Saturday, March 25, 2006

Prayer, Performance, and Matsiyahu

A kind email from Adam this morning, re: prayer and performance. He notes the differences between two synagogue "stages" and the performances they suggest:
In Safed, the Abuhav synogogue, which local lore cites as having flown like a rocket-ship from Spain, is set up in Classic Sephardic mode: People look to one another along cushioned benches. In the middle, the Torah reader or Cantor leads the prayers. I often think of the liturgical texts which the piytanim would compose & sing to the congregations in Spain. Here was poetic-devotional theater.

Certainly hearing the original compositions was more stimulating than a Rabbinical sermon.

I was also present recently at the Liberal Jewish Synogogue in London. There, the choir & organist led the prayers. I found that somewhat alienating as it seemed that these Jews wanted their service to resemble Anglican Church or Roman Catholic performances rather than the authentic Jewish expressions.
When I was a younger man, living in Washington D.C., I davened every week at Fabrangen, a long-standing havurah made famous in Rabbi Arthur Waskow's writings, although he is no longer living in the area. The worship space was a room at the George Washington University Hillel, and the setup was in the round, as Adam describes the Sephardic synagogue in Sefad. After a few weeks, I certainly felt like part of the collective performance there, although after a couple of years, I must confess that I always drifted out when we got to the Torah discussion. It felt too much like a seminar discussion of poetry--too close to work, I guess. I liked the singing more.

(In Leon Weiseltier's derisive phrase--to me, simply a description--I believe in the "religion of singing.")

My sense is that the second architecture Adam describes, with organ and choir, puts the congregation into the role of audience, rather than performer. I grew up in synagogues like that, and hated them, as a rule, because I was lucky if anyone in the room was actually praying. No one in the pews seemed to be--not that I could acually see them--and the rabbi and cantor, although performing roles, never seemed to lose themselves in actual devotion. Whatever gates there are stayed closed.

(I should add, though, that my own ability to pray was deeply fostered by the Roman Catholic, mostly-black church in D.C. where my wife's cousin was the priest, whose praying and singing styles were more Baptist than traditionally Catholic.)

My wee Carlbachian twist a moment ago, about "the gates," was inspired by yesterday's obsessive on-line listening to Matisyahu, the young Lubovitcher reggae singer who is making such a splash these days. Whatever his merits and flaws, I'm struck by how watching him perform Jewish identity (in songs and in videos) opens up a performance style for me, singing along, that I haven't used in several years now: and through that style, certain emotional registers as well. What does Michael Ventura say about Elvis's hip-swiveling equivalent? "A dance it took a whole civilization to forget, and ten seconds to remember," or something like that. I'll be interested to watch, over the coming ten or twenty years, the ways in which his stylings filter up into unOrthodox Jewish prayer performance.

Friday, March 24, 2006

News and Reviews

At some point, a few years ago--around the time I went on my official ages 35-40 hiatus, to spend time with my wife and kids--I dropped my print subscription to The Forward. I figured I'd read it on-line, like everything else.

Knowing how curds lead on to whey, whatever the hell that means, I should have stuck with print. I don't keep up on line, and have missed a lot of very good poetry and poetry reviewing as a result. Up early this morning, I searched the word "poet" in their archives, and came up with some good stuff.

First, this review of Harvey Shapiro's The Sights Along the Harbor: New and Collected Poems, by David Curzon. Shapiro has become one of my favorite poets, not least thanks to the excellent material on him in Norman's Not One Of Them In Place: Modern Poetry and Jewish American Identity, a book that just keeps getting better the more I reread it. When my copy of this arrives, I'll post more on it--my sense is that it will be an essential book, and Shapiro an increasingly important poet to me, as I grow into him.

David Kaufman got the chance to review the new Collected Reznikoff: a book that will, I hope, put this poet onto more maps and syllabi and bookshelves in the next few years. (Rez seems to show up in more and more new anthologies of Modern American Poetry, too, a development driven no doubt by the desire to be more ethnically diverse in earlier periods--but hey, if it's good for the Jews, who am I to object?)

Jay Michaelson, the editor of Zeek: a Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture, recently reviewed a collection by Ilya Kaminsky, Dancing in Odessa. Evidently it won a number of prizes; somehow I missed it, but this Russian-born American poet--he came here in his teens--sounds like he has a lovely international reach in his work, from Mandelstam to Montale, and clearly I need to hunt the book up and give it a look.

