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“Fighting in the Captain’s Tower”: In Defense of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize


by: Rodger Kamenetz on October 21st, 2016 | 5 Comments »

When I was 15, in the spring of 1965, I found myself marching on the old Baltimore Washington Highway with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. We were on our way to Washington, D.C., to protest the murder of Reverend James Reeb in Selma.

To keep myself occupied for the long miles, I recited “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” out loud, a poem I greatly admired and had committed to memory.

Now I don’t know why at 15 I found this love song so compelling. Maybe I took pleasure in knowing Prufrock was even wimpier with women than I was. I could mock his waspy tea party social life, his gentlemanly repression. It’s odd considering that a Jew-hater wrote it, but Eliot’s poem made me proud to be down to earth, frank, and Jewish.

That’s why I liked the “Love Song” – but I also loved it. I loved the music and the drama, the precision of the imagery, the magic of the rhythms, and the overall architectonics. I never realized before how a poem could be not just a lyrical statement, but an entire world. The raw modernity of the diction was refreshing: “like a patient etherized upon a table” sounded new to me compared to the poems I’d read in school. I liked the mix of high and low culture: “sawdust restaurants with oyster shells” and “In the room the women come and go/talking of Michelangelo.” But especially the ending as the meter returns to iambic bedrock and bursts into song:

We have lingered by the chambers of the sea

By sea girls wreathed in seaweed red and brown

Till human voices wake us and we drown

Eliot met me at the beginning of my lifelong love affair with poetry, and the mermaids (or were they sirens?) were inviting me from the flats of suburban life into the ocean of the archetypal.

So on that protest march in March 1965, I recited Prufrock’s love song over and over while a tough black ex-con in a denim jacket hollered at me, “Move it or I’m gonna put skirts on you.” I have love for that naive kid who believed then that poetry and the Civil Rights movement and all that was good and just and beautiful could march together – me, the ex-con, and Eliot’s mermaids on the road to freedom land. I was in that pleasurable state of mind Blake calls innocence and kabbalists call Eden.

In that Edenic state I had no idea that T S. Eliot would have abhorred everything I was marching for, everyone I was marching with, and me too.

Only later did I come across lines of exclusion like:

the jew squats on the windowsill, the owner

spawned in some estaminet in Antwerp


The rats are underneath the piles.

The jew is underneath the lot.

These were just like the signs my parents told me about from their childhood: “No dogs or Jews allowed.” I had no idea they could be fit in to the music of poetry.

So Eliot won the Nobel Prize in Literature and Eliot is a great poet – true statements that I would have to wrestle with as I lost my literary innocence.

It was a shock to get kicked out of Eden, but Bob Dylan met me at the gates, offering the weird consolation of his own lyrical gift. It was a kick to hear Dylan’s take on Eliot in “Desolation Row”:

Praise be to Nero’s Neptune

The Titanic sails at dawn

And everybody’s shouting

“Which Side Are You On?”

And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot

Fighting in the captain’s tower

While calypso singers laugh at them

And fishermen hold flowers

Between the windows of the sea

Where lovely mermaids flow

And nobody has to think too much

About Desolation Row

Dylan’s strange surrealist lyrics were new to rock and had roots in poetry we both loved – in Rimbaud, but also Eliot. Like Eliot in “The Waste Land” or Rimbaud in his Illuminations, Dylan suggested entire worlds in just a few lines in songs like “Desolation Row” “The Gates of Eden” and “Highway 61 Revisited.” Rimbaud had shown me the magical world after the deluge. Eliot, the disintegration of old beliefs. That strange new broken world terrified Eliot but exhilarated Dylan and me. Unlike Eliot and the other so-called modernists who hated everything we loved about modernity, Dylan and I were marching on the same side.

I knew that first from his early phase of protest music. Before he took us all into his own mythic phantasmagoria he had thought a lot about Desolation Row, and who lives there. He had aligned himself with the excluded, the minorities, the outsiders, those who wouldn’t fit into any tea party of the high-minded. And now, like Eliot, he’s won a Nobel Prize and some people aren’t very happy about it.

They want to uphold literary purity and say that Dylan is somehow still outside the gates of poetry.


It was just before dawn when I read the news about Dylan. I was already up, stirred awake by some dream. The news seemed as fresh and enlivening as any dawn.

But then I began to read negative reactions online. Over on Slate critic-at-large Steven Metcalf was comparing lines of poetry by Richard Wilbur to lyrics by Dylan as if that proved anything. Later I read Anna North in The New York Times arguing the prize should go to some deserving poet or writer because it would increase their book sales.

Those instant takes didn’t dismay me as much as the negative views of some of my poet “friends” on Facebook. They claimed Dylan isn’t really a poet – just a musician – or more peevishly that he’s had enough fame, recognition, and money. I guessed that their anger reflected the anguish of poets who feel that their hard work, their life’s work, is mostly ignored, barely received, and little remunerated. I understood because I’ve felt it myself. But I want to say as gently as possible, “Aren’t you forgetting something essential about the origins – and horizons – of poetry?”

Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature for songwriting. He is a poet, but his medium is not the page. So yes his lines read different when you take away the music. But by reintroducing poetry to an existing popular musical genre, Dylan opened up possibilities for all poets. What Dylan understood very early is that in an electric age, poetry cannot survive without song.

