Professor Yehoshua November’s debut poetry collection God’s Optimism won the 2010 Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award, was nominated for an LA Times Book Prize and was a finalist for the Tampa Review Prize for Poetry and Autumn House Poetry Prize. November, who holds a master’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh, was the recipient of the Prairie Schooner Bernice Slote Award, and had his poem “After Our Wedding” read on NPR. November’s poems have appeared in some of the most prestigious literary magazines including Prairie Schooner, the Sun, Margie, Provincetown Arts and in numerous Jewish publications. November, who was raised in a traditional Jewish home, became Chassidic in college and spent two years studying at the Lubavitch Rabbinical College of America in Morristown, New Jersey. Twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize, November teaches writing at Rutgers University and Touro College.
SH: How did you come to be interested in poetry?
YN: I was raised in a traditional Jewish home by parents who had an appreciation for the arts. My mother studied art history and my father, an obstetrician, had many secular books in the house. He memorized lines from his favorite Shakespeare plays and recited them when he was in an especially good mood. My introduction to poetry, though, came via music. My father had all the Bob Dylan records and was a big fan of Leonard Cohen and Paul Simon. Some of their lyrics are superior to a lot of poetry.
My older brother Baruch is also a poet, and I suppose I followed his lead. Like most teenagers, I was lonely and wanted to be understood. Poetry seemed to be the answer.
SH: Why did you leave poetry for two years?
YN: Aside from feeling I lacked the wisdom to be writing poetry, I became disillusioned with the culture of poetry. In graduate school, I often felt that some of my classmates were more interested in the writing culture than writing itself. It seemed like there was this assumption that a poet had to live a certain lifestyle; one, for example, where family life is not highly valued. The Chassidic world and the poetry world I was simultaneously inhabiting could not have been more different from each other. At the time, I didn’t think it was possible to bridge this gap. Also, I reached a point where I wanted to fully immerse myself in the study of Chassidus.
SH: It would seem that writing poetry would not be at odds with the contemplative and spiritual life in Judaism, yet there is a dearth of Orthodox Jewish poets in the literary world. To what do you attribute the lack of poetry in the Orthodox community today?
YN: Although poetry may have started out as a vehicle for the expression of spirituality, and it can still serve that function, contemporary poetry is generally rooted in the secular experience. A person of faith will probably feel like an outsider in an advanced liberal arts program where few share his beliefs. And it’s in the university where much of poetry’s direction is determined today. Additionally, if there are Orthodox Jews seeking publication and their poetry deals with their Judaism, they will have a harder time getting their work to appeal to the largely secular publishing houses.
Sometimes you see them
in the dressing area
of the ritual bath,
young bearded men unbuttoning
their white shirts,
slipping out of their black trousers,
until, standing entirely naked,
they are betrayed by the tattoos
of their past life:
a ring of fire climbing up a leg,
an eagle whose feathery wing span
spreads the width of the chest,
or worse, the scripted name of a woman
other than one’s wife.
Then, holding only a towel,
they begin, once more, the walk
past the others in the dressing room:
the rabbi they will soon sit before
in Talmud class,
men with the last names
of the first Chasidic families
devout since birth.
And with each step,
they curse the poverty
that keeps the dark ink
etched in their skin,
until, finally, they descend the stairs
of the purifying water,
and, beneath the translucent liquid,
appear, once again,
like the next man,
who, in all this days,
has probably never made a sacrifice
as endearing to God.
From God’s Optimism
Though great Jewish leaders—Moses, King David, King Solomon—were remarkable poets, many roshei yeshivah and rebbeim do not encourage creative expression, even though they may not blatantly oppose it. Perhaps, they might say, King David’s poetry is quite different in that it was Divinely inspired. However, we know that later Jewish sages also wrote poetry. And not all of their poetry is overtly religious.
Orthodox Judaism today is a culture predicated largely on Torah study, which is the way it should be. Jewish education is the key to Jewish continuity. On the other hand, the Torah begins with the second letter in the Hebrew alphabet, Beis, and not with Aleph, the first letter, to remind us that there is something behind the intellectual dimension of the Torah. There’s the One, there’s Aleph. If more Jews were connected to the Aleph, they would be writing more poetry, or doing something similar to writing poetry. They would be touched as human beings, which might lead to more creativity. They would feel more alive and energized and be closer to their emotional core.
