Tuesday, June 28, 2005
xxxxxxxxxAs wives across America settle into
rerun mode. As their frequent-flyer
xxxxxxxxxhusbands deplane in a podunk town—
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxpockets full of skin-flick brass. Hot
xxxxxxxxxfor dick and liking it too—world-class
poolside abs keeping me from Paul
xxxxxxxxxCelan—the ashen hair of Shulamite
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxno match for hunky jizz. The pathos
xxxxxxxxxof my being here probing a stranger’s
ass—crack-stench left on a wedding
xxxxxxxxxband that won’t come off with soap.
I'm going to post more about this after my NEH seminar this morning. For now, let me just say that for the first time, I really understand--not just intellectually, but in my kishkes--Michael Palmer's disgust with poetry being seen as "a thing for the hammock and lemonade."
More soon. E--
Friday, June 24, 2005
Here are a couple of Andalusian poems, then, for your Shabbat enjoyment. The first is by Ibn Ezra, from Raymond Scheindlin's anthology Wine, Women, and Death: Medieval Hebrew Poems of the Good Life:
Caress a lovely woman’s breast by night,Ahem! That would be the “breast of the wave offering and the thigh of the heave offering,” of course--the ones used in the ceremony in which Aaron and his sons are consecrated as priests. Anyone who says otherwise is itchin' for a fight.
And kiss some beauty’s lips by morning light.
Silence those who criticize you, those
Officious talkers. Take advice from me:
With beauty’s children only can we live.
Kidnapped were they from
The living: living men are lovers all.
Immerse your heart in pleasure and in joy,
And by the bank a bottle drink of wine,
Enjoy the swallow’s chirp and viol’s whine.
Laugh, dance, and stamp your feet upon the floor!
Get drunk, and knock at dawn on some girl’s door.
This is the joy of life, so take your due.
You too deserve a portion of the Ram
Of Consecration, like your people’s priests.
To suck the juice of life do not be shy,
But take what’s rightly yours—the breast and thigh!
Another from the same book, this by Shmuel HaNagid:
If you’re like me, and want to pour the wine of joy,Scheindlin makes sure that you hear how polished, aristocratic, and courtly the originals were. As he says in the introduction, " The culture was one in which style mattered greatly.... Like the original poets, who had no compunction whatsoever about this preference, I have favored rhythm and rhetoric over natural diction and word order."
Hear what I have to say.
I’ll teach you pleasure’s way, though you don’t want to hear,
You friend of sighs and pain.
Five things there are that fill the hearts of men with joy,
And put my grief to flight:
A pretty girl, a garden, wine, the water’s rush
In a canal, and a song.
As poetry in English, to read at length, I prefer the sound of Peter Cole's translations. The first is by Solomon Ibn Gabirol, from Cole's invaluable Selected Poems:
The Apple: II
Take a bite from that
Like emerald here,
And there like beryl,
Or ruby-like now,
And now like crystal,
Its aspect changing—
As though it were ill
At first with a flush
And then with a pallor,
As though it were really
A scroll of silver
Encased in gold,
A virgin who’d never
Known a lover,
And yet whose breasts
Were ready to suckle.
When men arrive
With their swords and desire
To strike at its cord,
It falls to the grass
And lands at their feet:
They bend the knee
And take it in hand,
Then raise it
To their lips and eat.
Yum. Cole has such an ear--let's hear another, to close, this one from Cole's selected Shmuel HaNagid:
Water to the grape vine’s fruit
And gather the two
In a cup . . . your mouth
Like a bridegroom’s
Chamber holds them
Soon they’ll swell in your
In your heart give birth to joy.
Wednesday, June 22, 2005
...however attractive the idea of liturgical or even synagogue-friendly poetry might be, in either a historical or contemporary context, I for one would prefer not to have my poems used in a religious service, no matter how liberal or innovative. I wouldn't want them appropriated by that form of authority. I hope they are read and appreciated by communities of readers, but I hope that the members of those communities are first and foremost "believers" in poetry. In other words, though I spend a lot of time reading, writing and thinking in the space between religion and literature, it is important to me that this space is left open, at least in regard to my own work.Fascinating, as Mr. Spock used to say. And illustrative of precisely the tensions I'm interested in here.
