Chabad Poet’s Work Straddles The Gap Between Body And Soul


In “Why Poetry Matters,” the poet, novelist and critic Jay Parini acknowledges that most people don’t write or read poetry and don’t understand the efforts of those who do. He argues convincingly that poetry is needed now more than ever, that it’s a cultural gift of consolation, insight and inspiration.

The poet Yehoshua November writes poems that read like very short stories. He builds worlds that stay with the reader, even if they are puzzling and the questions he raises can’t be answered. He feels it’s a compliment that many who say they don’t like poetry enjoy his poems.

November’s second volume of poetry, “Two Worlds Exist” (Orison Books), was named a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award in poetry. His first, “God’s Optimism,” published in 2010, won the Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award and was a finalist for the L.A. Times Book Prize, the Autumn House Poetry Prize and the Tampa Review Prize for Poetry. One of his poems, “Prayer,” was recently published in The New York Times Magazine.

“When I was younger/I believed the mystical teachings/could erase sorrow. The mystical teachings/do not erase sorrow,”

While the style and storytelling are similar in the two books, his voice in “Two Worlds Exist” is enriched with life experience. Here, he is more introspective, writing as a father as well as husband, facing deeper struggles, dealing with loss, raising five children, learning that a daughter is deaf.

“When I was younger/I believed the mystical teachings/could erase sorrow. The mystical teachings/do not erase sorrow,” he writes in the last lines of the title poem, “Two Worlds Exist.”

In an interview, he tells The Jewish Week, “When I was younger I was more concerned with artistry and craft. Now I’m more interested in narrative. I don’t want to dazzle with language. I want the language to remain transparent to the story.”

In person, November speaks with humility and self-effacing humor. Wearing a long beard, he dresses in the style of a follower of Chabad, with a dark suit, white shirt and wide-brimmed fedora.

“Two Worlds Exist” includes his father, his wife, a cousin who lost his son in a tragic accident, a recently divorced adjunct professor who teaches English composition in a night school and another teacher, a former rhythm-and-blues keyboardist who had some fame in the music world “until a voice called him back/to the God of his Forefathers/in the middle of a nightclub solo” and later taught algebra in a Jewish day school. There’s a young rabbinical student who pulls the fire alarm in the dormitory after learning that his parents plan to end their marriage, a rabbi who forgot his white shirt and prays in shul in his undershirt and long black coat, and a woman encountered by three rabbinical students from an all-male yeshiva while visiting Jewish inmates of a Pennsylvania prison.

I don’t want to dazzle with language. I want the language to remain transparent to the story.

The woman, who appears in “At the Request of the Organization for Jewish Prisoners,” one of many unforgettable poems in the collection, is “dressed not at all like the rabbinical-school-secretary” and is at the prison to visit an inmate. She is made to feel ashamed by the guards and required to change from her tight black dress to more sensible clothing. Meanwhile, the young men serve grape juice in paper cups to the inmates, tell the story of Chanukah and speak of how “the soul was created/only to sanctify the body, to lift up the lower realms.”

November has a gift for character and atmosphere, and in this poem and others, he layers chasidic teachings about body and soul, about the imperfect, material world with its seeming randomness and the world of the holy. His scenes or stories trace the spiritual as it filters through the messy human experience.

In conversation, November acknowledges that some mystical teachings — such as “the idea that tragedy is really an infinite good flowing down from the higher worlds and overwhelming the finite vessels of our reality — are easy to talk about but hard to live with, especially when one is struggling or suffering.” His poems allow doubt.

“I don’t think this demonstrates irreverence or a lack of faith,” he says. “A lot of questions can’t be answered with words, but with experience, by going through life.”

I don’t mean to imply that his words are to be read as theological poems — November tells good stories. He writes with affectionate humor, openness of spirit, intimacy and empathy for his subjects. His style is deceptively simple, alive with details and it links together images in unexpected ways.

The final poem in the collection, “Self Portrait,” recalls an orange and red sky and explores how a God who is infinite can be in a finite world where the author studies chasidic texts in the early mornings with an accountant, reads a poem by a student with a tarantula tattoo on his forearm, remembers his first glimpses of his wife-to-be in a college cafeteria, teaches poetry to girls in long dark skirts and, nightly, finds “between one and five children” in his bed.   

When November was growing up, his father, a physician, would play the music of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen at home, and Yehoshua was particularly attracted to Cohen’s poetry, with its view of modern situations as mythical and mystical. In college, at SUNY Binghamton, he was encouraged by several professors in the English department including Maria Mazziotti Gillan. The daughter of Italian-American immigrants who wrote about growing up in the tenements of Patterson, N.J., Gillan pushed him to write about being Jewish, to find the universal in the particular.

At Binghamton, November was first drawn to Chabad. He went on to earn an MFA at the University of Pittsburgh, but after that decided to learn in a yeshiva full-time, and studied at the Chabad yeshiva in Morristown, N.J. After two years of not writing poetry at all, he was encouraged by his rabbis to write again. He then left the yeshiva to write and teach at universities. Now, he lives in both the world of Chabad, and the world of literature.

November teaches creative writing, literature and English composition in Touro’s evening program, where, he says, there are few English majors and most students are interested in acquiring skills to enter the work force. As Gillan and others did for him, he encourages his creative writing students to write of their own experiences — “to allow them to have a stake in writing.”

“I do enjoy it,” he says. “It’s almost like bringing them into a different universe. For some, it’s the first opportunity to study craft and to share their work in this way.” In fact, he says that some good writing comes out of these classes.

November also teaches courses in creative writing, poetry and remedial English composition at Rutgers, with many international students in his composition classes still struggling to overcome their ESL challenges.

He wrote most of the poems in ‘Two Worlds Exist” over five summers, while he was free of teaching responsibilities. While he might write a poem in a day, he has probably been carrying around the idea for a long time, hearing it inside, before writing. November inspires, welcomes, surprises, enriches, wrestles and consoles in these poems that matter. 

Yehoshua November will be speaking and reading his poetry on Tuesday, March 14, 12:15 p.m. at Rockland Community College, 145 College Rd., Suffern, N.Y., in the Technology Center Ellipse (free), and on Sunday March 19 at 6 p.m. at Cornelia Street Café, 29 Cornelia St., Manhattan, with poets Marie Lisella, Baruch November and others in celebration of Jewish and Italian heritage and literature ($10 admission includes drink).