All Who Are Hungry


April brings an embarrassment of riches for Jewish poets: both National Poetry Month and Passover. Wouldn't it be nice if they were a few weeks apart so we could celebrate each with appropriate focus? But the calendar often demands that they collide. It's overwhelming.

For Jews who observe the traditional rigors of ridding one's house of hametz (leaven) before the festival begins, the ramp-up to Pesach is a time of obsessive-compulsive housecleaning. Some dispose of bread, or ritually "sell" it to a neighbor. Others clean out cupboards and freezer, even flip the pages of every book to ensure that no crumb of leaven is trapped in its pages. With practices like these, who has room for poetry?

Meanwhile, the celebration of Passover itself is often unpoetic at best. While I remain fond of the Silverman haggadah of my childhood, with its funky bicolored woodcut illustrations, I think it's safe to say that poetry was not at the forefront of its editors' consciousness. Even the psalms of Hallel were transmuted into doggerel in its pages.

But Passover and poetry can be deeply aligned. Start with the preparation: for those with a spiritual bent, the process is as much about internal housecleaning as about scouring every corner and shelf, and that internal work can offer fertile material for poems.

Hametz comes from the verb lachmotz, to sour or ferment. In the Hasidic imagination, hametz represents the sourness or puffery of excessive ego. Hametz is that within us which needs to be winnowed away.

The obligation to winnow is familiar to any poet. The weeks leading up to Pesach invite each of us to revise her life, cutting away the lines which don't serve the greater purpose of her poem.

D'var acher, another interpretation. One of my mentors at Bennington, the poet Jason Shinder (of blessed memory), used to pose the question "if this poem had to be published tomorrow, what would you do to make it ready?" No point in lingering with a draft; imagine that this poem must be sent out into the world in the morning, and revise ruthlessly now to make it shine.

In hindsight, this tactic is one of the most Jewish things about Jason. It's the Exodus story on a microcosmic scale. The Israelites, our story tells us, departed on a moment's notice, without even the chance to let their bread rise. The story of Pesach is a story of leaping, ready or not. Committing oneself to the writing of poetry is, too.

Midrash tells us that the waters of the Sea of Reeds didn't begin to recede until Nachshon ben Amminadav took the first steps into the sea. He waded up to his neck before the waters parted. This movement, too, may be familiar to the poetic sensibility. What else does any poet do when she sends her work before the tender mercies of an unknown editor?

There's a small irony in celebrating this festival of empty-handed leave-taking with a ritual which is so encumbered with verbiage. But I love the words. Once I attended a seder which featured a one-page haggadah, and I came away bereft. I wanted the thicket of texts which makes up the classical haggadah, that anthology of stories and commentaries and meta-commentaries. That stripped-down haggadah was haiku when I wanted rich allusive verse.

Today I celebrate Passover using a homegrown haggadah (the Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach) which is jam-packed with poetry. In our household, lines by Martín Espada herald the first ceremonial bites of matzah, and Marge Piercy's words add new meaning to the eating of the hardboiled egg. The cryptic midrash of the rabbis who stayed up all night celebrating seder until the time came for the morning shema is recast as a prose poem. Poems by Jay Michaelson and Alicia Ostriker (and, okay, also yours truly) share the page with the psalms of Hallel.

Poetry can be a language for expressing what matters, for elevating the ordinary. In this, it serves Passover well. And the obverse is also true; Pesach offers countless opportunities for poetry's aha!, from the stories and meta-stories of the Exodus from Egypt (metaphor for liberation from all forms of constriction) to the million different variations on the seder, each with its own form of retelling.

It's the retelling that makes Passover feel so aligned with poetry. What is a seder if not a performative sort of poetry reading, each word carefully chosen and sanctified by the attention of those who participate and attend?

There's a category of mitzvot which basically translates to "the more, the merrier." Celebrating seder falls into this category. It's incumbent on us to celebrate on the first night (or two), but nothing says one can't have a seder every night of the festival week. Poetry, too, fits this bill—and National Poetry Month invites us to overindulge, soaking ourselves in words of poetry like an effervescent bath.

But why not do both at once? In the end, what makes poetry and Judaism such natural partners is the value each places on language. The words we speak can transform us, and the stories we tell about ourselves constitute us as community: this is axiomatic in both realms. This year, notice the poetry hidden in the classical texts, and celebrate the classical texts hidden in our poetry. Let them serve one another. And let all who are hungry—for ritual, for language, for storytelling, for praise—come and eat.