Poetry readings thrive at Oakland synagogue

A low-stakes poker game wouldn’t seem a likely place to cook up a poetry reading series. Yet that’s where poet Richard Silberg befriended poetry fan Phil Rubin nearly a decade ago, eventually leading to the semi-annual Temple Sinai poetry reading.

Now in its seventh year, the series, which takes place in the spring and fall, has been a cultural highlight at Oakland’s Reform synagogue. The event is sponsored by the committee on culture of the Temple Sinai Brotherhood, chaired by Rubin.

Staged in Sinai’s sanctuary, the reading has brought together diverse local Jewish poets. Alumni include Marcia Falk, Hannah Block and Rabbi Sam Broude. One constant all these years is Silberg, who both hosts the event and reads from his own voluminous work.

“A Poetry Reading: Facets of Spirituality” takes place Thursday, March 27. The event is free. Joining Silberg this year are Albany poet Mark Taksa and newly ordained Rabbi Ruth Adar.

“Ruth is a wonderful, fervent person,” Silberg says. “I met her at a seder at Phil Rubin’s house, and she was so full of power and dedication, I immediately wanted her to be part of the series.”

Taksa “was a student of mine many years ago, but entirely on his own he’s rather a brilliant poet.”

Silberg, 66, loves to play cheerleader to local poets. He has long served as co-editor of Poetry Flash, a respected journal of Bay Area poetry. He has also published five volumes of his own work, as well as a translation of works by the Korean poet Ko Un.

Whenever he can, Silberg likes to read his work aloud to audiences, whether at poetry slams or other conclaves. For him, poetry is not the stuff of cloistered academia.

“I’m a fairly accessible poet,” he says. “There are some [poets] that would leave you scratching your head. But for the most part, I think I’m an entertaining poet and reader, so I can get across to audiences who know very little about poetry.”

Silberg says Judaism has influenced his spirituality as well as his work. “In poetry,” he says, “we — listeners, readers and poets — are all concentrating on deep human concerns, and there is a communion upon them.”

The New York-born Silberg did not start out a poet. If anything, he started out at age 6 as a “militant atheist.” He went on to attend Harvard, then moved to Berkeley in the mid-’60s, a place and time where poetry thrived.

“I loved the Beats,” he says of the renowned poetry movement, made famous in part thanks to San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore. “They among many others mattered to me, particularly Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Kaddish.’ It moved me to my roots.”

His first book was not about poetry, but rampaging technology and how it might someday degrade community and tradition. Taking his own advice, today Silberg is a technophobe, eschewing cell phones, computers and email.

In their place, he prefers a pen, paper and a love of words.

“Poetry is something I cared about, but did not begin to write seriously until my early 30s,” he says. “Starting in 1982, I organized a poetry reading series at the dear defunct Cody’s [bookstore] on Telegraph. I read [poetry] voraciously, I teach poetry and of course I write it.”

With such single-minded focus, one might suspect Silberg of obsessing on the craft of poetry. But he scoffs at the notion.

“I never think about honing my craft,” he says. “I think about writing the best poetry I can. The term ‘craft’ is a lie, because you just go for it. Writing a poem really means bringing your whole being to focus on the words and what they might mean.”

“A Poetry Reading: Facets of Spirituality” takes place 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 27 at Temple Sinai, 2808 Summit St., Oakland. Admission is free. For more information, call Phil Rubin at (510) 547-8080

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.