From the cover of "Many to Remember" by Rachel Kaufman
From the cover of "Many to Remember" by Rachel Kaufman

Jewish verses from the pandemic poetry surge

It was reported on National Public Radio last year that the Covid-19 pandemic had witnessed a dramatic increase in interest in poetry. It may be that troubled times impel us to make meaning of our situations, and we are drawn to the truths and questions we often find crystallized in poems. I know I’ve been turning to poetry more often, including two thematically unified collections that grapple with Jewish text and history.

‘Wolf Lamb Bomb’

Aviya Kushner’s “Wolf Lamb Bomb” is a passionate, sustained conversation with the Book of Isaiah. In truth, the communication is unilateral, but the intimacy with which Kushner addresses the Biblical prophet makes it feel like a dialogue.

Cover of 'Wolf Lamb Bomb,' poems by Aviya KushnerMuch of the book feels like an effort to process trauma — tragedy that is both collective and personal. Kushner, who has lived both in Jerusalem and the United States, cycles between remembrances of suicide bombings in Israel, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and her family’s experience in the Holocaust, their reverberations always close to the surface.

Turning to Isaiah in this context feels particularly appropriate. The Book of Isaiah records invasion, defeat and exile, but it also promises restoration and healing. Kushner is not fishing for simple answers, but, rather, embraces the Biblical text as an invitation to struggle. Recording her spiritual ambivalence in the poem “Stupor,” she writes:

One day I will finally stop gardening, will tumble
Out of my stupor and say, I am angry, I am raving mad,
You have taken so much from me, and yet I know you last
As my song, my friend, the maker of the sea, creator of the sun,
The human, the hard wind and the garden and the land.

Some of the book’s pain emerges in that difficulty of finding equilibrium in a landscape marred not only by human violence, but by divine “promises unkept, promises shattered.” The very wolf and lamb of the title, taken from Isaiah 11:6 (“The wolf shall dwell with the lamb”), stand emblematically: The vision may be gorgeous, but it feels illusory against a frequently merciless reality.

Those who are familiar with the Jewish ritual calendar know that sections of the Book of Isaiah are read successively in the synagogue during the seven weeks following Tisha B’Av as a source of solace, beginning with the words “Comfort, oh comfort My people, Says your God” (Isaiah 40:1). In “How to Soothe,” Kushner wonders at the repeated words and what they communicate about the cyclical nature of suffering and healing:

Tell me, Isaiah, is your repetition confusion,
Or just obsession with punishment?
Nachamu, nachamu, comfort oh comfort,
You try later, as if to say, comfort can come
More than once too.

Kushner draws from a rich background in both literature and religion. An associate professor of writing at Columbia College in Chicago, she is the author of the book “The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible” and writes a regular column on language for the Forward. Her rootedness in the Hebrew Bible is palpable throughout.

Fortunately, the book’s endnotes direct the reader to the sections of Isaiah that inspired each of the poems, perhaps that we might better understand the poems, or perhaps that we might develop our own responses. I sometimes long to be this sort of active reader, one who talks back.

‘Many to Remember’

Rachel Kaufman’s deeply felt debut collection “Many to Remember” responds to a different set of texts and traumas. Kaufman is a doctoral student in history at UCLA, where her studies focus on the Crypto-Jews of Mexico and New Mexico. A significant number of Spanish Jews who had converted to Catholicism out of necessity prior to the expulsion edict of 1492 came to the New World with hopes that their clandestine adherence to Jewish practices would go unnoticed. But the Inquisition followed them to Mexico and Latin America, and some of them were discovered, put on trial and executed. Others endured, and, particularly in New Mexico, a delicate line of connection to their Jewish roots continues through the present day.

Cover of 'Many to Remember' by Rachel KaufmanWhile responding in verse to her archival research on Crypto-Jews, Kaufman also introduces the experience of her own Ashkenazi forebears, and specifically her grandfather’s experience of fleeing Germany in the 1930s. As she notes in the preface, “I am seeing two stories at once, overlaid, overlapping, distinct. Through each, the other — desert sun reflecting off scrolls. Empathy, rather than comparison.”

The ensuing poems are strong but challenging, as they rarely tell a story explicitly. Somewhat flummoxed by my difficulties drawing meaning from some of the imagery, I turned to the internet and found a thoughtful essay (tinyurl.com/jhi-kaufman) Kaufman wrote last year: “Historical Traces in Archival Poetry.” In it, she noted that “historical poems sometimes represent an image of the past without fully entering it, perhaps purposefully acknowledging the gap — the archival silences, worm-eaten words — between present-day poet and the past which she recalls.”

And it began to make particular sense that the act of memorializing a history that is recorded in fragments (and what can be more elusive than a group maintaining its identity in secrecy?) may be most appropriately done in fragments, echoing not only those “archival silences,” but perhaps the very sort of gestures, hints and symbols that helped the Crypto-Jews of the Southwest retain their connection to past generations. I came to enjoy the poems as impressions imbued with feeling, accepting my inability to grasp them fully.

“Wolf Lamb Bomb” by Aviya Kushner (Orison Books, 68 pages)

“Many to Remember” by Rachel Kaufman (Dos Madres Press, 100 pages)

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

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