Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

Mixed Dancing

Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

Mixed Dancing

Article excerpt

Alicia Suskin Ostriker. The Book of Life: SelectedJewish Poems, 1979-2011. University of Pittsburgh Press 2012. $16.95 (paper)

Alicia Suskin Ostriker. Dancing at the Devils Party: Essays on Poetry, Politics, and the Erotic. University of Michigan Press 2000. 122 pp. $16.95 (paper)

Alicia Suskin Ostriker. For the Love of God: The Bible as an Open Book. Rutgers University Press 2007. 164 pp. $22.95; $19.95 (paper)

Alicia Suskin Ostriker. The Little Space: Poems Selected and New, 1968-1998. University of Pittsburgh Press 1998. 231 pp. $16.95 (paper)

Alicia Suskin Ostriker. The Mother/Child Papers: with a New Preface by the Author. University of Pittsburgh Press 2009. 65 pp. $14.95 (paper)

Alicia Suskin Ostriker. The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions. Rutgers University Press 1994. 282 pp. $20.00 (paper)

Alicia Suskin Ostriker. No Heaven. University of Pittsburgh Press 2005. 136 pp. $12.95 (paper)

Alicia Suskin Ostriker. The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog. University of Pittsburgh Press 2014. 80 pp. $15.95 (paper)

Alicia Suskin Ostriker. the volcano sequence. University of Pittsburgh Press 2002. $12.95 (paper)

Maeera Shreiber. Singing in a Strange Land: A Jewish American Poetics. Stanford University Press 2007. 304 pp. $57.50

What is it to be a Jewish poet? What is it to be a Jewish woman poet? I did not always ask these questions. -Alicia Ostriker, preface to The Book of Life: Selected Jewish Poems, 1979-2011

I got the call one Hanukkah night back in 2006. Would I be willing to join a hush-hush "Liturgy Task Force," charged with planning a second edition of Kol Haneshama, the official prayerbook of the Jewish Reconstructionist Communities? (The title is an upbeat Hebrew pun, since "All that has Breath [kol haneshama\," from Psalm 150, is a homophone for "Voice of the Soul [qol haneshamd\." To find the denomination, back ruefully out of Conservative Judaism and hang a sharp left-you can't miss it.) Tough questions faced our little cabal. Should we bring back the "chosen people" language that was dropped in the 1940s? What about prayers for God to restore the Temple, or give life to the dead? And how should we handle all of those "readings," the supplementary texts that had been, if you'll pardon the expression, larded into the book? Much of this avoirdupois was poetry, or at least typeset that way: a little Hayim Nahman Bialik; some decorous gleanings from Yehuda Amichai, Charles ReznikofF, and Kadya Malodowsky; a playlist of hits from fan favorite Marge Piercy; the musings of rabbis, sages, and congregants, broken into lines and offered up as "alternative" or "interpretive" versions of this or that blessing. Alas, it's harder to flense a prayerbook than to cleanse a Temple. One reader's side order of schmaltz is another's cruse of purest oil.

Perhaps our struggles were to be expected. A sort of merry war between poetry and liturgy has marked Jewish culture since at least the fifth century. As Maeera Shreiber explains in Singing in a Strange Land: a Jewish American Poetics, prayer-poems (piyyutim) were originally welcomed by certain worshippers, especially in Palestine, as a break from the established service. But other worshippers were not so pleased. "In Babylonia," Shreiber writes, prayer-poems were "viewed as a 'foreign' and hence dangerous element," a "subversive presence" to be battled or shunned. There's a squib in the Talmud {Berakhot 8a) in which Rabbis Asi and Ami are described as steering clear of thirteen local synagogues that allowed prayer-poems. The medieval rabbi Ben Baboi declared the poets Yannai and Kallir deserving of death for having tinkered with liturgy. Even David has taken his rabbinic lumps for having versified Holy Law. Shreiber points out a memorable smackdown in the Talmudic tractate Sotah (35a): "Why was David punished? Because he treated scripture as songs, as it is written, 'Your statutes have been as songs to me . …

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