Foreword to “101 Jewish Poems for the Third Millennium”

Yehoshua November

As a poet, creative writing instructor, and Chassidic Jew, I am fascinated by the surprising ways contemporary poetry and Judaism overlap. It was, therefore, a great honor and challenge to write the following essay, which serves as the “Foreword” to 101 Jewish Poems for the Third Millennium (Ashland Poetry Press, 2021), an anthology of poems on the Jewish experience by a diverse group of today’s established and emerging poets. 

As an undergraduate, I was fortunate to take a poetry course taught by Maria Mazziotti Gillan, a daughter of Italian Immigrants who grew up in the tenements of Paterson, New Jersey, during the 1940s and 50s. Gillan’s poems often explore her adolescent struggle to shed the skin of her ancestors and assimilate into American culture. Ultimately, many of Gillan’s poems come full circle and represent a reclaiming of her Italian roots. “The universal is in the particular,” Gillan reiterated throughout the semester, not letting us forget one of the great writing axioms (I’ve since seen attributed to both Joyce and Chekhov):  The counterintuitive secret to reaching the widest audience, to moving the most readers, lies in telling one individual’s (often your own) idiosyncratic story with all its particular flavoring. Or stated differently, the mundane details that constitute a single life can tell a story much larger than themselves. Not surprisingly, despite my efforts to craft universal poems to be read for eternity—poems stripped of cultural and chronological specificity—my teacher encouraged me to write about my life as a traditional Jew in the contemporary world. I think, thematically—but also theologically—there was something very Jewish about Gillan’s suggestion, especially when Judaism is considered in light of Midrashic and Chassidic teachings. Gillan’s mantra also helps explain why poetry may serve as the ideal medium for achieving some of the goals of 101 Jewish Poems for the Third Millennium

But what are the goals of this anthology? In her Holocaust poem “Pines at Ponary,” which appears toward the beginning of 101 Poems, Ellen Bass writes about forest trees surrounding a mass grave: “Their leaves offered oxygen/ to victims and executioners, the same. / They drank moisture, blood, minerals. / Each year increasing another ring.”   I am told that, at least in part, 101 Jewish Poems for the Third Millennium was borne out of a timely impulse to put Jewish themes front and center in an era seeing an alarming resurgence of anti-Semitism. (The recent synagogue shooting in my former hometown of Pittsburgh and another in San Diego provide two tragic examples.) In a sense, this anthology has assigned itself the ambitious goal of cautioning us not to remain oblivious, like the pines of Ponary, passing their time, indifferent to—in fact, nurtured by—an ugly and dangerous form of hatred. Indeed, this anthology does not let contemporary Americans forget the cruelty that took root last century, across the ocean. For it shows us, in the case of Matthew Lippman’s poem “Keeping Kosher,” anti-Semitism simmers close to home; it might trail just behind the car of two unsuspecting Jewish teens “talking about the Beastie Boys” in suburban Maryland.   

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Despite including poems that address or reference the Holocaust, 101 Jewish Poems is not a Holocaust anthology. Nor is it largely about anti-Semitism—directly. Like so many of the best contemporary poems, a number of works included here awaken us to a sanctity or beauty that pulses beneath the quotidian skin of daily life. In the case of this anthology, that daily life is informed—subtly or overtly—by Jewish identity and the particular shapes and forms it has assumed in the Third Millennium. In calling our attention to the idiosyncratic struggles and delights of ordinary people, poetry revives us from our habituation and restores a living and breathing humanity to its subjects, both of which are crucial in attempts to dampen hatred of any group seen as Other. 

Leah Browning’s “I Go Back in Time and Rescue my Mother” is one poem likely to do some of this work. Browning’s speaker recalls her mother often announcing, “I just want to run away.” A plea uttered when the strains of domesticity—“the whining, / bickering children, the unfulfilled ambitions…The loneliness. The emptiness”—push a parent to the threshold of what he or she can endure. Determined to save her mother from her disappointing life, the speaker travels back in time, enters her childhood home in the form of “a gust / of cold air, blowing in under the front door.” “’I can save you,’” the gust of wind whispers, pulling the mother’s hand toward the unlocked front door. To the speaker’s surprise, however, her mother “slips away, turning instead toward the table,” back to her uninspiring familial obligations. In this selfless moment, she has “squander[ed] what feels like her only chance for escape…”  The narrative of a caregiver whose sacrifices we come to understand only much later—perhaps when we are called upon to make similar sacrifices ourselves, as Browning’s poem goes on to illustrate—is a universal one. Browning’s particular retelling reminds us of our shared struggles, vulnerability, and heroism.  