People need poetry, I do believe that. We can’t get it from the news, as William Carlos Williams told us. But unfortunately most people also have a hard time getting it from the poems on the page.

Someone once criticized the poet Charles Reznikoff for rewriting some prose in lines of verse. “Why should we read these as poems now that you have broken them up into lines?” he was asked. Reznikoff replied with simple dignity, “Because to read them that way is not to read them as I intended.”

To rip the lyrics of a song away from their matrix of music and read them on the page is not to read them as they were intended.

The truth is most people have lost the ability to read poems on the page and hear the subtle music. That’s unfortunate because I believe they are really missing something. But it’s a fact.

No one has to tell anyone how to read a novel or watch a movie, which is why in some ways novels and movies still have a popular audience. And no one has to ask an expert before deciding, “Do I like this song?” But when it comes to poetry on the page, large numbers, the majority, feel lost.

Without being educated to do so, they may not hear how poems sing on the page, or care to notice where Shakespeare puts his caesura in a line, or the significance of a well placed trochee in a fourth foot:

My mistress when she walks treáds on the ground.

That’s great stuff, I personally love it, but I understand that in our time it’s an acquired and educated taste.

The people who want to place Dylan outside the gates of literature because he is merely a songwriter seem to have things backwards. Song is not outside of poetry; poetry is the daughter of song.

Most people – the vast majority of humanity today – get their poetry from songs. That was certainly true in the ancient world when literacy was hardly widespread. The psalms, Homer, the Vedas – the greatest ancient poems – were heard and revered as song. It is narrow-minded and culturally limited to think of poetry purely as page oriented, book oriented. I love the poems written for the page, I write poems that way, and for me it is the work that nourishes me, but poetry encompasses much more.

With Bob Dylan and others like him, we are talking about a very large ambition, a national and worldwide audience. It’s strange to think that what he’s doing isn’t poetry. There’s something missing in our idea of greatness in poetry if the audience isn’t large, and if the poems aren’t taken to heart – taken in, memorized, lived with, the way the songs of Bob Dylan have been lived with.

Poets remember their roots in song. “Song of Myself” is Whitman’s title for his masterpiece. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was Eliot’s first great work. A canto is a song. A sonnet is a “little song.” Lyric poetry and the song lyric were made for Apollo’s lyre – at root, poetry is born of singing. Yes there is a subtle “unheard music” Keats writes of, but not everyone has the ear to hear “ditties of no tone.” Many need to hear the actual music played with the words, and that is certainly a way in which the words get more deeply and widely absorbed into memory. And if poems aren’t carried in memory, they really lose contact with everyday life.

I could quote some very elaborate and beautiful lyrics of Dylan’s but let me go the other way and quote a very plain Dylan line that rises from an ear that was listening to how people talk:

Because something is happening here but you don’t know what it is

Do you, Mr. Jones?

( – From “Ballad of a Thin Man”)

Most people who know Dylan could not really read these lines on the page without instantly hearing the music behind them, the tune and intonation, the tone and the attitude. It’s all one piece. It can’t be separated out in some autopsy.

It carries a whole world with it, a whole attitude of the hip to the square, from fifty years ago but still reverberating today.


As a young poet in 1972, I was in a graduate school poetry workshop and one of my fellow students was Gil Scott-Heron. Gil had already published a little book and had a novel on the way. He read one of his works to us in class and people started talking about line breaks and whether they liked the word “yellow”. Gil got up, packed his papers in a briefcase, and never came back to class.

Gil had something going on with music. He was inventing a new form of spoken poetry with music that would make him one of the forefathers of hip hop. I’m pretty sure Dylan was an inspiration to him and other young black artists at that time.

The situation in a workshop is the opposite of the situation in the world. In the workshop everyone has to read everyone’s work and comment on it. In the world, you don’t have to read it if you don’t want to. And I do regret that most people don’t want to read much of the poetry being written today – because they are missing something damn beautiful.

In our time, your average person does not read poetry, buy books of poetry, or care about poetry. By necessity, Dylan and other singer-songwriters like him, found a different way to keep poetry alive – by returning to the roots of poetry in song.

The complaint of North and Metcalf and many others boils down to this. Dylan won a Nobel Prize for Literature and he is a songwriter. This begs the question: why isn’t songwriting literature?


Song and poetry were once one; the lyrical poem and the lyric are children of the lyre, the sacred instrument of the god of poetry. If we go far enough back to the past, or observe the practices of most peoples throughout history, we see that poetry, song, and dance have a common origin. People would never have imagined poetry without music or dance. It’s the separation of the arts in our modernity that is strange.

Homer’s poetry was sung by wandering performers , the rhapsodists or Homerids. So were the psalms of King David who composed to the harp, and so were the great lyrics of the medieval troubadours who were accompanied by their jongleurs. The Vedas were sung as the Torah is chanted. When we go to the origins, we find a unity of the arts. The psalms we read now in a book, were sung with sacred movements in the Temple; the Iliad and Odyssey were brought as a live performance of words, music, and gesture. Tragedy was originally a “tragedos,” a goat song, dance, music, and words in a ritual performance for the god Dionysus.

