To be a Jew in the twentieth century
Is to be offered a gift. If you refuse,
Wishing to be invisible, you choose
Death of the spirit, the stone insanity.
The main sanctuary of Park synagogue in Cleveland Heights, Ohio: its large room capped with a towering white-bricked dome, the walls a circle of windows. The rows of seats face the raised bima where the Ark houses the Torah, what is meant to bind us to biblical figures and to all Jews — past, present, and future. Today is a High Holiday, a Day of Awe — a day unlike the rest of the year, for on this day our names are scripted in the book of life and signed and sealed. Outside the leaves are on fire with autumn, the sky smoldering with dusk. This seeming opposition — the sacred text of the synagogue and the stunning beauty of the season — God’s law vs. nature’s law — provides for me an inviting poetic tension.
This holiness, the attempt to formalize a sense of being-in-the-presence-of-God, depends on one’s sensibility. Approaching my bar mitzvah, the occasion was both serious and humorous, each mood represented by one of my parents. For my mother, it was solemn and spiritual, filled with beauty and transcendence; beside her I followed along with the Hebrew words of the prayers. For my father, it was an occasion to sleep. Once, on Yom Kippur, I pretended I had a stomachache, giving him the opportunity to walk me home where we proceeded to watch the World Series. About both responses I’ve written poems: the sacred and the profane. In this sense, I, like many Jewish poets throughout history, “write Jewish.” I draw heavily from the wealth of images, allusions, figures, and forms provided by a Jewish legacy which I have always understood, in agreement with Muriel Rukeyser, as an enormous gift.
Alternatively, many writers who are Jewish agree with Philip Roth, who considers himself a “writer first and a Jew second.” And yet: Rodger Kamenetz, poet and author of The Jew in the Lotus, has said that his connection to his grandfather, and his grandfather’s immigration experience, “is part of the reason I’m a Jewish poet and not a poet poet.” If an American poet who is Jewish draws extensively from the pantheon of Jewish tradition, and does so with what Whitman calls “original energy,” these poets are influenced as much by their Jewishness as by their English or American poetic traditions — and by “Jewishness” I mean the widest possible range. Few, for example, would claim that Kafka wasn’t a “Jewish” writer; he himself, in his diaries, referred to his writings as a “new Talmud.” This is not to suggest that the Jewish poet’s work should consist only of this Jewish perspective — in fact, it’s the intermingling of the Jewish-ness and references from other sources that expands a poem’s reach.
About both responses I’ve written poems: the sacred and the profane.
In my case, my Jewish education preceded my instruction in the international poets I was to read voraciously in undergraduate and graduate school. My maternal grandmother lived with us during my childhood years; to me, her presence represented the practicing Jew from Eastern Europe, much like the characters in the stories I encountered in Isaac Bashevis Singer, Sholem Aleichem, and Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh. And in our 1950’s style suburban bungalow, I could strongly identify with Philip Roth’s Portnoy and Ginsberg’s “America” and the whole Yiddishkeit mishmash with its humor and tragedies; its crazy superstitions and laws; its ambiguous relationship to God; the employment of the sacred in the everyday. We were conscious of being a people apart, living a double life. Growing up, we lived by another clock (it had Hebrew numbers) and another calendar (our new year in the fall); we didn’t eat certain foods; we had different sets of dishes; we celebrated different holidays. For a child drawn to poetic language it was a veritable feast, a universe of sources one could celebrate and rebel against. My Jewish education provided me with an abundance of ancestral stories, imagery, tropes, allusions — a language I felt fortunate to write out of, that I could celebrate and — argue against, often in the same poem.
