Identity In Flux: On Jewishness & Poetry

Rosebud Ben-Oni
July 12, 2016
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In late 2014, I asked six different poets of various ages and backgrounds questions about Jewish identity and poetry. I had answered some questions about poetry and faith on The Best American Poetry Blog and written of how I no longer belong to a synagogue, pray in solitude, and connect to my faith through poetry. That’s what prompted me to start this conversation first at ZEEK with Jewish poets Erika Meitner, Eduardo Gabrieloff, Hila Ratzabi, Jason Schneiderman and Emily Jaeger; we each asked a question for others to answer concerning the ideas of Topography & Landscape in Poetry, Humor as Survival, and Authenticity.

The conversation continues here, in a two-part post on Jewish identity as poets. This is the second installment featuring Erika Meitner, Eduardo Gabrieloff, Hila Ratzabi, and Jason Schneiderman.

 

Jason Schneiderman: How do you feel that your idea of Jewish identity has changed since you were a child (or when you first began to identify as Jewish, since we don’t necessarily all start out as Jews or of thinking of ourselves as Jewish) and how does that change register in your poetry? Another way to ask this question might be how has Judaism changed for you, and how does that impact your writing?

Eduardo Gabrieloff: I grew up in a strange family. My mother converted to Judaism before she married my father, but never gave up believing in Jesus. She taught us about him as well, but also taught us to celebrate the Jewish Holidays and practice the laws as written in the bible (vs. the Talmud). My sister and I attended Sunday School to learn about Judaism, learned Hebrew, and read the bible. I loved being Jewish. I loved knowing that my religion was the right one in a sea of Christianity.

But there was also an awareness, instilled in me more by my mother than father, that being Jewish meant we were under constant threat. We were taught to be cautious about who we told we were Jewish. The necessity for this became clear when we learned of our neighbor across the street calling us kikes to business partners, among other incidents. That was almost a welcome relief from being called drug lords.

Things cooled down in high school when we moved to Crested Butte. It was there, in a world history class, that I lost my faith. Reading the mythology of the Middle East, I kept being surprised by the similarities to my own religion. When it clicked that these religions all were built around power and conservation of that power, I left class an atheist. That set off a phase of silence and depression. I wondered if my parents had lied to me about all this so I’d behave. I wondered if there was anyone else in the world who knew it wasn’t true.

Atheism doesn’t mean I’m not Jewish, however. I’ve kept kosher, celebrated holidays, and continued to call myself Jewish. And, almost twenty years later, most Jews I know are atheist or agnostic. And that doesn’t diminish our culture in the least. My unpublished manuscript makes scant mention of religion, but reflects the loneliness and anguish of that loss of faith.

Erika Meitner:  I grew up in super-Jewish neighborhoods in and around New York City. I spent most of my adolescence in Great Neck—a town on Long Island that’s so Jewish that the bagel stores and pizza places close for the week of Passover. Nearly everyone I knew from home had parents or grandparents that had directly experienced the Holocaust or were Jewish immigrants in some way.

Growing up in a Jewish environment like that was somewhat overwhelming to me, and I wasn’t really able to define myself or my feelings about Judaism, or my own Jewish practice until I went to the most un-Jewish place I could find—Dartmouth College. Since 1992 (the year I left for college), aside from a year in Israel doing graduate work, I’ve mostly located myself as a Jew in small, predominately Christian Southern towns. This means that I’m automatically an outsider, instead of the insider I was in Great Neck. This means that I’m constantly defining myself against a Christian majority, which is something I never did as a child or teenager in places where Judaism was the norm. This means that my poems are acutely aware of this galut—this exile—and the idea that I live in the diaspora of the diaspora: places that are so culturally alien to me that I’m still trying to decipher them in an almost anthropological way.

