New collection revels in Torah as a wellspring of poetry

Dan Bellm indulges a fantasy whenever he publishes a volume of poetry. He imagines the volume with a banner headline splashed across the cover: “Soon to be a major motion picture.”

Not bloody likely.

As Bellm knows, poetry rarely makes the New York Times bestseller list. But the prospect of buying an imaginary yacht with imaginary poetry profits doesn’t motivate the San Francisco writer anyway. For him, it’s all about passion for the figurative phrase.

More than a mere compilation of recent verse, his fourth and latest book, “Practice: A Book of Midrash,” is a meditation on the Torah, with most poems linked to one of the weekly parshahs. In simple and unadorned language, Bellm infuses his book with diverse images of Jewish life, especially his Jewish life.

Bellm will give a public reading March 19 at the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco.

“A book has to have its own sequence, its own flow, a connecting thread of some kind,” he says. “So it moves roughly from Genesis to Deuteronomy. Some [poems] are traditionally midrashic, some are related tangentially and some directly wrestle with the portion.”

For example, “Before Words” offers a take on Beresheet, the opening portion of the Torah. Rather than be literal and write about God creating the universe, Bellm describes an infant’s first awareness of the world beyond his own body:

“He hears the wind around the house/ and in the wind/ every word he will ever say/ and what will stay unsaid.”

At the heart of the book is a 10-sonnet series based on the Book of Numbers that contrasts that text’s focus on war with present-day history.

“I don’t think I would have bothered if these first five books of the Bible didn’t strike me as wellsprings of poetry that really speak to me,” he adds. “I read them as poetry.”

As a student of Torah, Bellm says he appreciated the complexities of biblical Hebrew, though he is not fluent.

“I love the word play, the punning, those old rabbinic conversations,” he notes. “[Hebrew] thrives on ambiguity, words that mean more than one thing, a part of the story not quite told.”

In tackling the deeper meanings of the Torah, Bellm has a real inside advantage. He lives with a rabbi.

Bellm and Rabbi Yoel Kahn have been a couple since 1981. They had a Jewish wedding, consider each other husbands and have a 16-year-old son together. Kahn is the rabbi at Berkeley’s Congregation Beth El, though the family lives in San Francisco.

He grew up in Springfield, Ill., and attended college in Boston. He met Kahn there in 1981, while Kahn, a Bay Area native, was studying for the rabbinate. The two eventually moved to San Francisco, where Kahn became rabbi at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav. Bellm remains a member there.

Though he earned a masters in English, Bellm didn’t start writing serious poetry until his late 30s. It took a decade of work before he published his first book of poems in 1999. “Practice” is from Sixteen Rivers Press, a small Bay Area collective run by poets. That means Bellm puts in overtime to support the press and promote poetry in the region.

It’s not as lonely a pursuit as one might suspect.

“The Bay Area is a good place for poetry,” he says. “There are many kinds of work being written, different sets and clans. If there’s a grim story here, it’s how poetry is taught in schools. I’ve had many perfectly intelligent people say to me, ‘Oh, I don’t understand poetry. It’s over my head. Case closed.’ Then I turn them on to various writers.”

Bellm hopes to reach as wide an audience as possible with his work. Part of his master plan: being a Jewish poet writing Jewish poems.

“Poets are jealous of Jewish poets because Jews buy books. We have a very good reputation. I not only have the poetry world to draw on, but a whole Jewish world too.”

Dan Bellm reads from “Practice” at 7:30 p.m. March 19, at the Bureau of Jewish Education’s Jewish Community Library, 1835 Ellis, S.F. Information: (415) 567-3327 or online at

“Practice: A Book of Midrash” by Dan Bellm ($15, Sixteen Rivers Press, 80 pages)

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.