101 Jewish Poems for the Third Millennium, edited by Matthew E. Silverman and Nancy Naomi Carlson (Ashland Poetry Press, 2021), arrives just in time — in the midst of a pandemic, after an alarming resurgence of anti-Semitism in the United States, if not across the world.
This rich compilation of 101 voices speaks, in part, as a cautionary note to remain ever vigilant in remembering the devastation that befell the Jewish people some eight decades ago. It would nevertheless be reductive to call this collection a Holocaust anthology. The editors’ initial goal was to include “…writers from many different walks of life: both Jewish and non-Jewish, secular and non-secular, known and emerging, as well as poets writing in other languages” in a collection of Jewish-themed poems representative of the Third Millennium. Their main selection criteria were excellence and thematic breadth. In both regards, they have admirably succeeded.
In his thought-provoking forward, (subsequently reprinted in full in Tikkun Magazine, January 25, 2021), Chassidic poet Yehoshua November writes: “Like so many of the best contemporary poems, a number of works included here awaken us to a sanctity or beauty that pulses beneath the quotidian skin of daily life. In the case of this anthology, that daily life is informed – subtly or overtly – by Jewish identity and the particular shapes and forms it has assumed in the Third Millennium. In calling our attention to the idiosyncratic struggles and delights of ordinary people, poetry revives us from our habituation and restores a living and breathing humanity to its subjects, both of which are crucial in attempts to dampen hatred of any group seen as Other.”
When editors Silverman and Carlson sent out their first call for submissions in 2018, expecting that perhaps 40-50 poems would make a book, they were soon overwhelmed by the 800 poems they received. Clearly, the need to reflect and share observations about the recent frightening past is real and transcends religious and national identity. An unusual aspect of this anthology is that it also includes non-Jewish poets writing about Jewish themes, reminding us how connected human concerns remain, in spite of our differences.
Tony Barnstone’s poem, “American Spoken Here,” reminiscent of Cavafy’s famous poem, “Waiting for the Barbarians,” eloquently captures these common concerns:
“We had to disappear. Otherwise they would have taken us. I remember the
day I found my neighbors gone and the door was swinging open. I
walked into the kitchen and the floor was painted red with blood.
The list has its supporters, and they have a message for us: Dispose of the
Roses! Uproot the Tulips! Blackjack that Lilac!
They want to count down from eleven million without using Zero.
They want to erase and erase until the page is pure white.”
In their introduction, Silverman and Carlson write: “With anti-Semitism on the rise, we began to realize that the effect of the collection is not to define Judaism in a limiting way but to enable readers to see the depths of Jewish-related themes and their similarity to ideas and thoughts that affect any person living in this century. From well-known favorites, like Ellen Bass, Jane Hirschfield, Edward Hirsh and Linda Pastan, to names less familiar to American readers – Russian poets, Gennady Katsov, Nina Kossman, Irina Mashinski and Vladimir Gandelsman to Ecuadorian poet, Ivonne Andrade, Chilean-American, Marjorie Agosín, and Israeli poets – Helen Bar-Lev, Dara Barnat, Moshe Dor, Eli Eliahu, Gili Haimovich and Marcela Sulak – 101 Jewish Poems for the Third Millennium offers the reader a broad range of expression and experience concerning contemporary Jews and non-Jews alike.
In her poem, “They Came,” dedicated to the families of the deceased buried in Jewish cemeteries desecrated since January of 2017, Jill Bialosky sharply describes an all-too familiar scene:
“They came to see
what the destroyers had done,
granite and marble slabs with
the names and dates of the beloved
toppled as if the gravestones were bodies
with faces thrust into the mud.”
Across the world, from a radically different perspective, Israeli poet Eli Eliahu, in his poem, “Underground,” describes the sense of shame his father felt while listening to his native Arabic on the radio:
“And how can I help it
if the operation was successful and Baghdad
died, and nothing is left
but the music my father
would listen to on the stations of shame
while waiting in the underground parking lot
to drive me to the people’s army
on his way to work.”
Family is so often at the center of these poems, bridging worlds and memories. At the end of her poem, “Eating a Persimmon, 1954,” Olga Livshin describes her Ukranian great-grandfather giving her four-year-old mother the rare treat of a persimmon:
“How there is still another interpretation
for that persimmon: my great-grandfather
wanted his only grandkid to know pleasure.
To dive into an unexplored space:
neither the unwatered earth,
nor trauma’s infinite hug,
Balanced with poems of lamentation and warning are poems steeped in Jewish culture and a steadfast commitment to continuity, with or without religious faith. Moreover, amidst the historic persecution and suffering, a sense of irony has helped Jews maintain some kind of balance. Alice Friman’s poem, “Ammunition,” is a good example of this gift for combining sorrow with irony.
“….No, we never had
stashes of guns. We had violins and books.
And if we had to hide or hightail it and run,
we took what we could with us. Sure,
we gave America corned beef on rye,
lox, bagels, and George Gershwin.
Not to mention the Salk vaccine, cheese
Danish and Phil Levine. You can’t say
we weren’t generous. But don’t be fooled.
We had weapons. And we could dish it out
with the best of them. Ice-Pick Willie had
nothing on us. He used a gun. We used guilt.”
With a plethora of voices, languages, cultures, and religious sentiments (or the lack
thereof), this timely anthology offers 101 splendid responses to a legitimate question with no
definitive answer: What is a Jewish poem?