I wonder whether we might think about this in Ari Elon's terms. The deployment of any poem in a synagogue service tends, perhaps, to cast a rabbani cloak (tallit?) over the poem. It claims the poem on behalf of--well, not necessarily normative Judaism (whatever that still may be), but on behalf of a desire to be normative. Even in a liberal congregation, and perhaps especially in a liberal congregation, this deployment turns a ribboni project--writing poetry--into a "revisionist-rabbani" project: one that tends, inevitably, to smooth over rough emotional and intellectual edges, to sober up imaginative flights, to tone down the shock and awe of individual poesis ("where the hell did that come from?") and replace it with tones, dulcet or otherwise, which can be spoken by the community as a whole.
And yet, and yet, Dan Cedarbaum of the JRF (and of my own congregation) has spoken of Yehuda Amichai and Leonard Cohen as major liturgical poets of our time. Does this mean that their work is more appropriate? More appropriate-able?
Is this a poetry thing, in other words, or just a Norman thing?
Poets, please respond! (And liturgists, and synagogue-goers, too.)
Tuesday, June 21, 2005
Maeera takes up the relationship between poetry and liturgy from a historical perspective. "Formally, prayer rather than prophecy is poetry's closest kin," she writes, "‑‑most specifically the piyyut or the liturgical poem which began as a supplement to the fixed or statutory prayer service." She cites liturgical historian Ismar Elbogin, who "explains that liturgical poetry served as an 'escape'‑‑a way of relieving the tedium of the fixed synagogue service (221)": a role which it certainly retains today (grin). "Taken as a whole," however, Maeera goes on, "his account suggests a considerably less benign function: for he frequently likens poetry to an epidemic‑‑a 'contagious disease' that is beyond restraint (225). Poetry is figured as a colonizing or "conquering" force that works to violate or trouble the integrity of the synagogue ritual, the dominant religious institution; interruption becomes disruption: once restricted to festivals and special Sabbaths, 'it also took control of the minor festivals and fast days' (225)."
The tension between liturgy and poetry played out differently in different places, the essay notes, in a paragraph worth quoting at length:
InHaving just finished Daniel Boyarin's remarkable book Border Lines, I tend to see this Talmudic fragment primarily as evidence of some other Judaism, a non-Talmudic synagogue Judaism, competing with what would become (or was in the process of becoming) the normative rabbinic model--and I love the idea, however fictive or anachronistic, that it was a more poetry-friendly variety. Distinctions ripple outward from that Talmudic passage:
, for example, where issues of exile were perhaps felt less acutely, prayer‑poems were tolerated rather easily, even encouraged. But in Palestine Babylonia, where anxiety about God's enabling presence reached an absolute fever pitch, it was altogether another matter. Viewed as a "foreign" and hence dangerous element, piyyutim were subject to serious opposition. The extent to which these poems represented a subversive presence is evident in a brief Talmudic fragment, which begins with the well‑known claim, "From the day that the Temple was destroyed, the Holy one of Blessing has no place but the four cubits of Halacha" (B. Berachot 8a); in other words, God dwells only in the Law, not in aesthetic productions such as prayer‑poems. This Talmudic fragment continues with Rabbis Asi and Ami responding to this claim, determining that "even though there were thirteen synagogues in Tiberias" (presumably where they lived), they would pray only "in between the pillars where they studied," shunning the synagogues where prayer‑poems occur.
- Poetry vs. Halacha
- Poetry (which makes it new) vs. the set prayer service (which grows old, dull, routine)
- and, as activities, Poesis (which invites the foreign and heterogenous into the mix) vs. Study (which turns inward, stays native, safely boundaried)
But are poems the same as liturgical songs (piyyutim)? Or is this a difference we still need to wrestle? And what of the traditions of liturgical song / poetry within normative (halachic) Judaism? What do we need to say, know, teach about them?
