I recently had the opportunity to interview poet and educator Merle Feld, author of A Spiritual Life: Exploring the Heart and Jewish Tradition. Her book recently came out in a revised and updated edition that includes a readers and writers guide.
Here’s an excerpt from your most famous poem, We All Stood Together:
My brother and I were at Sinai
He kept a journal
of what he saw
of what he heard
of what it all meant to him
I wish I had such a record
of what happened to me there
Since the first time I read this poem, Iâ€™ve definitely thought of your poetry as a form of contemporary midrash. As a young woman it really freed me to look at the untold stories in the Tanach, gave me a peek into the authentic experience of women living during that time.
Reading a spiritual life, however, I notice that the bulk of your poetry is much more personal. And yet, as you go from community to community, these very personal poems are allowing others to deepen their own spiritual lives. This is the very reason that you created the reader’s and writers guide for the new edition of your book–to facilitate these types of encounters with your text. I find this fascinating–has the story of your spiritual life itself become the midrash to be interpreted?
Lili, this is such an interesting question. In all the work I do*, I see the stories of my own experience, my feelings, questions, sorrows, fulfillment, as an invitation – to readers, to audiences, to my many students – I am extending a hand, I am trying to encourage you to see your own life as sacred, as worthy of self-examination and reflection. One former student from years ago, now a highly successful rabbi herself with a large loving following, said to me when A Spiritual Life was published, “This is a gift, you give so much of yourself to others, you give so deeply.”
In the way I wrote this memoir, I don’t see it as egotistical – after all, a memoir can be “look at me and all the important things I’ve done” – no. Mostly A Spiritual Life is about what I’ve felt and thought, how I’ve struggled to make a meaningful life and especially how I’ve struggled to value myself and be empowered to live fully. But I see the purpose of sharing personal stories and poems as all being in the service of supporting the development of the reader. I strive to establish a really deep place as the place that it’s worth talking from – that’s the place I write from, and I’m trying to inspire readers and students to go to that deep place within themselves, to have the courage to do that, to do that work, to find their own authentic voice and to speak, write live, from that personal authenticity. And also to be in their communities and out in the world relating to others in that daring and true way.
Yes, you’re right, that’s exactly why I created the Readers and Writers Guide for this new book – I chose seven themes that were very important to me, that constitute the substance of the book, and the Guide helps readers focus on these themes, use the questions I provide to open conversations and deepen the level of intimacy and meaning in their book groups, adult ed study classes, in their havurot or synagogues. Readers can also use the Guide to focus their own personal journaling, exploring the feelings and the issues of these poems about our ordinary lives that are anything but ordinary when you stop to really look and listen – so much holiness there in our everyday lives, waiting to be noticed.
*My work for many years was with a very diverse, widely ranging constituency; now I focus on teaching rabbinical students (Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Reform and nondenominational) to develop writing as a spiritual practice – that’s a story in and of itself!
Your poetry has touched many who are not usually so receptive to poetryâ€”why do you think this is?
A deceptively simple question! There’s so much to say in response, I keep starting down one path to an answer, then another, then another. Where to begin. (Funny, there’s chapter in A Spiritual Life, “The Necessity of Poetry in my Life,” that explains this in a way and is four pages long. Remembering how playful that felt to me, deciding it’s my book and I get to make the rules, so I could have a four page chapter when all the others are 20, 30, 40 pages!)
But the story of poetry and me is a lot like the story of Judaism and me – had I had easy access from the beginning, been able to take it for granted, I probably never would have been as captivated; as it is, I learned both naturally, was self-taught, made discoveries de nouveau. As with Judaism, I never studied poetry, never thought to take a poetry course in college, and then much later when I began to write that which by process of elimination seemed to be poetry, I wanted to study it formally but somehow the opportunity never quite presented itself. (Once I thought it had – early on a well regarded poet I knew agreed to sit and look at one of my poems with me, but she tore it to shreds and was so hurtful it took me many years to risk that again. It’s actually not at all the case that you can’t critique someone’s writing without being cruel…
My writing poetry started with the need to express feelings, mostly sorrow that wouldn’t go away, and I found gradually that writing poetry eased the pain in my heart, naming pain was soothing, comforting to me. (it’s that ability to name pain that is part of what people appreciate in my work I think). In the early years poems would come and take me by surprise and I was frankly rather embarrassed that I had no idea how I had written them, or how I might craft them. I wrote down deep feelings – about miscarriage, early intense love, women coming alive in Jewish tradition because we willed ourselves a life – lots of poems on subjects “traditional” poets would never have deemed worthy or of interest. Again, here, I think I enjoyed making my own rules, deciding for myself what was a worthy topic for poetry – there’s something delightful in seeing poetry everywhere, seeing moments that deserved to be lifted up and seizing the power to do that. (Surely that’s another reason people like my poems, that I write about things that we normally rush past, normally don’t honor, and I honor small things – a cheap address book, an encounter in the supermarket, underwear.)…
It’s interesting – you ask about “people not usually receptive to poetry” – I can’t count the number of people who’ve introduced themselves to me as “fans” in just that way: “I don’t usually think of myself as liking poetry, but…”) I was so shy when people would do that in any case – it took me years to be brave enough to respond by asking the person, “tell me about yourself, your experience that caused you to respond so strongly to that poem.” That’s what I tell my rabbinical students now (I work mentoring rabbinical students through teaching them how to have a personal writing practice): “Know that when congregants compliment a sermon, it’s an opening to invite them to talk about something of deep meaning within themselves – “what exactly did you like about the sermon” leads to “why that?” and so on…
Then there’s the story of how my poetry got out into the world. I’d read what I’d written to friends and they would be so moved; some of those friends were people who were publishing anthologies and so I was in the privileged position of having people ask me to please submit things and then they got published. (Meanwhile I was hard at work writing plays, some really good plays, and forever sending them out and getting endlessly rejected; finally finally I thought, the world is saying “yes” to your poetry Merle – focus more on writing poetry.)