Interestingly, the editors of this anthology have chosen to label the 101 poems that follow 101 Jewish Poems. The choice calls to mind an old question: What constitutes a Jewish poem? This book—featuring poems by non-Jews who address Judaism directly alongside poems by Jews who, in some cases, make no mention of Judaism at all—complicates the question in both new and familiar ways. As the range of poems in this anthology implies, a single satisfactory definition of a Jewish poem will remain elusive. However, Browning’s poem, like many of the pieces printed here, qualifies as Jewish not merely because it features a mother figure frying latkes, but because it also implies something central about Jewish spirituality: profound meaning resides not in a moment of transcendence but in the un-romanticized rigors of daily life. In this sense, the poem echoes the Midrashic theology which suggests the universe was created because “G-d desired a dwelling place in the lowest realm.”  Or, as the Chassidic mystics explain, earthly life—humanity’s mundane or fragile moments—constitutes G-d’s true home. 

According to Chassidic thought, the metaphor of “home”—the place one is free to be oneself—is precise and instructive: that our world experiences no Divine light, in contrast to the Heavens, is not because G-d is absent. Rather, here—in the lower realm—G-d is simply His unknowable self.  Here, in the everyday, a spiritual core beyond revelation resides. Or, said differently, the Divine remains concealed in the lower realm so that humanity may fill the open space with light—a feat achieved, for example, when Browning’s mother figure encounters and withstands her particular lower realm challenge. It has always seemed to me that contemporary poets—many of whom identify as agnostics or atheists—intuit the “Dwelling Place in the Lowest Realm” theology, at least on a symbolic or secular level. For so many contemporary poets mine for meaning in the mundane—in the small particulars—when we might expect them to cast their gaze on larger transcendent truths. Contemporary poets are not fooled by the seeming absence of light in the everyday. They uncover and call our attention to the lower realm’s inherent luminescence.  

Perhaps an insistence that the sacred dwells in the ordinary also helps explain why the zany speaker in Joanna Fuhrman’s poem—one of many pieces in this anthology that omits direct allusion to Judaism—confesses a crush on “chipped gold nail polish,” “the number 8 bus,” and “New Jersey pollution.”   Often, Chassidic thought emphasizes that what appears mundane or flawed holds a spark deriving from the highest spiritual source. In this vein, Fuhrman’s poem brings some of the everyday particulars we may encounter in the “lower realm’s” Third Millennium into sharp focus. Much of contemporary poetry—like Midrash and Chassidic thought—turns upside down the hierarchy of the sacred and the profane. It suggests the best place to find the Infinite is in the finite, and the best place to find the universal is in the particular.  

An anthology concerned with Judaism and anti-Semitism must also broach the question of Jewish continuity. Some see the continued existence of the Jewish people—few in number but survivors of some of history’s most powerful and pointed attacks—as a great mystery. Devout Jews will point to Biblical promises guaranteeing Divine protection. Cynics will point to the winds of happenstance. Yet others might cite a phenomenon the Jewish anthropologist and ethnographer Jonathan Boyarin once called “inescapable Jewishness.”  Naturally, as several pieces in 101 Jewish Poems remind us, inescapabilty is most apparent when one desires to escape, to sever ties, but remains bound in the rope of his or her bittersweet Jewish inheritance.   Take, for example, the conclusion of David Lehman’s “Sabbath Feast.” The poem’s speaker—a man seemingly estranged, at least to some extent, from Jewish ritual life—reflects on his past: “How sweet to the man are the days of his youth. How surprised he would be, could he / hear his own voice clamoring for attention at the dinner table with his parents and sisters / and perhaps an uncle and aunt on a Friday night in 1961.” “A Small Tribe,” an Edward Hirsch poem that also appears in these pages, offers another example of inescapable Jewishness, concluding with the story of 

… a daydreamer 
who bought a new hat 
every year for Passover 
so that he could stand outside 
the temple, 
which he refused to enter, 
though he loved the songs 
and wanted to be close 
to the prayers. 

