My daughter, who became a Jew as an adult, told me, "Daddy, for the first time in my life I've found something that gives me what I've been looking for both spiritually and intellectually." The Kehillat Lev Shalem, also known as the Woodstock Jewish Congregation, has, for the past several years, presented the Rabbi Ira Eisenstein Scholar-In-Residence, a noted Jewish scholar. This year, their choice is the noted poet Alicia Suskin Ostriker. Ostriker will be presenting a program entitled "Contemporary Midrash" over several events on Friday and Saturday, October 30 and 31.
She will be reading from her own poetry as part of the Congregation's Friday evening service at 7:30 p.m. On Saturday morning at 10 a.m., the Congregation holds a weekly Torah reading. Rabbi Jonathan Kliegler reports that this week, they're up to the story of Abraham and Sarah, and Ostriker will compose and read a midrash about that story. This will be followed at noon by a vegetarian potluck lunch, which will be an occasion to meet Ostriker informally. After that, from 2-4, Ostriker will conduct a free workshop on writing creative midrash.
Rabbi Kliegler defines midrash like this: "Biblical stories are filled with gaps. For thousands of years, Jews have related to the texts by filling in the gaps with their own reflections on the text. Some midrashim have become almost canonical. In recent years, the tradition of midrash has been rejuvenated by contributions from new and exciting sources, many of them feminist."
Alicia Ostriker has moved through poetry to Jewish scholarship, and her own definition of midrash. A distinguished teacher as well as award-winning poet, she has been a professor at Rutgers University for 30 years, and has written eight books of poetry, including The Imaginary Lover (1986), winner of the Poetry Society of America William Carlos Williams Award, and her most recent The Crack in Everything (1996), a finalist for the National Book Award. Her nonfiction includes The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions.
Recently, she reflected on the midrash tradition: "The movement of contemporary midrash continues what the ancient rabbis were doing with midrash. The rabbis were creating a whole new Judaism after the fall of the Temple, and part of that involved midrashim, to make the stories of the Bible meaningful in an entirely changed social and political situation--the situation of Diaspora. If you read traditional midrash you see that it is full of wit and inventiveness. It is deeply imaginative--sometimes funny, sometimes sensual, sometimes theological. We who do midrash today are responding to new needs, and the need of women to play a full role within Judaism is one of our imperatives. So, in our midrashim, we read between the lines that tell of our mothers Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, and we give voice to them and to the many voiceless women of the Bible. We go further than that--we re-tell the stories of the fathers, the warriors, the kings--for they are our fathers too. And, like the ancient rabbis, we try to imagine a vision of God that can answer to our spiritual needs. But that is what Jewish tradition is all about--wrestling with the text, wrestling ever new meanings and blessings out of it."
Alicia Ostriker's appearance is the first in a series of poetry-related events sponsored by the Congregation. Poet Cassia Berman will run a series of four Jewish Poetry Workshops on four Saturday afternoons: November 7 and 21, December 5 and 12, from 1-2:30 p.m.
Both Berman and Ostriker see a close relationship between Judaism and poetry. Ostriker puts it this way: "Jewish tradition is linked to poetry in so many ways. There is the poetry of the Bible--the psalms, the Book of Job, and the Song of Songs--which are great world poetry not only in Hebrew but also in English translation, especially the King James Version. The language of these poems is part of the cultural tradition of anyone who speaks English. Likewise Isaiah, Ezekiel, and all the other prophets. Then there is the language of prayer, which is also poetry. And then there is the whole long line of great Jewish poets, from Ibn Gabirol to Yehudah Amichai (who ought to get a Nobel prize any year now, in my opinion). The poetry of the Jewish tradition brings us to the deepest questions of the meaning of life, love, death, suffering and rejoicing, in the most beautiful and moving language."
Berman expects the workshops to cover the four areas of Jewish experience: worldly, emotional, intellectual and spiritual. Participants are invited to come to any one, or all four, and they will be invited to read poems from the workshop at the service on the Friday following the last workshop. For more information on either the Ostriker appearance or the workshops, call 246-0265.
Patricia Hampl, reviewing Alicia Ostriker's work in the New York Times, wrote: "The recording consciousness is steady. The candor and thoughtfulness of the poems are winning. Even stronger than elegy is Ms. Ostriker's tendency to locate a sustaining force for the rest of life--a force that is both passionate and honorable." Here's a poem from a cycle called "The Mastectomy Poems," from The Crack in Everything.