Book Reviews, Poetry

Poetry for the Soul

Poetry Fall 5778

Sometimes a book comes along at exactly the time you need to read it.

When Ben Yehudah Press ran a Kickstarter campaign last spring to publish a new collection of Jewish poetry, BooksAndBlintzes.com was excited to back it. After all, highlighting diverse voices in Jewish art and promoting new work is what we live for.

But then the first three volumes arrived in the mail, and it occurred to me that I couldn’t remember the last time I had actually read poetry.  Maybe for a Hebrew literature class in rabbinical school? Something in the margins or an alternative reading in a prayer book? So I don’t claim to be any kind of expert in this particular literary genre, I can only speak to what this collection stirred in me as a reader.

I started with Yaakov Moshe’s “Is – Heretical Jewish Blessings and Poems”. Without really being sure what to expect, by the time I had finished it, I had filled this slim volume with notes and underlined passages. The time I read these poems coincided, unintentionally, with one of my most difficult professional experiences, and Moshe’s balance of spirituality and humor offered all of the sensitivity and wonder that my soul needed. Moshe’s sharp writing and focus, and his ability to frame fundamental questions of individual identity and community with unstinting clarity, makes this book fully engrossing and potentially transformative. This poetry isn’t about being pretty. Moshe speaks his truth. And in presenting the questions and ideas that leads him to the words on the page, readers will find this search for self, for meaning, and the sometimes ridiculous nature of this search, to be honest, thoughtful and nourishing.

Next up was “Words for Blessing the World” by Herbert J. Levine. This volume is a lush explosion of language, the kind that draws you in and begs you to spend time just reveling in the words. Levine’s poems are printed in both Hebrew and English, with the two languages mirroring each other on the page. While each version of the poem easily holds its own as a complete literary entity, readers who can appreciate both can take this collection to a whole other level. That Levine’s work can be so accessible to novice poetry readers and offer such a complex challenge to experienced poetry lovers makes it absolutely extraordinary. Not only do his poems fully engage his readers, the collection brings the best possible attention to what Jewish poetry can be and its relevance in the 21st century.

The 3rd volume was Maxine Silverman’s “Shiva Moon.” Of the three collections, reading this one felt the most intimate. As Silverman relays her deeply personal experience of grief, she challenges readers to push the boundaries of story telling and understanding. As a sensitive and raw description of death and mourning, Silverman’s words provide a powerful alternative frame to the discuss these experiences in a Jewish setting. Because of the subject matter, readers are primed to viscerally respond to Silverman’s work, and some may find it overwhelming. However, readers who are willing and able to fully engage with the poems will find unparalleled depth and feeling here. “Shiva Moon” succeeds in showcasing how poetry can bridge the divide between personal and universal experiences, and how it can give voice to an otherwise silent struggle.

I will be looking forward to the next three volumes in the series. Thank you to Ben Yehudah Press for bringing this collection to life.

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