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Adam Schonbrun: Poet from Tzfat

By Jake Marmer

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If you think that everyone, living in the Nothern Israeli town of Tzfat is either an ecstatic kabbalist wrapped in hippie scarves or painter with a blowing glass gallery — or a combination of both — you’re not too far from the truth. Yet, among these characters, there lives a completely different sort of a mystic — Brooklyn-born expat poet, Adam Schonbrun. He recently completed his US tour, zooming through Indiana University, Penn State, and New York, reading from his “New and Selected Poems” collection, as well as from his article on teaching English in the integrated Arab and Israeli College during the Intifada.

At the core of his poetry is always the raw, wide-eyed revelation; and while there’re plenty of Midrashic and Talmudic references throughout, this revelation is generally of the deeply secular nature — sex, drugs, jazz, or even suicide:

The Search

One rainy
Night, Ben Adam
Thought to end
His life,
But on the wet
In the moon-light
A telephone token

He bent down,
Reaching into
A puddle (In the puddles
Were blood worms!)

To answer
This call from the filth.
Hand outstretched
He waited to bathe
In words he knew could heal.

“Hand outstretched” is a Biblical turn of phrase (repeated in the Hagaddah), signifying nothing short of salvation, which here comes through something very small — pathetically small. Is he a child transfixed with a shiny token? Or a miser, willing to dunk his hand in the dirty puddle to pluck the coin? Self-deprecation meets awe; rhythm is blues-perfect, with end-wet-light and Adam-token-shone echoing half-rhymes in the first verse, as are filth and bathe in the last. Ben Adam is Hebrew for a “human being,” yet, with the upper case strategically deployed by the poet, it also hints at self-reference. And “bathing in words” is an image of purification, recalling the mikveh — but a viscerally verbal mikveh, and also one positioned, ironically, in the puddle full of blood worms.

Such purification is exactly what it feels like to read Schonbrun’s work — an exhilarating shower of street-affection dressed in blues rhythm. Indeed after Schonbrun’s appearance there, Professor Daniel Walden of Penn State, said that the poet “went over like hotcakes,” not only due to the quality of his work, but also to the outstanding performance — which professor Walden bravely contrasted with the dull recording of monotonous droning T.S Eliot; T.S. might be turning in his grave, etherized with offence — but what of it? His time is past, while Adam Schonbrun continues to entertain and provoke, both on page and on stage.

Read more poems from Adam Schonbrun below:

A Jewish Valediction Forbidding Mourning

When my father died I turned to Judaism.

In the Midrash the Rabbis ask:
Why was Judah given the blessing of kingship?

They answer:
When all the other brothers
Saw their father Jacob
Weeping, ash and sackcloth,
They fell to the earth & began to repent.

Judah, however, went out with his cane
& got himself into the bed of Tamar.
This, we learn later on, as Jacob blessed
His sons, was the sign of kingship—

And this is also why I took that redhead
To the duckpond in my parents’ old 73 Bonneville
& untangled myself from my Tzittzit & held her
warm girl’s body till it felt great to be alive
& the 8th day of mourning was my happiest also
because somewhere out there on that moon-lit pond
full of Canadian geese beneath these willows
I heard my father laugh saying, that-a-way son,
You’re the ace, doin’ fine, ease your mind:
And our car rocked for 18 years old I was,
18 is life, & we tenderly made love
for all we were worth.

Originally appeared in the Forward in 1991.

For Eliyahu

For you didn’t hold back
Your rage when the nurses
Prodded your 15 minute old anus,

I was so glad to hear those first howls,
Letting your father know you can breathe;
Son, born of Galilee, taking first steps
Amid the colonnades and mustard blooms.

All the prayer books turn to Spring.
The Jordan River splashingly full,
A man in the Land of his People.

Messianic Hot Pepper Poem (Details From South Lebanon)

When the army laid out
The bodies of the four
Party-of-God Terrorists
I noticed lying next to
The silencer & Kalashnikovs
A bottle of Harissa hot sauce
& wondered what they ate
before they were shot &
remembered my New Orleans Jazz
Hope that cayenne could unite the world
Not in violence but
In one peaceful feast
One communal shindig,
A messianic rush
Where even the dead get their hearts beating
To the peppers that make us sigh
For water & prayer.

Originally appeared as “Details from South Lebanon” in The Jewish Quarterly (London, 1996)

Or, one of my favorites,

Safed Notebook

Shopping for pinenuts for pesto
The shop-owner says:
Don’t get too crazy
With all that repentance;
Stay normal.
In red shoes & chequered shirt,
White slacks & 50+ lipstick—
She answers the question:
What’s normal?
I tell you.

More of Schonbrun’s poetry can be found on his Web site.

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Deborah Fri. Sep 25, 2009

Adam is a wonderful character, full of charm and wit and excitement. It is always a pleasure to be in his company.

Dianne Fri. Sep 25, 2009

Adam is one of the great Jewish writers and poets of our time. His work is poignant, filled with images of observation which capture the historic and traditional Jewish experience with a contemporary and very personal twist.

Michael, New York Wed. Sep 30, 2009

I had the pleasure of going to one of his readings in NY. Wow, this Schonbrun guy is truly a genius. Thank you for sending the link of his site

Jake Marmer Wed. Sep 30, 2009

Completely agreed with all of you! Dianne, as far as the "personal twist" goes - I think Adam has a very strong and very specific voice; anytime I read his poems i can hear his cadence coming through. And - the personality, Brooklyn, irony, cigarettes, Tzfat, warmth etc. But I'm wondering to what extent this would be true if I never heard him live and never met him?

Dave Cohen Tue. Oct 6, 2009

adams huge and vivatious appetite for capturing the moment in words and words into an image reflects the generosity of his character,there is very little selfishnes in his work its all about sharing and identifying .that is part of his magic what you get when you read shonbruns poetry is a free gift of whiling emotions with no strings attached. no price to pay . and the paifull truth doest hurt

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