Jamie Wendt concludes her four-part essay “American Jewish Women Poets” with a study of poems by Hadara Bar-Nadav and Sarah Wetzel. Read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and Part 3 here. –The Editors
HADARA BAR-NADAV and SARAH WETZEL
In Part One of this installment on American Jewish Women Poets, I analyzed two poems by Emma Lazarus, who is considered to be the first American Jewish poet. Throughout her writing career, her poetry began to have more of a Jewish presence, focusing on the state of Jews in America. In Part Two, I analyzed the poetry of three women born just before and during the Holocaust: Maxine Kumin, Alicia Suskin Ostriker, and Chana Bloch. The poems included in Part Two reflect issues of American Jewish history and being Jewish in America as an everyday experience.
While Jewish poems are about family, traditions, holidays, Jewish concerns, and everyday mundane experiences, Jewish poems can also be about Israel. Emma Lazarus, Alicia Suskin Ostriker, and Chana Bloch all have poems about Israel. Israel is not only the Jewish homeland, but it also represents the struggle for freedom and peace that the Jewish people have endured for thousands of years. Writing about Israel today comes with a lot of baggage, because almost everything mentioned about Israel seems to be political, and many Americans and Israelis are very opinionated about the Israeli-Arab and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts. Deciding to write poetry about Israel in general takes courage because of the anti-Semitism that is growing around issues in Israel.
There are two young female poets who have lived in Israel and are writing about Israel today in some of their poetry. These women are Hadara Bar-Nadav and Sarah Wetzel. Bar-Nadav is a very lyric and abstract poet who focuses a lot of attention on sound throughout her poems whereas Wetzel’s poems include both lyric and narrative aspects. Bar-Nadav spoke on an AWP panel in 2013 on the topic of Israel and Iranian Poetry and she mentioned that one of her parents is Israeli and she spent many summers in Israel and considers herself to be Israeli-American. Wetzel lived in Israel for several years and now spends her time between Israel and the U.S. The majority of Wetzel’s poems are about Israel, and she writes from a distinctly female voice.
Hadara Bar-Nadav’s book The Frame Called Ruin begins with a few poems about Israel and then she slowly begins to change subjects for her poetry. Many of her poems in The Frame Called Ruin are ekphrastic, which she has written in response to paintings, photographs, and sculptures that don’t have any relation to Judaism. But by starting her book with poems about Israel, Bar-Nadav is letting her readers know upfront that her identity matters to her and that it is at the forefront of her mind and art. In an email correspondence with her, she mentioned that it felt “bold” of her to put those poems up front. On discussing the first poem in her book titled “Write Paris Out of the Pictures,” she said, “I ‘outed’ myself. And I knew that certain readers would be immediately turned off, but I did it anyway. That for me was a kind of declaration of selfhood and poetryhood. Why can’t a poem about Israel be featured front and center in a book? Will readers turn away? Will readers then think every poem in the book is about being Israeli or Jewish? In the end, I thought it was a technically strong opening poem, regardless of its political affinities. But there was also a feeling of defiance, of here I am, here is the poem, like it or not.” These first poems seem to establish what she cares about and thinks about the most before heading off into her more secular poems.
“Write Paris Out of the Pictures” is a portrait poem of Tel Aviv. Her second poem in the book is called “Alarm Pleasures Into Hum,” and while this poem does not mention Israel or anything Jewish (similar to Chana Bloch’s poem “Flour and Ash”), the images lead the reader to understand the poem as referring to the alarms that provide a fifteen second warning to Israeli citizens when a Qassam rocket is about to strike nearby. The fourth poem in the book is called “Blur” and is dedicated to the four individuals who were killed when a suicide bomber blew up a bakery in Eilat, Israel, which is a tourist town. These three poems all include images of suffering and death and portray Israel and/or its people as bruised. Here is the poem “Write Paris Out of the Pictures:”
Tel Aviv’s face wears a makeup
of ash. Dust climbs
cheekbone to eyelash.
In the open face of light
women hide like spiders in a well
(I am not well, I am not well).
Here comes the junk man
with his little cart
and horse skeleton.
The apartment floods
with dreams–how much
for the wedding ring?
Trade a necklace of bullet shells
while the windows rain.
A suicide of buildings.
The landscape blushes,
redly bruised. Hair
unraveling at the root.
Alleys collect finger bones,
calicos and crying.
A soldier touches my crying,
my sun-freckled breasts.
Drink and the wine
licks our bruised lips.
We cannot go to the movies.
