Book Reviews, Literature, Poetry

Texts to the Holy – Rachel Barenblat

Texts to the Holy

Rachel Barenblat’s Texts to the Holy approaches some of the most serious topics with the lightest of touches. Barenblat’s linguistic dexterity gently guides her readers through an examination of faith. It is a brilliant example of how words can keep our feet on the ground while our minds and hearts explore more ephemeral ideas.

Barenblat’s poems bridge literature and liturgy, and reading them slowly are a meditative practice. Prayer book editors, clergy, and others who are looking to incorporate contemporary writing into their religious services, may find Barenblat’s work to be exactly what they need.

Barenblat successfully avoids the pitfalls of cliche and over-familiarity, protecting the sophistication of both her subject and writing. The collection will likely resonate more profoundly with a mature reader, acting as an effective foil to one’s personal life and spiritual experience. The close partnership between poetry and reader may mean that this text may be difficult to use in a larger educational setting. However, Barenblat’s work deserves a wide showcase as an example of the power of modern Jewish poetry.

Book Reviews, Literature, Poetry

The Sabbath Bee – Wilhelmina Gottschalk

With heSabbath Beer slim volume of prose poems The Sabbath Bee, Wilhelmina Gottschalk gives readers an incredibly relatable and inspiring work about experiencing the Jewish Sabbath. The poems appear as easily digestible vignettes reflecting both traditional and contemporary ideas of observance. The collection stands as a sturdy yet playful bridge to such philosophical ideas as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “palace in time”, mystical imagery of Sabbath brides, queens, and theological concepts like the neshama yeteira (the additional soul) and hiddur mitzvah (embellishing the commandment).

While individuals will certainly find much to appreciate in reading The Sabbath Bee, it also has tremendous potential value as a pedagogical tool. Gottschalk’s writing reflects an enormous breadth of shabbat observances and is an ideal companion to studying legal, liturgical, and philosophical texts. The book offers opportunities to discuss with students from high school through adulthood about finding meaning in different types of shabbat experiences, the gendered imagery that developed over centuries, the roles of the individual, family, and community in Shabbat (and all Jewish life), and the intersection of the physical and spiritual aspects of the day… just to name a few. With this potential The Sabbath Bee deserves a place on every clergy and educator’s book shelf. For synagogues and others looking for gifts for its youth (bar mitzvah, confirmation, Hebrew High graduation) The Sabbath Bee ought to be considered.

The only inconsistency in the volume comes in its organization. Gottschalk includes a number poems related to special shabbatot (those designated in the calendar as being directly related to holidays, such as Shabbat Shuvah, which occurs between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur). Unfortunately, she doesn’t include all of them, and they seem to appear haphazardly throughout the book. I would have preferred to see them at the intervals and in the order in which they arrive on the calendar.

When Ben Yehuda Press initiated its Kickstarter campaign to fund its poetry series, BooksAndBlintzes.com was proud to be a supporter. The Sabbath Bee perfectly captures why we needed to make this investment. So to Gottschalk and the publisher – we’ll be here anxiously waiting for more!

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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Dreams and Responsibilities – Schwartz

Schwartz Dreams

Remembering Delmore Schwartz, celebrated Jewish American poet, born December 8th 1913.

Do our miracles give us responsibilities like our dreams?

Jewish Text Art Challenge Galleries, Kislev "Nes Gadol Haya Sham", Literature, Poetry, Words of Wisdom

Search for Reality – Paul Celan

11-23 PCelan

Jewish poet Paul Celan was responsible for some of the most striking German-language writing about the Holocaust. His experiences as a survivor led him to compose such heart-wrenching works as “Todesfugue” (“Death Fugue”).

This quote brought to mind the idea that believing in miracles may require a break from “reality”. That we can only find miracles where we search for them, or that miracles can happen for those who can immerse themselves in the unknown, illogical, even chaos.

There is such grief and darkness in Celan’s writing that the journey towards the hope of victory seems infinite. And yet if reality can be won, can it be the reality that we yearn for?

Celan’s poem “Todesfugue” is available on-line in English here: https://www.celan-projekt.de/todesfuge-englisch.html