The Arty Semite

Torah Poems That Bring Comfort, Not Questions

By Zackary Sholem Berger

  • Print
  • Share Share

Each Thursday, The Arty Semite features excerpts and reviews of the best contemporary Jewish poetry. This week, Zackary Sholem Berger reviews “70 Faces” by Rachel Barenblat.

There are a few very good poems in Rachel Barenblat’s “70 Faces,” a collection of “Torah poems” published last year following the sequence of the weekly reading. For instance, the Akedah Cycle, 10 poems on the binding of Isaac, brings that ancient mountaintop sacrifice into sharp focus. Barenblat, who is also a rabbi and blogger, can make the patriarchs and matriarchs immediate and narrative possibilities concrete: “Maybe there’s always a ram,” she writes, “waiting just outside the frame.”

Similarly, “Larger than Life/Shlakh-Lekha” deftly compares the contemporary Jewish state, or something very like it, to the land the spies gave a bad report about: “If you don’t feel at-home there./ the minute the wheels kiss the ground / for God’s sake don’t tell a soul!”

Unfortunately, there are many poems in this book whose intentions are laudable but which come out flat on the page. “Postpartum depression caused the Flood,” writes Barenblat in “Bereishit.” Yes, birth is a creation, but this awkward yoking of diagnosis and myth trivializes not just the Deluge (which can take it) but also a personal tragedy that is too large a pain for a slight poem like this one.

Barenblat also has a weakness for wordplay (“Could the whole project be a wash?” she writes about the flood). This tic is cute the first time, but doesn’t wear well with repetition (“inscribe us on an everlasting hard drive”). Pedestrian phrasing is also not infrequent (“Being up there with God/…/was the best thing ever”).

But the fatal flaw of the book is its failure to live up to the claims the author makes for it. “The poems in this collection are contemporary midrash,” she writes in an introduction, explicitly connecting her own work to a tradition that “respond[s] to scripture with our own creativity.”

Certainly, the responses of ancient midrash are varied, even shocking, in their departures from a literal reading. However, Barenblat’s reactions to the text are often banal. Not only is Genesis a birth, but “Lech Lecha” is a journey. Offering an animal sacrifice is like a barbecue at home (“You’ll need a smoker. / Get one from Home Depot.” is the unpromising beginning of “Korban/Vayikra”). The warrior God who drowns the Egyptians is not attractive to the modern reader.

Such interpretations are comforting — they are popular because they make us respond with relief, as to an old friend — but they do not “question Torah” as Barenblat would have it. They fit neatly with a widespread liberal sensitivity, but are not innovative poetically or exegetically. For an example of a contemporary midrash which turns the Torah upside down and shakes a poem out of it, see the work of Alexander Nemser in a recent issue of AGNI, which could be called “Akedah 2.0”: “God commanded Abraham, remembered the rabbi, Sacrifice your son Isaac on the shores of Paradise, and leave his body to soak for a month in a tidal pool ringed with red sea anemones, guarded by the yellow panthers who grow, only here, to the size of calves.”

Many people like comfort and will be drawn to Barenblat’s poems. I am sure she provides this in abundance as a rabbi as well as a poet. I must confess, however, that in the last pages of “70 Faces” I was reading with impatience, hoping the Torah readings would end so we could get to Adon Olam and kiddush.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Zackary Sholem Berger, Rachel Barenblat, Poetry, Genesis, Alexander Nemser, Akedah, 70 Faces

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • "Israel should deal with this discrimination against Americans on its own merits... not simply as a bargaining chip for easy entry to the U.S." Do you agree?
  • For Moroccan Jews, the end of Passover means Mimouna. Terbhou ou Tse'dou! (good luck) How do you celebrate?
  • Calling all Marx Brothers fans!
  • What's it like to run the Palestine International Marathon as a Jew?
  • Does Israel have a racism problem?
  • This 007 hates guns, drives a Prius, and oh yeah — goes to shul with Scarlett Johansson's dad.
  • Meet Alvin Wong. He's the happiest man in America — and an observant Jew. The key to happiness? "Humility."
  • "My first bra was a training bra, a sports bra that gave the illusion of a flat chest."
  • "If the people of Rwanda can heal their broken hearts and accept the Other as human, so can we."
  • Aribert Heim, the "Butcher of Mauthausen," died a free man. How did he escape justice?
  • This guy skipped out on seder at his mom's and won a $1 million in a poker tournament. Worth it?
  • Sigal Samuel's family amulet isn't just rumored to have magical powers. It's also a symbol of how Jewish and Indian rituals became intertwined over the centuries. http://jd.fo/a3BvD Only three days left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • British Jews are having their 'Open Hillel' moment. Do you think Israel advocacy on campus runs the risk of excluding some Jewish students?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.