Clearly Bob Dylan is in the tradition of the troubadours, who could not conceive of a poem that did not include its own music. Clearly he is in the tradition of the balladeers, itinerant poet-singers who brought the news of the day to life in their songs. He has equal roots in the poetry of Whitman and Allen Ginsberg, Rimbaud and even T.S. Eliot, but also in the politically charged ballads of Woody Guthrie that championed the working class, labor unions, and civil rights. It’s in recognition of these popular roots that Shakespeare – another commercial artist who pleased the general public – put so many songs and dances in his plays.

Popular poetry is not some offshoot of literature, it is closer to the roots: imagination unifies, dramatizes, people’s concerns. At its best imagination exists not to thwart and estrange people, but to bring them together. It’s no accident that Dylan’s early work aligned with the Civil Rights movement of the early ’60s, and that throughout his career he has addressed issues of broad social concern. His anthem “Blowing in the Wind” was great in its day and his ballad “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” or his incredible lament for the death of Medgar Evers, “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” were immediate and electric responses to the news of the day, with powerful messages that dramatized to a mostly white audience the oppression black people were experiencing. This politicized, activated, popular form of poetry is worthy of respect and celebration because it is at the core of what we hope for from poetry.

That’s my case for arguing that writing song lyrics, including popular song lyrics, can be as much a part of poetry as any other form. To paraphrase Auden, the poet wears his talent like a uniform, and we are all the size poets we are. But we ought to recognize that some talents are bolder, more inclusive and generous, and more in alignment with large popular movements of thought and action.

So this opens to another question. There seems to be an idea afoot, in the poetry world and the literary world, that somehow if a book is popular, it’s no good. This is such a weird self-defeating concept and yet it has deeply taken root. When the ship of literature went down, with T.S Eliot and Pound fighting in the captain’s tower, poetry was in the prow, and serious fiction not far behind. I fear greatly for so-called “creative non-fiction” now that it too is becoming an academic subject, but so far it is a hardy weed that seems to be resisting the fate of becoming “literature,” or should I say “serious literature” for “serious people” who are “worthy” and “deserving” of a Nobel Prize.

There was a time in the nineteenth century when a poet could actually hope to make a living from selling books, as Byron did, as Longfellow did, as John Keats hoped to. There’s nothing inherently wrong with poets reaching a wide audience and a lot to recommend it. For one thing, having contact with a living audience breathes some air into the system, and encourages poets to write about things that large numbers of people care about. That’s not something much encouraged in today’s poetry-workshop complex. But I don’t blame the poetry programs (which I taught in). Their format is only the end result of a century of anti-popular elitism and perpetual avant-gardism – a movement that really began with so-called literary modernism.


Walt Whitman, our great prophet of American poetry, wrote, “To have great poets there must be great audiences too.” This is an essential demand American poetry has been failing for generations, with the exception of a few unruly souls. The poets who became essential in the twentieth century and had wide audiences were those whose very existence came to represent that audience. Allen Ginsberg comes to mind. So does Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, and Amiri Baraka. And you see in those poets, as you see in Dylan, the sense of an audience coming to recognize itself in their work, which is the mark of a poet with a great audience. All of them were controversial, all of them made news again and again – they knew how to play into the intersection of living art and popular culture. They were often flamboyant, outrageous, and to some people deeply offensive. But they made damn sure their poetry stayed alive in the world.

And this broad populism is a particularly American ideal of art.

Back at the beginning of the twentieth century, Harriet Monroe wanted Whitman’s statement about great audiences to be the motto for Poetry Magazine. From London, Pound protested and you can hear the snobbery and hatred of common people seething across the Atlantic: “The artist is not dependent upon the multitude of his listeners,” Pound wrote to Monroe. “Humanity is the rich effluvium, it is the waste and the manure of the soil, and from it grows the tree of the arts.”

(This is the same kind of language Eliot applied specifically to Jews in his poems, when he speaks of a Jew staring at a Canaletto from the “protozoic slime.”)

Pound’s words (or Eliot’s) sound horrible today but they reflect an attitude towards the mass of humanity that was all too common for their coterie. This was the attitude of modernist poetry towards common people, towards women, black people, Jews, and other minorities who weren’t in the privileged classes. And this was the attitude of many of the critics who followed in its wake. There is nothing less modern in its outlook than modernist poetry. There’s nothing less aligned with the major social and popular movements of their time and ours – with the early feminist movement, the Civil Rights movement, the anti-war movement. And in our time, when we are facing a global catastrophe of climate disorder, there’s clearly a need for a form of popular song that might address and bring imagination to that movement as well.

Pound thought he was holding up to Monroe an ideal of Dante as the ultimate poet. (Imagine that: a medieval poet as the ideal for American poetry.)

Writing in 1914, Monroe pointed out in her response: “Modern inventions, forcing international travel, inter-racial thought, upon the world, have done away withDante’s little audience, with his contempt for the crowd, a contempt which, however, disregarded the fact that his epic, like all the greatest art, was based upon the whole life of his time, the common thought and feeling of all the people.”

Monroe sounds like she could be defending Bob Dylan’s work today, especially when she continued:

“No small group today can suffice for the poet’s immediate audience, as such groups did in the stay-at-home aristocratic ages; and the greatest danger which besets modern art is that of slighting the ‘great audience’ whose response alone can give it authority and volume, and of magnifying the importance of a coterie.”

