A life in poetry where the holy and secular meet
A Chabad follower recognized for his book of verse
April 27, 2011
Yehoshua November always seems to live in two worlds: the holy and the profane, the religious and the secular, the hasidic and the poetic. In the tension between the two, his poetry dwells.
One evening you will walk past a park
between two fading apartment buildings,
and see men playing tennis in white garments,
and long to slip out of your life,
to be buried in the white robe with no pockets,
and float like the ball
between two rivals, two great friends,
this world and the next.
Seeing religious imagery in the garb of an everyday tennis game and teasing out a deep truth anyone can relate to is the essence of November’s gift — and his life. Holder of an MFA from the University of Pittsburgh, November also studied hasidic thought from 2003 to 2005 at the Rabbinical College of America, the Chabad-Lubavitch seminary in Morristown.
Combining those two worlds has earned November national recognition in the world of poetry— most recently, as a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for poetry for his first book of poems, God’s Optimism, published by Main Street Rag in 2010.
“I try to find meaning in daily life. In our culture, we can get habituated,” said November, during a conversation at RCA, where he still maintains a relationship with some of the rabbis. “People work a lot of hours and the importance of family and values gets lost in the dynamics of life. Finding meaning in daily life is what poetry does. Poetry can celebrate the long hours and support them; poetry can cast light on daily events. Jewish life just takes this one step further and shows the Godly meaning in each event.”
November, who lives in Morristown with his wife, Ahuva, and their four children, remains affiliated with the Chabad movement and so will not be able to attend the awards ceremony, which is on the evening of April 29, erev Shabbat. He will, however, be in Los Angeles for other festivities surrounding the prizes.
Fellow finalists include Maxine Kumin, a former U.S. poet laureate, and Henri Cole, a Pulitzer Prize finalist.
“I feel like it’s happening to someone else,” he said of the nomination. “It’s surreal. Maybe I just need more confidence.”
Which shouldn’t be difficult: November was named a finalist for the Autumn House Poetry Prize and the Tampa Review Prize for Poetry. His work has appeared in The Sun, Prairie Schooner, Margie, The Forward, and other publications. He teaches writing at Rutgers University and Touro College.
For November, writing poetry is not optional.
“For me, poetry opens doorways of communication that are not accessible in daily speech. Poetry is a focused moment when you put other things aside. I try to encapsulate as much of the essence of an experience as I can,” he said
Raised Modern Orthodox, he often felt the distance between the Jewish piece of his identity and his poetry. When he turned to Hasidism after earning his MFA, he considered leaving poetry behind. “I felt like the two worlds were too different.”
The poets he was meeting, he said, were “turning me off” with their dismissive attitude toward religion (one famous poet, according to Yehoshua, upon noticing his distinctive beard, remarked, “Kabala is b.s.” ) and their wont to put down their peers (another poet said, “Those people used to be good writers until they got famous”).
November, now 31, recalled thinking, “What am I doing here? I don’t want to live like this.” He explained, “I was young — I felt it was all or nothing, and they were irreconcilable worlds.”
He came to the RCA and buried himself in Jewish study — hasidic philosophy and Talmud — for two years and read little poetry. Eventually, he would write about the divide in poems like “In the Unseeable World,” in which a dreaming boy and a praying man experience a reality that outsiders cannot comprehend (see sidebar).
Likutei Sichos, the collected teachings of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, helped November find this perspective and return to poetry. Those teachings center on the idea that everything worldly and physical has a purpose, and that there is holiness in the mundane.
“It’s easier to live a life of pure spirituality. But the teachings are not really saying that. I got that message — that it was a limited, not mature way of seeing Judaism. If Judaism is real, it can stand anywhere,” he said.
He has come to realize, he said, that if he follows his authentic voice, other poets will accept him, despite the hyper-secular nature of so much of contemporary poetry circles.
“Words that come from the heart enter the heart,” he said. “I try to be who I am. If you are who you are, people sense that, and it does not really matter” whether you are secular or religious.
Today, poetry makes him whole. “There’s a place of truth where I can combine poetry and Jewish life. Sometimes we think God and Jewish life are separate from other things. Maybe poetry can show that doesn’t have to be.
“In a poem, they can come together,” he said.
Poems from God’s Optimism
In the Unseeable World
Sometimes when a boy reaches for a ball
in his dream, his sleeping hand
claws through the empty air of this world.
And his brother, sleepless in the next bed, says,
He reaches for nothing,
it is all a dream.
Sometimes, when a man passes the window of a shul,
he sees another man swaying
and stretching his arms heavenward,
And in the unseeable world, Hashem’s
long arms reach through the eternal water and the firmament
and His hands cleave
to the hands of the man who is praying.
And the man passing by says,
Oh why does he waste his energy,
what does he hope to touch?
— from God’s Optimism by Yehoshua November
Upstairs the Eulogy, Downstairs the Rummage Sale
The beloved Yiddish professor passed away on the same day
as the synagogue’s rummage sale,
and because they could not bear
the coffin up the many steps
that led to the sanctuary,
they left it in the hallway downstairs,
and because I was not one of his students,
and it didn’t matter if I heard the eulogy,
they told me to stay downstairs,
to watch over the body and recite Psalms.
And I thought,
this is how it is in the life and death of a righteous man:
upstairs in the sanctuary, they speak of you in glowing terms,
while down below your body rests beside
old kitchen appliances.
And I recited the Psalms as intently
as I could over a man I had only met once,
and because I knew where he was headed,
and you and I were to wed in a few months,
I asked that he bring with him a prayer for a good marriage.
And this is how it is in the life and death of a righteous man:
strangers pray over the sum of your days,
and strangers ask you to haul their heavy requests
where you cannot even take your body.
— from God’s Optimism by Yehoshua November