Shavuot poetry slam
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Shavuot poetry slam

Franklin Lakes shul pairs Jewish holidays, English verse for tikkun leil Shavuot

Robert Burns, left, and William Cowper
Robert Burns, left, and William Cowper

There are many matches made on Shavuot that seem unlikely until you think about them more closely.

First, the most obvious match — Shavuot is both a harvest festival and the time when Jews celebrate God giving us the Torah. The harvest festival part’s straightforward. Wheat is harvested when it’s ready, and in ancient Israel, that was just about now. And Shavuot is 49 days after Pesach, as the Israelites marked the time from redemption to revelation. So — voila.

The second — some traditions tell us that Shavuot is the marriage between God and the people Israel. Why they might want each other isn’t entirely clear. God often signals disdain if not disgust with the people Israel, and according to legend, Israel tried to escape the marriage, but God held a mountain over their collective heads until the people gave their consent. But on Shavuot, God gave the Torah, we are taught, and the people accepted it. So, match number two.

The third — Shavuot and cheesecake. That match isn’t clear either, but who wants to question cheesecake?

So when you look at the program Rabbi Joseph Prouser is offering for Temple Emanuel of North Jersey’s tikkun leil Shavuot program — a poetry slam — you assume that the Franklin Lakes shul’s evening of course must make sense.

Starting at 7 and continuing after evening services at 9, congregants will talk about the pairings they have made between Jewish holidays and poems either Rabbi Prouser or they have found.

Let’s let Rabbi Prouser explain it.

“I have always believed that poetry — and poetry alone — is an adequate medium for the depiction of the transcendent in our relationship to God,” he said. “You need a poetic soul to really understand and express those ideas. You have to be willing to look beyond the limited dimensions of human sensory experience and reach for the ultimate, the transcendent, the eternal.

“An example I always use is when Robert Burns wrote ‘My love is like a red red rose.’ He was expressing a truth that a biochemist couldn’t do justice to with a study of the chemistry of arousal.

“There are truths that can be achieved only through poetry and metaphor. I think that is a critical idea, central to any religious enterprise, not only Judaism. Certainly Judaism, but really any religious enterprise.

“And it also is important to demonstrate that our tradition can be held up against the greatest traditions of poetry and art and remain compelling.”

Rabbi Prouser has used poetry to illuminate Jewish liturgy and theology already; “in the past, I have provided the congregation with poems that could be used at different points in the seder to bring out the ideas, themes, and messages of various parts of the Haggadah.

Rabbi Joseph Prouser
Rabbi Joseph Prouser

“For example, about the four sons. There is a passage in Shakespeare’s Henry V:

‘Hear him but reason in divinity

And, all-admiring, with an inward wish

You would desire the King were made a prelate. 

Hear him debate of commonwealth affairs

You would say it hath been all in all his study. 

List his discourse of war, and you shall hear

A fearful battle rendered you in music…’”

It goes on, in free verse, in a 16th-century description of the wonderful (and clearly unendurable) wise son. There is poetry for the other sons as well, but they’re a bit harder to find.

Rabbi Prouser’s interest in using poetry to help guests at his otherwise extremely traditional seder understand the Haggadah differently and better led him to create a supplement “that identifies different points in the seder where poetry can be introduced to replace or supplement or interpret or comment on the proceedings. And sometimes, where there are controversial elements in the seder, it helps us find a way to find beauty even in the controversies that erupt in our discussions.”

Rabbi Prouser has asked nine community members, including his wife, Dr. Ora Horn Prouser, to read poems on erev Shavuot that are connected somehow or other to a Jewish holiday. “They are all regular participants in Shabbat services and in the life the congregation, and they are all interested in continuing adult education,” he said. Some of the people he invited turned him down — “they said thank you but I’m not interested. Not everyone thinks that the idea of getting up publicly to recite poetry is the way to celebrate Shavuot” — but eight people, including a newly ordained rabbi, an engineer, and a college student, have agreed.

Some holidays are easier to pair with poetry than others, Rabbi Prouser said. Yom Kippur is particularly fertile in that way. He’s partial to a couplet by William Cowper: “The kindest and the happiest pair will find occasion to forebear; find something every day they live to pity, and perhaps forgive.”

Tu b’Shvat most likely wouldn’t be as easy, he continued. “Not every poem about a tree necessarily will be relevant.”

Rabbi Prouser will tackle Purim, using a poem by Frederick William Faber, who wrote about God’s hiddenness in “Oh, It Is Hard to Work For God.”

“He hides Himself so wondrously, as though there were no God; He is least seen when all the pow’rs of ill are most abroad,” the nineteenth-century Englishman wrote.

It is true that many of the poems that will be read sound Protestant, and in fact were written by Protestants. “It’s not so much that we overlap with the Protestants as that they have absorbed the Hebrew Bible and Jewish influences,” Rabbi Prouser said. “Christians talk about salvation and redemption, and we are uncomfortable using those words, but you can’t understand the Hebrew Bible without understanding salvation and redemption.” We should reclaim those words, he suggested.

Rosalie Berman of Wykoff, a retired elementary day-school teacher, is the brave volunteer who accepted the challenge of finding a poem for Tu b’Shvat. She picked it because “I am old enough so that when I was in Hebrew school, we used to sell stamps for trees in Israel for the JNF. I always like the spring, and I thought it would be easier than starting with something like Pesach or Chanukah, when there would be so much to choose from.”

Rabbi Prouser gave her some guidance. “He suggested the ideas of trees and regrowth, and also relating trees to Torah, as the tree of life.” He gave Ms. Berman a few poems. “I might or might not use one of them,” she said.

Ellen Lipschitz of Paterson — who retired from management at Hoffman-La Roche Laboratories and belonged to Temple Emanuel when it still was in Paterson, moving with it when it went to the suburbs — is taking on Chanukah. She’s not exactly sure what poem she’ll use; she’s thinking of “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from the musical “Les Miserables,” and also of a cantata she wrote when she was just out of college, still living at home, and teaching Sunday school.

“‘Do You Hear the People Sing’ is about rallying people to fight for freedom,” she said. “That’s one of the basic themes of Chanukah. And then I also have a few poems about the beauty of light.” Ms. Berman was right. There is so much to choose from for Chanukah.

One last thing — the evening will include wine, which Robert Lewis Stevenson called “bottled poetry.” Rabbi Prouser finds himself guided by these seventeenth-century lines from poet, theologian, and architect Henry Aldrich:

“If on my theme I rightly think,

There are five reasons why men drink:

Good wine, a friend; or being dry;

Or lest I should be by and by;

Or — any other reason why.”

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