When I was studying under the poet Tony Hoagland, he asked me to take him to the Chassidic synagogue I attended at the time. On our walk back from the synagogue, I asked him if he could imagine not writing poetry. He said it wouldn’t be impossible as long as he had other outlets for the creativity and inspiration in his life, like the Chassidic men he had seen in the synagogue. The lack of poetry in the Orthodox community is not necessarily a poetry issue per se, but an issue of creativity or inspiration. The true Jewish way is to be in full command of the mind and the heart and to use both in the service of God. Overall, Orthodox Jews could improve in the area of the heart, which may be connected to the dearth of poetry. And if there is sometimes a disconnect between what we read in the texts and our real lives, poetry is a good place to explore that, a place to bridge the gap and figure things out.
SH: Which Jewish areas of study influence your work?
YN: Chassidic philosophy has had a profound influence on my work. When I first started learning Chassidus with its mystical foundations, I didn’t think I could write poetry anymore. I had previously thought of poetry as the profound center of truth. But when I began to learn discourses claiming that the physical world I was observing is only an extension of a deeper spiritual reality, I concluded that I didn’t have the right to speak. I was only seeing a glimmer of the truth. I thought, what could I really impart if the mystical teachings hold such deep secrets? I suppose this all-or-nothing stance had something to do with me being only twenty-three at the time, but it also speaks to what I saw as poetry’s function.
Ultimately, I got over this humbling stage. In certain instances, it’s clear that poems in God’s Optimism borrow directly from Chassidic philosophy.
SH: Can you tell us a bit about your writing process? Do you have to go through many drafts to get to the finished product, or do the poems come to you easily, with only minor revisions?
YN: Finding time to write is a greater challenge than overcoming dry spells. Usually, reading work that moves me, learning something inspiring or thinking about something that has touched me will give way to new poetry. The poems I’m most satisfied with are written fairly quickly. However, their seeds were usually planted much earlier. For example, I was very moved when I would see young men with tattoos at the mikvah. I didn’t write about this for a long time, but I knew that I would. Then, one day, I felt I had to write about it. When a poem simmers inside for a long time like that, it’s usually written pretty quickly and doesn’t require that much revision. Other poems, those not inspired by a specific event or teaching, often require a lot more revision.
SH: There are many halachot that govern a man’s heart and mind. Indeed you say it so well: “The true Jewish way is to be in full command of the mind and the heart.” Could you give an example of a poem that you think depicts this idea well?
YN: This is an ideal. I don’t think I’ve ever been in full command of the mind or heart, and certainly not both at once. When I said this, I meant that there are healthy emotions that shouldn’t be suppressed. One should be in command in the sense that it’s okay to feel and be moved. The “Baal Teshuvas at the Mikvah” poem relates to this. The self-consciousness and shame of the men with tattoos is very sad and very human. It may be easy to want to suppress or stigmatize the whole scene because tattoos are forbidden according to Jewish law, but in the poem I try to take the opposite angle and shine a light on this particular moment as one of great sacrifice and courage. It’s the human embarrassment that makes their sacrifice so meaningful. And thinking about how God must appreciate their efforts makes Judaism, as a whole, more real and touching for me.
Growing up, I often felt that many of my rabbis were not really emotional. It seemed to me that their deep commitment to learning and halachah put them out of touch with regular people. And since they represented what I understood to be the ideal Jew, I felt that Judaism, too, would always be something that didn’t have real, personal meaning. After a Conservative rabbi read “Baal Teshuvas at the Mikvah,” he told me he was shocked that the men with tattoos who had become Orthodox were still struggling with their pasts. He was also surprised that someone who looks like me had these kinds of feelings about the whole scenario.
It’s hard to say which is true: if outsiders unfairly superimpose the image of being aloof and insensitive on many “ultra-Orthodox” Jews, or if many Jews within our group really are out of touch with their emotions. In any case, commitment to learning and halachah does not necessitate the suppression of one’s emotions; rather, it should enhance their expression. Maybe poetry and other forms of healthy creative expression can help in this area.
