Park Syn­a­gogue in Cleve­land Heights, OH

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.

Muriel Rukeyser

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​.philipter​man​.com