The gift of being Jewish

Yiddish-poet empathy often defines the Jewishness in Philip Terman’s poetry.

Philip Terman 521 (photo credit: Philip Terman)
Philip Terman 521
(photo credit: Philip Terman)
As a third generation American who knows less than a smattering of Hebrew and Yiddish, who rarely attends synagogue, why do I insist that I am a Jewish poet, first and foremost? Philip Terman posed that question to himself in his essay, “Writing Jewish.” The author of four volumes of poetry, including his latest book, The Torah Garden, Terman, 53, belongs to an intriguing subcaste of American Jewish poets who find in Jewish subjects a defining world for their art. It consists most prominently of Yehoshua November, Eve Grubin, David Caplan, Jacqueline Osherow and Roger Kamenetz.
America’s prominent Jewish poets, most of them now aging or dead, have to varying degrees, filtered their Jewishness through their volatile families. Philip Schultz immortalizes its anarchy. Philip Levine casts it in red soil, along with Allen Ginsberg, Alicia Ostriker and Grace Paley. The left wing strain in their poetry is strong.
Edward Hirsch writes profoundly about the Holocaust, as does Jerome Rothenberg.
The martyrdom of Jewish creativity, personified by Stalin’s extinguishing of Isaac Babel, is voiced in the poetry of Ilya Kaminsky.
But while Jewishness may be central to the formation of these poets, it is not central to the content of their work. In Terman’s work it is.
This is from his title poem, “The Torah Garden”:
I sound the shofar for the New Year
and in this suspended time,
my life is focused in my mouth,
lips on the ram’s horn I purchased in
Jerusalem,
rending the air with its broken notes,
summoning us to renounce:
Fashion a kingdom, it says.
open yourselves to the only moment there
is—
The physicality of ritual here opens into the realm of spiritually unspecified wonder.
God may be absent. (My life, as the poet writes, is focused in my mouth.) But the shofar is the funnel for a living moment to spring into being.
It can sometimes seem as if Terman is leaning against a fence, on the other side of which stands traditional Torah Judaism with its faith and historic ordeals. He keeps his distance from it while longing for it.
Distance and longing have, of course, fueled great Jewish writing down through the ages: Yehuda Halevi and Rabbi Nachman of Breslov come to mind, with their yearning for the Land of Israel. Both these figures, not surprisingly, appear in Terman’s poetry.
Perhaps, as a secularist who traffics in sacred Jewish rites and archetypes, his longing can be idealized, as in the poem, “Among The Unspoken Names”:
we would be like them,
we would turn into the book completely,
we would walk around the garden seven
times
out of some obscure longing
we would ask our ancestors to explain,
we would like the old interpreters,
whose words had wings,
we would climb the rungs of the ladder
reaching up to the bird’s nest

Through his poetry, Terman is able to try on Judaism’s mystical skin without actually having to wear it. But writing about it brings him close to its power. For him, like many others, Jewish consciousness takes the place of observance. It is the stubborn branch that refuses to leave its ancestral tree, easy as that might be in America.
After the poet’s brother is run down by a car and killed, one of the poems he writes touches upon the tahara he is unable, as a brother, to perform.
The opening lines of “Washing The Body” begin like this:
I wanted to wash my brother’s body,
the way he washed mine, as children,
in the bath, squeaking and splashing,
his older hands soaping my tender skin.

Jewish themes have been a constant in Terman’s work going back to his 1998 work The House of Sages, his first book. He writes in “Sages” about the shvitz, the bath house, the immigrant’s temple of unwinding.
In his plain, straightforward first stanza, he brings to life this old rite of passage:
If the Torah is our lives,
our portion was sung in that sanctuary
of a steamhouse by a minyan of ten
thirteen year-old boys and a counselor,
a secular rabbi who knew the streets
like an emissary from the world
where our lives are already sealed.

Some of the themes covered in Terman’s poems are the old standbys: Kaddish-saying, Holocaust-remembering, Jewish poethomaging.
But the spine of his narratives is usually tight enough to hold them in hard focus, and his lines are strong. In his poem, “After Reading Paul Celan” (One imagines the dead poet complaining, “What, another poem about me! How many more will there be?”), from his “Book of the Unbroken Days,” he writes: Everything is aflame with its own endings.
If in “The Jewish Quarter in Budapest,” also from “Unbroken Days,” he can go a little soft (two workers crouch on a scaffold, delicately/ painting Jewish stars with blue paint on thin brushes./ Something is putting back this house/ of worship piece by piece, star by star./ They don’t look like angels.), he makes up for it with his muscular dissent in “A Response To Jehuda Halevi” (from “Rabbis of the Air”):
“Is it well that the dead should be remembered,
and the Ark and the Tablets forgotten?”
Yes, Jehuda, I would rather recall
the business cards of my father’s
used car lot than the five books
and all their commentaries, the recipe
of my grandmother’s kuchin than
the Kabbalah and its interpretations

The Jewishness in Terman’s poetry springs in part from his Yiddish-poet empathy, his tendency to glom on to that which has been beaten down. “At The Nursing Home, My Mother Is Served treif.” (from The Torah Garden) begins with these lines:
The attendant places a plate
of sweet potatoes and ham
in front of my mother
who all her life kept
kosher…

It is not surprising that Terman has long admired the Deep Image American poet, James Wright, who when writing about the poor and the oppressed, can sound at times like a non-Jewish Jewish poet. He was the subject of Terman’s Ohio State dissertation.
Attending Yom Kippur services as a boy, his parents presented him with the Janus face of American Jewish attitudes toward observance. His mother viewed the occasions as “solemn and spiritual.” His father affirmed his Jewishness by annually displaying his bored presence before God.
Terman is not bored by anything Jewish.
In his poems, he is always holding his Jewish subjects up to the light, or pressing them against the darkness. What is missing from his poems is how Jewishness itself affects his day to day life as a husband, a father, a college professor. In the work of Orthodox Jewish poets like Eve Grubin and Yehoshua November, their lives and the Judaism of tradition are easily interwoven.
But with Terman, the dictum of poet Muriel Rukeyser is kept unapologetically alive:
To be a Jew in the twentieth century
Is to be offered a gift. If you refuse,
Wishing to be invisible, you choose
Death of the spirit, the stone insanity.