If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am only for myself, what am I?
And, if not now, when?
The Hillel I reference is Hillel the Elder. He was the leader of the Jewish Supreme Court in the Land of Israel in the early part of the 1st Century CE.
Gathering material for an anthology and spending hours on the book requires attention to detail, the willingness to cheer for others, and a small dose of insanity.
When it came time to write these blog posts, Hillel’s quote kept popping into my head. What is he saying here, and why do I keep thinking about it in relation to the Jewish poetry anthology Matthew Silverman and I edited?
In case you are not familiar with the quote, he’s telling us that we need to be for ourselves. Be nice to yourself. Take care of yourself. Think through what you are doing and how you spend time and revisit whether the actions you are taking are still good choices. However, you can’t only be concerned with yourself. You have to help others, too.
As other writers and editors before me, I wasn't content to be only for myself. Roughly ten years ago, I took on the challenge of founding a journal called 32 Poems Magazine. Becoming a publisher allowed me to find good work and bring it to a place where others could read it. I took particular joy and pride in finding work by writers (unknown and well known alike) and introducing it to the audience we nurtured. Editing an anthology is a similar process.
The same thought process drew me to work on The Bloomsbury Anthology to Contemporary Jewish American Poetry, which we called The New Promised Land back then, with Matthew Silverman.
The power of being for something greater than you is that others will be for the greater experience too. I’ve been impressed and amazed at the outpouring of support for this book. Thanks to the contributors of this anthology, work from the book will be shared at the Center for Jewish History (thank you, Jason Schneiderman) and Poet’s House in New York. Other contributors—Lucille Lang Day, Lisa Gluskin Stonestreet, Peter Serchuk, and Susan Cohen—have organized readings in California. Yvette Neisser Moreno helped a reading happen in Maryland. Kim Roberts and others I can't recall right now also helped with contacts and suggestions. Without their generosity of time and their desire to be for others, these readings would not have happened or they would have taken longer to happen.
Generosity did not end at arranging readings and panels. When Matthew asked contributors to answer specific questions, they responded with brief essays. In one essay, Marcela Sulak writes about the importance of listening through our poetry. I share it here because it echoes the sentiment that Hillel shares above and that's so integral to Jewish writings—treat people well. Sulak writes:
For if we have no stable single place from which to view the world, we have the ability and the responsibility of multiple perspectives and the moral imperative that comes with each. While it is important to speak on behalf of the voiceless, it is equally important not to rob anyone of a voice. It is important to listen.
Carly Sachs writes about how the act of writing creates connection between people.
Through writing about identity, struggle, liberation, we come closer to each other. A poem for me breaks down walls between hearts. And in our society, the more that we are able to connect in a way that is real and beyond any adjective or label, whether Jewish, Christian, black, white, omnivore, vegan, gay, straight, young, old---we get to a place that is universal through a specific path. It’s kind of a paradox, right? That no matter which road you take, you’ll eventually get there.
I can’t read what Carly wrote without hearing Hillel asking who we are if we’re only for ourselves.
What follows is the question Matthew Silverman asked of the contributors to our anthology and two of the responses. Today, I will leave you with these essays.
With the role of modern poetry today the way it is, how does Jewish American poetry fit into this?
Carly Sachs responds:
One of my earliest memories of poetry comes from a lesson in Hebrew school. We were studying the Holocaust and the teacher brought in these lines from the paratrooper/poet Hannah Szenes who was only in her earlier twenties when she was captured, tortured, and eventually killed by the Nazis.
Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame.
Blessed is the flame that burns in the secret fastness of the heart.
Blessed is the heart with strength to stop its beating for honor's sake.
Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame.
What I learned is how important it is to stand up for what one believes in both on and off the page. I recently heard Dorianne Laux read and she brought up the idea that one cannot separate him or herself from the time in which he or she was writing. For me, that is an intrinsically Jewish value. Szenes did just that with not only her art, but her life. Szenes became part of the resistance movement and all through her time in prison, she kept her spirits up by singing and writing, which she also used to boost the morale among the other prisoners.
This taught me that the job of the poet is to bear witness, but not just to tragedy, but to great beauty, to the limitless potential that exists within all of us. As poets, we are constantly aware of the world and a good poem will blur the lines between micro and macrocosm; a poem builds a bridge between not understanding and understanding, between one person to another, between humans and nature, between suffering and joy. The line between the sacred and the profane is thin and as poets, we bring people to awareness of the human condition through language. While I learned this value through my Jewish upbringing, I would argue that it is a humanist value that translates across all religious and cultural identities. Through writing about identity, struggle, liberation, we come closer to each other. A poem for me breaks down walls between hearts. And in our society, the more that we are able to connect in a way that is real and beyond any adjective or label, whether Jewish, Christian, black, white, omnivore, vegan, gay, straight, young, old---we get to a place that is universal through a specific path. It’s kind of a paradox right? That no matter which road you take, you’ll eventually get there. I would say that all poems in this way are love poems to ourselves and to each other. At the center of any person or poem is love and as poets it’s our job to remind the world of this one simultaneously small and large truth.
Marcela Sulak responds:
The very phrase Jewish American declares a doubleness of identity and perspective. When the label Jewish is applied to an American poet, the poet is doubled and halved at the same time. A Jewish poet may never speak for herself as a private individual only, though an American poet is mostly seen as autonomous. This doubleness is undoubtedly a generic affect of the hyphenated label. But there are very particular and specific Jewish dimensions as well: Jews have traditionally developed and nurtured the discourse of exile until it has become one of the most salient and defining features (think Passover). To many Jews, America will always be exile, at least ideologically—any place outside of eretz israel, the land of Israel will be. One would hope that “Jewish-American” might imply an ethics and a poetics of empathy with the exile and the most vulnerable members of society (“you are to remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt”).
The generic fact of doubleness is also a contemporary poetic condition (with internet, we are always in two places at once, to reduce it to the most banal) and I think it accounts for the growing emphasis on poetry of witness and documentary poetry. For if we have no stable single place from which to view the world, we have the ability and the responsibility of multiple perspectives and the moral imperative that comes with each. While it is important to speak on behalf of the voiceless, it is equally important not to rob anyone of a voice. It is important to listen. I’ve noticed with gratitude that poetry is seldom written anymore with the expectation of a single, integrated and authoritative “I” as the unifying voice of the poem, when the poem has a speaker. The contemporary poetic I so often includes the other, allows itself to be othered, portrays the way it is splintering, at odds with itself. Or it is increasingly the immigrant, the racial/ethnic/religious minority, the woman who, broken by the birth of a child, will never return to the person she once was. I love this about contemporary poetry.