I spent my junior year abroad in Edinburgh, Scotland. There I studied literature and wrote a letter to my parents about how deeply I was enamored of the great British poets — Wordsworth, Burns, Byron and others. I will never forget my father’s reply.
He told me he was glad I was getting so much out of the year. But then he reminded me that English literature became the literature of the world “on the backs of British soldiers.” Jews, he wrote, had poets but no armies; I should not neglect Yehuda Halevy and Ibn Gabirol and Bialik and Tzernikovsky. For they too were great, he said, and moreover, “they are yours.”
Literature belongs to all humanity, of course, but just as Burns has a special weight for the Scots, and Pushkin for Russians, so the Psalmist and Alterman and Amichai speak in a special way to Jewish history. Their voices, and those of other Jewish poets, were born in the synagogue, the study hall, the shtetl and the state. There is poetry in our prayers, but there is also prayer in our poetry. Read it and learn who we have been and who we might become.
Rabbi David Wolpe is spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter: @RabbiWolpe. His latest book is “David: The Divided Heart” (Yale University Press).