Pho­to by Jr Kor­pa on Unsplash

You can’t be a Jew alone. I’m not sure where this famil­iar say­ing came from, or when. I have to assume it emerged nat­u­ral­ly out of the expe­ri­ence of Judaism, which, from the ancient Israelite form of the reli­gion to the present, has always involved com­ing togeth­er in col­lec­tive pur­suit of the sacred and mean­ing­ful. Whether we meet the need in per­son or via Zoom, the fact is that we need each other. 

Judaism has always rec­og­nized this fact. In Eccle­si­astes, we read Two are bet­ter off than one…For should they fall, one can raise the oth­er” (4:9 – 10). Per­haps for this rea­son, cer­tain prayers require the pres­ence of ten peo­ple (a minyan); oth­ers, like the Barchu and the Sh’ma, have us active­ly call­ing out to one anoth­er. We also accept col­lec­tive respon­si­bil­i­ty — for exam­ple, when we recite our wrong­do­ings on Yom Kip­pur, we do it in the plural. 

The same need turns out to be true of poet­ry, and per­haps espe­cial­ly Jew­ish poet­ry. At first this might not seem self-evi­dent — after all, typ­i­cal­ly a writer writes a poem alone, maybe even shut up in a room with the door closed. But what hap­pens after the poem is writ­ten? As the poet Stan­ley Kunitz once said, The poem is on its way in search of peo­ple. For its com­plete ful­fill­ment it has to find an audi­ence, it has to be invit­ed into some oth­er person’s mind and heart.” 

Poets them­selves need these invi­ta­tions, too. So where can we find them?

  1. Publishing/​reading poet­ry: This is one of the main rea­sons we pub­lish poems — to help them find their way into oth­er minds and hearts. And so there has been an enor­mous pro­lif­er­a­tion of print and online mag­a­zines that sup­port the spread­ing of poet­ry in this way — includ­ing some with a specif­i­cal­ly Jew­ish focus. Take, for exam­ple, Minyan Mag­a­zine—“A Lit­er­ary Mag­a­zine in Sup­port of the Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ty” — which is named after the prayer quo­rum of ten peo­ple. Like a prayer minyan, this mag­a­zine is a place where the bring­ing togeth­er of diverse Jew­ish voic­es ampli­fies them all. Then, too, antholo­gies like The Blooms­bury Anthol­o­gy of Con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish Amer­i­can Poet­ry and 101 Jew­ish Poems for the Third Mil­len­ni­um have done this on a larg­er scale.
  1. Find­ing com­mu­ni­ty with­in larg­er lit­er­ary spaces: But, just as Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty con­sists of more than peo­ple engag­ing with texts, the Jew­ish poet­ry com­mu­ni­ty needs to do more than con­nect peo­ple to poems; it needs to build rela­tion­ships and sup­port between peo­ple to sus­tain us as we do our inten­sive (some­times dif­fi­cult, some­times lone­ly) reflec­tion and work. In this way, com­mu­ni­ty spaces mat­ter. Every year, when I go to the annu­al Asso­ci­a­tion of Writ­ers and Writ­ing Pro­grams (AWP) con­fer­ence, I active­ly seek out pan­els and read­ings with a Jew­ish focus. Those spaces, although they’re nec­es­sar­i­ly the excep­tion rather than the rule in a con­fer­ence aimed at writ­ers of all back­grounds, allow a much-need­ed fam­i­ly feel­ing in the midst of the larg­er hubbub.
  1. Con­nect­ing to Jew­ish orga­ni­za­tions: A par­tic­u­lar­ly excit­ing recent devel­op­ment in the Jew­ish poet­ry com­mu­ni­ty is the birth of the orga­ni­za­tion Yet­zi­rah: A Hearth for Jew­ish Poet­ry, which is ded­i­cat­ed to fos­ter­ing and sup­port­ing a com­mu­ni­ty space for Jew­ish poets, nour­ish­ing writ­ers and read­ers of Jew­ish poet­ry now and for gen­er­a­tions to come.” This ded­i­ca­tion man­i­fests itself in mul­ti­ple ways, includ­ing a grow­ing online data­base of most­ly liv­ing Jew­ish poets, a vibrant read­ing series, and an annu­al con­fer­ence that’s debut­ing this com­ing sum­mer. There’s clear­ly a hunger for this kind of orga­ni­za­tion; when I’ve talked to oth­er Jew­ish poets recent­ly, they’ve been excit­ed about the pos­si­bil­i­ties of this orga­ni­za­tion to bring us togeth­er in mutu­al sup­port and cel­e­bra­tion. When I did a read­ing in their series along­side Judith Baumel, Eri­ka Meit­ner, and Vic­to­ria Redel, there were ful­ly eighty Zoom win­dows in vir­tu­al atten­dance. Again there was a pal­pa­ble and wel­come fam­i­ly feel­ing, a feel­ing of not being alone.

Com­mu­ni­ty is the alter­na­tive to the uphill and frankly unnec­es­sary strug­gle of try­ing to be a Jew or a poet alone. Still emerg­ing from a peri­od where we’ve been forced apart, it seems like more and more of us are rec­og­niz­ing the need to hold onto one anoth­er. And, thank­ful­ly, we’re rebound­ing with more and more oppor­tu­ni­ties to build that community.

David Eben­bach is the author of nine books of fic­tion, non-fic­­tion, and poet­ry, includ­ing the new poet­ry col­lec­tion What’s Left to Us by Evening and the cre­ativ­i­ty guide The Artist’s Torah. His work has won such awards as the Drue Heinz Lit­er­a­ture Prize, the Juniper Prize, and oth­ers. David lives with his fam­i­ly in Wash­ing­ton, DC, where he teach­es at George­town Uni­ver­si­ty. You can find out more at davideben​bach​.com