Street empty, close.
We race to where the city
ends. The beach is riddled,
waters bleed. Days
Hadara Bar-Nadav uses words to create double meanings in order to show that there is more than one side to everything, which is interesting particularly when writing political poems. For example, when she writes, “women hide like spiders in a well / (I am not well, I am not well),” both phrases are negative yet portray two images using the same word with a double meaning. Women who are hiding like spiders in a well are afraid, lonely, trying to get away from something, and/or preferring not to be noticed. This explains why the women would say, “I am not well, I am not well.” Being in hiding is not natural. Bar-Nadav mentions an apartment with dreams where people are wanting to get married (“how much for the wedding ring?”), yet the only jewelry that is actually available is a necklace of bullet shells, which brings the writer to add the phrase, “a suicide of buildings.” This sounds like “suicide bombers,” and Bar-Nadav is playing with the sound of language (also with the slant rhyme of dream and ring) in order to manipulate reality and add depth to what is occurring or being observed.
In the poem, the landscape blushes and bruises and the wine licks bruised lips. The landscape is bruised because of terror that is evident physically, but the people are also bruised internally. The choice of having their lips bruised is interesting because lips help us communicate and love and kiss one another. For them to be bruised shows a lack in the ability to communicate and love, which is part of the argument Bar-Nadav is making; if the land is bruised, the people are affected along with their ability to trust others. Wine is a holy drink in Judaism and is blessed every Shabbat. For a Jew to feel bruised while the holiness of wine is entering her also suggests a disconnect between religious practice and reality.
Tel Aviv is a beach city along the Mediterranean Sea, and when Bar-Nadav writes that the city ends at the beach, which is riddled and waters bleed, she is again creating a double-meaning with the images. The beach and the Mediterranean are known as beautiful, respite locations, yet the waters bleed, bringing up the image of one of the ten plagues on Egypt in the Bible. The beach is riddled, because it looks beautiful but actually includes death or ugliness. This seems to be the theme of the poem, since it even begins with the fact that Tel Aviv wears “a makeup of ash,” which also sounds like “mask.” Something is hiding beneath the surface, whether or not the hurt and pain want to show themselves. In an essay on the Poetry Society’s website, Bar-Nadav writes, “If you live in Israel, as my father did prior to his death in 2007, you live with an element of absurdity, a dramatic and sometimes random reordering of experience: a child’s backpack becomes a supermarket bomb, young soldiers with machine guns strapped to their backs eat ice cream cones on the street, camels are parked next to cars, fertile fields rise from the desert, modern architecture is nestled against ancient ruins, and daily life collides with violence.” The strangeness of the experiences in Israel that Bar-Nadav writes about in her essay seems to be an inspiration for the double-meanings and juxtapositions in her poetry about Israel. Bar-Nadav’s short lines and strong images paint a picture of a city in suffering though not really knowing what to do about it. Hair is “unraveling at the root,” but nothing is being done to fix it.
Several of Sarah Wetzel’s poems in her book Bathsheba Transatlantic also confront issues of suffering in Tel Aviv and in Israel in general. A strong female narrator is often present in her poems and therefore provides a certain perspective on life in Israel. One poem in particular that addresses a Jewish woman’s concerns in Israel is called “Suburb Living.” Here is the poem:
I live secluded,
our house built by men
who some here call ants.
Shipped in from Thailand,
they carry loads till
the boss says, Go home.
Just like the neighbors
where there’s no homemade
cake, quiet only
on Saturdays when
yard men and kitchen
It’s always too hot
in the streets. The dog
sleeps spread eagled like
me on days when I
can’t write. Women, some
do work, ask about
children. I tell them
there will be none, by
choice, making me more
strange than not being
Jewish or someone
with gardening gloves.
This poem is pretty narrative and clearly shows the relationship of the Jewish suburban women in the neighborhood to the narrator and also to their surroundings. Like typical suburban women, they let the men do the dirty work, although the men are not even doing everything themselves, since they receive parts shipped in from Thailand. There is a sense of laziness throughout the poem that even extends to the dog sleeping spread eagled in the hot street.
