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How my poem went around the world & made some people crazy


Here is the story in a nutshell: I wrote a poem about this week’s Torah portion (Korach). The poem – which is basically a rhythmic list – ended up in a Passover haggadah & was distributed hither and yon. Some people liked it and some people decidedly DID NOT. Enough so to take action.

Let’s begin with the basic facts: Korach started a rebellion. He laid down this challenge to Moses–

All the people in the community are holy. Why do you set yourselves above the community?

Long story short: God is not happy and opens up the earth, swallowing Korach & all 250 of his co-conspirators and their families. Whoosh! So ends Korach’s rebellion as the mouth of the planet silences this big mouth.

Jealousy, say the traditional rabbis and commentators. An unjust challenge to just & rightful authority. They took Moses’ (and by extension, God’s) side. Austrian philosopher Martin Buber argued that Korach’s “sin” was assuming holiness without tying it to actual behavior: a kind of false egalitarianism. Contemporary midrashist Aviva Zornberg argues the central problem is not Korach’s point-of-view, but that he won’t open his mouth to dialogue with Moses.

I, on the other hand, sided with Korach (yes, yes, knee jerk) and penned Praise the Contrary & Its Defenders celebrating rebellion broadly defined, i.e., all the odd, sideways people who challenge the status quo. Who create art & alternative institutions & new-fangled perspectives. Who shake things up and won’t let things be. In other words: I was being a bit of a rebellious rapscallion myself.

So when my friend Rachel Barenblat, in the wake of the Egyptian revolution, put out a call for liberation poems for this year’s edition of the Velveteen Rabbi Haggadah, I sent her an updated version (the poem keeps changing) — and to my delight, she included it (or a big swath, anyway).

Cool. I have no idea how many people read the poem or used all or part of it in their Pesach celebrations, but I do know that the reception was varied. I have one friend (let’s call her Tamar) whose sister was so taken by my spirited enumeration that she added her own examples and passed it along to a cousin (or friend, I can’t remember which). On the other hand, I have another friend (let’s call him Josh) who included the poem in his seder and proceeded to be rebuked by some of the elders of the congregation for being inappropriate. Too this & that. A meeting was called. A discussion ensued.

Was I insulted? Not in the least. I was a bit surprised at the specific lines of the poem that offended (they seemed random), but was otherwise delighted. To have the capacity to stir things up… as a writer, that’s what I live for. Why I create art. To make small ripples in the world.

I was also tickled by the delicious irony of having a self-described arbiter of good taste dissect a poem that is, in itself, a critique of arbiters of good taste. The whole episode got me to wondering about the ways in which we — and by we, I include myself — set ourselves up above the communities in which we live. The ways in which we can see only one perspective or fail to acknowledge our own over-reactions or closely guarded “correct” ways of doing things. The ways in which we allow ourselves to get swallowed up by things we don’t quite understand. The ways in which we swallow our tongues and speak out. How rare true dialogue is.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. "Call Me Josh" permalink
    06/24/2011 7:45 am

    Thanks for stirring things up! In the end, the discussion that ensued was a little crazy, and ultimately positive, leading to deeper conversation about the poem itself, with the people who expressed “offense” and with other people who were presumed to be in that “offense.” Your poem helped me do my job!

    • sue swartz permalink*
      06/24/2011 8:27 am

      So glad all the way around. As I said, this really tickled me!

      • "Call Me Josh" permalink
        06/24/2011 11:57 am

        Oh – and not only did I use the poem in the community seder in my corner of these United States, but my family used it in their seder far far away (which I was sadly unable to attend).

        I’ve learned more about people, including myself, because of this poem – because I included it; because I shared it with Mom and got her feelings before Passover; because of the conversations sparked as a result of controversy, including with you and Mom.

        It made people think – some more deeply than others – and that is exactly why I chose to include it. Next year I’ll be looking for something else to spark conversation.

      • sue swartz permalink*
        06/24/2011 12:14 pm

        Blushing….. in a good way.

  2. 06/24/2011 10:18 am

    Oh my goodness! I’m glad that you’re able to be glad that the poem is sparking dialogue. 🙂

    • 06/24/2011 11:18 am

      My attitude is that the worst thing for art is for it to be ignored. Misunderstood is a drag, but that can’t be helped.

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