain. Rosalie and Sol are drawn to his sensibility, and poetry has the last word, as I believe it ought to. In the words of Grace Paley, master kayaker of the lived world: “I’m not full of prayers. I’m full of language.”

Amy Gottlieb's fiction and poetry have been published in many literary journals and anthologies. She has received a Literary Fellowship and Residency from the Bronx Council on the Arts, and an Arts Fellowship from the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education. She lives in New York City.

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New Book Reviews February 19, 2016

Friday, February 19, 2016 | Permalink

This week's new reviews at Jewish Book Council:

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I. B. Singer and the Hidden Afikomen

Wednesday, February 17, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Amy Gottlieb described the “beautiful, perceptive” women around her mother’s kitchen table who inspired The Beautiful Possible. Amy is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

I arrived in Manhattan in 1982, fresh from a master’s program in comparative literature for which I had written a thesis on ice as a metaphor for the written word in One Hundred Years of Solitude. As a young writer, I was inspired by Garcia Márquez’s epic masterpiece: the Buendia family of Macondo suggested the crazy logic of my own Jewish family. I had a grandmother who forgot the meaning of words, a grandfather whose homemade borscht turned a mystical shade of red, and a cousin who predicted the exact moment I would arrive at her village in southern France, unannounced; in one of our more surreal episodes, my father hid the afikomen at a Passover seder nine months before he died, and it fell out of the fireplace on a Yom Kippur afternoon two years later. I set out to write a Jewish version of Macondo based on my family’s implausible stories, and the mentor I identified was Isaac Bashevis Singer.

I was living in a furnished room on West 86th Street, a few blocks from Singer’s apartment. I began to write him a note of introduction, fantasizing about sharing a vegetarian meal at the Famous Dairy Restaurant, when I read an interview in which he said, “If Tolstoy lived down the street I wouldn’t try to go see him. I would rather read what he writes.” I took this as a sign, tore up the note, and kept reading his work.

In 1991 I was newly married, living in Berkeley, and spent a month off-the-grid at an artists colony in the southern California desert. At night I would lie awake in my cabin, listening to the coyotes howl in the canyon, and during the day I worked furiously on my first novel, which began in a shtetl and centered on a love affair between distant cousins—based loosely on a what-if story in my family’s history. When my retreat was over, I made my way to the airport and picked up a newspaper with the headline: “I. B. Singer, Narrator of Jewish Folkways, Dies.” I mourned him on the plane and then wrote three words in my journal: Your turn now.

A few years later, my first son was born, and I decided to put my flawed first novel in a drawer, convinced I could do better. I began to make a living as a Judaica editor, which gave me a foundation in Jewish texts. At the same time, I adopted many other literary mentors: Toni Morrison, Grace Paley, Michael Ondaatje, Virginia Woolf, Marilynne Robinson, J.M. Coetzee, Anne Michaels, Amos Oz—and my reading bloomed in a thousand directions, cross-pollinating genres, jumping from the ancient to the modern.

Two weeks before the publication of The Beautiful Possible, I invited my Rosh Chodesh group to serve as its first book club.The conversation veered in many surprising directions, landing on how Rosalie’s conflict isn’t expressed in ways that seem aligned with conventional notions of postwar Jewish-American guilt, and suggests a commonality with works of modern Yiddish literature. This comment prompted me to revisit I. B. Singer’s fiction. I picked up Enemies: A Love Story and short stories I hadn’t thought about in decades. I returned to In My Father’s Court and noted the parallels between Singer’s early years eavesdropping on the adults who sought rabbinic counsel from his father and my own memories of listening to my mother and her friends at our kitchen table. I began to unravel the Hasidic threads in Singer’s work, as expressed by characters wrestling with existential doubt and physical desire.

Singer’s influence was alive in my novel, after all. My mentor had returned to me, hidden for a time, and then revealed—just like the afikomen that slipped out of the fireplace that Yom Kippur afternoon.

Amy Gottlieb's fiction and poetry have been published in many literary journals and anthologies. She has received a Literary Fellowship and Residency from the Bronx Council on the Arts, and an Arts Fellowship from the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education. She lives in New York City.

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The Women at the Kitchen Table

Monday, February 15, 2016 | Permalink

Amy Gottlieb is the author of The Beautiful Possible, a novel spanning from 1930s Berlin to the United States in the midcentury to modern-day Jerusalem. Amy is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

Just about every weeknight throughout my childhood, my mother would clean up from dinner, set up the glass percolator, and settle in for a visit from one of her friends. They would come in rotation, mostly one at a time, a pocketbook dangling from a forearm, an unlit cigarette plucked in anticipation. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, these beautiful, perceptive women were waking up to a sense of sexual and personal possibility, yet their roles as traditional wives and mothers kept them from fulfilling their deeper yearnings. The character of Rosalie in The Beautiful Possible derives from the voices of these women and the suburban setting of Briar Wood and the synagogue-that-is-no-longer-a-tent owes much to my childhood.

I was never barred from the intimacies shared at our large kitchen table, and would drop everything to listen in. The conversations were a pastiche of domestic advice, juicy gossip, existential longings, and whispered secrets—laced with copious laughter and wit. The fashions and mores shifted over the years: a patent leather pocketbook would morph into a macramé tote holding a water pipe and a stash of weed purchased from a cleaning woman. As their children grew, their nascent feminist yearnings grew more furtive; they marveled at the friend who finished college and graduate school, and they passed around a copy of The Feminine Mystique.

Two of these friends were named Ruth and they were like second mothers to me. The first Ruth hemmed my skirts and taught me how to use a sewing machine. She never learned how to drive and her hunger for kitchen-table talk was unquenchable; she knew had to ask pointed questions that would keep a conversation unspooling for hours. The other Ruth drove thirty yards from her house to ours and would park two feet away from the curb, impatient to get to the table and start talking. She suffered through an abusive marriage, and for years she would clutch the business card of a divorce attorney she never phoned. Before Rosh Hashanah my mother and the two Ruths would spend a day rolling out dough for kreplach, just as their immigrant mothers had taught them, and on Passover they would take pride in baking mile-high sponge cakes that seemed to reach the ceiling. Their Jewishness had nothing to do with the synagogue or with Torah, but was expressed in their fastidious holiday baking, bar mitzvah preparations, and in conversations that were tinged with a mixture of cynicism, doubt, wisdom, and deep love.

In 1972, my father died of a sudden heart attack, and the kitchen table became a gathering place for grief and new kinds of revelations. My mother eventually landed a job, remarried, and found fulfillment in her new life. Friendships inevitably realigned and the two friends named Ruth no longer visited. My mother took up quilting, and for the next twenty years the table would become the gathering place for women who crafted, their busy hands arranging fabrics in patterns of flying geese and Irish chains.

In time, the two women named Ruth moved to other corners of the country and eventually passed on. The quilters relocated to warmer climates. My mother is now 86, and every week she and I sit at the same kitchen table and talk about the two Ruths. She shares stories I hadn’t heard before, embellishes the legendary ones, and adds a new level of commentary. “We wanted everything,” she recently told me. “We wanted this life and we wanted something else too.” This is Rosalie’s conflict, and she was the character I knew most intimately, as I had heard the cadence of her voice all my life. I am grateful for my mother for allowing me a place at the table; I was once a silent daughter who eavesdropped on their intimate conversations, but eventually I added my voice to theirs and wrote them a book.

Amy Gottlieb's fiction and poetry have been published in many literary journals and anthologies. She has received a Literary Fellowship and Residency from the Bronx Council on the Arts, and an Arts Fellowship from the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education. She lives in New York City.

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