Tag : poetry

The Lilith Blog

August 20, 2019 by

Talking Back to The Red Tent in the #MeToo Era

I assign Anita Diamant’s novel The Red Tent in my Women in the Hebrew Bible course because it helps students learn about the concept of midrash and highlights just how little the biblical text itself centers women’s experiences and relationships. Plus, it’s a fun read! But times have changed in the 22 years since Diamant reimagined the tale of Dinah’s rape (or perhaps, since Biblical Hebrew lacks a word for rape, her “sexual humbling”) in Genesis 34 as a love story. Our societal understanding of rape, rape culture, and consent has evolved, particularly in the wake of the #MeToo movement calling powerful men to account for sexual harassment and sexual assault. Thus, when I ask students to respond in writing to The Red Tent, one question is, “Is Diamant’s midrash a feminist one? Can the redefinition of (possible) sexual assault as consensual sex be a feminist enterprise?”(Consider the following from Diamant’s website: ‘I could never reconcile the story of Genesis 34 with a rape, because the prince does not behave like a rapist. After the prince is said to have ‘forced’ her (a determination made by her brothers, not by Dinah), he falls in love with her, asks his father to get Jacob’s permission to marry her, and then agrees to the extraordinary demand that he and all the men of his community submit to circumcision.’) Students may respond to their chosen questions in essay format or in another medium, such as poetry or visual art.

When I taught the course in Fall 2018, two students coincidentally chose to write poems addressed to Diamant from Dinah. I was struck by how different their viewpoints were. One student, Muktha Nair, referenced class discussions about whether we can consider what happened to Dinah “rape.” That debate will never be resolved, Nair suggested. In a note accompanying her poem, she wrote, “Would a little girl want her name to be limited to the debates under literary scrutiny among biblical scholars and the clergy? Wouldn’t she much prefer to flourish and become immortal through folktales and mystical stories of being the knowing woman, the skilled midwife, a lover?… And that’s where I concluded that Diamant wasn’t doing a disservice to Dinah! By giving her a form, thoughts, a voice, a life, Diamant is ensuring that Dinah’s name lives through the eras to come. All we can give to Dinah is a lasting place in the thoughts of humanity—not as an object of debate, but as a Woman.” In her poem, Nair, writing as Dinah, thanks Diamant for giving her new life.

The other student, Sara Milic, wrote a poem comparing Diamant’s treatment of Dinah to a second rape. In the note accompanying her poem, Milic wrote, “This poem gives Dinah the opportunity to finally speak and to tell the truth herself. This also gives Dinah the opportunity to address how she might possibly feel about Diamant changing her story of rape into one of love. I felt a poem would be able to match the drama of the actual situation both in Dinah’s rape and in Diamant’s silencing of Dinah’s rape. I’m paralleling Dinah’s rape to Diamant silencing her by making similarities in both attacks (foreign prince, covering mouth, silencing, etc).” Milic’s poem has Diamant taking from Dinah what isn’t hers: Dinah’s story.

When I read these two poems, one right after the other, I immediately thought of seeking to publish them in Lilith. These two college students struggling with questions of sexual assault and female agency in a 2,500-year-old text and a 1990s bestseller have produced powerful poetry.

Caryn Tamber-Rosenau is instructional assistant professor of Jewish Studies and Religious Studies at the University of Houston. She is the author of Women in Drag: Gender and Performance in the Hebrew Bible and Early Jewish Literature (Gorgias Press, 2018). She is a former Lilith intern.

_____________________________________________________________________________ 

By Muktha Nair

To my daughter

Through whose words,

my soul lives on.

Some say I was raped,

But the world is yet to know the truth,

One that cannot be avenged, in my name.

But you, my Anita,

You have given me voice.

No longer just a forgotten name

Among words,

Written by men who know not.

You, as a fellow woman,

Have fulfilled the secret womanly vow,

By ensuring utterance of my name

giving a life to my name,

Thoughts to my name,

A voice to my name.

Giving me a place in the hearts of all;

Realizing the debacles of debates

Only wither away at the little felicity

Left for me.

Now my name

will be remembered,

In love,

In pain,

At birth

At death.