It’s not an accident that Dylan first came into prominence as a folksinger whose songs were in support of the Civil Rights and anti-war movement any more than it’s an accident that hip hop and rap were forms of poetry that arose as part of a rise in social consciousness in the African-American community.

The separation of the arts may be a condition of our modernity, but the reunification of the arts is a hopeful move and Dylan led the way. The divorce between poetry and song, which has continued to the point where poetry today can’t be memorized, and therefore isn’t remembered by large numbers of people – was a huge loss for poetry and certainly one reason why many poets today are haunted by a lack of audience.

Bob Dylan took a different path, and not an easy one. He reunited poetry and music, invigorating the simple rock and roll form, extending it at times into a complex phantasmagoria, and infusing its language with verbal complexity, irony, strong imagery, and wit. And it was a blessing to us all. Because actually people do need poetry – they just can’t always find it in poems.

I know back when I started reading, if I hadn’t fallen in love with Eliot before I found he hated me and my people, his work might have blocked my way. So I can understand how people turn away from poetry when it baffles them, insults them, or confuses them.

At the beginning of literary modernism poetry in English was already losing its larger popular audience. In the nineteenth century it was still reasonable for poets like Wordsworth or Byron or Longfellow to imagine sustaining a livelihood by writing poetry. But as Pound himself noted, when poetry separates from music and dance it loses its vitality. Here is a strong argument in favor of Bob Dylan’s work, for clearly by taking on the existing form of rock and roll, that was still dance music, and adding poetic lyrics, he helped signal a change in the whole direction of our culture.

Great poets need great audiences. This is what Whitman understood. There is no greatness in a vacuum and if a poet isn’t loved and adapted and memorized by his or her group, that poet is not great, however accomplished technically. The times were a changing and Dylan reflected that change in a way that was potent.

His talent is and was much bigger than that of so many of us. It encompassed multitudes, as Whitman would say. And that’s a worthy aspiration of a songwriter. Does that make him a pure poet of the page? Do I have to choose? I like Dylan’s political ballads and in their time they served me well. Auden’s ballad “As I walked out one evening” has aged better, I’ve been reading it for thirty years and it has something I need from poetry. I still love to read and memorize poems but I also can’t keep Dylan’s lyrics out of my head, in part because they helped to shape it. His achievement does nothing to diminish my pleasure in reading but I suspect many more people learned to love poetry because of Bob Dylan than almost any poet of my generation.

In his early protest songs he aligned himself with the major movements of his time; in his more adventurous songs that followed he created whole mythic landscapes. His love songs are true and sincere, and his hymns, like “I Shall Be Released,” lift us into a longing for liberation that opens to spiritual depth. He has read deeply into the American songbook – blues, country, folk – and reinvigorated it. He has lived up to the ideal Whitman set in his preface to Leaves of Grass:

“The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.”

I still feel exhilarated by the freshness, the freedom and promise in Bob Dylan’s songs. Over and again “I see a light come shining” in his work and I think a lot of us hear the promise that “any day now, any day now, I shall be released.”

Rodger Kamenetz’s latest book of poetry is To Die Next To You. His poems on Eliot and Pound can be found in The Lowercase Jew. One of his most recent poems “The Master of the Good Name” is featured on www.tikkun.org. You can find more of his work at www.kamenetz.com.

Ever-Dying People: Review of Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer


by: Brian Bouldrey on October 13th, 2016 | No Comments »

Here I Am, A Novel, Jonathan Safran Foer

Jacob Bloch, the grandson of Isaac, a survivor of the camps, and Julia, an architect who has never had her designs built, have three sons: Sam, Max, and Benjy, wise and lovely kids. Jacob’s father Irv is an outspoken enemy of Arab states and his opinions lean on the rest of the family: his blog manifestos are pretty much the opposite of what you would find in Tikkun. They all live in Washington, DC. Sam, the eldest of the Bloch children, is studying for his bar mitzvah, but has been caught writing a list of vile racial epithets, quite out of his character, but perhaps under the influence of his grandfather.

The rabbi brings Julia and Jacob in to discuss their son’s sin, and threatens to disallow Sam’s bar mitzvah, a much anticipated event that arguably keeps great-grandfather Isaac alive. Sam claims he did not do it, though the words are in his handwriting. Jacob, his father, believes Sam. Julia, his mother, does not. This is the first sign of a rift in their sixteen-year marriage, one that has been full of love, tradition, organic mattresses, and goofy and touching family rituals. And then Julia finds a burner cell phone that Jacob has been hiding from her, full of filthy texts to another woman. “There is not a single story about a cell phone that ends well,” a friend cautions Julia, but that doesn’t mean the story isn’t a great one.

Meanwhile, in the Middle East, a massive earthquake has devastated Israel and all the Arab States, which escalates tensions to the brink of warfare before our very eyes. Family friends of the Blochs, a sort of mirror family with Tamir, Rivka, and their sons Noam and Barak, live in Israel; and while Noam has just started his commitment to the Israeli army, Tamir and Barak come to Washington for Sam’s bar mitzvah, and the earthquake leaves them stranded, while Noam heads to battle.

