Three new books of poetry with Jewish themes.
Three new books of poetry with Jewish themes.

New Jewish poetry books to accompany you through isolation

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Although one of the thrills of poetry is the ability to engage with a fulfilling piece of literature that may take only a minute to read, I’d like to introduce three collections of poetry that I’ve recently enjoyed in which the greater reward lies in reading the whole package.

I am late in arriving to Ilya Kaminsky’s “Deaf Republic,” which was published last year to acclaim. Born in 1977 into a Jewish family in Odessa, Ukraine, Kaminsky lost most of his hearing at age 4. After he moved to the United States as a teenager, he became a poet in his adopted language — one that he was unable to hear conventionally.

Cover of "Dear Republic" by Ilya KaminskyThis gripping volume is a narrative composed of dozens of short poems. The arc follows Petya, a deaf boy who had been watching a puppet show. After he is killed by soldiers in the central square of the fictional town of Vasenka, the townspeople take up deafness as a form of resistance. They refuse to hear the soldiers, and begin to communicate with each other in signs. The situation becomes increasingly brutal, with soldiers attacking citizens, citizens attacking soldiers and citizens turning on one another.

It is an inherently political book, a parable that can apply to the rise of authoritarianism globally. However, Kaminsky concludes with an unambiguous evocation of the United States today, sounding a warning by connecting injustices in our society to the killing of Petya.

But where the book stands unique is as a meditation on language. As a note at the end asserts provocatively, “The deaf don’t believe in silence. Silence is the invention of the hearing.”

I was fascinated by the representation of these ideas in the book’s religious language. One poem begins, “Watch, God — / deaf have something to tell / that not even they can hear.” The juxtaposition of the senses is striking, and perhaps particularly for a Jew. Where the dominant sense summoned in Jewish prayer is hearing (as in the Shema), here God is called to watch as the deaf communicate.

The brief poem “Elegy” is similarly provocative: “Six words, Lord: / please ease of song / my tongue.” This is an adaptation of the six words that begin the Amidah, the central prayer in Jewish liturgy — a prayer that is recited in synagogues both in silence and aloud. What do these words mean through the lens of deafness? Such questions abound in responding to Kaminsky’s tremendous creative endeavor.

Blood Memory” is Gail Newman’s collection of poems revolving around her experience as the daughter of Polish Holocaust survivors. Newman, who was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany, gives voice to an experience rarely recorded in poetry, lending dignity to her parents’ lives and conveying the enormous difficulty of living under the weight of what they endured.

Cover of "Blood Memory" by Gail NewmanThe book’s first segment, “Blood Memory,” chronicles her parents’ wartime experiences in towns, the Lodz Ghetto, Auschwitz and labor camps. Its second part, “Lost Language,” captures their lives after the war, as they carried the baggage of traumatic memory with them. In the final section, “Living with the Dead,” Newman focuses on her parents as they age — with her father dying and her mother suffering a stroke — and on visiting Poland and bringing herself into her own relationship with the Holocaust and its legacy of loss and suffering.

To create poetry out of these experiences is a daunting task, and Newman succeeds in creating honest and unflinching works that paint a cohesive picture through small moments and detailed imagery.

Newman ably communicates the inescapable and intimately felt heaviness of history both for those who suffer through it and those who inherit it. One poem includes: “Some nights I awake to hear / my father crying out like a child.” Another: “Some days at the table / my father’s hand is slow / to bring bread to his mouth. He is inside the telling of his story / his body far away, hidden under a mattress / jumping off a train into snow / hiding potatoes in his pocket.”

Aviya Kushner’s “Eve and All the Wrong Men” is an example of a book that can’t be judged by its cover. A small chapbook light on production values, this provocative and well-crafted collection has the feeling of a discovery.

Cover of "Eve and all the Wrong Men" by Aviya KushnerThe stakes are established in its introductory poem, “The Feminine,” which contemplates the problematic figure of Eve, who is “less substantial / there for company…there only because it is not good for man to be alone.” However, it concludes: “But beware / She is less predictable than you think, God. / You have no idea what happens / When you make one creature out of another.”

And when Kushner writes of Eve, she knows of whom she speaks. She is the author of “The Grammar of God,” an excellent book from 2015 focused on encountering the Bible translated into English from the vantage point of someone who grew up immersed in Torah as a Hebrew-speaking Orthodox Jew.

Many of her poems explore the often lamentable ways in which men and women are by nature in relation to one another, whether in the Garden of Eden or Chicago. When she writes, “For years I stood hard when I heard / sugar, honey, sweets, cupcake / a whole bakery in the mouths of men / saying anything for a taste,” Kushner is bringing some of the Bible’s earliest themes — loneliness, temptation and the consequences of bad choices — into intimate poems that feel fresh.

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.