Author Archives: Jake Marmer

Jake Marmer

About Jake Marmer

Poetry on Demand

Reputedly, Rachmaninoff once said: “There’s no such thing as inspiration. You sit down and do the work.” There’s so much to like about the quote! I think maestro must have seen art – in his case, music – as something of a daily practice; certain anti-climatic quality of his jazz talmudpronouncement is also a promise for consistency. He would probably agree that the intentional seeking or digging isn’t called inspiration – curiosity maybe – so, just start talking. Or humming, whatever.

Working on the last stages of my new book, 
Jazz Talmud
, I was lucky to have the mentorship of Stanley Moss, my editor/publisher, and also a really excellent poet. I’ve never agreed with anyone offering me editorial advice as much as I did with Stanley. Except for this one thing.

As we chatted and told each other stories, he kept prodding me to write down some of the stories I told him as poems. He also pointed out certain significant aspects of my life I’ve never discussed in poetry – and thought it was a mistake to keep avoiding them. He pushed hard for these pieces. In principle, I agreed; for the ten or so pieces he commissioned, I went through numerous drafts, arrived at forms that were new to me, had a lot of fun. Ultimately, it was all garbage, and to the garbage it went.

stanley mossBut, while laboring on the commissioned pieces, between the cracks, I wrote notes – sketches – for other pieces, completely unrelated, more distractions than compositions. Those sketches actually worked and ended up as poems; on-demand stuff probably never will. We all have our little tricks. Mine, turned out, is sitting down to do one thing and getting distracted into something else. There’s more free-associative freedom that way, more potential for play and the unexpected. I don’t know if this congeals with Rachmaninoff’s ethos, but I’d like to think that maybe sitting down to write his orchestra arrangements, he veered into solo piano works. Or vice versa.

Here’s a piece that grew out of a distraction. It’s kind of like having a kid “by mistake”. Kind of… just with a bit less at stake, I guess.

Guided Meditation

All around you
as far as the eye can see
nothing but soup.
Horizon, a dangling zipper
of some deity’s pants.
You’re in a boat on loan
from the demon of Monday mornings.
Questions – birds – it’s the fall
there’re more of them they form v’s
traverse the sky towards a shining yellow bottom
of a pot where much better stuff
is being brewed.

Poem as a Noisy Mediterranean Duplex

About a decade ago I read a Billy Collins poem called “Advice to Writers,” where this former U.S. Poet Laureate suggests:

wash down the walls and scrub the floor
of your study before composing a syllable.
Clean the place as if the Pope were on his way.
Spotlessness is the niece of inspiration.

There’s wisdom there: it feels good to write with an uncluttered mind, unburdened by other concerns.

jazz talmudBut taking Ajax to your literal and metaphorical surroundings could border on sterilizing. And also, silencing. Sure, Collins is at least in part joking – it’s a funny poem – but I’m sure he means it, too. The poetic voice he is suggesting his readers to summon, in a clean-pristine room, is very much a solo. People, things – out of the way! The poet is talking! (to himself, and being funny – don’t miss out!). A room with scrubbed floors, however tempting, is not where a soul lives, at least I don’t think so.

My wife and I spent 2008-2009 in Jerusalem, where I was a Dorot Fellow. It was unforgettable year, the time when, more so than ever before, I had an opportunity to write. Location was an open question. Our apartment was neater beyond anything I’ve ever encountered. We have just gotten married, and my wife Shoshana put up a valiant and edifying effort to keep it sane – despite the combination of me, guests, our belongings, and Jerusalem dust who would gang up and daily raise a mighty paw of offense. However close to Collins-compliance state, our place was too small, too removed from pulsing, yelling life that surrounded us. I had to get out.

And so, most often I’d go to a little cafe, called Nocturno, a few minutes away from the apartment. It was a tiny duplex with a winding metal staircase that at its peak managed to host as many as three dozen people, which was kind of unbelievable. Talmud, describing the miraculous occurrences of the Temple, says: “people stood close together, yet when they worshipped there was enough room for all.” It was that sort of a thing. All the space got used up: tables outside, bar stools, loners were doubled up into joint tables, and even the cement ledge that’s technically outside the perimeter had a few people sitting on it. The menu ranged from soup to cigarettes, but most importantly, they brewed great coffee. And the crowd was very colorful. With Bezalel Art School nearby students came out in droves; but there were also heavy grad school folks buried in their books; a few hip religious Jews; secular population of Jerusalem (a wonderful and underexplored breed of their own!); lots of foreigners. A few times I spotted Israeli Arabs – a fact that, in the city where divide lines run at their deepest, says a lot about the cafe and its vibe.

