On Engaging with Judaism Through Poetry: A Roundtable
Rachel Mennies with Rosebud Ben-Oni, sam sax, Chase Berggrun, Erika Meitner, and Aaron Samuels
What makes a poem Jewish? For years I’ve been asking myself this question, and to answer, I would often first consider my preoccupation with my family’s history—with our survival. My poems are Jewish, I would tentatively propose to myself, because they’re about Jewish things or Jewish people, which for me inevitably means they’re about my Jewish things, my Jewish people. In my poems, candlesticks sit on the tables. Grandmothers get on boats as children, Reichmarks in their pockets, heading from one dangerous home to another. As the poet Aaron Samuels, who joined us for this interview via email, wrote to me: “As a Jew, I learned first that the world was not a safe place”; a Jewish poem—mine or otherwise—perhaps understands this realization innately, settling its world-making on the unstable bedrock of cultural trauma.
But to seek to delimit a Jewish poem by its subject matter, its images, its invocations or determinations, fails both poetics and Jewishness, as both are spaces where inquiry and expansion serve our understanding better than building a boundary. To further explore what makes a Jewish poem, I reached out to other Jewish poets whose work I admire, wanting to understand in what ways their Jewishness and their poetry touch. The five poets I spoke with on a July afternoon over Zoom, or connected with over email—Samuels, Rosebud Ben-Oni, Chase Berggrun, Erika Meitner, and sam sax—took me, and each other, to their own Jewish tables; they showed me how poetry provides an anchor for their Jewishness, a way into understanding and cultivating their faiths. As I expected, our discussion generated more questions than answers. And a Jewish poem, as examined in our conversation, lives full of contradiction. It petitions. It both can and cannot heal the world.
I’m grateful to turn your attention to their voices in the service of further expansive midrash-making: to honor the work, undertaken by these poets, of the creation, interpretation, and ongoing interrogation of our alive Jewish-poetic canons.
Rachel Mennies: Is there something particularly Jewish about remembering and retelling our histories and stories, especially traumatic ones? Do you see that as part of your Jewishness, or as a particularly Jewish act, in the making of your art?
Rosebud Ben-Oni: My father came from an observant Jewish community, and he told me that, around when he was 16, he wanted to see the world. When you come from an Orthodox community, you don’t have a lot of options. So he joined the Army, and he ended up meeting my mother, who is Mexican and Catholic, and they fell in love. When they decided to get married, he was not completely disowned by his family, but they weren’t very happy about it, even after she converted. When I was born, I heard many different versions of this story. I heard one version from my mother’s family. I heard another version from my father—who would answer my questions with more questions, which I think is very Jewish. And I heard another version from my Hebrew School teachers, who were very always “concerned” about me, because my mother is a convert. As a poet, I had to learn how to tell these conflicting stories, which itself feels very Jewish.
There’s also always this question of authenticity in Judaism: what is the authentically Jewish story? For a long time, at least in this country, Ashkenazi Jews have been at the forefront of telling the story. And if you had different experiences—heaven forbid your mother is Mexican, formerly Catholic [laughing]—your story seems invalid, or at most it seems like a supplemental story. A lot of Jews in the 21st century are writing now because they’re dealing with this question: what is the Jewish voice at all? Why should it have to be a singular guiding star?
sam sax: I don’t know if there’s anything uniquely Jewish about remembering. I think most historically displaced or diasporic peoples are drawn to literature and the narratives that construct their people and story through time, and across landscape and location. The question of what makes Jews unique scares me. [laughing] Because we’re so multivariate, with so many different histories.“In recent years, one of my greatest shames as a Jew has been witnessing the widespread whitewashing and Ashkenormativity within modern Jewish education.”
Erika Meitner: There have been so many historical points of expulsion and trauma for Jews, but the most recent one that ate a lot of the community’s historical memory is the Shoah. One of the interesting things to me, as someone who’s “3G,” is how much my relatives didn’t talk about it until people started coming around to hear their testimony. That, to me, is a compelling piece of memory—when memory actually becomes testimony, a problematized form of memory. My grandmother never talked about the war before the 1980s, when the Fortunoff Archive at Yale began sending interviewers out. And then the Shoah Foundation sent out Yiddish-speaking interviewers. The questions they asked . . . it’s so clear, if you watch my grandmother’s interviews, that the interviewers have an agenda. Part of what they’re trying to hear is what life was like before the war in these communities, to try to preserve it. But what my grandmother wanted to tell them was what happened to her during the war—which she didn’t tell us for many years and didn’t tell us in its entirety really at all. But she told strangers.