Not as a cursed whore;

But as a knowing Woman.

 

 

A Note to Anita by Sara Milic

I am being stripped of my story

You’re covering my mouth

I can’t breathe, I’m panicking

You were supposed to be the knight on the white horse,

The foreign prince coming to save me

You tricked me with your stories of sweet bread

And nights of cuddling in the tent

I trusted you, my sister, to let my soul go free

To unleash me from this burden I’ve been carrying

To tell my truth, to expose my aggressor

Anita, I’m crying – can’t you hear me?

Tell them he raped me, Anita

Are you listening?

You changed my story

I know it’s hard to read

My sister, I wish I could forget it

You’ve taken from me, just as he did,

My voice and my sense of self

Will there ever be justice for me,

Or for the sisters before me?

Will the sisters after me be believed?

Anita, will you be the savior of the silenced?

Or will you lay your hand over their mouth,

And take from them what isn’t yours to keep?

Don’t tell them he loved me,

Don’t lie and say I loved him

Please, don’t tell them I was happy

When will my rape end?

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The Lilith Blog

July 15, 2019 by

Belladonna Founder Rachel Levitsky on Poetry, Politics, and What Comes Next

Rachel Levitsky calls herself a “lesbian, commie, poet, and polemicist who makes things.” And she does: Levitsky has written three full-length books and nine chapbooks herself, teaches undergraduates, and is the founder of the Belladonna Collaborative, a 20-year-old feminist avant-garde literary salon and publisher of experimental, multi-gendered, and linguistically bold titles.

Among Belladonna’s releases are award-winning texts from writers including LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs (Whiting Award) and Beth Murray, whose posthumous book of poems, Cancer Angel, won the 2016 California Book Award. Levitsky sat down with Eleanor J. Bader in Belladonna’s office.

Eleanor J. Bader: Have you always been a poet?

Rachel Levitsky: When I was a child my dad told me not to be a poet. Writing poetry was not an occupation in the Levitsky consciousness. I did not come out as a poet until 1994.

LevitskyEJB: Do you know why your father had this attitude?

RL: My parents seemed to value invisibility. My mother had been born in Germany and came to the US as a toddler in December 1939. Her uncle survived Auschwitz, but no one in my family was willing to talk about any of this and I always wanted to know more.

EJB: Is this why you became interested in history?

RL: Maybe. I was a history major as an undergraduate at the State University of New York (SUNY) in Albany and got a Master’s in American Social History. My focus was labor. My thesis looked at the way the cigar industry in Binghamton, NY became segregated by gender.

EJB: But you chose to pursue activism.

RL: I wasn’t interested in pursuing further academic study in History. I plunged into activism in New York City, joining ACT-UP and WHAM!—Women’s Health Action and Mobilization.

My job at the time was with the Home Program of the Bond Street Homeless Center run by Catholic Charities. Every night, five of us would load into a van and drive around Brooklyn trying to convince mentally-ill, chemically-addicted people to come to the Center’s drop-in program.

I did this work in 1991 and 1992, until I got a job teaching adult basic education classes for the Consortium of Worker Education (CWE), an educational organization that serves union members. In 1993-94 I taught English in Mexico. When I came back to the US, I returned to the CWE and eventually got a full-time job running an English as a Second Language program at the Painters and Finishers Apprenticeship program in Long Island City.

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July 9, 2019 by

Run to Them: A Poem by Desiree O’Clair

I ran so fast,

I couldn’t look over my shoulder. I ran so fast,
I didn’t feel my legs.
I ran so fast,

the child clinging to my hip thought we, like birds, were flying.
I ran so fast I out-ran my fear.

When we reached the sea,
I just kept running.
We were running for our lives,
with nothing more than what we could carry on our backs. We left our homes, our community, everything we knew. Always the stranger.

That was long ago,
but you must not forget.
When you see the refugee
washed ashore on rafts through waters that did not part, Remember me, your ancestor, a slave.
Remember the people of your tribe.
When you see the refugee children,
hungry for the mothers and fathers who did not survive, looking to the sky for manna that does not fall, Remember where you came from.
The Eternal freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand,
by an outstretched arm.
When you see the refugee today, remember this.
They are the strangers, and you are free.
The hands of free people are mighty
And yours are the outstretched arms.
Run to them.