More on such topics tomorrow.
Monday, June 20, 2005
The Jewish poetry topic that's been on my mind these last few days, for all of my silence, has to do with the tension--sometimes dynamic, sometimes just grating--between poetry and liturgy.
The topic came up at the Shavuot study session, where the leader mentioned that the UAHC was trying to find poems--"great poems," he may even have said--for their next siddur. It surfaced earlier that day in a conversation at JRC, about the two current Reconstructionist siddurim: the US version, which I have, and the Canadian edition, which evidently features text by Leonard Cohen. (What, we couldn't get Dylan to kick in south of the border? Lou Reed? Peter Himmelman? Gene Simmons? Paula Abdul? Ooh! I know! The Beastie Boys!) (More options here.)
But seriously, folks, the more I think about this conjunction, the more muddled I get.
I know that there are many folks out there who see no tension at all between these genres, including any number of poets. Marge Piercy writes liturgy, as well as poetry, and a few years back, as I recall, she published simultaneously in the new Reconstructionist haggadah and in The Best American Erotica annual, leading me to muse, when I introduced her at a reading, that the closer we could get these texts to resemble one another, the better. Marcia Falk, in The Book of Blessings, incorporates poems by Zelda, Emma Lazarus, and herself into her revised, non-anthromorphic liturgy; she has written about the similarity, in her mind, between poetry and prayer.
Now, I remember, as a boy, reading poems in the Reform prayerbook and makhzor, by Anthony Hecht and maybe by Rukeyser, too. (If anyone out there has a copy of the books from the late '70s or early '80s, you can fill me in.) I read them, though, as an escape from liturgy, just browsing around--and I must confess, they didn't do much for me. Come to think of it, I have no memory, ever, from any time in my life, of hearing a poem read at a service--from the siddur or as a "reading"--that did do much for me. Why is that?
My gut sense--and perhaps I'll rethink this in the next few days--tells me that when I listen to a poem, I shift gears from devotion to, well, consideration. I start weighing the language, for quality and artistry and such. I step out of character (as supplicant, as celebrant, as pourer-out-of-my-heart) and don my donnish best. No, that's too glib. But the spell is broken. When I read a poem, all by myself--in front of a congregation or alone in my room--I can lose myself in its speaker, its world, but for a number of reasons, I can't do that as part of a crowd or (God forbid) "reading responsively." This may be why poems that have taken root in the liturgy as songs, like "Y'did Nefesh" or "El Adon," don't pose such problems for me. Singing, I can lose myself in the meaning of the words AND the voice of the crowd. The spell stays cast; the song remains the same.
(Leon Wieseltier would probably accuse me of belonging to the "religion of singing," and he'd be right.)
Tomorrow I'll come back to this question from a more scholarly, or at least academic, angle. I need to think about the psalms, about Allen Grossman's sense that poetry and liturgy are inevitably at odds, about the history of this tension (via Maeera Shreiber), and maybe about some actual poems as well. But it seemed fair to start with these more personal reflections, just to get the ball rolling.
Thursday, June 16, 2005
Here's one that would make a useful assignment in any Jewish poetry curriculum, given everything you'd learn by looking up its off-hand allusions. (As Hugh Kenner says somewhere, the things you need to look up to understand a poem are generally things worth knowing.) You could even have the students create a hypertext version of the poem, linking words and names and phrases to pictures, historical texts, even mp3s, as you'll see.
In Answer to the Question: When Did Your Peace Begin?(Am I the only one who sees this "couple"--so well matched, so estranged--as one more version of the KBH / Shekhinah pair? I like the poem well enough without that layer of meaning, but love it when I read it through that lens.)
Ben Gurion’s wind teased hair hung
On the wall of the café near the transit camp
And next to it, in a frame just like it,
The doughnut face of Umm Kulthoum.
That was in ’55 or ’56 and I figured if
A man and a woman hung side by side like that
They had to be bride and groom.
New in my mailbox: Bryce Passage, poems by Daniel Morris (Marsh Hawk Press); and Alternatives to History, by Jay Ladin (Sheep Meadow Press).
