Two weeks after the dramatic July 4, 1976, rescue of hostages—Israeli as well as non-Israeli Jews—from Entebbe International Airport, I learned my first word of modern Hebrew: savlanut. Along with seventy other volunteers, I was in a chapel across from the JFK terminal where our El Al flight would depart for Israel in a few hours. Savlanut, that’s the most important word, said Nurit, the director of Sherut La’am, told us.
I accompany you as you hold onto your walker, taking one difficult step after another, inching your way, labored breath by breath, toward the dining room, a meal you refuse to eat. My life, as it always has been, is elsewhere. So, every day we FaceTime. We don’t have much to say to each other now. But with many words or few, distant or near, we still, as long as you are in this world, know each other’s presence.
This year, I’ll place my hope in books—history, poetry, Torah, and that most challenging book of all, the book of my life. Everything is in it—good and bad. I’ll try to catch myself when I’m tempted to skim, skip, cut words, sentences, paragraphs, lines, stanzas, pages, entire chapters that challenge and complicate the simple narrative I’d like my days and nights to tell.
By the time I got there, the walls had been down for nearly two millennia. The actual Temple walls. That was the year when, on the Western slopes of Israel’s Hula Valley, in a high school classroom used for Shabbat services, I was first drawn into Jewish prayer. May You rebuild it soon in our days, Jerusalem, the Temple, I prayed.
What do they think of me, the core group of worshippers at Congregation Beth Israel, the independent conservative shul to which I belong, when, once a month, I lead an alternative contemplative Shabbat service in the small chapel while they davven (pray) the traditional service in the main sanctuary? I join them when I finish leading our group in chanting, meditating, and reflection.
I don’t know the desert. I’ve slept in a palm-branch hut, rented for $1 a night from a Bedouin, by the Red Sea in the Sinai Peninsula when it was under Israeli control. I’ve spent hours in a broken down Jeep waiting for help somewhere in the Sinai. I’ve watched the sunrise from atop Masada in the Judean Desert. Just a few weeks ago, I visited Joshua Tree National Park, where two deserts, the Mojave and the Colorado, meet.
As I was reading through Richard Michelson’s new poetry collection, Sleeping as Fast as I Can, recently published by Slant Books, I felt I was reading his memoir. Not in a chronological sense—but because so many of the poems narrate or evoke events in his life. As he says in “Literature of the Body,” “But here I am, quiet / as death, writing my life, and sleeping as fast as I can.”
On Shavuot, a few weeks from now, the holiday that celebrates the giving of the Torah, I want to stand at Sinai. But if I haven’t joined those taken out of Egypt, how can I? And do I really want to be present for the divine revelation? Do I really want to feel commanded not nudged, as I mostly do now, by Jewish law, to, say, keep the Sabbath?
When I am writing about subjects that touch my emotional life—my mother’s decent into dementia, my father’s murder—the forms help me constrain the passion, which heightens the energy. On a more prosaic level, my mother was a lover of crossword puzzles and word games, and there is definitely an element of challenge and fun for me to work in strict forms. Plus, I just like the way sonnets look on the page.
Lo yadanu. “We do not know what has happened to him.” Moses, that is. “When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that fellow Moses—the man who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him’” (Gen 32:1).
In my imagination, a vav lives in me. I visualize it, the sixth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, along the length of my spine. The other letters of the tetragrammaton, too: yud, the 10th letter, rising like the small flame of an eternal light from the crown of my head; hey, the fifth letter, its roof stretching across my shoulders and its walls protecting each side of my torso, and, following vav, the second hey, its upper line resting on my hips, and its two parallel lines running down the sides of my legs.
Preparatory to discussing Cormac McCarthy’s new fiction, a duology comprising The Passenger and Stella Maris, with Greg Wolfe via Zoom on January 25th, I’d like to offer a few ways into the books. The surname of the main characters, siblings Alicia and Bobby, is Western. Novelists do not name characters carelessly. Bobby and Alicia are the children, born in the late 1940s and early 1950s respectively, of a physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project which built the first atomic bombs.
When Carol died, I thought it’s not my time. Carol was my shadchanit, Jewish matchmaker. On a Saturday night in July 1989, I went with Carol and Bob, her husband, along with two other new friends, also a husband and wife, to the Beaucatcher Cinema to see “When Harry Met Sally.” I had just moved to Asheville.
I remember the American Poetry Review, March, 1977, page 26, cows and bald hills of Tennessee and rabbis of Brooklyn, their foreheads “wrinkled” as their “gigantic lips moved / through the five books of ecstasy, grief, and anger.” That’s from “Psalms,” one of twelve poems by Gerald Stern, whose photo on the cover showed his own gigantic, Jewish lips.
Roger Kamenetz has published nine volumes of poetry. Each builds on his prior work, often revisiting, reconsidering, and reimagining previous poems in the Jewish tradition of midrash. As one critic observes, Kamenetz “recovers Jewishness as a field for discourse, not sentimentalized imagery. In direct and imaginative address, he puts the question of Jewishness under discussion with large parts of honesty and humor.”
You slept with my best friend?, I screamed then threw the phone at my bedroom wall. Mother and father were downstairs. A few days later, when she was out, my girlfriend of nearly three years, I entered her house (I had a key), went into her closet, found the expensive dress I had bought for her at a trendy clothing store on South Street in Philly with my tips, and tore it to pieces.
The process of translating from one language to another is often called an art. The late Italian medievalist and novelist Umberto Eco, aware of translation’s inherent difficulties, called it, “the art of failure.” Every attempt is inexact and partial, getting some things spot on, whiffing at others. Translators are continually forced to compromise, choosing the least flawed option while rendering the original in the target language and—devotees of the King James version aside—no one translation proves definitive, once and for all.
Once I lived in Jerusalem. Two years in the late 1970s. I went to the Kotel, the Western Wall, many times to pray. Face of flesh to face of stone, I felt heart. I felt soul. My heart, my soul, my my: too small, too confined to one human body set apart to characterize what I experienced there in prayer.
I look up from Cherry Hill. Between the rhododendrons and camellias on the steep hill that drops from the road down to my yard, I catch a glimpse of a woman walking by my house. A neighbor? I can’t see clearly enough to know. Is she walking with someone else? I can’t see. Is she wearing earbuds, talking on the phone? I want to know: what sparked her emphatic oh my god?
What am I doing in the Blue Ridge Mountains? What am I doing turning to Jerusalem? What am I doing with all this history, this Jewish history? This poetry, this Jewish poetry? Body, heart, mind, soul: each looking in a different direction for home.