Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Poems of Jewishness

Late last night/early this morning, I facilitated/participated in a discussion of Jewish poems with a small group of co-congregants at the Bay Ridge Jewish Center. I should qualify that I facilitated in so much as I selected the poems that we read, as part of a Shavuot study session. It was a fully enjoyable experience, and certainly intellectually stimulating. Much thanks to Rabbi Micah Kelber for inviting me to participate.

Anyway, I thought I would reprint the poems here, for your perusal.

We started with, and spent the most time discussing, Muriel Rukeyser's "To Be a Jew in the Twentieth Century":

"To Be a Jew in the Twentieth Century"

To be a Jew in the twentieth century
Is to be offered a gift. If you refuse,
Wishing to be invisible, you choose
Death of the spirit, the stone insanity.
Accepting, take full life. Full agonies:
Your evening deep in labyrinthine blood
Of those who resist, fail, and resist: and God
Reduced to a hostage among hostages.

The gift is torment. Not alone the still
Torture, isolation; or torture of the flesh.
That may come also. But the accepting wish,
The whole and fertile spirit as guarantee
For every human freedom, suffering to be free,
Daring to live for the impossible.

Read an analysis and discussion of this poem here.

Next, we read Paul Celan's poem "Tenebrae":


Near are we, Lord,
near and graspable.

Grasped already, Lord,
clawed into each other, as if
each of our bodies were
your body, Lord.

Pray, Lord,
pray to us,
we are near.

Wind-skewed we went there,
went there to bend
over pit and crater.

Went to the water-trough, Lord.

It was blood, it was
what you shed, Lord.

It shined.

It cast your image into our eyes, Lord.
Eyes and mouth stand so open and void, Lord.
We have drunk, Lord.
The blood and the image that was in the blood, Lord.

Pray, Lord.
We are near.

This poem went over very well with the group, who generally seemed impressed by the powerful imagery presented in its language.

Next, we read Yehuda Amichai's "A Jewish Cemetery in Germany":

A Jewish Cemetery in Germany

On a little hill amid fertile fields lies a small cemetery,
a Jewish cemetery behind a rusty gate, hidden by shrubs,
abandoned and forgotten. Neither the sound of prayer
nor the voice of lamentation is heard there
for the dead praise not the Lord.
Only the voices of our children ring out, seeking graves
and cheering
each time they find one—like mushrooms in the forest, like
wild strawberries.
Here's another grave! There's the name of my mother's
mothers, and a name from the last century. And here's a name,
and there! And as I was about to brush the moss from the name—
Look! an open hand engraved on the tombstone, the grave
of a kohen,
his fingers splayed in a spasm of holiness and blessing,
and here's a grave concealed by a thicket of berries
that has to be brushed aside like a shock of hair
from the face of a beautiful beloved woman.

— translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld

This poem received mixed reviews. I thought that the established opinions about Amichai's poetry influenced the receptivity toward the poem. I saw it more as a snapshot, whereas others saw condemnation and a dark cynicism.

I brought a copy of Joseph Brodsky's "A Song," but we didn't read it:

I wish you were here, dear,
I wish you were here.
I wish you sat on the sofa
and I sat near.
The handkerchief could be yours,
the tear could be mine, chin bound.
Though it could be, of course,
the other way around.

I wish you were here, dear,
I wish you were here.
I wish we were in my car,
and you'd shift the gear.
We'd find ourselves elsewhere,
on an unknown shore.
Or else we'd repair
to where we've been before.

I wish you were here, dear,
I wish you were here.
I wish I knew no astronomy
when stars appear,
when the moon skims the water
that sighs and shifts in its slumber.
I wish it were still a quarter
to dial your number.

I wish you were here, dear,
in this hemisphere,
as I sit on the porch
sipping a beer.
It's evening; the sun is setting;
boys shout and gulls are crying.
What's the point of forgetting
if it's followed by dying?

We ended with a poem by Kenneth Koch, entitled "To Jewishness". The lines are short, but the poem is long. I won't post it here, but will link it here. Please check it out, it's quite funny. Koch's poem came from his book New Addresses, in which he writes odes to ideas, as opposed to concrete things.

This just skims the surface. Wikipedia lists dozens of Jewish poets, whether they be Jewish American, Yiddish Language, Hebrew Language, or Israeli poets.

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