Memory can be fraught for any kind of trauma survivors, cross-culturally. How those stories get told is really interesting, and particularly how they get told in different segments of the Jewish community, what their experiences were in terms of post-war life—or even, in Rosebud’s case, in terms of community displacement.
Chase Berggrun: I represent a Jewish narrative of lack. My father was Jewish, and my mother is Episcopalian. My father passed away when I was five, and I don’t have contact with his side of the family—I know only bits and pieces of his family story. I grew up yearning for a connection that I had no practical way of making. And, in my life and in my work, that sort of atmosphere of absence, that reaching towards something that was disallowed me, colors my whole relationship to Judaism, and I think, especially as Jews become more and more secular, I think that experience is becoming more and more common too.
RM: I’ll offer something now that Aaron said, that connects particularly to the point you’ve raised, Rosebud:
Aaron Samuels: In recent years, one of my greatest shames as a Jew has been witnessing the widespread whitewashing and Ashkenormativity within modern Jewish education. Despite the fact that over 1,000,000 American Jews are people of color, representing at least 12-15 percent of the American Jewish population, we still rarely discuss the existence of Jews of color in our schools, synagogues, or homes. We as a people are failing, and this responsibility falls on all of us.
RM: In thinking about what Aaron says, it strikes me that when we talk about remembering and testimony, we’re perhaps most often thinking of certain narratives or certain testimonies as being Jewish over others that are just as Jewish.
I’m curious to hear from you next what the relationship is, for you, between your poetry and your Judaism.“Whether we’ve felt exiled from Jewish institutions, or were never even a part of them … the poetry community then becomes, in some ways, a surrogate religious community.”
CB: My relationship to Judaism and my relationship to my poems and my relationship to God are all interconnected. I think that my connection to my Judaism bleeds through the language that I make. I’m constantly wanting to re-interrogate, and revise, and make new that connection. How I feel about it today is more than likely different than what I feel about it even tomorrow.
RB: Poetry is my only connection to Judaism. When I was very young, we were poor, and we didn’t live in a community of Jewish people. We lived in a Mexican-American neighborhood. One year, my father couldn’t pay the membership dues at our temple, and they turned us away on the High Holidays in front of everyone at the door. The woman said, for everyone to hear, that my father hadn’t paid the dues, and they couldn’t let us in to pray. Ever since that has happened to me, I’ll go to a synagogue, you know, I’ll try it out, and then I’m like, “No, I can’t do this.” It slowly destroyed my father’s Judaism, which I feel like is my last true link to Judaism that is not related to poetry. It’s really painful for him at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, because those were the happiest holidays for us, when we were together as a family.
Jewish poets saved my life, because otherwise, I wouldn’t have a way in. With poetry, I feel that I can have a dialogue with Jewish people that’s not exclusive.
CB: I also don’t go to a synagogue—it’s not part of my spiritual practice—and find my primary connection with Judaism in poetry. It was a poet who didn’t believe in God, Edmond Jabès, who helped me believe in God. His work in particular has made me feel closer to a kind of Judaism that wasn’t strictly delineated within the walls of a synagogue.
EM: In poetry, there’s tension between writing and reading, which are solitary acts, and then being in a community, a part of a poetry community—in some ways that’s like being a part of a congregation. Whether we’ve felt exiled from Jewish institutions, or were never even a part of them, for various reasons having to do with class, identity, geography, ideology—the poetry community then becomes, in some ways, a surrogate religious community.
