Poetry man

Poetry man

November says “poetry is necessary to wake people up, to break the sense of the mundane.”

It’s easy to sympathize with the Rutgers student who did a double take when she entered her English composition class and saw Yehoshua November standing in the front of the classroom.

After all, with his long beard, black hat, and tzitzit hanging down, the 36-year-old November looks more like a Chabad rabbi than a college instructor.

That’s not so misleading, because for November, the Chabbad rabbinate is the road not taken. He studied in the Lubavitch yeshivah in Morristown for two years and carefully weighed whether to go on for rabbinical studies – or to resume the career path that had taken him to a masters of fine arts at the University of Pittsburgh.

He has chosen the path of the English teacher and poet.

As an English teacher, he teaches composition and poetry at Rutgers and Touro. On RateMyProfessors.com he has earned generally good reviews from students.

“He genuinely cares about writing and his students,” one student wrote. “He has such a gregarious and blithe spirit about him. He is funny and charismatic and actually knows what he is talking about when it comes to writing.”

As poet, his one published book, “God’s Optimism,” was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in poetry.

His poetry was on display last week in a reading at the Teaneck General Store.

“People were in stitches,” said the store’s owner, Bruce Prince. “He appealed to a lot of different people.”

November has lived in Teaneck for two years.

November acknowledges that poetry-writing is not necessarily the most obvious job for an Orthodox Jew.

In his poem “A Jewish Poet” he writes, “you cannot entice people with the sloping / parts of a woman’s body / because you must always remain pure.”

Growing up, November was not on the fast track for the rabbinate. He grew up in a modern Orthodox family. Living in Scranton, Penn., “a pretty right-wing community,” he felt like an outsider. His father was very into the arts, taking the family to museums and exposing them to music.

“My home was one that encouraged artistic expression and for us to do what we want to do,” said November, who noted that two of his three siblings also write poetry.

“My first encounter with poetry was probably the music of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Paul Simon. That was the earliest seeds of poetry implanted in me.”

By high school, his family had moved to Pittsburgh. For tenth grade, he went to a small Orthodox high school in Rochester, N.Y.

“My parents didn’t really want me to go there,” he said. “My father wouldn’t get me a black hat; I had to get a gray hat.” But the black-hat yeshiva was not for him. “I probably picked up more bad habits there than I would have being at home,” he said, and he returned to Pittsburgh and public school before the school year ended.

In high school, he discovered literature for the first time, along with the possibilities of self-expression.

“Poetry, especially, is the most direct and compressed way to express my self, my essence,” he said.

He tried yeshivah again after high school, this time in Israel. “It was a kind of turbulent year,” he said. “The head rabbi didn’t like me too much.”

Back in America, he majored in English at Binghamton University. He also grew close with Rabbi Aaron Slonim, the Chabad representative at Binghamton.

For graduate school, he returned home to the University of Pittsburgh.

“I was kind of disappointed in my grad school experience,” he said. “I felt like some of the professors were some of the most immature adults you could meet. They seemed unstable.”

By contrast, the Chabad community in Pittsburgh felt increasingly like home. After finishing his degree, he and his wife, Ahuva, moved to Morristown, where he studied in the Lubavich kollel.

“I didn’t think I would go back to writing,” he said. “The whole time I was in Morristown I wasn’t writing anything. I wanted to immerse myself in gemara and chassidus.”

After two years in the yeshivah, he had to decide: Should he continue studying to become a rabbi, or did he want to use his degree and experience in the world of academia and English teaching?

Some rabbis advised him to become a rabbi and then a teacher of Torah, “to stay in the world of Torah and be able to constantly grow spiritually.”

That struck him as being at odds with chasidic teachings about engaging God in the world.

“I spoke with Rabbi Slonim in Binghamton, and he really encouraged me to go back and try to teach in college if I could,” November said. “He said you’ll meet certain people no rabbi would ever meet and I would have a positive influence in that way.

“That was good advice. It made me feel Judaism was more real also, since it’s not like something that’s always on the defensive.”

So how do his students feel about having a teacher who could be a rabbi? And who now wears the black hat his father had rejected?

“I don’t think they notice. They’re always texting,” he jokes.

“Initially they are surprised. When they first see me they have certain perceptions and ideas. I hope at the end they see me as a human being and that I’m a good teacher.

“I try to make a lot of jokes.

“I’ll teach creative writing classes and the students are not at all inhibited in terms of the subject matter. I’m glad,” he said.

November is happy to sing the praises of poetry as an art form.

