Can poetry save us? | The Jewish Norm
April is National Poetry Month, and I’ve been more into poetry than usual. When I listen to NPR, I hear other listeners sharing their on-air poems. Each
week this month, my congregation sent a poem on the themes of springtime, rebirth and freedom, which are the themes of Passover, our spring festival. And on Shabbat which falls on Passover, it is traditional to read the Song of Songs, our beautiful biblical poetry of love filled with imagery of the awakening of nature and the awakening of love, for ” lo, winter is over”.
Unfortunately, many people are intimidated by poetry. Too many of us have been forced to interpret poetry in school and have been told that there is a right way and a wrong way to understand a poem. But poetry is meant to be experienced and felt, not intellectually analyzed. Poetry is the expression of the human heart – wonder, joy, pain, love, longing, fear, hope. Poetry puts into words a universal human desire for connection to others and to nature and to something beyond our rational understanding.
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In Hebrew, the word shir means both poem and song. When poetry is set to music, our resistance seems to crumble. We have songs that make us want to dance and songs that comfort us and songs that remind us of what it’s like to fall in love.
How many of us have had the experience of coming together on Shabbat, exhausted, discouraged, resentful or alone, but as we began to sing together our spirits lifted, the cares and worries of the week disappeared, and we remembered that we were not alone?
During the pandemic, when we couldn’t sing together, we needed poetry more than ever. Because poetry also has the power to lift our spirits and remind us of love, wonder and hope. At a time when we have been so alone, poetry can remind us that we are connected.
In the “Poetry Handbook,” poet Mary Oliver writes, “Poetry is a life-cherishing force…For poems are not words after all, but fires for the cold, ropes for the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pocket. hungry people.
In Mary Oliver’s conception, poetry can save lives. Many people said his poem Wild Geese saved their lives. When they were desperate, when they felt they couldn’t go on, his poem was a “rope for the lost”. And in our broken world where so many people feel lost and alone, I wonder if poetry could save us. Could poetry cut our divisions, help us recognize our common humanity? Could poetry speak from heart to heart, across the borders of nations, races and religions?
I do not know. Maybe that’s too much to ask. But I know poetry matters. I’m reading a book called “Who by Fire” by Matti Friedman. It tells the story of poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen, who traveled to Israel during the Yom Kippur War. Nobody invited him. The IDF didn’t know he was there. He has just introduced himself, joined Israeli musicians he met in a café in Tel Aviv, and went to the Sinai desert. There were no concerts scheduled to boost the morale of the troops, but wherever they met a few soldiers, they sang for them. They were young men and women who had seen their friends die and who faced death themselves. Years later, they remembered Leonard Cohen was there with them. He could not stop the war; he could not prevent them from dying; but he let them know that they were not alone.
These days, many of us feel helpless when we hear the news from Ukraine. Every morning we wake up with new horrors and atrocities. If we can, we donate money. We wish we could do more. We wish we could stop the tanks and the killings. And because we can’t, we struggle not to go numb. We struggle not to turn away.
And this is perhaps how poetry can save us.
I keep coming back to a poem written by Hila Ratzabi at the start of the invasion of Ukraine. She is the director of virtual content and programs for Ritualwell, a Reconstructing Judaism project, and the poem is called We See You: For Ukraine.
Crowded in a metro station in Kharkiv
A student from another country clings
A dog against his chest
Answer the journalist’s questions
As the men rush up the stairs
Interrupt the interview.
Toddlers in snowsuits on blankets.
Teenagers, head to their phones.
The eyes of mothers look everywhere.
Svieta says she seized her documents and her money,
She has a car, but nowhere to go.
As she speaks, a boy in a blue winter hat
And black rimmed glasses, a few years older
May my eldest son take a look behind her,
Smiles shyly looking at the camera.
A man stands behind him with his backpack
Leaning against his chest, holding on.
We see you. In our lounges,
At the kitchen tables, while we pack lunches
And perform our morning routines,
We watch helplessly, holding your faces
To our hearts as we take care of the little luxuries
We fear from afar
The brutal waste of war
The extravagant arrogance of power.
We rage against the rage of men
Who refuse to see you, or rather,
Choose to see through you and so
Refuse to see each other.
We see you. See the metro
Stuck at the station, the indefinite
Journey break. we see you
Thunder snuggled up
Bombs whose distance with you
Is incalculable but close enough
To make the heart tremble.
We tremble with you.
Of the whole world
We hold you close
Not with thoughts or prayers
But the presence of the heart
A commitment to witness
A dedication to peace.
We see you. We have you.
We will not leave you.
I don’t know if poetry can save us. But I know that we need the presence of the heart, the commitment to witness, the words to express that we are here, and we will not turn away. I know we need to connect heart to heart.
Hannah Orden is the rabbi of the Beth Hatikvah Reconstruction-affiliated congregation in Summit. She is a past president of the Summit Interfaith Council and is a founding and active member of the council’s anti-racism committee.