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Undoing world

Sometimes the sounds of both home and inspiration are found in the powerful poetry of another culture

In my monastery, the poetry I hear comes in the form of hymns. Every evening, we chant an arrangement of Salve Regina, which (as everyone is surely aware) is an antiphon to the Virgin Mary first set down at the Abbey of Cluny in the 12th century. It’s slow and ravishingly beautiful and a little sad:

Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of mercies… To you do we cry, poor banished children of Eve, To you do we send up our sighs, Mourning and weeping in this valley of tears….

Catholics love it well.

But sometimes other poems — other poets — speak to me more strongly than the Doctors of the Church.

A New York bard who has reached me in spite of myself is Tony Kushner. Of all Jewish Marxist homosexual Pulitzer prizewinners, I think he is surely the best. We used to be neighbors, although he did not know it, since (I heard) he lives on Union Square and I was five blocks uptown. There’s a big vegetable market there and I used to think of him while shopping for beets. But that’s not important.

In 1997, when I was still in school, Kushner collaborated with other brilliant, patchouli-scented Jews (the Klezmatics, a neo-klezmer band) to produce a work of art that haunts me even now. It’s a poem set to music, a little despondent, but beautiful — like an antiphon.

This is “An Undoing World” — part of Possessed a weird and wonderful album I bought on CD (remember those?) at Tower Records (remember that?).

After a short intro on — a recorder? a flute? — Lorin Sklamberg comes in with his bell-clear, uncomfortable, third-sex-sounding tenor. This is the man who taught me what a krekhts is. He’s a good fit for Kushner.

And Sklamberg hits the Kushner stanzas mercilessly, to a waltzing beat.

He sings:

Don’t cry out or cling in terror
Darling that’s a fatal error
Clinging to a somebody you thought you knew was yours.
Dispossession by attrition is a permanent condition
That the wretched modern world endures.

A low sax comes in. We go on:

You drift away, you’re carried by a stream.
Refugee, a wanderer you roam;
You lose your way, so it will come to seem:
No Place in Particular is home.

This is in English, but the syntax and the rhythms and — most of all — the underlying sentiment have got to be the most Yiddish thing I’ve heard.

If I had known in 1997 how much my life would come to resemble these lines, I might have shut down the boom-box in shock. That’s the year I first went to live outside my home-country. And since then, I’ve spent large chunks of time in five countries. I’ve learned the languages and gone through the tedious immigration procedures of four nations. And still I’m not sure whether I have come to rest.

It’s been a long road. It’s not over.

This Jewish paean is something I have rubbed over and over, like rosary beads. And it helps me to get inside and understand my own condition.

Listen on. A Hammond organ comes in. The tenor addresses New York’s Madonna, the Statue of Liberty:

Copper-plated, nailed together, buffeted by ocean weather
Stands the Queen of Exiles and our mother she may be.
Hollow-breasted broken-hearted watching for her dear departed
For her children cast upon the sea.

At the very end of this sad confection Sklamberg is joined by — and this is surely the quintessence of a certain kind of Tri-State Jewishness — a mixed chorale of aging voices that sounds very much like the Workmen’s Circle Chorus. They bleat out their best, still addressing the Statue of Liberty. This is the final crescendo of the poem. And am I wrong to see a link between these words and the Salve Regina I know so well?

Mother for your derelicted
Children from your womb evicted
Grant us shelter harbor solace safety
Let us in!
Let us tell you where we travelled
How our hopes our lives unravelled
How unwelcome everywhere we’ve been.

That’s the end. And that’s where Kushner loses me. We part ways.

His epilogue is too cold, too sudden, too dead. Too Marxist. I guess if you’re a youngish Old Left Jew and it’s 64 years after the New Deal and 55 years after Wannsee, this is how you write.

Our antiphon ends differently. The Virgin Mary, that famous Jewish maiden whose paps gave the Savior suck, is not hollow. And neither are the hopes of her musical petitioners.

At the end of the Salve, we sing:

Turn, then, most gracious Advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us, And after this, our exile, Show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb….

We’re singing about a baby. But we’re also singing about hope.

And while it’s ultra-Yiddish and very galuti to write about refugees and dereliction — while it’s beautifully Jewish to identify with the outsider and afflict the comfortable while comforting the afflicted — there’s something very Jewish about hope, too.

Having just come through Ben Gurion Airport, another Jewish poem is much on my mind this week.

It was written by Naftali Herz Imber, not a Manhattan man, but a boy from the deep glaut of Zolochiv, in what is now Ukraine.

This poet didn’t stay among the beets.

Imber moved to Ottoman Palestine as a secretary of Sir Laurence Oliphant, whom he lived with in Haifa and the Druze town of Daliyat al-Karmel.

In Jerusalem, in 1886, he published his first book of poems, Morning Star or Barkai‎. One of the book’s poems was “Tikvateinu”. That, plus Samuel Cohen’s music, is where we get this number.

Hope, too, is a Jewish virtue. Even in this valley of tears.

About the Author
Born in Wisconsin, Erik Ross is a priest of the Dominican Order who lives in Switzerland and comes often to Israel. For many years, he was stationed in Poland. He has long been active in Jewish-Christian conversations. He writes here with the permission of his major superior.