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On the Bookshelf

Prayer, poetry, and pop

Josh Lambert
November 09, 2009
(La caverne aux livres by gadl / Alexandre Duret-Lutz; some rights reserved.)
(La caverne aux livres by gadl / Alexandre Duret-Lutz; some rights reserved.)

The one book Jews read most often probably isn’t the Torah or Talmud, but the siddur, or prayer book. Yet as regularly as it is paged through—many Jews recite certain prayers three or more times every day—the siddur’s typical readers attend very little to the literary and historical nuances of the text. Or so the proliferation of guidebooks to the liturgy suggests. The latest entry in this tradition, joining works by Adin Steinsaltz and Reuven Hammer, is Brandeis professor Reuven Kimelman’s The Rhetoric of Jewish Prayer: A Literary and Historical Commentary on the Prayer Book (Littman, November), which emphasizes the complex literary structure of each individual prayer.

The richness of Jewish liturgy notwithstanding, those without Hebrew fluency—and that’s sadly the majority of America’s Jews—can relate to the tunes of their prayers much more directly than to the words of, say, a densely allusive medieval Hebrew poem. That helps to explain why prayer-leaders play such prominent roles in American synagogues. Judah Cohen, an ethnomusicologist, spent two years watching and listening to the cantors-in-training at Hebrew Union College’s School of Sacred Music to produce The Making of a Reform Jewish Cantor: Musical Authority, Cultural Investment (Indiana, November), which reveals exactly how a regular Jew with a good singing voice can be transformed, institutionally and personally, into a bearer of Jewish musical tradition.

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Cohen’s exploration of what makes a cantor a cantor seems necessary given how powerfully Jewish prayers resonate even outside of religious contexts. Take Avinu Malkeinu, one of the most striking prayers of the Rosh Hashanah service: since 1987, and as recently as this past June, the jam band Phish has often inserted a jazzy version of it into their sets (much more frequently, in case you’re counting, than they’ve performed their cover of Naomi Shemer’s “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav”). Parke Puterbaugh’s Phish: The Biography (Da Capo, November), based on his decade as the band’s in-house scribe, offers a detailed portrait of the group beloved by a generation of suburban Jews, one of whom turned himself, with help from Phish, into a superstar ba’al teshuva.

In their fervent fandom, admirers of secular musicians often invest them with religious authority, a dynamic exemplified most clearly, perhaps, by the case of Bob Dylan. The Artist Formerly Known as Robert Zimmerman has inspired any number of readings attentive to his Jewish roots, but no Dylanologist has gone quite so far as veteran music critic and klezmer revivalist Seth Rogovy. In Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet (Simon & Schuster, November), Rogovy scavenges for any echo of Jewish resonance in Dylan’s lyrics, cooking up some rather grand claims about the biblical sources of Dylan’s images: “Blowin’ in the Wind” is lifted right from Ezekiel and Isaiah,” Rogovy has remarked in an interview, while “‘All Along the Watchtower’ is a midrashic retelling of Isaiah 21.”

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To say that such readings of Dylan’s lyrics seem a bit far-fetched is not to deny that some contemporary Jewish poets draw on prophetic texts with midrashic intentions. The title poem of Shirley Kaufman’s collection Ezekiel’s Wheels (Copper Canyon, November), for example, takes up Ezekiel 1:16’s reference to a “wheel within a wheel,” as a symbol of the whirling, uncontrolled nature of life. But Kaufman remains self-conscious about the oddness of an American poet and translator living in Jerusalem engaging with such tropes: “What can / my eyes wake up to what / vision of Ezekiel in exile / or holiness ever / Where / will I find him / in the midst of the valley / and it was full of bones.”

Other contemporary poets draw from sources closer at hand, but that’s not necessarily any less complicated a task. Marilyn Hacker, for one, has lived for long periods in both Paris and the United States, and French words and European progressive politics appear in her new formalist work—her latest collection is Names (Norton, November)—alongside reflections on her childhood in a working-class Jewish home in the Bronx. David Lehman meanwhile remarks in a book trailer that the title poem of his Yeshiva Boys (Simon & Schuster, November)—which, among other things, treats his parents’ experience of the Holocaust and his days in a traditional Orthodox school—took almost two decades to write: “It’s not an easy subject to confront, since you’re dealing with nothing less than your own heritage and the most crucial things about your identity and your life.”

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How exactly does the Jewishness of such poets matter, especially if they do not write in Hebrew or Yiddish and mostly eschew participation in Jewish religious traditions? Answers to this question abound in Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture (Alabama, November), edited by the literary scholar Daniel Morris and the poet and professor Stephen Paul Miller. Based on a 2004 forum at the Center for Jewish History (which can be watched online here), the book includes contributions from a range of literary scholars, such as Marjorie Perloff and Kathryn Hellerstein, as well as some impressive poets, including Paul Auster, Alicia Ostriker, and Jerome Rothenberg.

One reason Jewishness has mattered in modern and contemporary American poetry—a fact that literary scholars have often neglected to mention—is that several American Jews played key roles as publishers, patrons, and advocates for verse throughout the 20th century. Partially redressing this scholarly gap, Chris Green’s The Social Life of Poetry: Appalachia, Race, and Radical Modernism (Palgrave Macmillan, November) highlights the role of Jewish publishers and scholars such as Albert and Charles Boni, B. A. Botkin, and Horace Kallen in promoting the literature of American regionalism and specifically the poetry of Appalachia. Green also shows how Appalachia means as much to a New York Jewish poet, Muriel Rukeyser, as it does to Southerners Don West and James Still—a useful reminder that a poet’s or musician’s most fruitful sources of inspiration cannot necessarily be predicted based upon his or her race, religion, or place of origin.

Josh Lambert (@joshnlambert), a Tablet Magazine contributing editor and comedy columnist, is the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author most recently of Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture.

Josh Lambert (@joshnlambert), a Tablet Magazine contributing editor and comedy columnist, is the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author most recently ofUnclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture.