Rabbi, poet and artist

Moshe L. Kuskin waxes poetic about his uplifting book of Jewish poetry

Right: Study of ‘Young Woman with a Pitcher’ originally painted by Dutch renaissance  artist Jan Vermeer. Left: Still life: ‘Leaves in the Shadows (photo credit: MOSHE L. KUSKIN)
Right: Study of ‘Young Woman with a Pitcher’ originally painted by Dutch renaissance artist Jan Vermeer. Left: Still life: ‘Leaves in the Shadows
(photo credit: MOSHE L. KUSKIN)
THE THREE monikers, “rabbi, poet and artist,” are not usually found in juxtaposition, but for Rabbi Moshe L. Kuskin, of Brooklyn, New York, they are quite apt.
The recent publication of his widely-acclaimed book, “Seraphim’s Touch” by Targum press, now available on Amazon and at Jewish book stores around the US and Israel, represents a first in the world of Judaica. It is the first book of sophisticated English poetry published independently by a bona fide publisher of Judaica. The author successfully takes the classical forms and structures of poetry, such as free verse, blank verse and sonnets, to express the feelings and longings that emanate from the Jewish heart. The poetry is both lyrical and descriptive, serious and whimsical and often expresses profound and novel interpretations in Torah thought. It is uplifting and inspirational, and extols the wonders of creation in a beautifully expressive fashion, attributing a deeper meaning and purpose to the natural phenomena that surround us but which we so frequently take for granted.
“The Jerusalem Report” asked Rabbi Kuskin about his new book, as well as his background, creative pursuits and connection to mysticism.
Isn’t it unusual for someone in the Orthodox community, let alone bearing the title of rabbi, to write poetry? Perhaps, yes. But it really shouldn’t be.
Judaism has a very rich tradition of poetry that people tend to overlook or are not cognizant of. One only has to look at the beautiful, metaphoric passages found throughout the Torah or the poetic verse of David Hamelech’s (King David’s) psalms, frequently written in iambic meter (just think of the first verse of “Ashrei”). Both the kinos (Lamentations) that we recite on Tisha Be’Av as well as the Yotzros – the piyutim that many congregations add to the Yom Tov prayers, are all written in the most recondite and esoteric poetry. Also, throughout history, some of the greatest rabbis of the generations have written poetry, such as Rabbi Moshe Sofer, known as the “Chasam Sofer,” who was the preeminent leader of European Jewry in the early 1800s.
How did you begin writing poetry? It was after vacationing during the summer in the Smoky and Appalachian Mountains, experiencing the incredible, pristine beauty of nature--the niflaos haBorei, first hand, that inspired me to begin writing.
It led to my first book of poetry, “Smoky Mountain Reveries,” and the fact that publishers found it worthy of publication gave me the impetus to pursue the subject further, which ultimately led to my current book, “Seraphim’s Touch.”
Why do you think Jewish poetry in English is so rare? I think a lot has to do with our educational system. There is limited time in our day schools, yeshivot and Bais Yaakovs (religious girls’ schools) for English studies, and, at least, in New York, that small amount of time is frequently directed at just studying what is necessary to pass the Regents exams, so poetry remains, at best, a luxury which is barely touched upon. It is truly a shame, since I’m sure there are many talented writers among our students, whom, if they would be exposed to the beauty and nature of poetry, could produce worthwhile and uplifting poetry as they mature.
What do you mean by “the nature of poetry?” Well, poetry is obviously a unique form of literary expression with distinctive elements that distinguish it from everyday speech as well as other forms of literary expression.
It really must be approached and studied as a craft, mastering its use of imagery, musical elements, form and so forth – it is much more than just rhyme.
Was your educational background somehow different in that it enabled you to write poetry? Admittedly, I had a secular education through my college years, only after which I rediscovered my Jewish roots and returned to Torah, so perhaps I did have a bit more exposure to the subject. However, I did devote a good bit of time studying the subject (at times and places where I could not study Torah) on my own, which I think anyone can do. Also, there was perhaps one interesting aspect of my childhood and upbringing that did give me a bit of an affinity to poetry. It was a family tradition to write a poem accompanying any gift given to another member of the family; in fact, it was really considered “forbotten” to go out and purchase a Hallmark card and the like, so the concept of rhyme, at least, was inculcated in me from a rather young age.
Some of the poetry in “Seraphim’s Touch” seems quite mystical. You mention “seraphs” and “sefiros” and speak about experiences that appear to be in the realm of mysticism. Do you think you have an affinity for mysticism or kabbalah?
Kuskin: Well, I must admit, I’m quite far removed from both those pursuits. But, this much I will say with regard to what you describe as mystical aspects of some of my writing: Frequently the inspiration to write my poetry came in the early hours of the morning after having engaged in the study of Torah for several hours. Anyone who has studied Torah in depth will tell you that it elevates one’s consciousness to a higher, “spiritual” plain, if you will. So, to that extent, perhaps it bears some semblance to the “mystical”, but I put that in quotes. Also, I believe any religious person can have transient, mystical experiences, throughout their life in their service of Hashem. Don’t forget, also, that some of the experiences I write about relate to when I first became religious, and those experiences seemed quite “mystical” at the time, certainly above the mundane, everyday consciousness and experiences of life.
When a person experiences kedushat Shabbat, the special holiness of the Sabbath, or the kedusha of Torah and tefila (prayer), for the first time, it can appear quite mystical.
We retain these experiences throughout life, only they are no longer novel to us, so we no longer think of them as a rarified experience.
What kind of art work do you do, and what motivated you to pursue art? I paint in oils as an avocation, though I am trying to approach it “le’Shem Shamayim” – for the sake of Heaven, in that I hope to sell my work, the proceeds of which will go to my volunteer tzedakah organization, Ateres Zvi, which supports the poor of Israel and America. I think when I was about 2 or 3 years old I drew a fairly detailed picture of a beetle, and my Mom, who was an artist, herself, and an art teacher, felt there was some talent there, so I was encouraged throughout my life to pursue art. As a part of my secular education I attended art school for two years, while in college, and in my career as director of a major charitable organization, I wrote and illustrated many educational magazines for yeshiva and day school students, so I kept dabbling in art. However, it was only recently, after a hiatus of some 35 years that I returned to oil painting.
What brought about your return to oil painting after so many years? Actually, it was a desire to present a close relative with a personal gift that led me back to painting. My first oil painting, at age 14, was presented to the same relative as a wedding present – it’s still hanging in their home, so at another momentous occasion in their life I decided to give another painting as a gift. But, I must say, like poetry, it has largely been a self-educational process.
My brief stint in art school provided little formal, academic training and was more of a creative “free-for-all,” so I had to spend many hours learning the basic essentials, tools, and techniques of oil painting before beginning.
How have your rabbinical studies impacted your poetry and painting? That’s a very interesting question. As far as my poetry, the eight years or so I immersed myself in the study of Torah in yeshivot has helped provide a rich spiritual “inner life” from which I have been able to draw on in expressing my poetry and has sensitized me to recognize how the Almighty manifests in the vast wonders of creation. As for my painting, I think ultimately my desire is to bring out a certain spiritual quality in my work, particularly the concept of light – Hashem is called the “Ziv ha’olam” – the ultimate source of spiritual light which has been distilled and manifests itself in this physical world. Some of the great Masters were able to accomplish this to a certain extent, though more than likely this was not their conscious intent, but it is something which I strive for, and admittedly have a long way to go in actualizing in my paintings.
In parting, is there anything you would like to convey to the reader? With regard to poetry, it is my fervent hope that my book “Seraphim’s Touch” will inspire others to add to this new body of literature in Judaica, and that English poetry will become a viable and inspirational form of Jewish literature, expressing the longings and feelings hidden in the depths of the Jewish heart. There are many talented writers out there. A path simply must be established to encourage it to flourish. And, in regards to art, I would simply reiterate the words of the words of the wisest of all men, Shlomo Hamelech (Solomon the King), who taught in Proverbs, “B’chol derachecha de’eyHu,“ – in all of your ways know Him” – every talent and positive inclination a person has can be utilized in the service of Hashem, to inspire others spiritually and bring them closer to God.