A lucky fellow by the name of Isaac Meyers gets to review some new books by new poets who write about religion and newly-Orthodox (and post-Orthodox) life, Yermiyahu Ahron Taub (The Insatiable Psalm) and Eve Grubin (Morning Prayer). Meyers frames the review in terms of biographies: Taub grew up Orthodox, then left that world, coming out as gay; Grubin is a baalat teshuvah, an identity that Meyers links quite convincingly to the linguistic texture of her poems: "Orthodoxy is not just a faith but also a social sphere with its own language. All baalei teshuvah, therefore, are as unsettled linguistically as they are spiritually. We can hear and feel the poet searching urgently for a language that better fits her changing life..." I'm going to get a copy of this one, too--and keep an eye out for other pieces by Meyers, who seems to take an interest in poetry and the Orthodox world, as in this piece from a few months ago.

So, how do I get some of these review copies coming my way, eh? Don't tell me I have to get my Jewish poetry retail!

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Prayer and Performance (Anxiety)

An interesting, even passionate response from Norman to my last post on Rabbi Hirsch.

"I part company with Hirsch regarding his theatricalizing of Jewish ritual and prayer," saith the poet. "I no longer know if I'm a secular or religious Jew, but I don't attend synagogue much at all. Still, I love the rituals too much to think of them as theater or the prayers as mere quotation. Jews died rather than give up those practices. I could never go to shul thinking that what I was doing was anything like a play, regardless of any outward similarities to performance."

I find this fascinating, mostly because it is entirely alien to me. I almost always think of prayer as performance, whether I'm at shul or at church with my wife: to me, performance is about self-transformation, as I turn myself into the person who is singing, with believable passion, "Rock of Israel, rise up and help Israel!" or "Sweet soul daddy, bend me, shape me, any way you want me," or however Y'did Nefesh is properly translated. I do the same thing singing along to the radio, or saying a poem out loud in class. The joy of prayer to me is partly communal--there's a deep, abiding pleasure in davening together--but partly, or even mostly, the inward and individual magic that happens when I make believe that I'm addressing Someone. Isn't "You" the most intimate, most sacred of divine names, the one that makes things happen most often? Isn't apostrophe always serious juju?

Maybe you need to think of performance via Austen, rather than Broadway. Prayer is performative language: it makes something happen, at least to the pray-er, when you "pour out your heart like water," as it says in Lamentations.

As for the thought that Jews have died rather than give up these practices--I'm embarassed to say that I've almost never thought about that. Again, a deeply foreign reaction; not wrong, just radically Other, in a way that Norman's instincts and insights rarely feel to me. Curious...

Anyone else out there thinking about prayer and performance these days?

Can Secularism Save Jewish Religion?

Thinking about "secular Jewish culture," I stumbled on a useful little essay by Rabbi Richard Hirsch, formerly the rabbi of my own synagogue, JRC, and now the Executive Director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, which sounds big-wiggish and official enough, I trust. It's called "Can Secularism Save Jewish Religion?"--you can find it here. Money quotes:
Reconstructionist Judaism, based on the teachings of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan in the first half of the 20th century, shares with Jewish secularism many assumptions (and denials) about the origins of Judaism. It is, in many ways, a secular form of religious Jewish affirmation. Kaplan’s essential insight was that Judaism is not a religion, but rather a civilizational culture — a perspective secular Jews would readily embrace. Yet while secular Jews might have difficulty embracing or even tolerating religious practice within that civilization, Kaplan believed one could reconstruct Jewish religion and keep a central place for it in Jewish life — on contemporary terms.

Kaplan’s “heresy” was in seeing Jewish culture, including Jewish religion, as growing from the ground up, rather than as revealed from the (mountain-) top down. While traditional Jewish religion posits that there is a supernatural “God” who “gave the Torah” and “chose the Jews,” Reconstructionist Judaism posits that whatever we have inherited as Jewish religion is the product of the natural experience of the Jewish people throughout history. “God,” “revelation” and “chosen-ness,” to pick just a few traditional categories, are cultural constructs of the Jewish people, not objective realities to be found “out there.”


To avoid the word “God” entirely is to avoid the meanings our ancestors poured into it — some with which we might agree and many from which we would dissent. Therefore, while a secular Jew might typically ask, “If I have no belief in God, at least in any of the traditional senses of that term, why should I bother retaining a problematic and misleading word?” — I would argue that we needlessly deprive ourselves of a rich and complex category of discourse if we excise God from our conversation. “God” is a prism through which Jewish struggles about ultimate issues are refracted. To me, the really interesting questions about God are: Why and how have Jews used that word? What kind of imagery and associations have they attached to it? At what times in earlier Jewish history and under what circumstances did certain ideas of God advance and others recede? As the late scholar Paul van Buren argued in his important book, The Edges of Language, when we use the word “God,” we are talking about the things that really matter — from our subjective, human viewpoint. No other word has the same power to animate such conversations.


