There is more than a lifetime of poetry in Zev Shanken’s new book, “If I Try To Be Like Him, Who Will Be Like Me?” which was launched in Teaneck on Thursday.
There’s Mr. Shanken’s life, which began in 1945, turned toward poetry in 1966, when he was living on kibbutz in Israel, and flows in poetry from his years in Manhattan to settling in Teaneck, even unto brand-new poems with titles like “A Hora for the First Passover Under President Trump.”
There is also the life of his father, a bomber pilot in World War II who then became a rabbi and the source of Mr. Shanken’s deep Jewish connections.
And there is the life of Mr. Shanken’s close friend Jay Greenspan, the calligrapher who lived in Teaneck until his death at 69 in 2017. The book is dedicated to Mr. Greenspan, and it features several poems rendered by Mr. Greenspan’s calligraphic pen.
“His death was a watershed that made me want to collect poems from over the years,” Mr. Shanken said.
Mr. Shanken met Mr. Greenspan in the early 1970s in what was then considered the Jewish counterculture: The New York Havurah.
“A number of us living in the Upper West Side were interested in a lot of things Jewish and a lot of leftist politics,” Mr. Shanken said. “We were in our early 20s and felt we were in a twilight zone of Jewish commitment. The Jewish community was very focused on being married, and if you were in graduate school, it was difficult to have a Jewish community.”
The result was, practically speaking, a synagogue run by young people, without a rabbi or other paid leader or very much infrastructure. That was radical then.
“We rented an apartment. In those days rent was cheaper. We met weekly. We had some rabbinical students, some people who were preparing to be scholars, a number at JTS,” — the Jewish Theological Seminary — “one going for a doctorate at Columbia.
“We also had people who were social workers and calligraphers. It was a time when Jewish craft was becoming an interesting thing, parallel to the interest in craft in the secular world. Our community came out with the Jewish Catalog, parallel to the Whole Earth Catalog — Richard Siegel (who recently died), who was part of the Havurah, was one of the Jewish Catalog’s editors.
“We wanted Jewish activities in more than just a suburban middle class way, where you go to synagogue and sit,” he said.
Mr. Greenspan’s professional life was shaped by this current.
“Jay had been a rabbinic student,” Mr. Shanken said. “He got sick, took off a year, and decided he wanted to be more like a Jewish craftsman. He became a Torah scribe, repairing Torahs. He also created ketubot at a time when it was just becoming popular to have them decorated. He would decorate a ketubah and use his Hebrew skills to write the kebutah. Many of us were knowledgeable enough about the text of the ketubah to have qualms about it, so sometimes he would rephrase the words.”
Mr. Shanken had been one of the few married members of the Havurah; he and his wife, Leslie, got married in 1970 and they looked into joining a Manhattan synagogue — “but they were all very much not in my way of thinking,” he said.
“We had a whole thing about the establishment and the non-establishment in the 1970s. Most of us came around to understanding that the establishment was going to change and we didn’t have to stay outside it. A lot of us became very establishment. My son, Ezra, is the CEO of the Vancouver Jewish Federation.”
In 1981, Mr. Shanken left New York and settled in Teaneck; Mr. Greenspan soon followed. “We had parallel lives,” Mr. Shanken said.
Mr. Shanken first came to a certain, albeit minor, prominence as a poet during his New York years. He became poetry editor of Response, the journal of the chavurah movement. The best of the poems he wrote during this period are included in his new volume, among them “Al Het,” which riffs off the Yom Kippur prayer and has been anthologized in at least one High Holy Day machzor. It includes stanzas like:
“For the sin of deadlines.
For the sin of having a boss.
For the sin of needing one.
For the sin of needing Babylon in order to love Jerusalem, forgive.”
Mr. Shanken began writing poetry during his junior year in Israel, a year before the Six Day War.
“I spent half the year in Jerusalem, half the year in kibbutz,” he said. “My original interest was political science, but I got more interested in the English language and poetry.” Being in a Hebrew-speaking environment — not many Israelis spoke English then — heightened his awareness of the English words he used and read and thought in. His poem “Kibbutz 1966” begins with a reading list of 25 works — “Hemingway, Bellow, Kafka, Roth” is a representative line — and concludes, “When asked / we’d gladly reply / We love real life on kibbutz.”
Back in New York, he began to be published in small journals and to read at open poetry nights in Greenwich Village.
Poetry is not exactly a professional career. Until his retirement in 2014, Mr. Shanken taught in public schools in New York and Teaneck. In the late 1970s, he actually had a job as a visiting poet. He was working as executive director of the Hillcrest Jewish Center in Queens when he was tapped by a program that sent poets into Westchester high schools.
“I would take take off two afternoons a week and go to some high school in Pelham or Hastings,” he said. “I would teach poetry writing workshop — I’d be sent to the English class for six or 10 lessons, and have kids write poetry each time.”
The pay was “good for a poet, but not for someone who wanted to raise two children. So I decided to become a full-time teacher.”
Now that he’s retired, he writes three poems every morning. “In the evening I look at them and see which I want to work on more,” he said. He polishes and completes “two decent poems every two weeks,” he said.
Why write poetry?
“I enjoy making art out of words. I enjoy saying something that’s never been said before.”