I knew something exciting was afoot when an email from the poet Jake Marmer popped up in my inbox with the subject header, “Won’t you be my Tosafot?” Jake Marmer is a longtime editor with Mima’amakim who performs improvisatory jazz poetry with the hippest downtown avant gardists. The Tosfos were a group of Talmudic commentators centered mostly in medieval Provence whose work of dense and brilliant legal exposition is compiled in the margins of the Talmud. As many a teacher of Talmud might ask, “So, nu, what’s the connection?”
Jake had the idea of creating a page of poetry that would mirror the form of the Talmud. The actual words of the Talmud occupy the center of the page. They are flanked on either side by commentaries. On the inside margin is Rashi, the 11th-century giant, and on the outside margin are the Tosafot. Jake offered an initial poem to a bunch of fellow poets to get the ball rolling. Then he stood back and waited for us to create our own, individual “commentaries” to his original work. Then one of the participating poets, Sipai Klein, took the commentaries and synthesized them all into two distinct texts, one to serve as the Rashi and one to serve as the Tosafot. The resulting page appears in the new issue of Mima’amakim.
The poems the resulted manage to capture some of the flavor of the Talmud. Just as Talmud (and the Tosafot commentary) captures a multiplicity of voices and synthesizes them into a single continuous text, Sipai took the different poets, each different styles and approaches, and turned their words into a collaborative text. It’s all so seamless that I don’t even remember which part I wrote anymore.
But, in case one reimagining of the Talmud isn’t enough, Mima’amakim features two. Where Jake and his team of commentators adapted the format of the Talmudic page to a radically different, poetic content, Yonah Lavery-Yisraeli takes the content of the Talmud and brings it into a contemporary format, that of the comic book. Yonah takes the characters and situations of the Talmud out of the ancient Aramaic and put into the most understandable of all literary formats. In so doing, Yonah opens the reader’s eyes to the lyricism, emotion and even the humor of the Talmud. Yonah’s comics render the Talmud and its rabbis as people who are, if not exactly contemporary, then at least familiar and easy to relate to.
While Yonah has a large number of Talmud comics available to view at her website, she was kind enough to let Mima’amakim publish a pair of images in our newest journal. When laying out the journal, it only made sense to have one of the Talmud comics face Jake’s Talmud-inspired poem, creating a two-page spread of artistic creativity inspired by the richness of the Talmud, itself one of the greatest Jewish literary contributions of all time.
Of all the poets whose work I’ve come across while reviewing submissions for Mima’amakim, Samuel Thrope is probably the most mysterious. I don’t know Samuel, though I hope our paths will cross some day soon. For the past two years, Mima’amakim has published poems by Thrope that encompass the unpredictable sweep of the Jewish past, while playing some serious postmodern tricks.
Last year, Thrope submitted a short, translated excerpt from the “Dabestan-e Mazaheb” or “School of Religious Doctrines,” a 17th-century book that documents and compares Asian religions. The portion of the Dabest?n that pertains to Judaism was taken from the anonymous author’s encounter with a Jewish convert to Islam named Sarmad. Sarmad, himself a poet, traveled to India, whereupon he fell in love with a Hindu boy and renounced everything, becoming a wandering ascetic.
When I first encountered Thrope’s translation, the notion of a gay Jewish poet who becomes Muslim and falls for a Hindu in the 17th century seemed too outlandish to be true and I suspected that Thrope was some kind of brilliant academic prankster, fabricating an obscure figure and “translating” a fake text. A bit of research, however, showed that Thrope was not kidding around; Sarmad was real and Thrope is a keen student of Jewish history (a PhD candidate at Berkeley, actually) illuminating the breadth and strangeness of the Jewish past.
This year, my suspicions from a year ago proved correct (at least I think so). The newest issue of Mima’amakim features a submission from Thrope entitled “Four Geniza Fragents: A Poem.”
Purportedly a collection of fragments from some lost Jewish texts, Thrope formatted his submission to look like the scholarly translation of a long lost and partially decayed old book, with each line numbered and brackets marking where indiscernible words break up the text.
The fragments deal with a supposed meeting between the author and some alleged angels. The text is full of holes but the angels seem to offer a utopian vision, reveal that Moses made a mistake and foretell of an impending apocalypse. After learning the extent of Thrope’s ability as a researcher, I would have accepted it and believed that Thrope has uncovered another extremely fantastic and obscure text. Except that the second of the four geniza fragments quotes a verse from William Butler Yeats’ famous poem “The Second Coming.” The allusion both tips Thrope’s hand and helps enforce the tone of apocalyptic dread, which is similar to Yeats.
With Thrope’s writing then, you never know what you’re reading, whether the text is a discovery from the past or an original creation, unless, that is, Thrope lets you know with a sly, well placed reference.
Aaron Roller is an editor of Mimaamakim,a journal of Jewish religious poetry and art. Their new issue was just released. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog.
The very notion of creating one magazine to house “Jewish poetry” doesn’t seem to make any sense. Jews wrote poetry in medieval Spain. Other Jews wrote Yiddish poetry as the Enlightenment made its way to Eastern Europe. There were poets among the early Zionists, just as there were among early Jewish immigrants living in New York’s Lower East Side.
What justifies grouping these seemingly disparate poets together? They wrote in different languages, in different forms about different topics. They range from the the greatest defenders of faith to those who struggled with belief to those who gave up on G-d completely.
So what is Jewish poetry?
While not every poem written by someone who’s born a Jew counts as Jewish poetry, there is a larger conversation linking Jewish poets beyond a mere accident of birth. An awareness of Jewishness (whether manifested as pride, guilt or piety), a questioning of what it means to be Jewish, a feeling of interconnectedness with other Jews throughout both time and space and the willingness to employ (or inability to avoid) Jewish references (whether Biblical, liturgical or philosophical) all mark a Jewish poet.
Consider Allen Ginsberg, one of the most famous American poets of the last century, and a Jew more likely to chant “Hare Krishna” than “Shema Yisroel.” And yet, when faced with the death of his mother, Ginsburg responded with a poem entitled “Kaddish.” Ginsberg’s “Kaddish” jumps between fragmentary recollections of his mother’s life as a Jewish girl on the Lower East Side (“… I walk toward the Lower East Side — where you walked 50 years ago, little girl”), his own overheated experience (“I’ve been up all night, talking, talking, reading the Kaddish aloud, listening to Ray Charles blues shout blind on the phonograph”) and an appeal to G-d (“Take this, this Psalm, from me, burst from my hand in a day, some of my Time, now given to Nothing–to praise Thee–But Death”).
By attempting to make sense of the traditional prayer of mourning and put it into his own terms, Ginsberg enters the conversation of other writers (and mourners) who have tried to understand the Kaddish (other American poets who have written poems called “Kaddish” include Charles Reznikoff and David Ignatow). By recollecting his mother’s life, Ginsberg is placing her — and, by extension, himself — within the larger Jewish experience.
What we’ve tried to do with Mima’amakim is to show you the variety, the strength and the diversity of Jewish poetry today. The new issue include poems and stories in three languages, and writing and art from writers from four continents, and of all different ages and religious backgrounds.