The Purpose of this World
When some Jews cannot explain the sorrow of their lives
they take a vow of atheism.
Then everywhere they go,
they curse the God they don’t believe exists.
But why, why don’t they grab Him by the lapels,
pull His formless body down into this lowly world,
and make Him explain.
After all, this is the purpose of creation–
to make this coarse realm a dwelling place
for His presence.
From God’s Optimism
SH: Is there a point at which poetry of the Orthodox Jewish mind collides with contemporary secular poetry?
YN: When writing poetry for a broad audience, I am conscious of the fact that unchecked celebration of God or abounding positivity in general would never go over well. This pushes me to explore questions in my poetry, which is what makes for good poetry anyway. Any kind of resolution has to emerge out of some challenge or doubt; otherwise, the resolution can’t be fulfilling. In creative writing workshops, participants often ask if an uplifting or laudatory conclusion to a poem has been “earned.” In other words, does the light emerge out of a significant enough darkness? For art to be moving, it has to be close to life, and life is full of doubts and challenges. A Jew is supposed to trust in God, but this too comes against the backdrop, against the possibility, of doing otherwise. This is what makes faith meaningful. Secular audiences are skeptical about religious poetry because they are skeptical about religious life in general, believing it’s less thoughtful or too simplistic, a kind of mindless surrender that wipes away life’s problems, at least on an intellectual level. If a religious poet is honest, however, if he or she can represent the challenges and humanity of religious life, a secular audience should be able to relate, as long as that audience is open to reading it in the first place.
SH: Maria Gillan, a professor of poetry at Binghamton University, teaches her students that to write well they have to descend “to the deepest places inside of themselves, the place I call the cave, where all their memories and experiences, good and bad, reside.”
Many poets would say that writing well requires one to be unflinchingly honest. But is there a danger of giving “the inner voice” too much liberty as far as Jewish law is concerned?
YN: I don’t see intellect as the highest form of the self and emotions as the lowest. The deeper levels of the soul transcend intellect. If a Jew could access that level in himself, he would write some great poetry.
When Sandy Koufax didn’t pitch on Yom Kippur, it wasn’t because he had a profound intellectual understanding of Yom Kippur; it was because to pitch on that day would be to deny his essence, to deny himself. He got in touch with and expressed something very deep—“der pintele Yid”—and that’s not intellectual.
If one is learning a lot of Torah and living a moral life, the poetry he creates will be consistent with that lifestyle.
The cave Gillan refers to reminds me of all the wonderful things the people in my life have done for me, and it makes me want to thank them in my poetry. My parents and grandparents helped shape my conception of what love means. Thank God, I have a wonderful and loving wife and beautiful children. They occupy a large space in my internal cave, and that’s where my best poetry comes from. I’m sure there’s also a less holy part of the cave, but when I’m writing, I don’t see that emerging. And if it did emerge, I wouldn’t have to publish or share it. It seems to me that a religious Jew might naturally filter out what he deems inappropriate even before it’s written.
There’s a law regarding purity and impurity which states that a food can become impure when it’s wet and no longer connected to the ground—its roots. However, the whole time it’s connected to the ground, its source, it cannot become impure. Similarly, if a Jewish artist is living the right way, if he remains connected to his roots, he won’t become impure. To the contrary, he will be fortified, because he will see that God doesn’t only exist in intrinsically holy things, but outside the synagogue, in daily life, as well as in his art.
Pessie (Sherry) Horowitz received an MFA in poetry from New England College, through which she received the Joel Oppenheim Scholarship Award. You can find her poems and book reviews in magazines such as Jewish Action, Innisfree, Poetry Journal, Poems Niederngasse, Prism: A Holocaust Journal, Midstream, Tygerburning, Poetry International/Web del Sol Review, A Quest for God Anthology (UK) and OVS Magazine. Most recently her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Poetry Prize. She lives in Wesley Hills, New York, with her husband and their five children.
To hear an interview with Pessie (Sherry) Horowitz, please visit http://www.ou.org/life/inspiration/you-be-poet-didnt-know-it-pessie-sherry-horowitz-stephen-savitsky/