When it comes to art and poetry, I am very demanding. And the reason for this has to do with who I am, where I come from, and what I dream about. But, ultimately, I’m not so unique. I feel as if there are many Jewish people out there who, like me, are yearning for a poetry that merges music, performance, and comedy with something that speaks to being Jewish, being American, and being close to something indescribable that seems to be coming at us from different directions. On my search for this kind of poetry, I have come across the work of few poets who, at one time in my life, spoke to my being Jewish, being American, and so forth. These poets – my poetic Rabbis, so to speak – are Allen Ginsburg, Charles Bernstein, and Jerome Rothenberg. What I like about all of them is the fact that they all, in some way, bring their Jewishness to bear on a poetry that is performative, musical, and, at times, comical. But, as I said, their work appealed to me at one time. Today, I need something different and this is only because I have changed and so have the times we live in. Unlike the past, I feel now, more than ever, that I – and others of my generation who wish to make Jewishness more relevant and exciting – need to find a new way to animate the Jewish text. I believe that it can be animated by a new Jewish poetics and culture which can live in the present, draw on the past, and, using the best means it has at its disposal, open itself to a new future. By opening the text (as the Zohar says in a different context), the new Jewish poet can lead the way into an exciting new form of Jewish life that is comic, poetic, musical, and performative. And we can, so to speak, dance to this new Jewish tune.
On this (musical) note, I think I have found a new Jewish poet who I can listen to and join with in the project of creating a new Jewish culture. His performance-poetry speaks to my comic Jewish –American sensibility in the most innovative and inspiring ways. His name is Jake Marmer. His first work of poetry is entitled Jazz Talmud. It was published in 2011 by Sheepmeadow Press. And, most recently, he has put together a CD entitled Hermeneutic Stomp which takes the poems from his book and brings them to life by way of Jazz. His CD will be released in New York City on October 14th .
For now, I’d like to go through one of these poems so as to point out how he, drawing on the tradition of the poets I have mentioned above (and a Jewish tradition called the Talmud), animates the text in a comic manner. Fortunately, we have a video from Youtube that shows Marmer at work with his Jazz group. Seeing this, after I have discussed the poem, can help to give you (my dear reader) an idea of how the performance of his poetry adds another dimension to his work.
At the end of an essay Marmer wrote for Shema: A Journal of Jewish Ideas, entitled Improvised Poetry: Palimpest of Drafts, Marmer cites a poem from Jazz Talmud (a poem which also appears in his Hermeneutic Stomp CD) and notes to the reader that his poetry plays on the relationship of the Mishnah to the Gemara. Here is the poem. It’s entitled the “Mishnah of Loneliness”:
Mishnah of Loneliness
There’re three types of loneliness in the world:
green, red, and purple. So says the house of
Hillel. In the house of Shammai, they say: loneliness
is either black or white; all other types
don’t exist and require a sacrifice of a young
goat: your internal goat.
Says Rava: in all of my years, I have not
known loneliness. All day I’m at the yeshiva
with you nudniks, then I come home to groveling
domestic tractates. One day, I stepped
outside and screamed: Master, I want you
in silence, in absence, in wordless music of
our solitude! Right then I saw a great ladder,
reaching to the Throne up high. The Throne
— was empty — but up and down the steps,
there went lost sounds, scales of unused and
discarded words, slip-ups, swallowed hallucinations,
choked on ecstasies — a whole decontextualized
orchestra racing like goats through
The voice said: this, Rava, is the room of my
absence, music of our solitude. You like it? Go
home! Stuff your ears with pages of sophistry; eat,
make a bad pun, for that is the meaning of peace.
Writing on this poem, Marmer points out that there is room in what he writes for improvisation and animation:
While the opening and middle sections of the poem are fairly set, the storytelling segment has room to let loose. As I recite it, I’m looking for openings, ideas, associated images, and commentary that I did not think of when I was working on the original draft.
This structure gives him the opportunity to change his poetry (or his way of saying it) while he is in the moment of performance. And this gives the poetry more life since it is, so to speak, full of gaps and opportunities for play and interaction (with the text, the musicians, and the audience). Adding to this reflection on the improvisational nature of his poetry, Marmer notes the Jewish dimension by pointing out how he is playing with “Talmudic form”:
In this particular piece, I’m also playing with the historical talmudic form, which combined memorization/repetition (“mishnah”)with discourse/discussion/riffing/tangents (“gemarah”).
