Building bridges with poetry

Building bridges with poetry

New Teaneck café will host an evening of readings to help percolate community

Scott Pleasants, left, and Yehoshua November
Scott Pleasants, left, and Yehoshua November

Food for the body, food for the spirit?

There’s something to that idea. Sitting with friends in a pretty room, with really good coffee — not diner coffee, not battery-acid coffee, not the stuff that turns a weird shade of tan if you put milk in it, but good, rich, aromatic espresso, either black or with steamed milk with a design in the foam — might turn your thoughts toward poetry. Just add a flaky, sweet-enough, buttery pastry and it’s done.

Because there’s nothing like coffee to open your mind to words.

On March 4, Café Demi in Teaneck will offer a poetry reading by two local poets, Yehoshua November, who teaches creative writing at Rutgers and Touro, and Scott Pleasants, Teaneck’s first — and current — poet laureate. (See box.)

Café Demi, which opened recently, is owned and run by Devora Rosenberg Naftali and her younger sister, Miriam Rosenberg. (Demi! Get it?) Both of them live in Teaneck.

The two come to this venture as the latest generation of women who have cooked, baked, and offered the kind of hospitality that creates community. (They’ve also done many other things; the sisters come from a line of formidable women.)

Their mother’s family is Israeli, and much of their family is involved in the food industry there in one way or another.

“My aunt, Irit Shevach, and my two cousins have a farm in Israel called Kaima, just outside Jerusalem,” she said. “It’s a nonprofit that takes young people who don’t fit into the system and teaches them how to farm and coaches them,” she said. “They sell the product; they also host lunches and breakfasts.

“My aunt was an executive at Tnuva for many years,” she added.

Her mother’s other sister, Osnat Youdkevitch, “is famous in Jerusalem for hosting huge catered dinners for people who come from around the world, from tourists to yeshiva buchers,” Ms. Naftali said. The third sister, their mother, Ruth Rosenberg, lives in Manhattan. “She’s a spirituality coach and hosts a lot of people in our home,” she continued.

“This started with their mother, who inspired all of us a lot.” Devora and Miriam’s grandmother, Malka Padani, was born in Israel to a Yemenite father and a mother from Ukraine. “She used to bake cakes for her community every Shabbat,” Ms. Naftali said. “They were the most delicious things anyone has ever tasted. They taste like an angel made them.

“We’ve kept books with her recipes,” and Miriam Rosenberg, who does the baking for Demi, takes inspiration from them, even as she feels not quite ready to try many of them.

The sisters both went to Stern College. Miriam worked for WeWork; she was in charge of the company’s hospitality, which it took very seriously until it collapsed. Next, she went to Ohel, the Brooklyn-based Jewish family service organization. She strongly feels a need to do work that matters.

Devora worked for start-ups and in event planning. “I ran huge events in Israel,” she said. She had the background in logistics that both events and restaurants need.

So there were the two sisters, who shared a dream.

“We’ve been thinking about this for a long time,” Ms. Naftali said. “We are all about community, and we wanted something a little different.” They thought about the café culture they’d grown up with in Israel and had seen in Europe as they traveled, as they frequently did. “We wanted to bring that European, Tel-Avivian culture here,” she explained.

They also knew the feeling of finding marvelous coffee and lovely-looking pastries in non-kosher cafes. They could drink the coffee, but the pastries were off limits. They wanted to spare others that frustration.

“We want a place where you can get high-quality coffee, something good to eat; we also want a place where our community can get together.” And she defines community as the Jewish community, of course, but not only the Jewish community. It’s all her neighbors. “We accept everyone,” Ms. Naftali said. “People brought us into the community. We were welcomed with open arms, and we welcome everybody in the same way. We get very excited when non-Jewish customers walk in.”

Now most of the family — there’s another sister, Esther, and a brother, Yehuda, as well as their father, Moshe, and their mother — shows up to help out at Demi. (Yehuda lives in Chicago, so he can’t, Devora said.)

That’s where the poetry comes in.

“The vision for our café is that it’s a space for the community to get together, doing things together, supporting each other. In a way this poetry reading is supporting our local poets, as well as supporting each other, learning together, being together.”

So when Sandee Brawarsky, who was the New York Jewish Week’s cultural critic when the Jewish Week still was in print, asked if the sisters would consider hosting a reading, they were thrilled. “It was one of our visions from before we even opened,” Ms. Naftali said. “We were glad to join forces with Sandee and do it together.”

Yehoshua November “will read some poems from my forthcoming book, ‘The Concealment of Endless Light,’ which is coming out in the fall of 2024, as well as some poems from my first two books.