Herring in an Overcoat (Herring Pie)

This is another moment of shtetl brilliance. Amidst severe poverty, this festive-looking dish was concocted from the humblest ingredients.

For other herring variations, try these recipes for the classic herring and onions and forshmak.

Forshmak: Jewish Herring

Forshmak is probably the most authentically Jewish herring recipe. The word itself is Yiddish for “pre-taste”–that is, an appetizer, meant to set your taste buds going. There are many varieties of forshmak–probably as many as there were shtetls in Eastern Europe. This one originates in Haschevato, Ukraine, the small village where my father’s side of the family comes from.

For other herring variations, try these recipes for the classic herring and onions and herring in an overcoat (herring pie).

Herring and Onions

Written with Efim and Irina Marmer.

Among the classic Ashkenazic foods, none evokes as much love and repulsion, none is as intensely linked to the Old World, as herring–a salty fish with a distinct smell. This aroma is only exacerbated by the typical method of serving herring: pickled, with marinated onions. Yet, if you have ever seen the old men in shul, with a shot of whiskey in one hand, and a piece of herring in the other, if you have ever seen the pure bliss on their faces, you may have been tempted to sample and explore the object of their admiration.As Rabbi Noah Bickhart noted to me, of course there's nothing intrinsically Jewish about eating herring–the fish is as popular in Scandinavia as it is throughout Eastern Europe. For that matter, noted the rabbi, there's nothing particular Jewish about whiskey either–but the combination, in shul–that's very Jewish.

Most likely, the fish became popular among Eastern European Jews for practical reasons: it was cheap. Rather than calling herring by its Russian moniker, seledka, my great-grandmother Riva called it oseledka, adding a slight “oh” in the beginning of the word as a breathy sigh of pure adoration. Indeed, she, like many other shtetl balabustes knew how to make a whole feast out of a single herring.

Today, on this side of the ocean, not a whole lot of people know (or want to know) that herring can actually be bought whole, and prepared in a number of ways. Be a mentch, try the recipe you find below. You might even like it.

Before the recipe though, a quick word on the variety of cured, store-bought herring, by means of a Woody Allen quip:

A man who could not marry off his ugly daughter visited Rabbi Shimmel of Cracow. “My heart is heavy,” he told the Rev, “because God has given me an ugly daughter.”
“How ugly?” the Seer asked.
“If she were lying on a plate with a herring, you wouldn't be able to tell the difference.”
The Seer of Cracow thought for a long time and finally asked, “What kind of herring?”

Chrein (Horseradish)

Written with Efim and Irina Marmer.

As Sancho Panza to Don Quixote, faithful R2-D2 to C-3PO, so is chrein (sometimes spelled hrein or chrain) to its gefilte fish. This spicy relish, traditionally made out of beets and horseradish, can be found in any kosher deli, and in the kosher section of many grocery stores. Balancing the relatively bland and somewhat sweet fish cutlet with a much-needed flavorful kick, gefilte fish and chrein are a perfect combination. Yet there’s more to chrein than this.Chrein means “horseradish” in Russian. In the Old Country the plant grew everywhere: backyards, fields, parks. Grandmothers would collect its juicy leaves to use in pickling–when added to the brine, they help pickled cucumbers retain their crunchiness. Slavs and Jews ate chrein in relish form year round, on sandwiches, with meats, and poultry. The popularity of this easy-to-make, cheap topping was extremely wide-spread.

While a side-kick every other week of the year, chrein makes a solo appearance on Passover, acting as maror–the bitter herb on the seder plate. Many Jews buy the prepackaged supermarket brands, but some people have the tradition of going back to chrein’s roots–that is, the roots of the horseradish plant, which they themselves grind to create fresh and pungent maror.