Secular Jews, as well as religious Jews, often share the erroneous assumption that in order to recite or sing traditional Hebrew prayers, one must believe the words one is saying. This is not at all obvious to me. We manage to recite poetry, popular song lyrics, greeting card messages, and the Pledge of Allegiance without feeling morally compromised. Why does prayer have to be judged like philosophy, as true or false? Why can’t it be thought of as poetry, provoking reflection and invoking emotion? I do not require art, literature, poetry and music to conform to a consistent and rational standard of truth, and I do not understand why my secular friends have such a hard time applying this type of aesthetic analysis to prayer and to the study of traditional Jewish texts.

Hebrew prayers can be seen as a form of quotation: I am saying (preferably singing) the words my ancestors said. It is rather like being in a theater production: the prayerbook is a script, the tallit and kippah are the costume, the shul is the stage. I don’t have to believe in the character I am playing or in the words I am saying in order to participate.

The English side of the prayerbook — now, that is a different matter. I will agree with my secular friends that too few prayerbooks take the time to explain that what is printed is poetry, quotation, archaic imagery and myth, and need not be believed. (The current Reconstructionist Haggadah and High Holy Day prayerbooks are notable exceptions.) Why can’t the English side of the page be expanded to include probing and ambiguous poetry and prose (the writings of Yehuda Amichai and Leon Wieseltier come to mind), and edited to avoid the patronizing paraphrases and translations that alienate the intelligent synagogue participant?
The longer I live with this SJC / RP project, the more it strikes me that the intersections of these two make most sense in light of the broader Reconstructionist project. So, everyone: what say we draft ourselves a heretical siddur? Leaving the original liturgy in place, more or less, in the Hebrew, what are your picks for the English side of the page? Not that I have anything against Amichai (what, he's not on the Hebrew side?) and Wieseltier, but I think we could come up with some fresher selections--and certainly some more probing and ambiguous ones!

Monday, March 20, 2006

I'm Back!

Did I say a two week hiatus? I meant two months, clearly.

It's been a busy time. I've written, what? A fat review essay for Parnassus (on dichtersromane, or novels-about-poets), another NEH grant application, a fistful of lesson plans for high school poetry teachers, each hustling into the queue as the last slipped past.

I'm not likely to be any less busy this Spring, but I've been missing the blogosphere--haven't read it, since I wasn't contributing--and now that I'm back to work on my essay on Norman, this blog seems newly important, somehow. Besides, we're coming up on our one-year anniverary, you readers and me. It seems a decent time to start afresh, afresh, afresh.


I find myself writing several essays on Norman simultaneously. None of them is precisely the one I want to write, yet I haven't figured out yet what they have in common, or how they might fit together into a single piece. Here's the start of one for you all to chew on, while I work on the other:

Azoi Toot a Yid:
or, the Curious Case of Finkelstein v. Finkelstein

To begin, an old joke—a canonical joke, I suppose, since it’s now in the Norton Anthology of Jewish American Literature. The new rabbi of an old congregation found himself in an awkward situation. Week after week, when the Shema was said, half the congregants would stand, and half stay seated. Each group yelled at the other to sit back down or get up on their feet. Baffled by this cacophony, the rabbi turned for advice to the housebound elder of the shul. “It the tradition to stand during the prayer?” he demanded.
The old man answered, “No, that is not the tradition.”

“Then the tradition is to sit during the Shema!”

The old man answered, “No, that is not the tradition.”

Then the rabbi said to the old man, “But the congregants fight all the time, yelling at each other about whether they should sit or stand….”

The old man interrupted, exclaiming, “That is the tradition!”
The Jewish sensibility, this little tale suggests, prefers argument to harmony, disputation to accord. Even at the moment in the service when everyone bears witness, each to the other, that God is One, “the tradition” endorses endless human bickering. Nothing could stand (or sit, as the case may be) much farther from the radical unity of the Muslim prayer line, say, or the Christian longing to be, as the popular hymn puts it, “one in the Spirit … one in the Lord.”

Now, as Daniel Boyarin has recently argued, there are deep, unspoken limits to this Jewish ideal of dissensus. No one in the joke suggests that the congregants not say Shema at all, nor that after Kiddush, those who wish may share the gospel of Yeshua. Nor can we claim interminable debate as an exclusively Jewish value. Any number of non-Jewish poets, for example, have proclaimed its importance, from Blake’s assertion that “Opposition is true friendship” to the “quarrel with ourselves” that produces poetry in Yeats, and most recently to the “YES & NO” of James Merrill’s Ouija-board. Nevertheless, the Jewish love of argument remains a noteworthy phenomenon, capable of playing out in multiple tones and modes of exposition. If the joke from the Norton embodies it as comedy, for example, a tale from the Babylonian Talmud captures its pathos:
Resh Lakish died, and Rabbi Yohanan grieved greatly.

The talmidei hakhamim said, “Who will go and revive him? Let Elazar ben Pedat go, whose shma’atas are so sharp.

He went and sat before him. To everything that Rabbi Yohanan would say, he would say, “Here is a tannaitic passage that supports you.”

