The Torah refers to itself as a poetic song – shirah. David HaMelech released his life work of poetry for all to learn from. Shlomo HaMelech composed a book of wise advice and mussar in poetic form. Our prayers are poetry, particularly the beautiful slichot, kinot, and yotzrot. Rabbis, commentators and thinkers once wrote in poetic style. It is safe to say that this is generally no longer the case. It is a rare surprise and pleasure when a frum Jewish man writes a book of poetry. It is even better when the poetry collections are outstanding, like those of David Ebner, Aaron Bulman, and Samuel Adelman. Add to the list of brave frum poets the name Yossi Huttler.

In Every Season

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Guest post by Rabbi Neil Fleischmann

Rabbi Neil Fleischmann is director of Torah Guidance at the Frisch school where he teaches Gemorah, Chumash, Public Speaking, and serves as faculty advisor for the poetry club. He is a writer and poet, the author In The Field. His work can be found here: rabbifleischmann.blogspot.com.

The Torah refers to itself as a poetic song – shirah. David HaMelech released his life work of poetry for all to learn from. Shlomo HaMelech composed a book of wise advice and mussar in poetic form. Our prayers are poetry, particularly the beautiful slichot, kinot, and yotzrot. Rabbis, commentators and thinkers once wrote in poetic style. It is safe to say that this is generally no longer the case.

It is a rare surprise and pleasure when a frum Jewish man writes a book of poetry. It is even better when the poetry collections are outstanding, like those of David Ebner, Aaron Bulman, and Samuel Adelman. Add to the list of brave frum poets the name Yossi Huttler.

Huttler has been writing poetry in for years; it comes naturally to him. In LaKol Z’man he has collected his poems that relate to the Jewish calendar. Huttler is a real poet who writes in a manner that will bring nachas to anyone who appreciates poetry. In particular, the great Jewish poets throughout our history, and even G-d Himself will undoubtedly take great pleasure from this grand collection of poems.

That Huttler is well versed in Jewish tradition is evident from his many layered references to biblical and rabbinic sources. His faith is also palpable and alive in and between all of his lines. He is a true craftsman, who writes concise poems which are accessible yet lyrical and cadenced. He is literate in the English language, as is made clear by his advanced vocabulary (though he wisely chooses to generally stick to straightforward words he’ll occasionally use a well placed SAT word). He is clearly not a novice regarding poetry and is familiar not only with Jewish tradition but also with the conventions of poetic expression. Huttler’s excellent poems bring to mind the works of master poet Samuel Menashe.

The best way to appreciate Huttler’s work is to read it and then read it again. I’ve read each of the poems in LaKol Z’man a minimum of three times and I look forward to returning to them. I will share several poems from the book, prefaced by my thoughts.

The following poem represents a smart way of expressing the idea that the way we daven with the lulav is a powerful reminder that we have to shake ourselves up and turn ourselves around. Of course this poem (pregnant as it is, like all the poems in this book) says more than that; as Nechama Leibowitz points out regarding Ha’azinu, if poetry (or any art) could be decoded in one line then the artist would have said that short sentence and not taken up any more of our time then necessary. T.S. Elliot’s sentiment that good poems are felt before they are understood comes to mind. For insight into how frustrating it is for one who appreciates poetry to experience others wanting to reduce a poem to a few simple words read poet laureate Billy Collins’ brief yet potent “Introduction to Poetry.” See if you can guess which word from this beautiful poem I looked up in the dictionary. I love the sound of “shake me up / likewise.”

Na’anuim

hands shaking
lulav rustling
shuddering
like a G-d fearing man
now how do I
turn my palm
frond around
shake me up
likewise

There is a popular poem by David Whyte called “Close to Home” (although it feels like it should be called “Faith” because that’s what it’s about). The following gem by Huttler reminds me of Whyte’s piece; however it is written in a distinctive voice filled with allusions to Jewish literature and is impressive in that it describes a yearning for faith without using the word. After taking this in google Whyte’s poem and compare, contrast, and consider the two poems together – your soul will thank you.

Molad

In the evening sky
I caught sight of an arcing silver moon;
I hung my hopes on that
thin white ledge clinging to
a larger dark circle I could discern
only in outline

having lost track of our time
and with no witnesses to quiz
I wondered: had the month just begun
or just ended
and in the coming nights
would I see more of you
or would you disappear entirely from me?

I love the way the following one plays out. It reminds us that we sometimes need space to start fresh and see things with perspective. This is a strong example of how an out of the box way of phrasing an idea allows you to hear it as though for the first time.