It’s only in the last two years or so that a dear friend who’s a poet herself and a long-time poetry editor sat with me with such patience and kindness and slowly showed me how you work with a poem once it’s written to improve it. Now my experience writing poetry is quite different – I love understanding the art of how to do it and there’s enormous pleasure reworking a poem to make it the best it can be – virtually nothing brings me more joy than that – a morning on my porch sitting working on new poems, turning them, listening, listening, making little changes, considering little changes – what effect it makes to end the line here, or there, or there, saying exactly the true thing and saying it in a way that sings.
And now there’s another woman, a young woman, who’s been working on some new poems with me, we recently had an hour long trans Atlantic phone conversation working on some of my new poems – she just asked some questions, made a few comments, and I realized in each case, hm, I need to listen deeper in exactly that place, she’s right, that poem isn’t quite there yet… because ultimately what matters with poetry is: are you telling the truth, and do you have a good ear for language, rhythm. The deeper the truth, the better the ear, the better the poem. People know when you’ve gotten to the bottom of truth writing a poem, and that’s what they respond to – if there is no human truth in a poem, well then, who cares?
What role do you think the arts–in particular poetry and creative writing-should play in Jewish education?
Let me tell a story. Once when I was invited to be scholar-in-residence for a synagogue, I stood chatting with congregants at the Friday night oneg Shabbat following services and my poetry reading and was approached by a man who said he wanted to introduce himself. He was a theatre director and chair of the department at a neighboring university. He explained that about ten years earlier he had been approached by someone from this synagogue and asked if he would direct a Jewish play for the congregation as part of their High Holiday preparation that year. He was completely assimilated he said, had never affiliated with this shul or any other, and assumed he’d been approached because he had a Jewish name. Well, he thought “a Jewish play” – this is going to be some sentimental drek or silly piece of nonsense, but the congregant was insistent so he agreed to read the script.
It was a play that took place on Yom Kippur, ten very different characters each struggling to come to terms with questions of meaning, responsibility, forgiveness, regret, confusion, doubt. He was stunned, swept away by the power of the play. Yes, he said, I would be honored to direct this. And then he began to work with the ten congregants who had volunteered to play these characters for a congregation-wide reading. These people were strangers to him, but as they spent time rehearsing together he came to like them, he came to feel connected to them.
The play reading was a great success and the secular director was drawn in by his own curiosity and thirst to attend High Holiday services there that year. He found the rabbi’s sermons compelling, he was intrigued by the liturgy as it slowly opened places in his heart he’d never known before; perhaps most of all, he loved this eclectic community of fellow seekers, he joined the congregation, and has been an active nember ever since. He finished by saying what I already had realized of course – Merle, the play was yours, The Gates are Closing, it changed my life – thank you.
That’s the role of the arts in Jewish education – to bring people in, to spread a sumptuous welcoming table for the feast that is Jewish tradition, ritual, text, ethics, values – to help lonely individuals – and I stress that we are all lonely individuals, searching for connection, warmth, tenderness, a caring community – to help us form those caring communities and pursue meaning together. How do poetry and theatre and other art forms do this? By speaking directly to the soul at a pitch audible only to the soul, by offering the pleasure and deep comfort for which we all yearn.
Everything about my journey as a poet has come from the heart. What comes from the heart speaks to the heart.
Merle Feld is a widely published poet, award-winning playwright, peace activist, and educator who has pioneered teaching writing as a spiritual practice. Her prose and poetry, including her signature poem about women and men at Sinai, can be found in numerous anthologies and prayerbooks and in her highly acclaimed memoir, A Spiritual Life: Exploring the Heart and Jewish Tradition (State University of New York Press, revised edition 2007).