Building on his reference to the Talmud to his work, I would suggest that we read the interplay of voices and opinions – in this particular poem – as comical. To be sure, what I find so interesting about this poem in particular is the fact that it has a very pronounced comic dimension to it which works by way of indirection. It gives loneliness three colors (none of which are blue). And in the jazz performance, each color also has a different sound. Playing on the endless Talmudic disputes between two Talmudic schools (Shammai and Hillel), he attributes this reading to the “house of Hillel” (which is usually associated with more lenient and compassionate readings of the law and is associated with the saying that the whole Torah is to “love your brother as yourself”). In contrast to Hillel’s colorful interpretation of loneliness, he presents Shammai’s reading which is that loneliness can either be one color or another; it can’t be three colors. And if you appeal to these, a sacrifice will have to be made: “your internal goat.”
This dichotomy between the two Rabbis – and the whole focus on loneliness – is challenged by Rava who says he has never known loneliness. And the punch line is that he has not known it because he has always been “surrounded by nudnicks” (a nudnick is an irritating person – a person who nags) at Yeshiva. At this point, the humor really kicks in since Rava prays to God to be left alone. He can’t take the nudnicks.
He then has a “vision.” But what he sees is something that the exiled poet, musician, and Rabbi share: words, sounds, and visions that are incomplete. Marmer animates the words by describing them in a diverse and comic manner: “lost sounds, scales of unused and discarded words, slip-ups, swallowed hallucinations.”
After hearing this, God, sounding much like Woody Allen’s God in he speech to Abraham in “The Scrolls,” asks Rava if he likes the “whole decontextualized orchestra” (which he calls the “room of my absence, music of our solitude”): “You like it? Go home! Stuff your ears with pages of sophistry, eat, make a bad pun for that is the meaning of peace.”
The last words of the poem suggest that God is spurring Rava to leave this serious room “of my absence” and to turn to comedy: to “stuff his ears with sophistry, eat, make a bad pun.”
This is telling and, ultimately, sounds a comic note.
Here is a video of this poem when it is performed.
What I love about the CD is the fact that what you hear on it is different from what you see and hear in this video. What makes this so appealing to me is the fact that the structure of the piece gives him another opportunity to say it and find new ways of accenting this comic-Talmudic narrative.
More importantly, this poem (and its performance) speaks to me because it outlines what’s Jewish about his poetry: it looks to challenge the loneliness that goes hand-in-hand with so much poetry. It reminds me of the contrast between the style James Joyce uses to describe Leopold Bloom (the Jew) and Stephen Dedalus (the Gentile). The former style is more animated and comic. And, as any reader of Ulysses knows, Bloom never seems to be lonely since he’s always relating to something. He seems to be in a constant conversation with memories, people, things around him, and even animals.
When Marmer recites poetry and his band responds to each of his words with this or that note or sequence of notes, the “Mishnah of Loneliness” becomes the Mishnah of peace. It tells the tale of how we, as Jews, can speak to each other. And the fellowship that comes out of this comic-musical-poetic conversation is not what Susan Sontag calls the “fellowship of suffering” so much as a “fellowship of comedy, music, and words.” This poem is a part of a renewed oral tradition which, as I have pointed out, is comic in nature. And this tradition, I aver, is the other side of the “fellowship of suffering.” Rather than surrender to sadness, Jews know how to balance it out (and not laugh it away) with a sense of humor. This shines through in Marmer’s poetry.
This poem and all of Marmer’s poems speak to me – especially when they are accompanied by the music of musicians who respond. They speak to me in a Talmudic sense and in a Jewish sense. I love that the music responds to each of Marmer’s notes. That, for me, is what animation is all about. Moreover, such response is also the basis for peace since peace, as any poet knows, is based on some form of conversation.
As an American and as a Jew, as a person who lives in the present but is related to an ancient past and an uncertain future, I think these parts of myself, which I share with my fellow American Jews, need to engage in more dialogue. And I think Marmer has found a great way of starting this conversation. Although Marmer is aware that we have had a Talmud for centuries which has shown us how to live our lives, he knows that today what we need more than ever is a Jazz Talmud. That is a step in the right direction. A Jazz Talmud can start a new conversation, one that speaks to me and to many of my generation who want to reconcile the differing opinions about what’s Jewish, what’s American, and how the two can converse with each other.
Check out Marmer’s work on his blog: Jake Marmer’s Bop Apocalypse: Poetry, Philosophy, Existential Rants. Also check out his new CD and, if you’d like, join him at the CD release party on October 14th at the Cornelia Street Café at 8:30pm.