“I like how everything unfolds so quickly in a poem,” he said.

“It tries to break people out of their habituations and remind them of the value of daily life, the things we overlook. Poetry is necessary to wake people up, to break the sense of the mundane.

“A lot of people have misconceptions about what poetry is. In high school maybe they were taught that the less accessible it is the more it can be called poetry – which is not a true reflection of contemporary poetry.

“Once you can show people poetry they can relate to, they have a very different sense of it. A lot of time my students will have a notion that poetry requires very formal language and allusions to Greek mythology. They’re pleasantly surprised to learn they can write about their lives in contemporary situations, in pedestrian language.”

November believes poetry has a role to play in a religious life.

“When you’re a Jew you’re trying to reach this height and become more spiritual and conform to certain laws. Poetry captures the tension and struggle of not being perfect. You can’t get that in just studying a text.

“There’s a gap between my life and who I am as a person, and then the Jewish theology. A Jewish poet can write about what it means to be a human being in the Jewish framework,” he said.

November said he’s at least halfway done with his second collection of poems.

“I go back and forth on how satisfied I am with it. During the summer I have more time, I’m not teaching, I try to do as much as I can. If I’m not writing new poems, I can spend the whole day working on poems that are in process. I find that I’ll write a poem and then two years later come back to it with a fresh perspective.

“I try to work on a lot of poems simultaneously.”

November said that much of his new poetry is personal, focusing on marriage and raising children. (He has five; the oldest is 10.) His wife is a social worker, though now she is busy with the children.

“People ask how do you feel comfortable writing about these things,” he said. “Everybody has struggles. It’s not really something to be embarrassed about. If it can help other people, I think it’s worth it. Sometimes, for art to be moving, it has to take some risks. You may have to disclose some personal things to impact people. If you don’t write about some darker things, there can’t be any type of redemption that comes out of it.”

In his first book, among the personal stories – first meeting his wife in Jerusalem, praying Mincha on a break from a poetry workshop – are mythic retellings of tales from the Russian roots of Lubavitch history.

November credits one of his teachers at Binghamton, Maria Mazziotti Gillan, who has written about her experience growing up in Paterson as the child of Italian immigrants, with steering him to write about his own family and culture.

“She would always say the universal is in the particular,” November said.

“You might think that if you write about your own specific circumstances it would only be relevant to people who are in the same circumstance, but that’s not true. If you write about the things that are part of you, they will resonate for others, even if they’re of a different culture or a different background.”

Baal Teshuvas at the Mikvah
Sometimes you see them

in the dressing area

of the ritual bath,

young bearded men unbuttoning

their white shirts,

slipping out of their black trousers,

until, standing entirely naked,

they are betrayed by the tattoos

of their past life:

a ring of fire climbing up a leg,

an eagle whose feathery wing span

spreads the width of the chest,

or worse, the scripted name of a woman

other than one’s wife.

Then, holding only a towel,

they begin, once more, the walk

past the others in the dressing room:

the rabbi they will soon sit before

in Talmud class,

men with the last names

of the first chasidic families

almost everyone,

devout since birth.

And with each step,

they curse the poverty

that keeps the dark ink

etched in their skin,

until, finally, they descend the stairs

of the purifying water,

and, beneath the translucent liquid,

appear, once again,

like the next man,

who, in all this days,

has probably never made a sacrifice

as endearing to God.

Upstairs the Eulogy, Downstairs the Rummage Sale
The beloved Yiddish professor

passed away on the same day

as the synagogue’s rummage sale,

and because they could not bear

the coffin up the many steps

that led to the sanctuary,

they left it in the hallway downstairs,

and because I was not one of his students,

and it didn’t matter if I heard the eulogy,

they told me to stay downstairs,

to watch over the body and recite Psalms.

And I thought,

this is how it is in the life and death of a righteous man:

upstairs in the sanctuary, they speak of you in glowing terms,

while down below your body rests beside

old kitchen appliances.

And I recited the Psalms as intently

as I could over a man I had only met once,

and because I knew where he was headed,

and you and I were to wed in a few months,

I asked that he bring with him a prayer for a good marriage.

And this is how it is in the life and death of a righteous man:

strangers pray over the sum of your days,

and strangers ask you to haul their heavy requests

where you cannot even take your body.

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 someone

it wasn’t your people who killed their savior.

And Solomon and David are always laughing

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 must always remain pure.

And every day you have to ask yourself why you’re writing

when there is already the one great book.

It is hard to be a Jewish poet.

You cannot say anything about the disbelievers,

which might offend God.

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