My family treasures a story of how my great-uncle, as a child, invited a friend over to his house. When his mother, who was making a batch of chrein, stepped out of the kitchen, my great-uncle lured his friend in. “My mother is making delicious soup, and if you want we can have some,” he said. “Smells heavenly, wanna check it out?” The unsuspecting friend opened the pot, where the relish sat, and inhaled–a lungful of chrein-scented air. Fresh horseradish is incredibly pungent, and even seasoned chrein-eaters sniff it with caution; the story goes that the boy almost fainted, coughing, crying, and laughing at the same time.

Aside from such pranks, chrein has a prominent place in old-school Russian idioms. The meanings it takes on are diverse, and oftentimes have something to do with the root’s phallic shape. “Chrein be with you,” for instance means “to hell with you”; and you can probably surmise the meaning of “why the chrein would I want to do this” as well.

Esther: The Whole (Operatic) Megillah

This season, New York City Opera brought back on stage the late Hugo Weisgall’s Esther, a contemporary work based on the biblical story of mortal danger and miraculous survival. Set in ancient Persia, the opera engages questions of destiny and assimilation, violence and victory, thus making it relevant to contemporary audiences.

Plot Synopsis

The plot of the opera stays surprisingly close to the ancient text of
Megillat Esther
. King Ahasuerus, here dubbed as Xerxes (probably because the latter name works better for libretto–try rhyming to the former!) in a drunken rage, banishes his wife Vashti. He searches for a new wife to dispel his solitude, and Esther, a seventeen-year-old Jewish girl, finds herself the chosen one. In the meantime, the king’s minister Haman concocts a plot to destroy Mordecai (Esther’s uncle) along with all of the empire’s Jews. When Mordecai pleads with Esther to intervene, Esther accepts the challenge, subjecting herself to mortal danger, and reveals to the king her Jewish origins and Haman’s plot. Haman and his family are hanged and the Jews are allowed to arm and defend themselves from their enemies, emerging victorious from a bloody battle.

Esther opera

Background and Style

Opera turns out to be a particularly auspicious genre for representation of the megillah, a text that is traditionally chanted in synagogues on Purim. Using the technique of cantillation, the text is read with a complex melody, which, at times, hints at its possible hidden meanings, adding a musical, theatric element. Other Torah readings are also read with special cantillation; however, if the theatric element is all but lost to weekly routine, on Purim the readers of the megillah turn it up a notch, playing up the musical potential of the text, and contributing to the general atmosphere of carnival and hilarity.

In essence, that is how opera works as well, turning the text of the libretto into a musical composition–a stylized, sung speech. This is particularly true for modern composers, such as Esther‘s Hugh Weisgall, who avoids explicit melodies and instead focuses on abrupt, broken-off, and often atonal phrasing that has more in common with day-to-day speech than with catchy ditties that many earlier operas contained. The performance thus becomes more tense, theatrical, and challenging.

A Visit with Samuel Menashe

One doesn’t get a private priestly blessing every day, with fingers spread out and all; and when it comes from an elderly poet, in his fifth floor walk-up in Soho, in the dust-filtered sunlight amidst piles of books — well, that is a memory to tell your grandchildren about. Or at least the readers of MJL, as the case may be.

A few months ago I wrote an informational article about Samuel Menashe, a great Jewish poet whose work has been coming into prominence over the past decade. In the year 2000, he was awarded the Neglected Masters Award; his book was published by the prestigious Library of America. Now, the second edition of the book is coming out, and an analogous publication is hitting the bookshelves in London, as well.

Having been away from New York for a year, I decided to pay Menashe a visit, congratulate him on the new publication,  and finally see his apartment.

For an 84-year-old, the poet is exceptionally vibrant and lucid. His sense of humor, which has always been on the noir side, is still there: “I’m still alive, can you believe that?” he asked. As we were conversing, the phone rang; an editor was calling to inform him that a neo-classical musician set one of Menashe’s poems to music, and he is now invited to fly to North Carolina for the debut performance. “North Carolina? That’s it, next time we’re going to Paris!†he joyfully shouted into the phone.