-Desiree O’Clair 


Lilith Poetry Editor Alicia Ostriker comments:

This poem begins as a midrash on Exodus, bringing to vivid life what it was for a Hebrew woman escaping slavery to run for her life.

We are then asked to imagine what it is like for today’s refugees, people lacking miracles to save them. No sea parted by a divine hand—and many, we know, drown. No manna from heaven—and many are hungry. We are reminded, at the poem’s ending, that the divine “mighty hand” and “outstretched arm” are ours. The imperative to us as free people who were once slaves, is not to walk away from today’s desperate refugees, not to look away; “Run to them.”

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April 2, 2019 by

Poetry: Brisket Wars

The oven preheats to 325. Mama prepares the brisket.

In the warming kitchen, she follows her recipe for the meat

as her mother and grandmother had, tenderly

placing the slab in a roasting pan, pointed-fat

side up, sprinkled with onions, salt, garlic; bloody-

flat side down, hiding the family’s rough-cut

 

history. Mama proclaims the piece is prime, first cut.

She buys from Irv the butcher. His koshered brisket

promises a sacred knowledge. He throws a bloody

extra chunk into our package already leaking from juicy meat.

He winks at me, thick arms hovering, fat

cheeks quivering, and hands our purchase over tenderly.

 

At the Formica table, I smooth Doris Day paper dolls tenderly.

Bad luck to tear thin skin. Along dotted lines I cut

evening gowns for figures that never fatten.

Mama brags to her two sisters that she makes Cleveland’s best brisket.

I prod stringy strands, forklift a bite of gristly meat,

chew hard until I can swallow without gagging on the bloody

 

legacy. Mama and her sisters escape Poland, its bloody

pogroms in 1938. Batya, the elder, uses bone broth to tenderize,

and horseradish to spice up her beef. On Shabbos she meets

Mama and me for cake and coffee. At 13, Batya cuts

out patterns 8 hours a day for a seamstress. Batya advises brisket

should be choice, not lean; do not trim the saddle of fat.

 

That layer makes the dish delish. My tongue’s slick with fat.

Mama whispers her papa beats Batya bloody

when she refuses to hand over her wages. They only eat brisket

on Passover. He gambles the money away even when Batya tenders

her living. Doroshke, the younger sister, doesn’t cut

her schooling short. She’s his pretty favorite. But her meat’s

 

dry, tasteless, tough. Mama and Batya for once agree. Meetings

over. Done. All gone. No leftover recipes for how to cleave a fatted

calf or breed a better beast. I move far, order take-out, and try to cut

the cord clean, but can’t staunch the bleeding.

No recipe to dress wounds that remain so tender.

Mama worries who’ll marry me if I can’t make a decent brisket.

 

You can’t overcook brisket. Stick it in the oven and the meat cooks itself.

Men like a little fat to grab hold of as long as it’s tender. Learn to make

the bloody recipe. Be generous. Brisket’s a forgiving cut, a very

                 forgiving cut. 

 

Lilith Poetry Editor Alicia Ostriker comments: Part of what charms me about this poem is that it is a sestina, a complex form: six stanzas of six lines plus a final triplet, all stanzas having the same six words at the line-ends in six different sequences that follow a fixed pattern, and with all six words appearing in the closing three-line envoi. You get special points for end-words that have double meanings. Sestinas are hard to write but easy once you get the hang of them—just like cooking a good brisket. Originally used for refined topics such as romantic love, a sestina can be used even for the nourishing tragicomedy of multigenerational Jewish family life. So the poem uses a recipe, and is itself a recipe—for celebrating survival. The details, of course, are what make it so delicious.