My poems have grown to include this awareness, to embrace my pastor neighbor, the fundamentalists I encounter on a daily basis, the bibles in all the doctors’ waiting rooms, the bless-your-heart aphorisms, the end-times televangelists that come on after the local news here.  I’ve found myself weaving sections of New Testament, church billboards, revival pamphlets, and other Christian material into my poems—especially in my newest books, Ideal Cities and Copia—in an attempt to both reflect my surroundings and bridge the cultural and religious gap between place and self.

Hila Ratzabi: My Jewish identity has clearly changed over time. A distinct change was when I realized that I did not believe in a version of Judaism that is insular and tribal. For many Jews, that very fact is enough to keep them tied to Jewish identity. At some point it hit me that I would never want to identify with a Judaism that wasn’t welcoming to the “Other,” that didn’t know how to engage with and include the “Other.”

Sadly, an insular kind of Judaism was a lot of what I experienced growing up. Marrying a person who is not Jewish augmented this change. I am now living a very actively Jewish life with a non-Jewish partner, and I attend a progressive synagogue that is filled with Jewishly engaged interfaith families. I feel more authentically Jewish now than ten years ago, because I’ve come to a place where I’m comfortable and proud of my Jewish identity in its stance toward the “Other.”

Identity is not much of a theme in my poetry, though, because I don’t see myself as a clear persona in my poems. There is an “I” but there are other characters too. And who knows who that “I” is anyway, when we say “I”? Jewish tropes will always weave their way into my work because they are an essential part of my psyche. But who I am changes every day, in life and on the page.

Rosebud Ben-Oni: I was raised in a progressive household, but with a strong Jewish education. I have not been belonged to a synagogue for close to 10 years now. I miss the synagogue of the years leading up to my Bat Mitzvah, the Sabbath morning prayers in minor cords, the underlying melancholy that I’d later recognize in Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul, the estrangement I felt from the other congregants who never fully accepted us. It was too early to really ponder what this meant. Nine on a Saturday morning when my closest friends, all Christian, were still asleep or watching cartoons and eating breakfast.

It was always cold inside. My shoulders always covered. I always dreamed of other worlds while I was praying. The worlds of a chaotic and lopsided vision, broken shards of what I’d seen and things I’d imagined. They took me somewhere else while that melancholy and the minor cords and the angular sounds of Hebrew filled me with a loneliness I kept at an arm’s distance elsewhere. I was a lonely child with friends I didn’t really know. They didn’t know me. The Jewish kids at my temple went to other schools, better schools on the better side of town. They had money and my family did not. Later, at age sixteen, two twins would each drive a Mercedes.

But in the temple, I could shut my eyes and the loneliness was mine. It did not have to be shared. I wanted to be apart from everyone and I was. This was my claiming space for myself in the synangogue as someone with suspect Jewish identity, with a Mexican mother: my eyes shut, my mind wandering, the words on my lips without a sound coming out. The words of the prayers nearly perfect, my mind in another place but dependent on their meaning. In that, I was somewhere else, in a world that soon went blank, flashing colors of green and blue and red and white. My shut eyes turned up into the sunlight breaking through the window, and I could see something of the beginning I wanted for myself.  A sky, the first place to start. Something overheard without anything in it. Clear and blank, with the beginnings of colors. As if God and I would start over, together. As if I had a purpose.

I was relieved the moment the service was over. I was only a kid, after all, and wanted to be normal, with normal concerns. My relief always turned sour when we left the synagogue, stepped into the light from the double doors of the temple, while other families took their time to gather and embrace and laugh. No one reached out to us, and my mother, who could not change that she’d been born Mexican and Catholic, who’d converted but remained Mexican, would smile politely at everyone, her hand firmly encased in my father’s.

My brother and I trailed behind them. My brother locked inside himself, thinking of a Depeche Mode concert, or watching a Spurs game. Not sad like me. Not worrying about things like purpose and space and wanting to belong somewhere, a space of my own that I could speak of a new world, with understanding of the one I was in, but a world definitely of my own making— when I was too young and without the means to do so.

 

 

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