This is epic stuff, but always written at close quarters. While marriage, families, and the nation of Israel explode outward, the tensions and conflicts are carried out in chambers, conversations, and imaginations. Julia retreats to her architectural drawings of homes she dreams of building. Jacob labors on his unproduced television program, the ruefully-titled, Ever-Dying People. And in a game called “Other Life”, which recalls The Sims (“it’s not a game!” protests Sam), Sam pretends to be other people and builds and destroys a series of virtual synagogues.

As each family member withdraws into the generation of private paraphernalia, life, for the Blochs, heads resolutely toward one of those moments most people would do anything to avoid. In Here I Am, Sam claims he is not destroying his synagogues, but “carving a space out of a larger space.” In essence, this is what Foer is doing with this great quarrelsome, painful, thoughtful, fearful, and at times, very funny novel. Reading Here I Am is not unlike attending a raucous seder where everybody got invited and everybody came.

“‘Judaism,’ explains a rather unwelcome new rabbi in his unexpectedly moving eulogy at the grave of a character that has been killed by one of these conflicts, ‘has a special relationship with words. Giving a word to a thing is to give it life. “Let there be light,” God said, “and there was light.” No magic. No raised hands and thunder. The articulation made it possible. It is perhaps the most powerful of all Jewish ideas: expression is generative.’” Readers may wrestle with, or nod at, the generative expressions throughout this novel, but these too, the arguments and the agreements the reader might contribute, are also part of the generation – Foer’s novel is not a podium speech; it is a conversation. There is, here, something of the great Yiddish tradition of folktales, a kind of oblong realism marked with exaggeration and exclamation marks, both of which are joyfully plentiful in the novel.

And every form of generative expression imaginable is sewn together in order to tell this story. Rabbinical eulogies, Model UN debates, bar mitzvah speeches, yarns, rants, manifestos, text conversations, television scripts, radio interviews, presidential speeches, declarations of independence and war, rumors, whispered secrets, prayers, psalms, poems, eulogies, dirty talk. In a year of politically brain-dead megaphones and outraged one-way tweets, the novel’s vitality comes not from jacked up pronouncements but invitations for real conversation, which is sorely needed these days. Irv likes to have his grandchildren argue any point of their choosing; the boys try to convince Irv that people shouldn’t have pets, that escalators encourage obesity, and that it’s okay to swat flies, and if he likes the debate he’s had with them, he gives them five dollars. Jacob sets up a little postal system with his boys in the house to deliver messages. Sam wants carrier pigeons. Jacob secretly knows American Sign Language. Every member of this family wants, more than anything, to communicate, and they will go to any lengths to do so – and this is the generative expression of Here I Am.

Among all the genres and subgenres of writing, those meant to be said aloud, those things of rhetoric that are forms of persuasion, they are not as often taught or sorted out in writing courses or criticism. Yet the transformation, as they are placed on the page and brought back to life by the reader, is vital. Foer, whose prose is known for its energy and enthusiasm, gives over his own intelligence and ideas to his characters, so that none of this feels like soapboxing, but conversational, confiding. Though there are many oral deliveries in Here I Am, none are “apostrophes” – addresses to somebody absent – always and even, a speech or eulogy or list of naughty words is addressed to other people, both invented, fictive people and readers, too, real people who look for the experience of conversational intimacy when opening a book, even a big epic book.

Through all these natural conversational and storytelling forms, Foer fashions what looks like realism, but of the sort Iris Murdoch would generate with her many chatty educated bourgeoisie characters. Murdoch will suddenly thwart her own realism and have the narrative climbing into a dog’s head, before the reader realizes that they’re reading something fantastical, taken for real. Foer, too, in the midst of so much talk and will cast into an imagined future, or an event far away in Israel with people we don’t know. And it is worth saying that Argos, the Bloch’s aging pet, is as important as Murdoch’s sentient dogs.

There are only a few places where the endless invention falters, in which the characters are not much more than talking heads, specifically in a cannabis-driven conversation between Tamir and Jacob, one representing a love for homeland, the other for home; An American Jew and an Israeli Jew, having it out. Though the subjects are important in this long scene – what is more important, love or belief? Between people and in God? – This didacticism is brief but perhaps glaring in a book that is artful and seems artless.

There is much written and sermonized about “hineni“, the “Here I Am” that represents Isaac’s binding, and is also the prayer offered at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, almost everybody will have heard many sermons on the story and will have their own, strong opinions about it. But this is the strength of Foer’s conversational mode – all opinions are welcome. Perhaps one worth bringing up here is Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who distinguishes Jewish belief from Kierkegaard’s Christian take on Abraham in Fear and Trembling when he says, “Christianity is a leap of faith; Judaism is a leap of action.” Tamir the Israeli pushes Jacob toward the leap of action, but Jacob builds a house of words.

The battles in earthquake-wrecked Israel provide a backdrop of escalating tension, and the possibility of losing it to both natural and man-made disaster. Foer’s families, both American and Israeli, quarrel and agree on what must be done and not done for Zion, and why. Because this is a story about talking and the tools of talking, Foer is engaged in the simultaneous rebirth of Hebrew and Israel. Consider all the territories and protectorates of the world in which the language requires a land – Catalunya, Basque Country, Navajo. On the other hand, Foer points out, all the languages that were ever created to be ideal, like Esperanto or those made of colors or pictures, these “perfect” languages have never been spoken. Language is culture, and culture needs homeland.