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January 10, 2019 by

Poetry: “Except Following the Rules Will Kill You”

“The Auschwitz Album is the only surviving visual evidence of the process leading to the mass murder at Auschwitz-Birkenau.” — www.yadvashem.org

He looked like a man I could have spent my time with. Relatable, handsome even. Dapper and tall with pants a little too loose on his lean frame. A good Jewish boy. I could have brought him home to my mother except he’s in black and white. Except he happened 70 some odd years ago. Waiting patiently to approach the commander on a small platform. Second in the endless line of men with brimmed hats settled politely against their sides. From here I want to scream out his name but I don’t know it. Except following the rules will kill you. I’m staring. From here I’ve decided to claim this man as my good Jewish boy. Absorbed in his lips twisted to one side. He’s smirking. He’s beautiful and smirking while he’s waiting in line with the thousands of men of all shapes and sizes in their best rumpled winter attire. I think it’s summer. My good Jewish boy. Except following the rules will kill you. He’s beautiful and he’s next up and looks like he’s already cleared his throat. Ready to reason with the commander. Understand what this procession is all about. That the train ride was days of hell. And the last few years leading up to it were like treading water. Except following the rules will kill you. I’m staring and I can’t stop. Except he’s in black and white and I can’t reach back to tell him. I’m staring and my skin is prickling sour and I can’t stop. Body clenching. Pain sharpening through my bones. Heart throbbing in a thick monotonous rage. My Jewish boy. I don’t even have his permission to claim him. He has no idea. They have no idea. From here I can’t stop what’s already happened. 70 some odd years later. How could anyone believe it to be true. Except following the rules will kill you. My Jewish boy. My people hold shame like wine overflowing through cupped hands, like blood hemorrhaging without a way to stop the bleeding. He has no idea. They have no idea. Except following the rules will kill you. From here I see there are so many more of them, than them. From here I see the giant pits of fire and limbs and babies and ash. From here I’m dying to tell them to break their ranks and take over even if the result is still the same. Fight back I scream with the bluntness of the back of my throat. Even if the result is still the same. From here I know he’s dying. They are all dying and they have no idea. My Jewish boy. Except all that’s left of him is this photograph from Yad Vashem’s website called “Auschwitz album.” Except I will never know his name, their names. People who were here that were matter with alive bodies, blood running through them. Except the worst thing about the past is that it is still here and following the rules will kill you.

Lilith Poetry Editor Alicia Ostriker comments: Reading Gabriella Theisen-Jacobowitzr’s prose poem “Except Following the Rules Will Kill You” was for me a stunning experience, in which a woman’s voice very like my own seems just short of crack-up. Irrationality—illogic—rules this poem, beginning with its title, which becomes its obsessive refrain. What can “except” mean? If the fragment of a sentence were a full sentence, would it say “A civilized person should obey custom, should respect how things are done, should follow the rules, except following the rules will kill you?” What are we looking at? The behavior of the man in the photo who is like a good Jewish boy ready to argue rationally with the Nazi officer? The speaker’s own irrational response to a man dead seventy years as if she could take him home? Or her horror that “he has no idea. They have no idea” as if the horror were still going on? The speaker’s awareness does not lessen her anguished helplessness—or mine, or yours.

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October 3, 2018 by

Poetry: Ten Metaphors for Light

TEN METAPHORS FOR LIGHT

by AISHA DOWN

i.

God in you

talking love

to the God

in another place

in you

ii.

The God that beats in sky and sun

is it in all things

speaking in hot rays through your skin

to you.

iii.

Skin that shines on all things: apples, men at work,

great boats on howling seas—

unknowable beneath their light-skins

as the bodies of strangers,

the shadows inside of faces.

iv.

Honey

hot beneath the tongues of sky.

v.

Water in the morning

to rinse sky and hands and you:

great waves from the clean sun.

vi.

Feathers riding skyward on backs of birds.

A white owl at flickering distance

watching the years of night.

vii.

Faith

burnt as the dust

that surged

all those eternal miles

about the ankles.

vii.

A soul, because it cannot be photographed

or measured,

or caught alone.

ix.

A throat

for it lies above the heart. 

x.

Blood, for it moves

relentlessly—

with no sound through

these cells of days.

