“Prayers of a Heretic: Poems” by Yermiyahu Ahron Taub— Existential Displacement through Prayer

prayers of a heretic

Taub,  Yermiyahu Ahron. “Prayers of a Heretic: Poems”, Plain View Press, 2013.

Existential Displacement through Prayer

Amos Lassen

There are several authors that I go out of my way to read and one of them is poet Yermiyahu Ahron Taub. This is fourth volume of poetry to sit on my desk and I keep all of his books nearby for easy access. The beauty of language and faith come together here. I must admit that it was difficult to remain dry-eyed as I read. I suppose that is because my relation to Judaism is so important to me—I have strayed but I always return. There always seems to be a battle between man and the divine, flesh and the spirit, faith and heresy. Passion and holiness meet here. While the poems are Jewish to the core, they are also universal because life depends on both the physical and the spiritual (whatever that spirituality entails). In Hebrew, we have the word “miklat”– shelter which means a good deal more than we attribute meaning to it in English. Shelter is physical and spiritual and we constantly yearn for it. The early Hebrew poets wrote about it; Jews ask for the shelter of peace to be spread over Israel and over the holy city of Jerusalem; we pray that we will be sheltered as we sleep and that when we awaken we will be renewed and refreshed. As I read,  I was reminded of a poem by Hebrew poet laureate Haim Nachman Bialik who wrote, “Shelter me under your wing and be unto me mother and sister, and let your breast be my head’s rest, home of my lonely prayers”.

With Taub’s poems we read of people who long and search for shelter—be it physical or maternal as Bialik wrote. For Taub and actually, for myself, prayer is shelter and it is always available—we do not have to seek it— we have just to use it. These are poems that are domestic, real and close to us. The poet thinks and celebrates thought. To reach our God, whoever He might be, we must first be human. Through the poet we learn to look for, construct and keep shelter and thereby make it worthy of our love, respect and praise.

The collection is divided into two sections. In “Visits and Visitations”, Taub writes of diverse people who are needy (“Questions in a Jewish Cemetery” really tore me apart, “At Rachel’s Tomb”—Rachel died giving birth and was buried on the side road and Dr. K who has been passed by in the technological revolution that has overtaken others).

Section two, “In the Gleaning” is about life, sins, prayer and how we find in books and in libraries what we do not find in life. Reading becomes a haven and a way to restructure our lives. It is here that I feel that Taub makes his strongest point by showing that there really is not a large chasm between secular and religious and that prayer is the way to chase away our demons and bad thoughts. However, the kind of prayer that is to be and to whom is decided by each and every one of us. (I did not name any specific poems here because they all are so strong and deal with these issues).

Whether writing in English or Yiddish (several of the poems are also translated into Yiddish), Taub serves us a banquet of words meticulously chosen and served to us beautifully. He uses the themes of politics, wisdom, sweetness, hilarity, sinuosity and sexuality and paints us characters from all walks of life. Taub’s religious leanings may not be for everyone (and he knows that) but it does not hinder him in telling us how he sees it. Strangely enough, I see it the same way and I love that he allows us to find our own way. There is no preaching here, just statements of faith (defined in Taub’s own way for himself) and even though he does not offer it to us, I am quite sure he would be happy to see us join him. He tells us that his concepts of being religious deal with the fact that he feels awe in seeing the nature in which we live, the miracles of life and birth, prayers that bring about devotion, giving and accepting love and feeling the horror of the desecration of gratitude.

Taub sees the only crime we face is our being human—he renders no judgments upon us because we do that to ourselves. We know who we are and we must live with ourselves. To believe is to wrestle with faith—just as God renamed Jacob as Israel, one who struggles with God or with faith if you prefer that. Even those who are convinced that they do not believe, wrestle with that lack of belief. We see this in the characters he writes about and I am so glad that he shares them with us.

Closing this book is like saying goodbye to an old friend but at least we have the option of not saying goodbye forever. Taub’s words will stay with me for a very long time and should I ever need or want to read them again, I just have to reach for the volume and open it to any page.