The poem seems to be autobiographical due to the reference of the narrator being a writer, which does not appear in the rest of Wetzel’s poems. By putting herself in the poem, she shows that she is willing to set herself apart from the other suburban women who look down on her for not having children. This is a pretty stereotypical issue and clash between modernity and tradition, particularly within the Jewish community. Educated women in America and Israel are having less children in general than they used to; however, in Israel, the issue becomes personal to more people because not having children can be a slap in the face to the future of Judaism. Many people believe that the population of Israel should have a Jewish majority for the land to be a Jewish state, and not having children does not help the Zionist Movement in that situation. The issue that Wetzel brings up in this poem is not just a classic example of a woman wanting independence and not being forced into motherhood but rather a Jewish-Israeli issue that has an effect on the country as a whole. Therefore, this poem, which at first seems fairly simple, is actually ambitious.
After reading many of Wetzel’s poems, it is clear that she feels a strong emotional connection to the land of Israel and its people, despite some of her poems including political opinions that lean more secular than religious, and this poem stands out because of its clash with other Israeli women. One of her other poems in Bathsheba Transatlantic that does sympathize with Jewish women is a poem called “El Al Flight 8,” which describes an Orthodox man praying on the plane. He gets to the point in his prayers where he reads a blessing that thanks God for making him a man and not a woman (which is part of the morning daily prayers for men). Wetzel writes,
in the way his wife moves his pillow from the seat
as he finishes his prayer. There are moments
in line for the bathroom at a bar when I get
the man’s point. Such nonsense! No sense
of how the thing said is the words, how the words
are themselves the thing said. She has a self
he rejoices in not knowing.
Wetzel is very aware of gender issues in Judaism and life in Israel. In the excerpt above, she is able to sympathize with the Orthodox man’s wife and even with the Orthodox man (in a humorous situation), and yet at the end of the excerpt, she clearly expresses the problem with this particular daily prayer.
On the topic of the Jewishness of poems written by Jewish women, Hadara Bar-Nadav wrote in our email correspondence, “Yes, all of my poems are Jewish poems, and no, none of my poems are Jewish poems. That is, I don’t see how any poet could entirely erase her history, her family, her spirituality, and her being from the work she produces.” Her statement argues for the multi-faceted expression of identity in Jewish American women’s poetry. Jewish women poets in America have been concerning themselves with Jewish topics in their writing since Emma Lazarus wrote “In the Jewish Synagogue at Newport.” Just as Lazarus became concerned with the treatment of Russian Jews during the pograms of the late 19th century, other female poets have also concerned themselves with Jewish issues that found their way into poetry. Maxine Kumin reflects on the similar histories of Jews and African-Americans in the United States; Hadara Bar-Nadav writes about the hidden suffering of Tel Aviv, a city she connects to personally as an Israeli-American. Jewish women poets also write about topics that don’t have any roots in Jewish tradition, and this allows them to explore their multi-faceted identities. Their Jewish poems, however, speak to Jewish audiences due to the similarities we share within Jewish culture and inform non-Jewish audiences about the Jewish American woman’s experience.
Americanism and Judaism are, at times, the same but also at odds with each other. Americanism focuses on freedom of religion and expression, secularism in daily life, politics, and schools, integration of unique cultures in society, and safety of all citizens. While Judaism also expresses similar values as America, American Judaism is grounded in centuries old holiday and family traditions, tight-knit communities in pockets around the country centered near a synagogue, and oftentimes, a yearning for Israel is taught and engrained. The combination of traditional Jewish values with modern freedoms in America creates a palette of interesting topics for poetry by Jewish American women.
American Jewish Women’s identities are also unique in that within the few sects of Judaism (Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox), women experience varying lifestyles and therefore have unique American experiences as Jews. Most, if not all, of American Jewish women’s poetry is written by liberal Jewish women. While this might be expected, there are many voices and experiences within Orthodox women’s lives that have not been recorded from inside that community as witnesses. For example, female religious issues concerning the wearing of a wig verse a headscarf or about whether the mechitza is like a border dividing classes or countries or is actually a liberating experience for women are interesting concepts to explore through poetry that have not necessarily been written yet. Jewish women’s experiences range from motherhood, widowhood, lesbianism, marriage, and divorce all within the context of Jewish and American history and daily life. Without studying the writing of Jewish American women poets, American poetry as a collective is not complete.
Bar-Nadav, Hadara. The Frame Called Ruin. Kalamazoo, Michigan: New Issues: Western Michigan University, 2012. Print.
Bar-Nadav, Hadara. “Poetry Questions.” Message to Jamie Wendt. 19 Aug 2013. E-mail Correspondence.
Bar-Nadav, Hadara. “Suicide Bombings and Poetry.” Poetry Society. N.p.. Web. 15 Sep 2013.
Wetzel, Sarah. Bathsheba Transatlantic. Tallahassee, Florida: Anhinga Press, 2012. Print.
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