Lilith poetry editor, Alicia Ostriker — just appointed New York State Poet: “Ten Metaphors For Light” fascinates and ravishes and teases, all at the same time. How can so many things all be metaphors for light, which is itself a metaphor for so many things? Imagination rules this poem. But a thread of sensual joy unites these images, along with a sense of play, and of the abundance of the universe which began, we are told, with “Let there be light.”

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April 12, 2018 by

The Lives of Sarah

My cousin turned to salt when Sodom fell.
I taste it still, as though my lips are pressed
forever to her own. I’ll spend the rest
of time remembering her name. To hell
with tears! I haven’t cried since Ishmael
was born. God hears!—but not my prayers, I guess.
Besides, I’m dried up now: dry eyes, dry breasts,
dry womb. My husband says it’s just as well.

I won’t say “Abraham.” I call him “dear,”
since Abram was the man I used to know.
He hears God’s word, but I speak too. That’s half
as good, I think. But all I do is laugh
when guests suggest I’m pregnant even though
we haven’t touched each other in a year.

Leah Schwartz is a poet living outside of Philadelphia.

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October 7, 2014 by

Poetry

the coffee drifts down these long bronx halls into my young waking nose

Wake to coffee my mother
says I am too young to drink.
O, the future, so far, so aromatic,
so dark and hot, like the envied
coffee she takes to her lips.

What more do I envy about her,
my mother whose scent is Paris
while she struggles in New York.
Sometimes I smell her sweat,
never heavy or harsh, but distant
and dusky like rivers in an old
country she’ll never see again.

Inside, I promise to visit those rivers,
but do not tell, for fear of her
militia-rage, unseen as land mines
set to blow at any tremor.
I remember to tread lightly
around her long wide nose filled
with smells, gunpowder dust, she
can’t extract, subtract, detract.

I lie in the shadow of war and death
when she bends over my bed,
kisses me light between the eyes
with lips that taste beloved brows
she kissed and cursed as they lay dead.

Falling off to sleep, in my nostrils
still, the scent of Paris, sweat
of New York, dreams of morning
coffee, of futures, rich, dark and hot.

Equipment*

What in her life equipped her
to dig a bullet from her leg
to lie still under many bodies
until decay and stone seeped
into blood and breath?

What in her life equipped her
for smuggling the few guns
a farmer may be bought for,
hoping S.S. or Home Guard hadn’t gotten to him first?

What in her life equipped her for
executing traitors, for burning down
squealers and Jew murderers?

What in her life equipped her
to see a pregnant sister butchered
ghetto burning, brothers shot
running, father gone to forgotten
grave in a hole somewhere in
the surrounding woods?

What in her life equipped her
to walk alone through this life
always dancing for the dozen
seeing traces of eyes and hands
in children she dared to deliver from the fires and the pits?

*a term used by Eta Chait Wrobel, my
mother, to describe (sympathetically)
what one was or was not capable of

her poem

She read me her poem, dated July 1943.
Two months after the liquidation of her ghetto.
The words were clear, direct and undramatic.
She used no metaphors.
Nothing was like anything else.
The words all in Yiddish
the language a message.
Dead languages like people
kept alive if we speak them.

Her voice sweet, fragile, even scared.
Not the iron woman so many see.
A folded yellowed page.
She can’t recall exactly where she wrote it.
The woods bore no address.
So many years unshown.
Today to be disclosed, exposed, made known.
Nothing I haven’t heard in content and in fact.
But dated… July, 1943.
So near, so there, so unembellished clear.

This is she. This is me.
She reads. I hear.
It digs down deep
a dentist’s slim needle into a root canal.
Novacaine spreads from brain to groin,
feeling but a shadow of the painful procedure.
Novacaine now is wearing thin.
Dull ache reveals the sorrow concealed.
Thank you for this gift, for the simple-tongued sharing.
Tonight I pick up my pen for the
first time in many months.
Bless you, mother.

worship

I worshipped the ground she walked on.
She worshipped life.
Not only mourning for twelve
but dancing for them
and laughing for them
even joking for them.

She lived always times twelve.
There was human greatness,
at times heroic pettiness.
She was our own King Lear
but with glimpses so sweet
delicate and breakable
of porcelain, not steel.