“Eliezer Ben-Yehuda single-handedly revived Hebrew. Unlike most Zionists, he wasn’t passionate about the creation of the State of Israel so that his people would have a home. He wanted his language to have a home. He knew that without a state – without a place for Jews to haggle, and curse, and create secular laws, and make love – the language wouldn’t survive. And without a language, there wouldn’t ultimately be a people.” The Israel of Ben-Yehuda is the Israel Foer is willing to fight for.

Homes and homelands alike, synagogues and Wailing Walls, both imagined and real, are destroyed but built again. The Wailing Wall is, after all, already a vital ruin. That four generations of fathers and sons who dwell in fantasies of worst case scenarios can be presented with a real worst-case scenario – an earthquake, a divorce – and find a way to rebuild, again and again, that is both the wedding and the funeral that Here I Am celebrates.



Brian Bouldrey is the author of eight books and the editor of seven anthologies, including the forthcoming Inspired Journeys: Travel Writers in Search of the Muse, which will be published by University of Wisconsin Press in November. He teaches literature and writing at Northwestern University.

On Turning Sixty: Counsel From My Inner Wisdom on How to Live


by: Charles Burack on October 12th, 2016 | 1 Comment »

Notes on Turning 60 From Charles Burack

Sow Seeds of Gratefulness and Forgiveness

Wake up with thanks on your lips. Throughout the day behold the goodness everywhere, even amidst the pain and violence. See the light within and behind the darkness. Accept what is and support what should be. Nurture the holiness waiting to be born. Appreciate small deeds and seemingly ordinary events, knowing every action creates endless ripples in the ocean of existence and beyond. Prize your life by maintaining healthy habits. Have faith in — and discover for yourself — the sanctity of existence and its boundless Source. Drift off to sleep with gratitude in your heart.

Forgive others who have hurt you and don’t let grievances fester. Kindly express your hurt feelings and describe the actions that aggrieve you while refraining from critical judgments and character attacks. Request what you need to repair the connection. Apologize and make amends to those you have hurt. Forgive yourself for your mistakes.

Be a Disciple of Peace

Take time each day to be still and silent as a tree. Slow down, pay attention to your experience, make inner silence your basic mode of being. Centering practices, such as prayer, meditation, and yoga, bring you to your quiet core. Many people center themselves through relaxed walking, singing, swimming, or spending time in nature. As you rest in the stillness, you may encounter the formless Reality that endlessly generates all forms.


The Practice


by: Boo Geisse on October 11th, 2016 | No Comments »

The practice is not downward facing dog.

The practice is not ragdoll.

The practice is not stretching hamstrings, strengthening quads.

The practice is love. The practice is learning how to love.

It is messy; it’s beautiful in its nonconformist way. It’ll break you down – visible in the sweat, audible in the huffing of breath.

The practice is not utthita hasta padangustasana. The practice is not standing split or reverse half moon. It’s not a pigeon in which both hips hit the floor. The practice is not looking beautiful while you transition from chaturanga to updog, or feeling invincible in warrior II.

The practice is love. The practice is learning to look for love.

A lighthouse on a hill.


The Big, Orange Shofar


by: Mike Rothbaum on October 10th, 2016 | No Comments »

Donald Trump shouting with an orange face.

If Donald Trump’s campaign was hoping for strong support from American Jews, they are surely disappointed. Trump’s support among Jewish voters is at an historically low 19%. There is an active website with contributions from rabbis and Jewish leaders called jewsagainsttrump.com. The Jewish social justice organization Bend the Arc has shared a satirical video of Jewish grandparents threatening to haunt their offspring if they vote for Trump. Rabbis, normally fearful of running afoul of congregants and IRS regulations, are openly considering speaking against the man on the High Holidays.

For many Jews, the choice is obvious. Trump’s use of xenophobic language about Latinos plays to white America’s basest instincts. His record of slurs against women he finds unattractive is shameful; and his boasting about assaulting women he does find attractive even more so. He all but bragged at the first Presidential debate about his record of shady business ethics. His proposals for a “shutdown” of immigration from Muslim nations calls to mind the religious bigotry that has plagued Jewish communities over the centuries. And there is, of course, the stereotypical Jew-hatred Trump himself shared in a room of Jews, during a meeting with the Republican Jewish Coalition, in which he referred to Jews as deal “negotiators” and claimed we would not support him “because I don’t want your money.”

For Jews, of course, this isn’t just election time. It’s also the Yamim Noraim, the awesome days in which we are invited to confront our own failings and shortcomings. A key part of that process is the sounding of the shofar. The cry of the shofar is designed to wake us up from our ethical slumber, an alarm clock of the conscience.