I grew up using the Reform Movement’s prayer book, Gates of Prayer, and it has the English translations of certain prayers. And if you look in the back, a ton of those are contemporary poems, by Louis Simpson, Adrienne Rich, others, that are jammed into the prayer book, and there’s no specific attribution unless you look in the way back. I realized early on, when I was super bored in services, that I was essentially reading a non-attributed poetry anthology. As I got older, I would stick poetry books into the prayer books, so that I would have something to read when like, you’re on page 17 of the Amidah and you’re losing your mind. [laughter]
ss: For me, the relationship between poetry and Judaism is two-fold. There’s the ulterior canon-making of childhood—going to synagogue and hating it, and hating being a child, and hating being queer—and then finding my Jewish tradition in Allen Ginsberg, particularly, reading this queer poet in like my high school AP English class, and seeing what other possibilities exist for spiritual discourse and conversation. Like what y’all were talking about, perhaps it doesn’t happen in the synagogue. And they were trying to make it happen, too, in those confirmation classes. [laughter] But Judaism became a thing I chose, similar to poetry.
I didn’t love school until I dedicated my life to poems, and then I chose to go to graduate school, and to have this relationship with Judaism in a different way, when it wasn’t forced onto me, or an obligation. There’s what’s possible with queer and Jewish canon-making, building your own family of poets, and then there’s also this anti-imperialist impulse of a diasporic people, and an obligation in my work that I feel to be anti-colonial, and anti-Zionist, to make space in the writing for that conversation. The Jewish community that I chose later on were other folks who had those values, and who make a space in poetry for that conversation.
RM: I have been watching, in awe, the Jews and allies that shut down ICE headquarters [in mid-July]. I think we may have a clear sense of our duties as people, or even as Jews, in this moment, but I’m curious—and this connects to what everyone has said about poetry becoming a home for your Jewishness, a way to practice your Jewishness—what we can do as Jewish poets, specifically, not just for ourselves, but for our neighbors, in times of trauma.“Since so much of the discourse around contemporary Jewry is controlled by people with right-wing politics, it feels like an obligation that whoever has a platform is articulating an alternative or an aspiration.”
CB: I don’t know what a poem about me being Jewish does to liberate someone from a concentration camp, or support people who are being traumatized and rounded up. A poem can be a powerful thing for sure, but I think that’s a context that requires physical action.
EM: One of the poets I think about a lot is Grace Paley, who is someone who always did both: she showed up with placards, but also was writing work that demystified immigrant communities, and brought the world in. I met her in college in 1992 at a women writers and social change conference. Dorothy Allison came to speak at the same conference and talked about this idea that the way to get people to change is to write something so powerful that you break their hearts.
ss: Since so much of the discourse around contemporary Jewry is controlled by people with right-wing politics, it feels like an obligation that whoever has a platform is articulating an alternative or an aspiration. There’s an exciting moment where that can happen in our poems. Poetry also offers a glimpse into another person’s interiority, and it gives you a chance to breathe with them when you read their work. Which is why something like June Jordan’s Poetry for the People program is so essential—there are ways that our work as poets can link up to community education and bring work into the schools. And writing a poem helps a writer articulate themselves in relationship to their place in history, their relationship to their surroundings, their community. I think poetry as an educational tool is a politicized and potentially liberatory art form.
CB: Just because I’m related to a group of people who experienced something in the past that could be compared to the present, I don’t want to use that as an opportunity to lift myself up or put myself back at the center. I think, personally, my obligation as a Jewish poet right now is to make space and to lift up and support the writing of people who are intimately impacted by what’s happening at the border, for example.
RB: As someone who is Latina and Chicana and Mexican, I have a hard time with my career choice, and I’ve talked about this with my family. I feel really guilty sometimes, because I probably should have become an attorney. I was pre-med, I could have become a doctor. I thought it was very selfish of me to become a poet, because it really is about the individual pursuit of happiness and not what’s best for the collective. And Chase mentions, you know, you raise people up—I felt an immense guilt, talking with my family, that there’s so much more I could be doing. It is very weird to be sitting here in Queens, you know, talking about poetry, when I know these things are happening. And I don’t think the guilt will ever go away. Poetry does save lives, but it definitely doesn’t break you out of camps.
ss: I’m really excited about the #NeverAgainIsNow folks, and I’m doing some organizing with them here in the Bay Area. I think wherever there’s a chance to shift the narrative or put your body in a place where you can, if you can—I think it’s so important to have a multiplicity and diversity of tactics. Our writing is so important, and so is showing up how you can, when you can.