It wasn’t easy to be hers.
To grow up in a house-of-the-murdered.
Mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers
multiplied many times in all their friends and kin.

Glass and iron, glass and iron.
So much glass and iron.
A hard yin-yang
seldom light-hearted
always profound.

In the last decade and more
we found much peace together.
She never ceased to be my hero
and finally got to be my mother.

I am mother now down three generations.
It is for me to pick up her staff, to walk
with her wounded feet and strong legs.
She is a mountain.
I am still climbing her.


Anna Bat-Chai Wrobel is an American historian, poet, Holocaust educator, labor union activist, refugee advocate, and curator of a monthly poetry series in Portland, Maine. Her first poetry collection, Marengo Street, was published in 2012 .

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July 15, 2014 by

The Shabbat Before Her Wedding

She is the braid of the challah
twisted between second grade bible stories
and the breath of modern Israel. She is turning
off the oven, placing trays of sliced meat
and bowls of sectioned fruit onto the lazy Susan.
She is the candle that has not yet been lit,
the matches on the ledge behind the sink
waiting to be taken, to be brushed along
the coarse striking surface, a wavering flame.
She remembers the dozens of times she opened
the front door to the smells of the rabbi’s Shabbat
during college, the homecoming of flavors
that committed her to kosher.
Her fiancé in the bedroom now
tries to memorize the blessings, the transliteration,
figuring out how the mixing of their blood
will work for the unborn children.
She is the heat of the kitchen after the steam
of her food has slowed, the shadow of her grandmother
setting silverware on linen napkins, her hand
miming the pride of Jewish women. 

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July 15, 2014 by

A Woman’s Tashlich

thedaysbetweenIt’s been 18 years since Marcia Falk, renowned Jewish feminist scholar and poet, brought us her groundbreaking The Book of Blessings: New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, the Sabbath, and the New Moon Festival, a prayer book that not only uncoupled liturgy from patriarchal themes and imagery, but that gave women —and continues to give women —contemplative, gender-corrective ways to connect to the sacred.

In Falk’s new book, The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season (Brandeis University Press), she takes us further down the same spiritual path, reminding us that it is good to experience “the turning of the Jewish year” in nature, and that it is holy to immerse ourselves mindfully in endings and beginnings, in solitude and in relationships. “What kind of life will we live in the time we have?,” Falk asks. “Where in our life will we find purpose and meaning?” 

Falk underscores that the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (Aseret Y’mey T’shuvah) is intended to be a continuous devotional span; “ten days of meeting oneself face-to-face, opening the heart to change.” The word “between” in the book’s title palpates one of women’s special strengths: connection. Alas, we humans cannot stop time —we can’t make our six-year-old stay six forever, or bring a beloved deceased person back to life —but we can strive to be “fully aware of our connectedness to everything in our world,” and in that way live ourselves into “wholeness, serenity, and fulfillment.” 

I asked Marcia if she would take a walk with me, for tashlich, along a river’s edge, using five poems from The Days Between as guideposts. (Tashlich is the ceremony in which Jews throw crumbs into the water to symbolize casting away our sins. In The Days Between Falk calls her new ritual Nashlich, which is gender-inclusive, “we will cast,” rather than Tashlich, “You [God, masculine] will cast.”) In the pages that follow here, she does this, helping me journey spiritually through her translations of poems by the well-known Hebrew poets Zelda and Leah Goldberg, and by the less well-known Yiddish poet Malka Heifetz Tussman. We begin our walk with Falk’s own poem, which revisions Micah 7:19, the biblical verse that opens the traditional tashlich. As we recite and then discuss the poems, they become cast as a prayer cycle. (I have distilled our conversation.)

Each of the poems, says Falk, “uses the archetypal sym- bol of water as revelatory, transformative, and redemptive.” Each “explores time, change, and mortality in the context of intimate relationships; and in each, water is given a voice. Zelda’s sea sings, Goldberg’s river hums, Tussman’s creek babbles.”

Reader: Take a walk with us. Put some crumbs in your pocket for tashlich, and find a serene place alongside water…water that eddies or babbles, water that cascades or crashes, water that hardly ripples. Enter “the between,” give voice to a conversation with your life, move forward along the meridian of deepening t’shuvah.