Our conversation soon turned to metaphysics. “You know, when Jews began talking about their invisible God of oneness, the whole world thought they were insane. The idol-worshipers made their gods, bowed to the ‘work of their hands,’ but Jews bowed to something invisible… They didn’t believe the idols had any power. Pagans were stunned at their propensity for disbelief; in a sense Jews were the first atheists.â€

I asked Samuel if he thought poets bow down to the work of their own hands–poetry. He answered by quoting his own poem:

Scribe out of work

Underworld Aristocracy

When I first became obsessed with books, at the age of 9 or so, my Russian parents proudly told me: “Intellegentsia of second generation, you are!†Intellegentsia is a Russian equivalent of pseudo-intellectual; second generation, because my parents were the first ones, in our family, to attend college and plunge into the blissful world of intellectual snobbery. Neither of my grandfathers was a literati: far from it. Each born in his shtetl, each with his blue-color job. In the evenings, they read their newspapers slowly and dutifully, and in the morning, folded up these newspapers as a wrapper for their lunch. Things were very utilitarian like that.

So one day, when my paternal grandfather told me he was fond of Isaac Babel, I was rather surprised. I knew Babel was highbrow Russian Jewish literature; that despite the catchiness of his tales about Odessa’s underworld, gangster stories and the like, ultimately, he was an exquisite, decadent poet, revered, and constantly quoted in my parents’ circles.

“Well,†said my grandfather, “you know, we have a bit of a familial connection to Babel. Do you know that Babel’s greatest character, gangster Benya Krik is modeled after a real-time Jewish bandit, Mishka Yaponchik?†Like every other self-respecting Russian Jewish kid, I knew.

“So, your great-grandfather’s brother was good friends with him,†my grandfather replied. Apparently, one of my ancestors was a bit of a shtetl terror; business associate of aforementioned Yaponchik, he drove into the shtetl in his horse and buggy, showed off his guns, shot in the air (and elsewhere sometimes), then stopped at my great-grandmother’s house for a drink. “He drank a full glass of vodka in a single go,†said my grandfather.

Being a sheltered, near-sighted kid, with little propensity for exercise, let alone horseriding and robbery, I was doubtful. To which my grandfather reasoned: “Your cousin Misha is getting into big trouble in school. His father told me Misha’s involved in a gang. Street scum is looking up to him. I’m telling you, we have it in our gene pool.â€

Isaac Babel

Born in 1894 in Odessa, Ukraine, Isaac Babel had a rather non-typical childhood for a Russian Jew of his era. His family was relatively well-to-do, and he grew up pampered with private tutors who taught him German, French, Talmud, and music.
Isaac Babel
As a young man, he moved to St. Petersburg, the cultural and political center of Russia, where he became involved in the national literary scene, and like many young progressive writers of the time, in the anti-Czarist revolutionary movement. He published two plays and a number of short story collections, most notably Red Cavalry, which he wrote during his journalism career writing about the Bolshevik army during the Russian Civil War of 1917-1923. After the war, back in Odessa, he wrote Odessa Tales (1931), for which he has been hailed as the greatest Russian Jewish writer that ever lived.

Like many Russian Jews of his time, Isaac Babel experienced the glimmering hope of emancipation, acceptance, and even popularity in secular Russian society, a hope that was eventually extinguished by Stalin’s politics of terror. In 1941, he was murdered by Stalin’s secret police under false premises of spying and treason.

A World within a World

It is not surprising that Babel and his literature fell out of favor with the state. After the 1917 Russian Revolution, the Soviet government cultivated artists’ colonies to generate propaganda “literature” promoting manual labor and the working class, and criticizing capitalism and religion. Babel’s Odessa Tales, a short story collection, prized everything antithetical to such values. In a most loving manner, it told stories of the Jewish underworld inhabiting Odessa: gangsters, smugglers, prostitutes, card sharps, street beggars, and the perpetually unemployed and unemployable.

The central character of Odessa Tales, Benya Krik is an aspiring criminal who is crowned “King” by his fellow Jewish Odessans –for his personal charisma, sense of humor, and magnanimity. Another character, the old storyteller, Arye Leib, is a homeless, pious Jew, who lives in the Jewish cemetery, collecting garbage and stories.

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