On the earbuds: Munir Bashir, Flamenco Roots
Monday, June 13, 2005
God's Tears("Good deeds" here is "ma'asim tovim," which is a pretty low-grade sort of good deed--not "mitzvot" or "tzedakah" or "g'milut chasadim." I wonder whether the translator should have gone with something like "handouts"? Lots of vexing issues in translation with these poems, which have the Yiddish on the facing pages; I'll take them up when I have a copy of the whole book in hand.)
God's tears like on the cheeks
of shamed, weak people.
Let me wipe away His lament.
He in whose veins there whirls
a quiet shudder before God,
let him kiss the nails of a pauper.
To the worm crushed under-foot,
God calls out "My holy martyr!"
The sins of the poor are more beautiful
than the good deeds of the rich.
It might be interesting to compare these poems, by the way, to the poems of Gershom Scholem, written in Jerusalem, in Hebrew, around the same time as Heschel was chugging away in Yiddish in Berlin. I'll be getting my copy of that one shortly, too. More then on the two of them! --E
Sunday, June 12, 2005
A Poem for Scholars
They frequently suffered hunger. Hunger leads to sleeplessness, and night-long insomnia arouses a desire to delve into the mysteries of Cabala. --I. L. Peretz
Here is one whose metaphysical hunger
ranges without limits across the field of the body.
Once he dreamed of uniting with his betrothed;
now he sleeps no more.
Though they say he yearns for the Torah,
who comes to men like a woman to her lover,
he casts doubt upon the metaphor
as he buries his nose in a book.
Some things will not yield to the text;
they remain beyond the play of words
no matter how often they give themselves to speech:
God had a book but created the world,
yearning for the pleasures of the flesh.
So put down your pen and come to supper:
rye bread, lentil soup, a glass of wine.
Some say life is contingent upon luxury;
others would disagree.
Like all old tales,
this one is careless of its end.
See you at Sinai--E
Saturday, June 11, 2005
I'll add more tomorrow; I'm breaking my own rules to post this now, but what can you do? Ha-asur mutar, as the Sabbatians said. (Or was that Nietzschele, caught with his first bacon double cheeseburger?)
Thursday, June 09, 2005
I'm a Jew for thugs, a jew for hugs,And, of course, the chorus, which my daughter loves to holler at the most sublimely inappropriate moments:
A Jew for lobster, a Jew for bugs;
A Jew for masturbation, five-week vacations,
A Jew for FDR, Salon, and The Nation.
Pass on Ronald Reagan--give me Donald Fagen!
(Ma Nishtana, Menachem Begin?)
I'm a Jew for Allah, a Jew for Jesus,Now if only my Hebrew were good enough to hear--but really hear--the wit and horror of "The Sticker Song," too!
A Jew for milagros and telekenesis,
A Jew for you, a Jew for me,
A Jew for birds and a Jew for the bees...
Tuesday, June 07, 2005
Central to the book is a distinction between two kinds of Judaism, two kinds of Jews: rabbani (rabbinic, Orthodox, normative) and ribboni (self-mastering, free-thinking, autonomous). I find these very useful: much more useful, in fact, than the usual American distinction between "religious" and "secular." (Elon calls himself a hiloni religiosi, or "religious secularist," for example, which oxymoron makes perfect sense to me, and is embodied in the ribboni ideal he articulates.) This morning, I'm just going to copy out here a couple of passages where he uses these terms; in later posts, I'll come back to them as they might help us read, say, Norman Finkelstein, or Mike Heller, or Alicia Ostriker, among others.
Over to you, Ari Elon:
The ribboni person is master of himself or herself.
She has no other master in her world, and is not the master of the world or of other people. A rabbani person is not the master of herself or himself. He creates a rabbi for himself. The rabbi creates God for him.