Hey, you! Come along, too. 

CASTING AWAY

We cast into the depths of the sea our sins, and failures, and regrets.

Reflections of our imperfect selves flow away.

What can we bear,
with what can we bear to part?

We upturn the darkness, bring what is buried to light.

What hurts still lodge,
what wounds have yet to heal?

We empty our hands,
release the remnants of shame,

let go fear and despair
that have dug their home in us.

Open hands, opening heart —

The year flows out, the year flows in.

—Marcia Falk 

MARCIA FALK: The High Holiday language is full of power and terror, and the verse from Micah that we recite for the traditional tashlich ritual is vivid, almost violent, asking God to hurl all our sins into the depths of the sea. I have a different image of the new year, of life and change. A wave comes to shore and then pulls back, there’s ebb and flow. Is it only our “sins” that we need to let go into the sea?

SUSAN SCHNUR: In the third stanza of Casting Away, you ask, “What can we bear?” Help me understand this.

FALK: For example, can I bear to live with the knowledge that I was mean to my child? Can I accept the “mean” parts of myself? Can I forgive myself?

SCHNUR: And then the poem asks, “With what can we bear to part?”

FALK: Yes. What can we let go of? I’m in the process of clearing out 20 years of clutter from my house, and I’m overwhelmed. I have to look at each thing: Can I part with this? Can I part with that? It can be hard to let go, to stop looking backwards. This is the time of year when we want to be able to walk into the new, but the old holds us hostage. Can we “release the remnants of shame,” let go the despair that has “dug [its] home in us”? The holiday is about perfecting ourselves —but not everything can be changed. Can we accept ourselves?

SCHNUR: Okay, here’s what I want to personally ponder in the palimpsest of this poem: This year, can I live less reactively in life’s ebb and flow? 

FACING THE SEA

When I set free
the golden fish,

the sea laughed
and held me close

to his open heart,
to his streaming heart.

Then we sang together,
he and I:

My soul will not die.
Can decay rule a living stream?

So he sang
of his clamoring soul

and I sang
of my soul in pain.

—Zelda 

FALK: Now we come to “Facing the Sea,” in which the speaker finds this Other —the sea —that is so unlike her. The speaker is quietly suffering, but the sea is noisy, laughing, bubbling over. Nature is completely alive, always alive —this noisy sea, embrac- ing us, holding us close.

SCHNUR: “My soul will not die”—they sing together about their shared immortality, that dying never conquers life. But the speaker remains so alone. The “Other” can only comfort us up to a point. Is that right?

FALK: The speaker lets something go —“the golden fish,” what- ever that is —and she is embraced. Then the speaker and the sea sing together, but their voices are very different. This poem, for me, is about being in pain and trying to find comfort.

SCHNUR: Here’s what I think I need to think about here: Can I learn to accept someone else’s imperfect love? Can I sing with the universe? 

THE BLADE OF GRASS SINGS TO THE RIVER

Even for the little ones like me,
one among the throng,
for the children of poverty
on disappointment’s shore,
the river hums its song,
lovingly hums its song.

The sun’s soft caress
touches it now and then.
My image, too, is reflected
in waters that flow green,
and in the river’s depths
each one of us is deep.

My ever-deepening image
streaming away to the sea
is swallowed up, erased
on the edge of vanishing.
And with the river’s voice,
with the river’s psalm,
the speechless soul

will sing praises of the world.

—Leah Goldberg 

 

FALK: This poem and the next are from a sequence by Leah Goldberg called “Poems of the River.” In the first poem here, a tiny blade of grass sings to the river. We all feel, at some time in our lives, that we’re “on disappointment’s shore,” that we are insig- nificant, “children of poverty”—a very touching phrase for me. But nature can comfort us —“the sun’s soft caress.” The river, in fact, takes our “images” —our faces, our selves —and deepens them.

When our mind quiets down, we get to sing “with the river’s voice, with the river’s psalm,” and we finally feel ourselves part of everything. Water here is wholeness, vitality, moving, streaming away to the sea.