“It’s exciting to share work with the Jewish community and with the Teaneck poet laureate, and to build bridges between different parts of the community. I hope that there will be people from a wide range of backgrounds.”

His poetry is both deeply Jewish — as is Mr. November, who studied at the Lubavitch yeshiva in Morristown for two years and then had to decide if he would stay on that path, toward Chabad smicha and then life as a shaliach for the movement, or to continue as a writer and academic.

He’s a member of a small club — poets whose work is published by an actual publisher. In his case, it’s the North Carolina-based Orison Books, which “focuses on spiritual writing, broadly defined,” he said. “It’s a nondenominational press, and it’s a good fit. There aren’t many publishers of spiritual poetry that are not representative of a religion.”

His work seems to be “accessible to non-Jews,” he said. He’s been a finalist for the L.A. Times Book Prize and the Paterson Poetry Prize, as well as for the National Jewish Book Award, and his work has appeared in the New York Times. “Those are broadly secular outlets,” he said.

Poetry does create community, he said. “It’s a very poignant and compressed vehicle for sharing oneself and one’s life and humanizing one’s subjects, and that can go a really long way to bridge-building, and to seeing others as human beings rather than as the Other.

“Artists themselves, particularly poets, are minorities, so it is good for us to build communities among ourselves.

“I wouldn’t be able to write poetry without the friends who look over my work. It’s hard to write a good poem. You lose your objectivity. It’s crucial to have someone else’s input.

“The act of writing poetry is solitary, but it requires feedback from others. Poetry requires an audience. And the intimate nature of the art automatically builds community when you share your work.”

Scott Pleasants sees his role as Teaneck’s first poet laureate — a position the town council created last year — as “being an ambassador for poetry, and for literature, in the community. I do that by reading poetry at events where there probably hadn’t been poetry before.

“I had the opportunity to read at our Veterans Day ceremony, at the township’s 9/11 ceremony, at the Christmas tree lighting on the municipal lawn, and the menorah lighting, also on the municipal lawn. I’ve read at the Teaneck public library a number of times already. I read a poem at the Rodda Center for the dedication of the bandshell in Votee Park in honor of Loretta Weinberg.

“I’m trying to use myself as a vessel. Reading at the café is an extension into the community.”

Mr. Pleasants traces his love of poetry back to elementary school, in the Bronx, in the neighborhood that doesn’t have a name of its own but is near Gun Hill and White Plains roads. The class was in an assembly, “and I was asked to read ‘My Shadow,’ by Robert Louis Stevenson.

“I don’t know why, but that poem stayed with me. I probably could quote most of it to you today. Life goes on” — he moved to Teaneck in 1997, worked for the Metropolitan Transit Authority for 30 years, and retired just before the pandemic in 2019. His mother was a writer, and he always wrote, and occasionally would send poems off to hardcopy anthologies, but “it was not the center of my life.”

He did get a piece published in the Amsterdam News, either in or around 1992, but because that was pre-email, “I wrote it on a typewriter, put it in an envelope, and walked it to the building, on 125th Street. And then a week or two later I picked up a copy of the paper, and it was there.” But it’s not online. Mr. Pleasants plans to find it in the New York Public Library’s archives. “That’s on my list of things to do,” he said.

“And then during the pandemic, the world shut down, but it actually was an opportunity because all these readings opened up. It all was accessible over Zoom. I found myself participating in readings literally all over the world. I did something in Japan — of course from Teaneck — where I logged in at 7 in the morning.”

He because “a regular at the Nuyorican Poets Café” in the East Village, he said. “I did a Monday open mic reading, and I supported it, and it became a community.

“I’ve stayed close to home, done open mics in Jersey City and Paterson, but I thought, ‘Let’s see what we can do here. If we can create something, support something at home.’ And we have, by creating the poet laureate position.”

The township, under his direction and the auspices of the town council, has launched a magazine called “Teaneck Poetry Park.” A few hard copies have been printed, and they’re at the reference desk at the Teaneck public library, but it’s mostly online — google for it — and it’s looking for new poets.

Mr. Pleasants is Black. “Teaneck is a small place, but there are places where you might not necessarily go to,” he said. In some ways, it’s a divided community. “If I bring poetry into it, then maybe folks will decide that I can go there and support this,” he said.

“I have read poetry on street corners in New York City, and my poetry has been featured in New York City. This is my community. This is not a stretch. It will be fun.”

Who: Poets Scott Pleasants and Yehoshua November

What: Will read their work and talk to each other, in a discussion moderated by Sandee Brawarsky

When: On Monday, March 4, from 7 to 8:30 p.m.

Where: At Cafe Demi, 1400 Palisade Avenue in Teaneck

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