So while it may make us feel good, or even smug, to say that we’re better than Mr. Trump, to do so would miss the point of this time of year. Our reaction to Trump’s candidacy, instead, is an invitation to look at our own actions, as individuals and in Jewish community. What if we saw him not just as a man who evokes hatred and fear, but as a walking talking wake-up call, a big orange shofar reminding us to get our own houses in order? Consider the following:

  • Racism and xenophobia. Most Jews are rightly outraged by Trump’s shocking comments about Mexicans, and his support of racist stop-and-frisk policing initiatives. But what is our record as Jews? Do we respect and honor the 1-in-5 Jews in our communities who are Jews of color? Do we actively support Jews of color taking leadership positions? Do Ashkenazi Jews say “we Jews” when we really mean “white Jews?” Do we ensure our publicity materials and school textbooks feature Jews of color? If we are employers and landlords, do we give fair consideration to people of color as employees and renters? Do we challenge a criminal justice system that unfairly and disproportionately targets people of color?
  • Sexism and misogyny. Trump’s comments about women are despicable. But they reflect a culture that too often judges women’s worth by their appearance. How do we challenge that culture? Do we pressure Jewish women to “look pretty” so they can “find a husband?” Do we challenge gender roles that shut women out of our most cherished Jewish rituals? Do we raise up young girls to be scholars? Do our congregations consider women as rabbinical candidates? Do we challenge congregants who say they could “never pray with a woman rabbi,” or who judge the women who do serve as rabbis on the basis of their hair and clothes?
  • Business Ethics. Trump made jaw-dropping comments boasting how it was “smart business” not to pay contractors and skirt his tax obligations. How do we fare on that score? Do we see paying workers and supporting the public good as the mitzvot that they are? Do we take seriously the volumes of Jewish learning regarding business ethics, or subordinate those teachings to “more important” mitzvot like kashrut and Shabbat observance? Do we see supporting civil society and keeping “honest scales” as the holy obligations that they are?
  • Islamophobia.  While we’re right to challenge Jew-hatred and ensure our safety and the safety of our children, do we do what we can to make sure that doesn’t slide into bigotry? Do we criticize Muslim Jew-hatred and give a pass to the Jew-hatred that comes from our Christian neighbors? Have we made the effort to meet the Muslims who live in our towns, go to our schools, work in our offices?
  • Jew-hatred. Trump’s snide remarks about Jewish “negotiators” were rightly condemned. But how many times have we heard the same language used within the walls of our own homes and communities? Do we make the easy joke about Jews being cheap? When we hear our kids make these kinds of jokes, do we challenge our children to love themselves and take pride in their remarkable heritage of learning, personal and social ethics, and tzedakah?

One last thought. Donald Trump is, sadly, not the only one to make regrettable comments during this election season. While it pales in comparison to Trump’s despicable record, it was nonetheless disappointing that Hillary Clinton labeled half of Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables.” Racism, homophobia, and xenophobia are, indeed, deplorable. But there is a difference between labeling actions deplorable, and writing off people as deplorable. To take Judaism seriously, and to take the process of teshuvah seriously, means to reject the idea that people are irredeemable.  To her credit, Clinton has since apologized for the statement.

“Free will is granted to all,” wrote the Rambam, the renowned medieval Jewish commentator. “There is no one who can prevent a person from doing good or bad,” he continued. We ourselves decide “whether to be learned or ignorant, compassionate or cruel, generous or miserly.”

As the new year dawns, and the election season mercifully comes to a close, may we commit to making ourselves and our communities learned, compassionate, and generous. And having done so, may we commit to bringing that same spirit to our neighbors, or towns, and — God willing — our whole world.

A slightly different version of this article was first published in The Blogs section on The Times of Israel and reprinted with their permission.


Rabbi Mike Rothbaum serves as Bay Area Co-Chair for Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice, and lives withhis husband, Anthony Russell, in Oakland. He has been extensively involved with faith-based social justice organizations, and spoken widely at conferences and rallies, from Moishe House to the House of Representatives. His writing and speaking has been featured in Tikkun, the Huffington Post, KQED radio, CNN, and Zeek.


Come Celebrate High Holidays with Tikkun and Rabbi Michael Lerner in Berkeley this Octoberby Staci Askelrod

An Autopsy of the Bernie Sanders Campaign by Dan Brook

Reflections on Yom Kippur and Mideast Peaceby Ron Hirsch

Minorityphobia: A Letter to American Minorities


by: Nazir Harb Michel and Murali Balaji on October 10th, 2016 | No Comments »

Dear Fellow Minorities,

We are not writing this piece as individuals. We are not even writing this as Brown people in America or members of the Islamic or Hindu faiths. We’re not writing this as academics or researchers or activists.

Rather, we’re writing this as minorities to all our fellow minorities in America. But we also hope that those of you in the majority are paying attention because this concerns us all.

We Have To Stop The Circular Firing Squad of Inter-Minority Prejudice and Violence Right Now

As we are living through this nasty spike in anti-Muslim rhetoric and attacks, we need to keep in mind that the incidents are increasing, not decreasing, as we near the November elections. So far in 2016, there’s been an attack against Muslims in the U.S. every 13 hours. And it’s important that we realize as minorities that these attacks, which seem to target Muslim immigrants, aren’t shouldered by the American Muslim or Middle Eastern communities alone. They’re affecting other minorities too.


Jacob Neusner: In Memoriam


by: Shaul Magid on October 10th, 2016 | No Comments »

Jacob Neunser (1932-2016) died early shabbat morning of Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat between Rosh Ha-Shana and Yom Kippur.

The New York Times called him the most published individual in history. In his excellent book, Jacob Neusner: An American Jewish Iconoclast (NYU Press, 2016) Aaron Hughes suggests he is the greatest Jewish scholar of Judaism born in the United States. Whether either of these claims are true, and they are certainly reasonably so, he was surely one of the most towering figures in the study of Judaism in the past half century.