Machzir Gerushato

re-acquainting myself
with you
I walk down the aisle
then, another
trying not to act overeager
you haven’t changed
(have I?)
so why do you look so different tonight
from all other nights
in the florescent light
of the supermarket

it’s only been eight days

The following provocative poem is a stand out in the book in terms of the emotions that it evoked for this reader. It also is unique in that it is the only one regarding which the author provided exposition following the piece. This is generally considered taboo for a poet to do.

Talmudic knowledge may be necessary to get what the author is hinting to here, but no more so than other poems is required for many other poems in this collection. Read it over and over, then read up on Chanukah and the opinions about how the candles are lit each night. See what you figure out before reading the author’s explanation. This poem can burn a hole in your soul whether or not you guess the secret code.

Zos Chanukah Le’Asid

One day
when he and his name are One
that final night will be
a lone light
when a mere solitary flame
brilliantly blinds darkness
when anyone can be taught everything
even standing on a single flaming angelic leg

The Rambam famously writes that the Shofar is a wake up call to do teshuvah. The following brilliant poem addresses this idea while seemingly telling a different story.

Yonah
how can you
sleep
deep in the hold where you’ve been
hiding
there’s a storm outside
don’t you know
your prayers are needed
the excess baggage
overboard
speak to Him
if you want to
survive

I won’t give away too many of these wonderful poems for free; to read the other forty-eight outstanding pieces and to discover your own favorites you’ll need to buy the book. I recommend that Jewish educators consider using these poems in their holy work. They are particularly well suited for organic integration of an appreciation of G-d’s words of Torah and of G-d’s majestic world. In his introduction, Huttler writes that these poems were written over six years as he revisited the holidays’ themes as he went through them anew “from one year to the next.” This book is a fine model of thoughtful frum poetry and should serve to inspire us all to reflect – each in our own way – upon the Jewish life cycle. You can order the book directly from the author by emailing [email protected] or calling (323) 655-0973.

About Neil Fleischmann

6 comments

  1. Poetry opens
    Long sealed cisterns of warm tears
    God needs to comfort
    The Holy One wants our hearts
    Shuckling is just optional

  2. “…and even G-d Himself will undoubtedly take great pleasure from this grand collection of poems.”

    This statement is highly presumptuous and improper. It should have had been expressed as a request (“May He take great pleasure…”)

  3. Perhaps I am too much into more classical poetry, but I find the highly irregular meter puzzling. Meter is an extremely powerful tool, which I find lacking in most stanzas here. (But I have to admit that meter is often disregarded quite liberally in biblical poetry, though there are also beautiful example of powerful use of meter).

  4. No mystery, little sensory imagery, 5th grade vocabulary, cliche metaphors, pretentiously short line length.

    How about this one, from a real poet – maybe relevant to inyana d’yom:

    The Room by Mark Strand

    It is an old story, the way it happens
    sometimes in winter, sometimes not.
    The listener falls to sleep,
    the doors to the closets of his unhappiness open

    and into his room the misfortunes come —
    death by daybreak, death by nightfall,
    their wooden wings bruising the air,
    their shadows the spilled milk the world cries over.

    There is a need for surprise endings;
    the green field where cows burn like newsprint,
    where the farmer sits and stares,
    where nothing, when it happens, is never terrible enough.

  5. jay:

    Humbug. I say cheers to the “brave frum man” (indeed) who would like to share of himself. The more people who do, the more likely we might actually see some decent artistic expression around here. The state of things now is just depressing.

    Allow me to steal the spotlight and share a poem I wrote last year. It’s the only one I’ve written that’s unrelated to any assignments. Nothing to do with Judaism.

    The Garden

    There, nestled in the deep, a garden lies.
    It is a place of beauty
    Walled all round;
    The garden is pristine and still.

    One day you walked close by the hedge;
    They opened wide the gates for you
    On hinges unforeseen.

    You entered in;
    But through some madness
    Heeded not the garden…
    Trampled, desecrated; left.

    The gates are closed again;
    And I, retired within to mend, and wait.

  6. In today’s texting and twitter world – where life, emotions, and feelings are condensed to three-letter LOL’s – a collection of Jewish poems like that of Yossi Huttler is welcome and refreshing. It sounds like, as Rabbi Fleischmann says, the collection may be a valuable addition not only to one’s personal library but to a teacher’s classroom as well.

    I might add that another addition to one’s library and classroom is Rabbi Fleischmann own collection of haikus, “In the Field.” Given the fact that there is so much poetry and so much song in Tanach and literature among the Rishonim and Acharonim, one would think that there would be many more collections of “Torah Poetry.” Sadly it is not the case. But Huttler and Fleischmann have contributed and taken an ancient art and avenue of Torah expression into the 21st century.

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