Gerald Stern 88 224.
(photo credit: Meredith Price Levitt)
A long, winding path bordered with young trees and blooming flowers leads to Bar-Ilan University's northern campus, where sparkling new buildings stand in sharp contrast to the dilapidated structures on its southern edge. Under the soft lights in the music building's large reception hall recently, eminent figures in Jewish literature from all over the world, including Gerald Stern, Tamar Yellin, Peter Cole and Nessa Rapoport, mingled with creative writing students, faculty members and literature lovers.
On the stage inside a cozy auditorium, positioned on an easel next to the wooden podium, was a large photograph of Prof. Shaindy Rudoff. The founder of the Bar-Ilan Graduate Program in Creative Writing, she tragically died of cancer in 2006 at 40. But tonight's second memorial, attended by her parents, Sheldon and Hedda Rudoff, is just one more proof that her legacy remains.
In 2002, Rudoff's guiding spirit encouraged the burgeoning program, and poets, translators and writers have come to honor her memory and pay homage to the achievements and opportunities she worked so hard to create for writers here.
Peter Cole, the author of two poetry books, co-editor of Ibis Editions and a translator of poetry from Hebrew and Arabic who received the 2008 National Jewish Book Award for Poetry for The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492, introduced Gerald Stern, the newly elected chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and the author of 14 books of poetry.
"We're gay," quips the 80-year-old Stern as he takes the stage after planting a kiss on Cole's cheek. "The prophets were all gay too."
His wry sense of humor sends waves of laughter through the audience as he reads from selected works, interspersing the poems with personal memories and hilarious one-liners.
His poems, like his personality, are filled with light-hearted observations that lend his poetic landscape an even more poignant appeal. He reads poems that are rich with the settings of American life, in all its barnacled specificity, and peppered with an innate Jewish voice that seems to wink at the Jewish prophets and poets who came before him with both reverence and criticism.
Through hydrangeas, a flower that Stern hates, he understands that not all Jewish poets are created equal. He writes that there are three sides to Judaism: mercy, exceptions and melancholies. With the same ease and poetic vision, he describes the snowy winters in Pennsylvania and a moment on a New York street when, after buying roses from a black immigrant, the two embrace, brothers for life. "We swore it in French."
In a discussion with Cole after his reading, Stern noted that although he chose to include the figure of Rabbi Kook in some of his poems simply because he liked the name, it was also because of an affinity for his interpretation of a quote from the Talmud, which states that the envy of writers increases wisdom.
"Rabbi Kook wrote that 'the envy of writers increases corruption and that corruption gives off a stench.' That stench is the wisdom of writers. There is a lot of stench in my poetry," said Stern, who published his first book at 52. "Through the burning nostrils of a man on fire comes beautiful music."
Cole asked him about the last 70 years in American poetry, to which Stern replied that his generation was the first group of poets to attend public schools, live normal lives and not speak with British accents. "No offense to the British accent," he said, playfully waving a hand at short story writer and novelist Tamar Yellin, who lives in Yorkshire.
Stern added that the language of poetry in America responded to his generation with a group of experimentalists and post-modern writers who thought a poem shouldn't be funny or have a narrative, it shouldn't speak of available subjects or have normal margins. "Poetry evolved into a celebration of boredom," said Stern, a twinkle in his eye beneath the wide-brimmed hat he did not remove because "Jews wear hats. Hats are holy."
Yellin, who received the 2007 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature for her first novel The Genizah at the House of Shepher, is a small woman with a big voice. "Rabbi Kook wrote that the Temple was destroyed by groundless hatred and could only be rebuilt by groundless love. I reference this quote in my novel, so I'm delighted to see that I have something in common with Gerald Stern," she said from the podium as she took the stage to read.
In the novel, which is set in Jerusalem and explores four generations of the Shepher family, an unmarried female narrator arrives from England to see her family home one last time before its destruction. In the attic, she finds 70 years of decaying parchments, sacred texts, articles and handwritten notes that form both the mysterious core of the novel and provide a springboard for the main character to rediscover herself through her past and her ancestors.
Her description of Jerusalem as it was in the mid-19th century, with its seeping sewage and trash, crowded streets, feral cats and wandering dogs, has an unmistakable Marquez-like resonance. The narrative comes alive with the beautiful memories of her great-grandmother, who was known for being as hard as a pair of brass candlesticks and had an obsession with making vinegar out of just about anything - from oranges, figs, pears and even honey. The tension between her Jewish roots and her Yorkshire heritage influences much of her work, and Yellin is acutely aware of the struggle to belong and the plight of the alienated Jew.
"The issues of identity and belonging that my main character experiences in the novel are very much my own issues," she told The Jerusalem Post. Yet, she added that although the novel was inspired by autobiographical events, she did not really find the Aleppo Codex in her family attic.
In closing, Sheldon and Hedda Rudoff take the podium to talk about retracing the steps in Jerusalem, where they first brought Shaindy 30 years ago as a young student. "Her memory is vivid to us here, and we are grateful to the program for preserving her name."
Under the auspices of Prof. Michael Kramer and the new director, Judy Labensohn, it continues to flourish. "We see this program as an expression of Shaindy's vision of a place where students can explore the interaction between their imaginations and the texts and experiences of Jewish and Israeli life and culture."
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