The King is the Field – Chabad Insights on the Divinity of Creation


by: David Seidenberg on September 29th, 2016 | No Comments »

During the High Holidays, we strive to fashion our heart to become a dwelling place for God in the physical, earthly realm – a dirah batachtonim. However, the earliest aggadic (storytelling) midrash, Genesis Rabbah (fourth or fifth century), taught that “the root/essence of God’s presence was in the lower creatures /`iqar Shekhinah batachtonim haytah.” (19:7)

If the Shekhinah, the indwelling presence of God, was essentially in all creatures, how did we arrive at the idea that the primary dwelling place of God was within the human heart? This is the journey I would like to share below.

According to Genesis Rabbah, even though the Shekhinah was interwoven with the physical world from the beginning, human sin drove the presence of God further and further away from the world. This alienation was “put into practice,” so to speak, in later midrashic texts. Midrash Y’lamdeinu, in opposition to Genesis Rabbah, taught in the sixth or seventh century that humanity was supposed to be the locus of God’s presence in this world, and that this is what it means for us to be “rulers batachtonim.” (Batey Midrashot 1, B’reishit 9) If Genesis Rabbah describes how sin generated the flight of Shekhinah from a world that was once full of God’s presence, Y’lamdeinu describes instead a world which was never the home of Shekhinah.


A Family Story: John Singer Sargent’s Mrs. Carl Meyer and Her Children


by: Roslyn Bernstein on September 27th, 2016 | No Comments »


John Singer Sargent’s Mrs. Carl Meyer and Her Children

The Jewish Museum

September 16, 2016-February 5, 2017

New York City, New York


Adele Meyer never crossed the Atlantic. Married to Carl Meyer, a Jewish financier who was named the Baronet of Shortgrove in 1910, she led a life of privilege as a philanthropist in the arts and as a hostess, both in London and at Shortgrove, her 1000-acre country estate in Essex.

How fitting, then, that John Singer Sargent’s masterful portrait of the Meyer family, Mrs. Carl Meyer and Her Children (1896), not seen in the United States for the past 10 years and on loan from the Tate Britain, has now been installed in a gallery at the Jewish Museum that was once the dining room of the Felix Warburg Mansion. Warburg, like Meyer was a distinguished banker of German Jewish origin.

Organized by Norman L. Kleeblatt, the Susan and Elihu Rose Chief Curator with Lucy H. Partman, Curatorial Assistant, the exhibit focuses on the Meyers’ portrait, one that Kleeblatt describes as having “near cinematic status.” The painting was shown at the Royal Academy’s 1897 exhibition and subsequently at the Copley Society of Boston in 1899. In 1900, it was awarded a medal of honor at the Exposition Universelle in Paris.

John Singer Sargent, Elsie Meyer, 1908, charcoal on paper. Private collection

Now, building on the painting’s international reputation and resembling an archeological dig or excavation, the show unearths a cache of other works and documents related to the Meyer family, as well as ancillary material, from the personal and intimate to the banal, that illuminates their life in high and popular culture. “Here is a whole family story,” Kleeblatt said, “with John Singer Sargent and Adele Meyer as co-conspirators in this work.” The exhibit is the first in a series that will showcase one work or a group of masterpieces, by examining the larger context of a work of art.

The excavation began during Kleeblatt’s initial networking session at the Tate Britain, when one of the curators there rather casually mentioned that there was someone working as a curator at another museum who was a relative of the Meyers. So, he discovered Tessa Murdoch, Deputy Keeper at The Victoria and Albert Museum (Department of Sculpture, Metalwork, Ceramics and Glass), and also a great granddaughter of Mrs. Meyer, and a granddaughter of Frank Meyer. Adele Meyer bequeathed the painting to the Tate with life rights for two generations.

With Murdoch’s help, Kleeblatt discovered two drawings by Sargent, who stopped portrait painting in 1908, but whom the family clearly continued to patronize: one, from 1908, of Adele’s daughter Elsie Charlotte – looking very much like a Gibson Girl, and the other, from 1909, of her sister Cecile Von Fleischl. The Carl Meyer portrait in the exhibit is the work of Sir Hubert von Herkomer, a well-known portrait painter from the period.


The Challenge of Connecting Dots


by: on September 16th, 2016 | 7 Comments »

Alice Walton and Jim Walton, children of the Wal-Mart founder, at the 2011 Wal-Mart shareholders meeting. Each has assets of over $30 billion.

I am often haunted by moral questions or conceptual puzzles, sometimes for years on end. In the last couple of months, I made some leaps in my understanding about several such issues.

For many months now I was haunted by my inability to understand, from within, members of the Walton family, the owners of Walmart. This practice, of understanding from within, is one of the core foundations of how I do my work, both when engaging with people and when writing. I do not include anything analytical in it, because the analysis separates, and I am looking for connection, for the felt sense, the vibrant humanity. And I couldn’t apply it to the Waltons, because I couldn’t find a way to explain to myself how, as a Walton, I would live with the knowledge of having billions of dollars to my name while my full-time workers need food stamps to cover their most basic needs. I couldn’t fathom what I could only understand in terms of a colossal lack of care.

Last week, I finally put the pieces together and “solved” the puzzle. What I realized in a moment of sharp and instantaneous insight that came from nowhere and hit me at the core was utterly simple: the Waltons and Iseea different reality.