As I began writing and publishing my poems, I became interested in what inspired me on the deepest, most primal level: childhood, memory, ancestry, ritual. I combined my interest in Jewish themes and language with my attraction to the American free verse I was learning, primarily from the Whitman tradition. For example, Morris Rosenfeld and the other sweatshop poets who wrote in the early twentieth-century about their immigration experience reminded me of my grandmother, who worked at a dress factory, and even of my father, whose used car lot was a kind of latter day sweatshop. In his poem “Der Svet-Shop,” Rosenfeld wrote: “Toiling without letup in that sunless den:/Nimble-fingered and (or so it seems) content,/Sit with some thirty blighted women, blighted men,/With their spirits broken, and their bodies spent.” I discovered a black and white photograph of around fifty women sitting before their Singer sewing machines in a sunless room: my grandmother was barely visible in the back. The photograph inspired me to write a poem, “The Dress Factory,” which could be describing the very same sweatshop scene:
Here, in this enormous tenement of high temperatures
and bad lighting, gaslights hang from ceiling pipes,
blazing the black machines: workshop,
sweatshop, square room of concrete and brick,
the claustrophobic air absorbing their exile—
overcrowded and everywhere cloth, cloth, cloth,
spread out, shaped into garments, hung limply
on racks, seven dollars a week, in the dirt and dust,
fingers gathering and ruffling, basting and pleating,
embroidering, feet tapping in rhythm on iron grills, treadling
pedals, a seamstress dance, shoulders hunched over
into premature curvature of the spine, back-aching
hair tied back in buns, hands spooling string,
a constant motion, joints itching their way to arthritis.
A million miles from birth, semi-skilled
and there were always replacements.
Or the work of another Yiddish poet, Joseph Rolnick (from my ancestors’ homeland, Belarus) who wrote a lovely and poignant poem, “Home from Praying,” about the mysterious power of Jewish spirituality. It expressed the same feeling I had in the presence of the synagogue, the Ark, the sacred words. When he and his family return home from the synagogue on the Sabbath, he claims they “didn’t recognize the barn and bridge,/the mill and house,/coming as we did from a different side/and at such an odd hour.” A different side, an odd hour; yes — Judaism provides me with another dimension, another perspective.
It becomes important to both draw from and resist one’s tradition, to find connections, echoes, associations, and tensions both within and outside of that tradition.
The challenge, of course, for any poet writing from a particular tradition, is to not become trapped within that framework. It becomes important to both draw from and resist one’s tradition, to find connections, echoes, associations, and tensions both within and outside of that tradition. Living in the country, on forty acres, with an enormous garden and a Thoreau-like cabin overlooking a pond, I’m as inclined to read James Wright and Mary Oliver as I am the Psalms. I find creative energy in the tension between the Judaic focus on text and what the poet James Wright calls “the poetry of the present moment.” That tension nourishes my writing, the space where both traditions meet — sometimes congenially, sometimes at odds.
What I continue to discover is that Judaism contains multitudes — it won’t leave me alone, tempting me to draw from its seemingly infinite reserves. Even as I attempt to write about our garden — we’re clearing it out, pulling up tomato stakes, turning over the compost, gathering wood for a burn pile — I’m aware that it’s early October, the season of the Jewish New Year: of the synagogue, with its large circular room capped with a towering white-bricked dome, the leaves on fire like pages from the Torah, the sky smoldering with dusk.
This piece is a part of the Berru Poetry Series, which supports Jewish poetry and poets on PB Daily. JBC also awards the Berru Poetry Award in memory of Ruth and Bernie Weinflash as a part of the National Jewish Book Awards. Click here to see the 2019 winner of the prize. If you’re interested in participating in the series, please check out the guidelines here.
Philip Terman the author of five full-length collections of poetry, most recently, Our Portion: New and Selected Poems (Autumn House Press). His poems appear in numerous journals and anthologies, including Poetry Magazine, The Kenyon Review, Poetry International, the Sun Magazine, The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry, Extraordinary Rendition: American Poets on Palestine, and 99 Poets for the 99 Percent. With the Syrian writer Saleh Razzouk, he has translated contemporary Arabic poets. Those translations have appeared in Poetry London, Crazy Horse, and a chapbook by the poet Syrian Riad Saleh Hussein in the Mid-American Review. He also collaborates with other artists. With a painter James Stewart and bookbinder Susan Frakes, he has produced two hand-sewn chapbooks, and he has written three cantatas with the composer Dr. Brent Register. As well, he performs his poetry with the jazz quartet Catro. He founded the Chautauqua Writers Festival, directs The Bridge Literary Arts Center in Franklin, PA, and teaches creative writing and literature at Clarion University of Pennsylvania. More information can be found at www.philipterman.com.