Rabbis of the Air: Poetic Explication
In Phillip Terman’s poem “A Response to Jehuda Halevi” from Rabbis in the Air, the speaker stresses that his own, personal and familial experience of Judaism is more important than the received tradition of scholars and prophets. The poem evolves as a series of contrasts, between holy and revered images of Judaism and the speaker’s relatively secular but significant cultural and historical encounters with his faith. The poem opens with a rhetorical question to the Toledo-born 11th century Jewish mystical poet Jehuda Halevi. The poet’s inquisitive tone, questioning the artistic legacy of a fellow Jewish poet, turns the reader’s focus to the poet’s own poetic identity and artistic project as an author over the course of the poem.
While Halevi elevated the purely spiritual and unearthly side of Judaism, Terman stresses its earthly elements. He challenges Halevi: “Is it well that the dead shall be remembered, / and the Ark and the Tablets forgotten?” Terman responds that it is good. In other words, is it a good thing that ordinary Jews are not preoccupied with the minutiae of the Pentateuch, Mosaic Law, and Torah. Instead, it is better to be intent upon remembering the more recent dead, and the accomplishments of one’s family.
The dead, as the poem evolves, are Terman’s own family and ancestors, although this general reference to the dead perhaps inevitably calls to mind the victims of the Holocaust and other Jews killed as the result of persecution and oppression in recent times. First, Terman deftly creates a picture of his father, evidently a proud, self-made businessman who did not necessarily have time for religious study: “Yes, Jehuda, I would rather recall/the business cards of my father’s/used car lot than the five books. / and all their commentaries…” The Judaism of Terman is of pride in a father who has worked hard to win the American dream for his children. He did not have time for theological abstraction of the Bible and the obsessions of the old rabbis who spent their lives pouring over ancient texts, eyes focused on the divine rather than upon the here and now, or upon changing the world for their families. This line suggests, if poets such as the medieval mystic of the title had worked harder to uplift their children in mundane terms, more good could have been accomplished for their future co-religionists.
Terman next creates a portrait of his traditional, but squarely 20th century grandmother as he fondly recalls: “the recipe/for my grandmother’s kuchin” not “the Kabbalah and its interpretations.” Note, however, that in his comparison, Terman calls forth specifically Jewish images to describe his grandmother — she makes kuchin, and in the next stanza “delicate matzo balls.” He does not call forth secular images to describe his grandmother’s cooking, she prepares traditional Jewish food, which suggests that Terman loves his past, but it is a past of humble, tangible Jewishness, not the elite and undefined practice of studying the Kabala that turns the Jewish scholar’s eyes away from the sights, smells, and tastes of the world.
Moving from the humor of matzo balls and used cars, the images of the poem grows darker as Terman recalls: “the dandruff of my dead friend’s dark hair” that he values more “than the inscribed stones Moses/bloodied his flesh — twice — to attain.” The reader begins to wonder why Terman values his friend’s dandruff — but this image recalls the hair left over from the victims of the Holocaust, hair shaved from the scalps of Jewish victims to make wigs. This stanza suggests that Terman is not merely deflating obscure mysticism, but suggesting that too much focus on piety and not enough focus on politics and the real lives and concerns of the Jewish people can have devastating consequences for the community. He is not merely speaking to a poet of the past, but to leaders of the present. Focus on the needs of the here and now, Terman cries, rather than being overly reverent about a falsely constructed past, either of the Bible, Talmudic scholars, or a mystical ideal.
At the end of the poem, Terman invokes his ancestors and the very real dead, other Jewish victims, as well as Jews who have triumphed: “their names the undertone whenever/my own name is called, their ghost-souls/more present than this corporeal furniture.” Terman acknowledges the importance of the past, his Jewish heritage, and the dead, but this heritage cannot be encompassed in a book or under the category of religion and religious teachings, rather it is something far greater. He ends with an image of dust and ashes, again implying in his imagery if not with a specific reference, the tragedy of the Holocaust. The final lines rebuke the mystical poet for something the poet did not live to witness, but Terman suggests he should have been more concerned about, in his poetry.
Only after rereading the poem does the reader confront a curious paradox — Terman claims to reject mystical Judaism, but he clearly knows what the Pentateuch, Kabala, and Torah are — also, his poem is addressed to a relatively obscure poet. This suggests a final, additional nuance to the poem. Perhaps Terman is addressing himself, or his own tendency to be overly concerned with theory and art, rather than real, practical concerns. This explains why the poem is addressed to a Jewish poet, not merely a Jewish scholar. If Terman were not engaged in self-criticism as well as the criticism of the past, the poem could be addressed to a famous rabbi. Terman creates a strawman of a man whose life and works seems like a tempting path, but one Terman ultimately rejects in favor of his family, the beauty of mundane matzo balls, and a more fruitful way of coping with historical persecution and tragedy — to deal with things in a practical, earthly, and constructive manner.
Abrahams, Israel. “Jehuda Halevi.” Chapter 12: The Spanish-Jewish poets.
Chapters on Jewish Literature. 6 Dec 2007. http://www.authorama.com/chapters-on-jewish-literature-12.html
Terman, Phillip. Rabbis of the Air. Autumn House Press, 2007.
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