“It’s hard to be a Jewish poet,” Yehoshua November wrote in his first collection of poetry, God’s Optimism, published in 2010. Indeed, it must be difficult to juggle November’s identities as a Lubavitch Hasid, a family man, a poet, and a professor. In that poem, November explores some of the challenges inherent in writing religious poetry. These include the fear of confusing readers who are unaccustomed to encountering sincere expressions of Orthodox Judaism in verse, the problem of writing about forbidden or impure material, and the anxiety of trying to create new poems “when there is already the one great book.”
In his new collection, however, it turns out that the difficulties of being a Jewish poet do not primarily flow from being either Jewish or a poet but from the underlying difficulties of life itself. November’s new poems explore the challenges of making a living, raising children, maintaining a passionate relationship with his wife and a passionate relationship with God, and also confronting the complications and challenges that life has thrown his way, both everyday and extraordinary: a daughter born deaf; a cousin drowned in a tragic accident.
In a poem that adumbrates the theology and poetics of Two Worlds Exist, November writes:
Live like the Ark in the Holy of Holies,
the Rebbe often said,
Two and a half cubits long,
one and a half cubits wide,
one and a half cubits high,
but, paradoxically, occupying no space in the room
So a man rises from his dark-haired wife in a rectangular bed
according to a precise clock
to earn paychecks in particular amounts
to pay for the life that unfolds within the boundary lines
assigned to his name on a town map
filed in a metal, municipal drawer—
The tension between these two stanzas, and within the very concept of the Holy Ark that must conform to particular dimensions but which occupies “no space,” runs through November’s poems. How can one reconcile the boundless religious devotion expected of a Hasid with the often monotonous and rather circumscribed obligations required of an adult in this world?
In November’s first collection, one sensed the earnest journey of a young religious poet as he experimented with different ways in which Jewish themes could be brought to poetic life without pushing theological boundaries. One poem was titled “How a Place Becomes Holy,” another, non-ironically, “The Purpose of This World.” In these short, sweet, and fundamentally optimistic poems, November expresses the faith of a ba’al teshuvah who has discovered a new world. In one of them, he writes:
Sometimes, when a man passes the window of a shul,
he sees another man swaying
and stretching his arms heavenward,
and in the unseeable world, Hashem’s
long arms reach through the eternal
water and the firmament
and His hands cleave
to the hands of the man who is praying.
And the man passing by says,
Oh, why does he waste his energy,
what does he hope to touch?
From a literary standpoint, this is a bit pat: After all, the poet and the reader actually get to see the unseeable world, so of course the passerby is wrong. On the other hand, November was giving voice to an aspect of human experience that modern poetry, the precious lyrics produced in MFA workshops, had largely if not entirely forgotten. I borrowed the copy of God’s Optimism that I read from a man who kept it in his tallis bag.
November’s new collection is not disillusioned, but there is an ache and a weariness that wasn’t present in his earlier book. November seems to have made some discoveries about what it means to be a Hasidic family man in suburban New Jersey, which, while perhaps no more onerous than any other kind of existence, involves its own unique challenges. Faith is not an end-point in this collection—he isn’t defending the wisdom of Judaism in a way that might be credible in a graduate poetry seminar. In Two Worlds Exist, Judaism is the ground on which November grapples with the seriousness of life. As he writes at the end of the title poem of the collection:
When I was younger,
I believed the mystical teachings
could erase sorrow. The mystical teachings
do not erase sorrow.
They say, here is your life.
What will you do with it?
Judaism may not solve life’s problems, but it may, perhaps like poetry itself, heighten one’s sensitivity to them. In one of the more memorable poems of the collection, three bearded, young Chabad yeshiva students visit a medium-security prison in western Pennsylvania to celebrate Hanukkah with Jewish inmates. As they wait at the security checkpoint, a scantily clad woman with two young sons tries to enter. November notes her shame when she is asked by the officer to change into something more sensible for a prison environment and artfully juxtaposes it with the awkward young Chabadniks’ attempt to reach the inmates with tin menorah kits and mystical teachings.
We told the story of the soul,
which, against its will, descends
into the body’s confinements.
The speaker’s thoughts drift back to that woman squeezing into her own tight dress to provide her husband or boyfriend with “something to look forward to.” A question hovers over the poem as to whether the “story of the soul” that these young men are peddling can ever really compete with the story of the flesh offered by this vulnerable woman. Then again, both are trying to sanctify the “lowest realm,” each with the imperfect means at their disposal.
Two Worlds Exist is a serious poetry collection, but it is not all pathos. November has some fun at the expense of his colleagues and in contrasting his two social milieus. In the short poem entitled “Contemporary Poets,” November asks:
Has there ever been a group of agnostics so intent upon meaning
in every car door shutting
in the cold, each turn
of a leaf as it descends?
Do they believe
more than us, dozing off
in the back of the synagogue?
In another poem November contemplates his mentors’ dismissive attitude toward family life (“She was a great writer until she had children”). He contrasts this with an encounter he has with his rabbi:
A child is infinity,
my rabbi said when we met
in the worn-down yeshiva coat room
after my wife had given birth.
A child is infinity, he repeated,
The question of what it means to be a mensch has rarely been a subject for modern poetry. In one piece November alludes to Robert Hayden’s classic poem “Those Winter Sundays,” where the speaker meditates on his failure to appreciate the sacrifices his dour working-class father made for him: “What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices?”
In Hayden’s poem there is a disconnect between the kind of man who expresses his emotions in poetry and the kind of man who gets up early to tend to his family’s needs, even on Sunday. In Two Worlds Exist, one observes November striving to be both. As a religious Jew he is not infatuated with the poet’s vocation, he doesn’t even seem particularly impressed by it. Yet poetry, like Judaism, affords him the opportunity to elevate, or perhaps simply understand, what might otherwise be a set of rather tedious or inscrutable experiences.
In a poem whose title constitutes its first line, and whose subject is, like the Holy Ark, absolutely essential and yet occupies no space, November writes:
THE SOUL IN A BODY
is like an old Russian immigrant
looking out his apartment’s only window.
Yes, yes, he says,
the landlord printed my name in block letters
on the lobby directory
has been forwarded to this address.
But I am not from here. I am not
from here at all.
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In the summer of 1977, two old friends ran into each other in front of a Paris bookstore and found themselves arguing about Simone Weil, Judaism, and their lives.
City on a Hilltop is superbly researched, altogether accessible, and will dispel many lazy stereotypes about the people whose story it tells. But it leaves out a lot.
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