So many of us experience ourselves as small—“even for the little ones like me” is such a poignant image. Why does the little blade of grass want to assure us that the river hums for us, too, lovingly? The blade of grass itself becomes our comforter.

SCHNUR: I love the rushing compassion of this poem. I want to say, “Yes, yes. Don’t leave without me!” This poem makes me want to think about the spiritual challenge of trust. Can I trust that everything will be okay? 

THE TREE SINGS TO THE RIVER

He who carried off my golden autumn,
who with the leaf-fall swept my blood away,
he who will see my spring return

to him, at the turning of the year —

my brother the river, forever lost,
new each day, and changed, and the same,
my brother the stream, between his two banks
streaming like me, between autumn and spring.

For I am the bud and I am the fruit,
I am my future and I am my past,

I am the solitary tree trunk,
and you—my time and my song.

—Leah Goldberg 

FALK: Ah! Here we find a less quiet voice, the self-possessed voice of the tree describing its relationship to the river. We don’t normally think of “blood” [in the second line] when we think of trees; we associate that with animal life, and when the animal is drained of blood it dies. The image is shocking, even suggestive of domination and submission: the river carries away the tree’s life-blood, yet the tree returns to the river again and again. Or, another way to look at it: perhaps the voice is defiant; it will not die, it will return, year after year.

There’s movement, a shifting of perspective. In the second stanza, the tree and the river are kin: the river streams, like the tree, between seasons. But in the last stanza the tree lets the river know that he, the tree, is solitary, whole in himself: “I am the bud and I am the fruit, I am my future and I am my past.”

Then, at the end, there’s a powerful reversal. The tree no longer addresses the river in the third person—as “he,” as “my brother”—but says, “you—my time and my song.” We aren’t solitary after all. There’s always “the other,” we exist in time, vis-à-vis the other. What is my voice if I’m just talking into the emptiness? I don’t have a voice unless I’m speaking to you. 

SCHNUR: This poem breaks my heart. The tree is learning how to move from Martin Buber’s “I-It” relationship —separate, detached, full of defensive bravado—into an “I-Thou” relationship—of mutuality, of reciprocity, of touching interdependence. This challenge hits home for me: Can I learn to be more empathic and more yielding in my relationships? 

from TODAY IS FOREVER 

I stroll often in a nearby park —
old trees wildly overgrown,
bushes and flowers blooming all four seasons,
a creek babbling childishly over pebbles,
a small bridge with rough-hewn railings–
this is my little park.

It’s mild and gentle
in the breath-song of the park
and good to catch some gossip

from the flutterers and fliers.

Leaning on the railing of the bridge,
seeing myself in clear water,

I ask, Little stream,
will you tumble and flow here forever?

The creek babbles back, laughing,
Today is forever:
Forever is right now.

I smile, a sparkful of believing, a sighful of not-believing:
Today is forever.
Forever is right now…

—Malka Heifetz Tussman 

 

FALK: This last poem is a little touch of mameloshn [Yiddish] in the middle of my book. Once again, water gives us its wisdom. The speaker talks to a stream, sweetly, as though to a child: “Little stream, tell me. Will you be here forever?” Human beings want to know! Are we going to live or die? What’s coming next?

And the creek laughs: Why are you asking such a question? This is what there is! “Today is forever.” The poor creek to have such a foolish disciple!

SCHNUR: Yes, how can we humans think about ourselves with- out thinking about the fact that we will die?

FALK: In every nature poem, there’s a dark thread. I like this poignancy; so much of Jewish liturgy doesn’t acknowledge it. I’m talking about sadness. There’s awe, fear, trembling, God is big, we’re small, all of that. The Kaddish: we exalt You, we enlarge Your name. How does that help one feel better? You’re sorrow- ing, you’re grieving, and what does the liturgy give you back? A big silence. Not much comfort. These poems by Jewish women offer us more.

SCHNUR: This poem asks the biggest question perhaps. Here go my last breadcrumbs into the water. How can we acknowledge life’s sadness? Can we do so and smile? 


Sections in blue are excerpted from “The Days Between: Blessing, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season,” © 2014 by Marcia Lee Falk.

 

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