Celebrating Jewish Literature: Exploring emotions and the past

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Making jGirls voices heard

Adults often look back at their youth through rose-colored glasses. But life is not always easy for the teenagers, something that becomes clear in the poems, stories, essays and artwork by Jewish teens that appear in “Salt and Honey: Jewish Teens on Feminism, Creativity, and Tradition” edited by Elizabeth Mandel with jGirls Magazine (Behrman House/jGirls Magazine.) The preface notes that the teens, ages 13-19, are “self-identifying Jewish girls, young women, and nonbinary teens.” The magazine jGirl gave them the space to explore different aspects of their lives, including difficult subjects and joyous ones. The work is titled “Salt and Honey” because the writers “embrace the salt and the honey, the sting and the sweetness” of their lives. 

It’s difficult to pick out specific works to talk about because they all offer something of interest, but a few that stood out include:

  • “Seeing Beyond” by Leah Bogatie that speaks about the author’s disabled sister, whose example taught her to acknowledge everyone’s humanity. 
  • The painful and moving “Dad” by Denae (whose last name was not given), who is unable to make peace with her feelings about her father and forgive him his sins.
  • Audrey Honig’s two wonderful poems, “Almost Thirteen” and “Seventeen,” about antisemitism and the joys of being Jewish.
  • An excellent and beautiful prayer/poem “21st Century Amidah” by Jamie Klinger. 
  • Elena Eisenstadt’s “My Jewish-Themed Bat Mitzvah” that captures the true meaning of the ceremony.
  • The moving “My Version of Practicing Judaism,” in which Lauren Alexander writes of how her illness impacts her Jewish practice.
  • Lily Pazner’s poem “You Have Not Walked the Same Streets As Me,” which talks about how women are not safe from harm, even when simply walking down the street. 
  • A class visit to the Holocaust Museum that caused Samara Haynes to ponder the reactions of her classmates in “What You See.”
  • Sarah Young’s poem “Kyke Dyke,” where she writes of discovering other Jewish lesbians who helped reaffirm her identity.

Although “Salt and Honey” was written by teens for teens, this work will also resonate with adults. Parents of teenagers may want to read this book and discuss it with them in order to better understand how they view the world. The work includes artist statement’s about the drawings and paintings featured, and questions to stimulate discussion. jGirls is to be commended for publishing the thoughts of these Jewish teens.

Poetry by Merle Feld

Many readers first encounter Merle Feld’s poetry in Reform and Conservative prayer books where it serves as part of the liturgy. However, while her latest book of poetry, “Longing: poems of a life” (Reform Judaism Publishing/CCAR Press), does feature some poems with religious themes, Feld also explores the course of her life from childhood to the difficulties she experiences while aging. 

A poem that manages to be personal and political, “Let my people go that we may serve you,” opens the collection and is dedicated to two women rabbis: Sally Priesand and Lisa Feld. She notes the desire women feel to be part of the religious community as full members: “The lust, the longing, to learn,/ to leyn, to lead, to bensch, to be counted, to be/ called, to locate our wisdom, to inhabit our power/ and our tenderness, to build holy communities,/ fully and richly as ourselves, as Jewish women/ as rabbis – I won’t let you go till you bless me” – which echoes the biblical Jacob’s desire to be blessed after wrestling with an angel. This beautiful poem also serves as a thank you to those who struggled over the decades for equal inclusion of women in Judaism.

In many of the poems, Feld writes about her abusive father, who beat her older brother, and how she was unable to protect him, something that still affects her profoundly. She notes that the many sins she’s committed over the decades don’t bother her as much that “single first sin repeated over and over” when her father beat her brother with a leather belt. She mourns not having the courage to try to stop him – something readers know would have been impossible – saying that “instead I lay in my bed, shivering, under cover,/ soaking in the animals cries/ secretly grateful to be/ a small child, a girl, unworthy of notice.”

Feld also writes of her marriage to a rabbi, a far more successful relationship than the one she had with her father. She cries in appreciation at their first “Shabbos together,” telling God that “finally, for the first time in my life,/ you gave me something I wanted./ This man, whose soul is the soul of Ein Gedi.” She writes of their moves, the way they built a life together. She also tells of the loss of her parents and friends. Her poem “His many foreign lands,” which is dedicated “to our teacher, Reb Zalman,1924-2014,” will make readers wish they had both known him as she did and that he had revealed more about the mysteries of the life he left behind in Europe. 

There is also a wonderful, moving poem, “Stay with me a little longer please” whose subtitle “sitting again with the yahrzeit candle,” tells of the great sorrow she feels at the loss of her mother. It also acknowledges her mother’s limitations, even as Feld recognizes the gifts her mother gave her: “Our world was a treacherous place and you couldn’t even protect me/ in our tiny apartment. Nevertheless, you loved me, and that/ was enough. It gave me the strength to keep getting up, to go out,/ to go on. It’s one of your mysteries I am still unraveling.”

Those already familiar with Feld’s writings will definitely want to add this collection to their bookshelf. Poetry lovers unfamiliar with her work will want to read a copy to discover the delights and sorrows Feld so skillfully reveals.