He said to him, “You are [supposed to be] like Ben Lakish?! Ben Lakish, whenever I said anything, would pose twenty-four questions, and I would give him twenty-four responses and the shma’ata would expand. You answer ‘Here is a tannaitic passage that supports you.’ Don’t I know that I am speaking well?”

He would walk tearing his clothes, crying, and saying “Where are you, Ben Lakish? Where are you, Ben Lakish?”

He cried until he lost his mind.

The talmidei hakhamim asked mercy for him:
He found his rest (he died). (BT Bava Metzia 84; qtd in Elon, TKTK)
The former bandit, Resh Lakish, and his teacher, Rabbi Yohanan, who transformed the bandit into a master of Torah, may have been rivals, even enemies at times. But their battles were more life-giving, and more expansive of the text at hand (the shma’ata) than the hapless echo and affirmation supplied by Elazar ben Pedat. Indeed, in the Talmud, even the Holy One prefers a fight to mere assent. “My children have defeated me,” He laughs, on finding that direct divine intervention—a voice from Heaven declaring one side right and the other wrong—will not settle a fractious rabbinic debate (Baba Metzia 59ab).

Among secular Jews—a fuzzy category, given the atheism, pantheism, Buddhism, and je-m’en-foutism so prevalent in synagogues, at least in my own experience—so let’s say, among those Jews who recite the Shema less frequently than they tell Jewish jokes, the notion that God Himself likes a worthy opponent has been embraced, however metaphorically, as defining a Jewish duty to resist the status quo or normative authority, religious and otherwise. Harold Bloom’s definition of “Jewish dualism” puts the case in appropriately sweeping terms: “neither the split between body and soul nor the abyss between subject and object,” but rather “the ceaseless agon within the self not only against all outward injustice but also against what I have called the injustice of outwardness, or, more simply, the way things are” (Ruin, 162). Again, we cannot claim such a stance to be exclusively Jewish—unless, I suppose, we are prepared to attribute a crypto-Jewish consciousness to Marlon Brando’s biker in The Wild One, ready to rebel against whatever you’ve got. (Is this inconceivable? The film’s director, Laszlo Benedek, was a Hungarian Jew smuggled out to safety by Louis B. Mayer in 1939.) But secular Jews have been happy to claim ontological rebellion for their own, and even, again, to declare it to be the defining characteristic of “the tradition.” Tony Kushner puts the watchwords of this faithless faith in the mouth of two inarguably Jewish characters playing cards in Heaven: Sarah Ironson, the deceased Yiddishe-grandma of Angels in America, and (for the English gloss), the late Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz. "Az er darf ringen mit zain Libm Nomen!" Sarah declares. "You should struggle with the Almighty." "Azoy toot a Yid." "It's the Jewish way."

How might this “Jewish way” play out as a poetics? A variety of models spring to mind: the rabbinic dialogues of Edmond Jabes’ Le Livre des Questions; the stick-and-move parataxis of Charles Bernstein’s work; the self-indicting serial reflections of Alicia Ostriker’s the volcano sequence; perhaps even the plunges and soarings of diction in Aharon Shabtai’s “Love,” although here the Libm Nomen to be wrestled sounds more like Petrarch than HaShem. Few figures, however, have explored the aesthetic possibilities of the “Jewish way” more variously, and with greater awareness of its tangled Jewish and non-Jewish roots, than poet-critic Norman Finkelstein.

Over the past dozen years, Finkelstein has established himself as a significant scholar of both American poetry and Jewish literature, and with the publication of Not One of Them in Place, his groundbreaking study of “Modern Poetry and Jewish American Identity,” he consolidated his position as the foremost critic of Jewish American poetry. During these same years, however, Finkelstein also turned the traditional yeshiva method of chevrusa, or study-through-debate, into a model of literary productivity. By turns proving points in prose and disputing them in verse, staking out poetic voices and abandoning them in subsequent volumes, and deploying assertion, contradiction, and paradox within individual poems with a gusto that would make Ben Lakish blush, Finkelstein has carried on a series of significant, as-yet-overlooked arguments with himself about the role of nostalgia in secular Jewish culture, about the relationship between religion and poesis, and about the place of the Jewish poet vis-à-vis any sort of normative Jewish community. It may be an overstatement to claim, as I have elsewhere, that readers who know Finkelstein only as a scholar know only half his thought on any subject. Frequently the poems track conflicting moods, as much as contrasting ideas. But Finkelstein-the-scholar, who (let’s say) sits during the Shema, has for too long overshadowed Finkelstein-the-poet, who stands up, and sometimes walks out. It seems time to give the latter a chance to claim, and reward, our critical attention.

Not a bad opening, as I read it over. I'm just in the "bang your head against the damn piece to get it started again" phase of the writing process. It's all b'seder, really. I just need to get back to work.