If any of my former yeshiva teachers are reading this right now, consider this a warning to close your eyes. I have a confession to make: If I had to admit to a sacred devotion to anything, I’d have to say it’s to poetry, first and foremost (and then, okay, maybe the Torah). I worship at the Synagogue of Figurative Language. Discovering surprising line breaks is my version of a religious experience. And yet, as a poet myself, whose first book evolved into an unexpected elegy to my grandmother who survived Auschwitz, I am extremely proud of being Jewish. In fact, I almost always feel that ping of recognition and pride whenever I discover that a poem that I love happens to be written by a Jewish writer, too.
Before you say it, I know a lot of people don’t “get” poetry or find the entire genre overwhelming. But I’m here to say if you like to read, then chances are you like to read poetry, but you may just not have found the right poets yet.
From feminist poets already established in their literary fields to up-and-comers debuting newer collections, here are six female Jewish poets and their incredible poems to get you excited about poetry and to kick off National Poetry Month:
1. Jessica Greenbaum
As someone who resists naming her favorite anything, it is surprising that I can say with absolute certainty that Jessica Greenbaum has written one of my all-time favorite poems. Or maybe favorite isn’t the right word.
As a granddaughter of four Holocaust survivors, I was absolutely seared the very first time I read it. This poem has held incredible meaning for me over the years and now lives deep inside me (I think inside my throat). It’s a piece I come back to again and again, with its haunting repetition and its ability to “unsay” so much, in the context of something as immense and unspeakable as the Holocaust. Originally published in The New Yorker, I think about these words almost every time I am waiting on a cold subway platform, the wind rustling my hem. While this poem is from Greenbaum’s first collection, her latest book, Spilled and Gone, is forthcoming in May 2019.
“The Yellow Star that Goes With Me” from Inventing Difficulty
Sometimes when I’m thirsty, I mean really dying of thirst
For five minutes
Sometimes when I board a train
Sometimes in December when I’m absolutely freezing
Continue reading here.
2. Shira Erlichman
When your name translates from Hebrew into the word “song,” it might just be beshert that you become a poet. Born in Israel, raised in Massachusetts, and now a Brooklynite, Erlichman is a multi-talented poet, visual artist, and musician who also teaches writing workshops online.
Her latest work is a picture book that she both wrote and illustrated. BE/HOLD: A Friendship Book, sounds right up the alley of word-lovers of any age. Kirkus describes it as “an ode to the pleasures and surprises of compound words: ‘the smallest poem in the English language.’” Her first collection of poetry, Odes to Lithium, will be released in September 2019. Guided by the odes of Neruda, Erlichman’s authentic perspective and electric language work to quicken the reader’s pulse. She writes with grace, honesty, and ferocity about her experience with mental illness.
“Ode to Lithium #1: The Watchman” from Odes to Lithium
How this, sparkler in the night’s black field, lighting up my brain
with love How did they do it before you — survive Your elegance
of salt, rock, & sleep, who invented How can such a small watchman
keep safe all my hills & homes Why pink, your face — not cobalt,
Continue reading here, or watch Erlichman perform this poem live here.
3. Elana Bell
I had the opportunity to interview Elana Bell many years ago, after I took a workshop with her at the Drisha Institute, where she was also a writing fellow. Bell is a multidimensional poet, with roots in the Spoken Word community and a passion for facilitating sacred experiences that help women access their authentic voices. She has conducted poetry workshops for educators, women in prison, teenagers across the country and abroad, as well as for the Arab Jewish Peace Organization. She has written curriculum for Seeds for Peace, and currently conducts a workshop called Writing Towards Peace.
Bell’s first book, Eyes, Stone, is inspired by interviews conducted in Israel, the Palestinian territories, and America. Bell brings her heritage as the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors to reconsider the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Now more than ever, we need to return to this book — for its timeless compassion, restless empathy, and deep willingness to ask difficult questions.
“Your Village” from Eyes, Stone
Once in a village that is burning
because a village is always somewhere burning
And if you do not look because it is not your village
it is still your village
Continue reading here, or watch Bell read this poem here.
4. Nomi Stone
Nomi Stone has a fascinating backstory that only works to serve her richly layered poetry. She is the daughter of a rabbi and a Jewish mother’s dream, with several advanced degrees, a Fulbright, a postdoctoral research fellowship in Anthropology at Princeton, a MPHil in Middle East Studies from Oxford, and a PhD in Cultural Anthropology at Columbia University.
Her first collection, A Stranger’s Notebook, is a fascinating book that is informed by her experience of living in one of the last cohesive Jewish communities in North Africa. These wonderful poems explore the daily lives of Tunisian Jews, as well as their Muslim neighbors. Her second book, Kill Class, was recently released in February 2019, and is based on Stone’s years of ethnographic fieldwork at military bases across the United States, where mock Middle Eastern villages with Middle Eastern actors were used for combat training. Stone writes with a blend of authority and vulnerability, with both intellect and emotion. Her poems fire up both sides of the brain, and every chamber of the heart.
“On World-Making” by Nomi Stone from Poetry
To love is to tell the story of the world. There was
an ocean with a boat mountains a meadow too painful to stare
at directly. Haven’t I been here before? Yes. No: not quite here.
Continue reading here.
5. Marge Piercy
OG feminist activist, novelist, and poet, Marge Piercy was the very first writer who gave me the permission to ditch the undecipherable poetry I was forced to read in high school. She taught me that a poem can be both accessible and powerful. Piercy is a fierce writer who has gathered an entire collection of poems written across the span of 20 years that contend with many aspects of religion in the The Art of Blessing the Day: Poems with a Jewish Theme (get it here).
These passionate poems encounter spirituality, heritage, ritual, and the expansiveness of the Jewish experience. They are deeply felt, combining the personal and universal. Piercy both confronts and celebrates the ever-broadening spectrum of Jewishness. Her book is truly a blessing.
“Applesauce for Eve” from The Art of Blessing the Day
Those old daddies cursed you and us in you,
damned for your curiosity: for your sin
was wanting knowledge. To try, to taste,
to take into the body, into the brain
Continue reading here.
6. Erika Meitner
I learned about Erika Meitner in a pretty unorthodox way — through a fairly amusing instance of Jewish Geography at the Modern Orthodox high school where I used to be an English teacher. When one of my colleagues announced that her niece was a poet, I was cautious, assuming that by “poet,” she meant a random person with a random blog of rhyming poetry. But when I googled Erika Meitner, I was blown away by her work and delighted to learn that she is very much The Real Deal.
Meitner is a professor at Virginia Tech who holds both an MFA and MA in Religious Studies. She is a first-generation American and granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. She doesn’t shy away from writing overtly Jewish poems with overtly Jewish titles like “Yiddishland.” Her latest book, Holy Moly Carry Me, tackles difficult subject matter and won the 2018 National Jewish Book Award for Poetry. Meitner continues to explore Jewish themes with a focus on motherhood. While her new work continues to evolve and astonish, it’s this poetic tribute to Meitner’s grandmother, from an earlier collection, that I most wanted to share, if only to break your heart into a billion, burning pieces.
“Yizker Bukh” from Copia
flotsam (yes) just
below the surface
an eternal city
Continue reading here.