‘Sometimes you see them/in the dressing area/of the ritual bath,” Yehoshua November begins his poem, “Baal Teshuvas at the Mikvah.
” He goes on to describe the newly religious men who slip out of their black trousers and white shirts and are “betrayed by the tattoos/ of their past life” — a ring of fire, an eagle, or worse, the name of a woman not their wife. They walk by the rabbis who teach them and men with well-known last names who have been devout since birth, until they descend into the purifying waters and “appear once again/like the next man,/who, in all his days, has probably never made a sacrifice/as endearing to God.”
November just published his first book of poetry, “God’s Optimism” (Main Street Rag), in which he writes of matters sacred and mundane, often bringing the divine presence to everyday life. He juxtaposes tattoos and the mikveh, a funeral and a rummage sale, this world and the next, recognizing holiness and sometimes surprising the reader.
The book has already garnered several awards — it was nominated for a Los Angeles Times Book Prize, selected as the winner of the 2010 Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award and named a finalist for the Autumn House Poetry Prize and the Tampa Review Prize for Poetry.
November’s poems are uncommonly good. Many of them read like very short stories. Whether noticing a game of tennis, a worker climbing a ladder or billboards along the side of the highway, he has a gift for elevating the moment. The 31-year-old poet captures not only emotion but also those religious yearnings, questions and attempts to reach out to God that are largely unspoken. Some of his poems, with their passionate attentiveness, even feel like prayer.
And in his clear voice, he writes boldly and frequently of love: finding it, losing it, nurturing it. In the poem he composed when he proposed to his wife, “My Sweet Bride,” he tells of “when, despite the school of nervous fish/that swam through my heart,/my hand found yours/for the first time.”
In another, he writes of cleaning out his grandfather’s apartment, finding the notes his grandmother had written to her husband, which he had saved in every drawer, “Hard boiled eggs on the stove. I believe in you.”
Referring to his love of poetry, and his preference for writing poems over other types of writing, November says in an interview, “I like the way things unfold so quickly. When writing poetry, I’m trying to see my life for what it really is.”
November, who wears the wide-brimmed hat of Lubavitacher chasids and a full red-tinged brown beard, says that his work is different from a lot of religious poetry in that he acknowledges the struggle of life. In a foreword to the book, Liz Rosenberg, a professor November studied with as an undergraduate at SUNY Binghamton says, “While deeply rooted in its Jewishness, it speaks to people of all faiths, and of no faith.”
When Rosenberg first met November he was known as Josh and dressed the way other college kids did. He grew up in a Modern Orthodox home, and his family moved around a lot; he was born in Miami Beach and attended schools in Kansas City and Pittsburgh, among other places. In high school, he began writing poems.
His father, a physician, introduced him to the music of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Early on, November was attracted to Cohen’s poetry, to his expression of modern situations as mythical and mystical, and his descriptions of failed relationships as eternal events. In November’s view, Cohen sanctified language.
At SUNY Binghamton, November flourished in his literary studies, and also developed a deep friendship with the campus Chabad rabbi and his wife, Rabbi Aaron and Rifka Slonim. He went on to a master’s of fine arts program in Pittsburgh, where he began attending a Lubavitch shul and studying Lubavitch philosophy.
He recalls one incident as a watershed along his path: A highly regarded Jewish poet was visiting Pittsburgh, and a professor invited November to meet with him. November felt honored and expected that the poet would “share amazing things about writing”; but instead the poet asked about his teachers, his beard and about which poets were getting awards. Very disappointed, November left the meeting and headed to his job downtown as a mashgiach, where he was greeted warmly by a rabbi kashering silverware, someone who “never had a self-conscious moment in his life.” Then 23, November was struck by the differences between the pretentious poet and the earnest rabbi, and the moment helped clarify his decision to change directions and learn full time in a yeshiva.
After two years at a Lubavitcher yeshiva in Morristown, N.J., where he wrote no poetry and read no books in English, he was convinced, first by others, that he should go out into the world and teach poetry. People advised that the late Lubavticher rebbe would have supported that choice.
“Leaving yeshiva, when I started to write again, I could see God more in the world, not just in the study hall,” he says. Unlike his days in graduate school when he felt that poetry and his Jewish life were mutually exclusive, he is now able to integrate the two. “For me, it makes poetry more meaningful, it makes Judaism more meaningful.”
The ideas that drew him to Chabad — that the world is not something to be afraid of, and that our purpose is to bring the spiritual world into the physical world — infuse his poetry. As he writes in “The Purpose of This World,” “After all, this is the purpose of creation –/ to make this coarse realm a dwelling place for His presence.”
November, who lives in Morristown with his wife and four children, now teaches composition and creative writing at Rutgers University and Touro’s Lander College in Flatbush, Brooklyn. At Touro, most of his students are working or studying in yeshiva full time, and take his course at night. At Rutgers, he teaches a composition course taken by a lot of student athletes. Using humor, he defuses any cultural barriers and is pleased that the Rutgers students feel free to write about any subject, including sexuality and abuse.
He recounts that getting this book published was difficult. The small publishers that specialize in poetry are secular and “don’t want to hear about God from a person who looks like me.” Ever humble, November is surprised and grateful for all the literary prizes he has won. n
Yehoshua November will be reading from “God’s Optimism,” at the Educational Alliance, 197 East Broadway, in Manhattan, on Saturday, Dec. 18, in a program, “What Does It Mean to Be a Jewish Artist,” with Ari Mark, film director and writer of “The Gift.” Wine and cheese reception at 8; program begins at 8:30 p.m.
A Jewish Poet
It is hard to be a Jewish poet.
You cannot say things about God
that will offend the disbelievers.
And you always have to remind
it wasn’t your people who killed
And Solomon and David are
over your shoulder
like a father and son ridiculing
the unfavored brother.
And you cannot entice people
with the sloping
parts of a woman’s body
because you mist always
And every day you have to ask
yourself why you’re writing
when there is already the one
It’s hard to be a Jewish poet.
You cannot say anything about
which might offend God.
(This first appeared in Prairie Schooner)