The Jewish people is a typical rabbani people: Am rav. (26)
For the rabbanim, The Torah of Israel is first and foremost their source of authority. For the ribbonim, the Torah of Israel is only a source of inspiration. As long as the Torah of Israel continues to be the exclusive property of the rabbanim, they will continue to treat the Jewish people as their private property while they shake their threatening Torah at them. On the day that the ribboni leadership succeeds in wrestling the Torah of Israel from the rabbanim, then each and every Jew will know the Torah has seventy faces. Seventy thousand myriads. From that day on, every single Jew will begin to treat the sources of his and her culture as private property. Then, for the first time, the Jews will begin to be a free people on their own land (27).
The ribboni revolutionaries placed an exalted challenge before the Jewish people: to turn the Torah of Israel from a source of authority to a source of inspiration. Their heirs were not able to rise to this challenge and left Israel's Torah in the hands of the ribbani leaders. [...] The rabbani person sees Israel's Torah as a source of authority. The ribboni person cannot relate to this Torah as a source of authority, for this person is the source of authority for him or herself. So the ribboni person can approach the classical sources with great freedom and can claim them as her own. She can learn from them much about herself, her people, her collective memories; he can learn much about his passions, his repressed urges, etc. The ribboni finds in these sources an endless field of organic symbols.
Of course, in order to be able to harvest these symbols at will, the ribboni must be familiar with the actual field in which they grow. In order that ribboni refinements should not be artificial, they must be anchored inthe classical heritage. Innovation without tradition creates alienation and sows a short-lived field of rootless symbols
doomed from their inception. Tradition without innovation strangles a person's chances of being ribboni. (35-6)
The only way to cultivate organic symbols is midrash. As a discourse, midrash is completely different from scientific discourse. [...] Scientific analysis strives to reveal the conceptual world of the creators of symbols; midrash tends to ignore the conceptual world of these symbol-creators. Scientific analysis sees the symbol as a means to reach the past; midrash sees it as a way to reach the future. Scientific discourse aspires to be objective; midrashic discourse is intentionally subjective. Midrashic discourse takes symbols out of context; scientific discourse strives to place symbols in their contexts.
Analytic, scientific discourse is necessary for being ribboni, but it is not sufficient. The one who does not know how to ask, "Who was the person who created ex nihilo the sentence, 'In the beginning God created heaven and earth'?" cannot be ribboni. Only one who strives to understand both the manifest and latent motives of each generation's god-creators can be ribboni.
But a scholar who doesn't know how to speak to his or her child in science-fiction language about the chaos that preceded God's creation of the world also cannot be ribboni. That scientist's academic rank may reach the highest heavens, but his ladder does not extend down to earth.
In short, only a ribboni beit midrash could be a crucible for taking the organic symbols that are part of the fabric of many generations and processing them into treasures of liberated expression.
Children do not like to be spoken to in the analytic mode of discourse. They are eager for midrash of organic symbols. At a very young age, they discover that the world is round, but their inner world stays pre-Copernican, and angels climb the ladders of their world and slide down slides into their sandboxes. If we really want them to grow up autonomous (ribboni), knowing how to be their own divinity, we have to teach ourselves how to give them many midrashim about gods, angels, demons, and spirits. After all, we created God, and only in aggadah can our creature rise against its creator. A ribboni isn't afraid of legends. A ribboni loves them. (37-8)
From this, Elon goes into an inspired reading of Hayyim Nahman Bialik's little poem "Nad Ned" (See-saw), but that will do for now. What do you think?
(Memo to Anne J, et. al.: isn't that ribboni beit midrash what we want our new school curriculum to look like?)
Sunday, June 05, 2005
All of which to explain, I suppose, that if you hear a couple of kids in shul singing "My God is red hot / Your God ain't doodly-squat" in the middle of Shacharis, they're probably mine.