Jews have been adhering to and rebelling against Jewish texts and traditions for thousands of years. Though the two approaches may come across as diametrically opposed, both actions reflect a relationship to Judaism. For only a Jew can meaningfully embrace or throw off the yoke of Jewish tradition—much the same way only a child can disobey or listen to his or her parent. In fact, according to the Chassidic mystics, that one can disobey the Torah and be forgiven, make others and oneself cry and be forgiven, reflects a connection between humanity and the Divine that transcends the Torah—though, ironically, it’s the Torah itself that tells us this secret.  Perhaps this is what Philip Schultz hints at in his poem “Yom Kippur,” titled after the Jewish holiday when ultimate forgiveness is said to be granted and one’s essential Jewish spark shines forth. Or at least, according to Schultz, this is what Jewish tradition asks us to believe. That Schultz’s speaker remains in doubt as to Yom Kippur’s powers but still finds himself in the synagogue on the holiday provides another example of inescapable Jewishness. “Yom Kippur” tells us, among other things, 

…To believe that no matter what  
you have done to yourself and others 
morning will come and the mountain 
of night will fade. To believe,
for these few precious moments 
in the utter sweetness of your life. 

One Hundred One Jewish Poems also suggests Jewish continuity owes something to the kindness and sensitivity of non-Jewish neighbors in unlikely places. In Wendy Barker’s “Waking Over Call It Sleep,” the speaker of the poem, a non-Jewish English teacher in a city where only 1% of the population identifies as Jewish, attempts to teach Henry Roth’s famous novel. She is rattled and unnerved—“shaking, after decades of holding forth in linoleum-floored classrooms”—when one of her students offers up an offensive comment about Jews. She then ponders a possibility less uncommon than we might think:  Perhaps one of her students whose families hail from “Monterrey or Laredo” will learn, as one of her friends recently has, that he or she descends from ancestors who “came over from Spain to escape the Inquisition…” The poem implies a powerful lesson:  in practicing baseless hatred, we may come to discover that, all the while, we have unknowingly hated our closest friends, our families, or even ourselves.

In his most recent collection, the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski dedicates a poem, “Ruth,” to his neighbor, a recently deceased Holocaust survivor. The poem attempts to describe what it means to be a Jew. “It’s simple and incomprehensible, like Algebra,” Zagajewski writes. Clearly, it’s not simple at all. Traditional Jewish Law, Halacha, says, a Jew is an individual born to a Jewish mother. The Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva famously said, “Every poet is a Jew.” (In my experience, every Jew, however, is not a poet.) The word Jew derives from the name Yehuda, the father of one of the twelve tribes. In the Book of Esther, Mordechai—a member of the tribe of Benjamin and a Jewish hero in a time when Jewry faced annihilation at the hands of a terrible anti-Semite—is called a Yehudi. Why? The Talmud answers, “He was a Benjaminite. Yet he was called a Yehudi because he rejected idolatry—and anyone who rejects idolatry is called a Yehudi.” The name Yehuda derives from the Hebrew word for thankfulness (a behavior exemplified in Carol V. Davis’s poem “In the Scheme of Things”). Thus, the Talmud implies, to lack gratitude is a form of idolatry. According to Chassidic thought, the suggestion that G-d is not present in all places and all things, that anything exists independent of the Divine, also constitutes idolatry. Albeit largely in a secular fashion, contemporary poets so often assert profound meaning and sanctity in all things. And today’s poets reveal there is much to be thankful for in the ordinary individuals and everyday phenomena we tend to overlook. Aren’t all poets, then, at least symbolic Yehudis? Perhaps, the universal, our shared humanity, will shine forth through the particular voices in these poems and play a part in limiting the hatred that undermines peace in our Third Millennium. 

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