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
At a loss for words
Not his to begin with
Stands at the window
Biding his time

I stood up at his window, and thought about how he certainly bid his time here, having stayed in the same apartment for more than 50 years. On the windowsill, six peaches were ripening. “They are awfully good now, you must have at least two!†he told me. I dutifully obeyed.

“I want to give you a blessing. You know I’m a kohen, right?†Samuel spread his hands in the ritualistic manner, just as Israelite priests did in the Temple more than 2000 years ago, just as their descendants still do on special occasions in synagogues today. Word by word, he piled all sorts of blessings over my head. I tried to put on what I thought to be a blessing-appropriate face, being at once immensely moved but also quite tickled.

Walking down the stairs of his building, I felt ready to levitate; was it the sugar rush from two giant peaches — I asked myself — or Menashe’s priestly blessing starting to work?

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