Friday, June 03, 2005
I recently proposed a couple of talks on Ostriker's book and related topics to some MLA panels on Jewish and Jewish American literature, but I couldn't even get a nibble. (I won't speculate why; it just makes me grumpy.) The talk that was closest to my heart was called “I Never Knew Jews Really Cared About God: On Adding Alicia Suskin Ostriker’s The Volcano Sequence to Various Canons." Here's what I wanted to say:
In my decade of teaching Jewish American writing at a
Ostriker has a new collection out, No Heaven, which I've just begun to read, so I'll post more on it when I know the book better as a whole. One poem from it, though, has already received some notice: "What You Cannot Remember, What You Cannot Know," featured on Garrison Keillor's "Writer's Almanac" back in April. I read it two nights ago to the members of our synagogue school committee, at the end of a very long meeting (about 4 hours for some of us). Any poem that can hit a target like that deserves to be reprinted here:
What You Cannot Remember, What You Cannot Know
When you were two you used to say
I can do it all by myself, then when
you were three
You had tantrums, essentially
Because you wanted to go
back and be a baby like before,
And also to be a grownup.
It was perplexing,
It was a mini-rehearsal
For adolescence, which lurks inside your body
Now that you are almost nine,
Like a duplicate baby, an angel
Or alien, we don't know which,
Forceful and intelligent and weird,
Playing with the controls.
Fetal eyes blinking, non-negotiable demands
Like Coke bubbles overflowing a glass,
It strengthens and grows.
When you read it stares through your eyes,
It vibrates when you practice piano,
The cotton dresses hang in your closet
Like conspirators, wavering in its breeze.
We watch you turn inward, your hair
Falls over your face like a veil that hides whatever
You would rather others don't know,
You lean your head listening
For its keen highstrung melancholy voice.
Here comes the gypsy caravan,
Ding-a-ling, the icecream man,
Plenty of glee and woe up the road.
We would do anything for you,
Sweetie, but we can do nothing—
You have to do it all by yourself.
Dear Eric, I enjoy reading your blog and I have learned a lot about the writers you discuss. I would like to draw your attention to a Jewish American poet who now lives in Zfat, Israel. His name is Adam Schonbrun. I have included his poetry in an online course I teach about Voices of Diversity in American Literature.
My students are a true microcosm of Israeli society: Moslem-- (Bedouin, Arab), Jewish--(Sabra, new immigrantsfrom Ethiopia and Russia), devoutly religious and secular. The students find the poem I'm attaching very interesting and they exchange email with Adam. Some of these exchanges show that the poem opens a window for them on being a Jew living in the diaspora -- something they know very little about.
Here's the poem:
My Last Year in Graduate School
Strange thrill downtown
seeing a bright-eyed
During the basketball game
I'd watched her thrown up
in the air caught a glimpse
of the babyfat thighs,
her hands lowered to pull
the mini down-
A modest gesture
that excites me;
all that energy
displayed with hips
shaking back & forth.
Maybe it's because
I lived in an all boys
& then got my degree
in a foreign country-
I now appreciate
The plain woman playing
The flute in the 2nd
row of the band,
seated with her Collegiate
braces & freckles & oily curls,
I adore the cheerleaders
& the brassy sounds of the tuba,
maybe I just want to belong
& feel that I'm not always
the outsider, the jewboy
who hears the closed teeth grind:
"Jew me down, Jewboy," and yet
the team spirit's in me,
I want to belong
& shout: Go state, go.
And, I do. The milky
shiksas turn me on.
A breathless chill
when the band plays
& they sway, all firm and full
of Appalachian tradition.
* rabbinical: of rabbis, of Jewish doctrine or law
* state: a state college [university] team
* shiksa: a non-Jewish woman
* Appalachian: Eastern U.S. mountain chain
The notes on the poem are either hers or the poet's, I'm not sure which. (Let me know, and I'll edit this post accordingly.)
It strikes me, wryly, that there's a pun in this poem that the footnotes elide. "Go, state, go" doesn't just call to mind the US cheers for a state college or university team; it also hearkens back to the Jewish desire to have a "state" like everyone else does--which is to say, in Biblical terms, a king like all the other kingdoms, no? Which is to say, if the poem is overtly about Jewish life in Diaspora, that is to say, it may also be an interesting commentary, somewhat covertly, on the "team spirit" longings (and maybe the sexual politics) of Zionism, too.
Thanks for passing this along, Dr. Kolan!