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Review of Yossi Huttler's Poetry Book

Jane Enkin, March 16, 2012

in the evening sky
 
I caught sight of an arcing sliver of moon;
 
I hung my hopes on that
 
thin white ledge...
 
With these words about the new moon which begins each Jewish month, Yossi Huttler opens Lakol Z'man: A Time For Everything, his exploration of the Jewish year. (To purchase a copy, contact the author at [email protected].)The author finds personal meanings and insights in the holidays, and shares them in brief, delicate poems. The poems were written over several years; some of them were published in the Jewish Daily Forward and elsewhere. Then the author saw that he could arrange them month by month, beginning in the traditional manner with Nissan, to create this lovely book.
 
Huttler finds ways to suggest layers of meaning, ideas ironic or intense, emotions tender , wistful or urgent – all with only a few simple words on each page. He has a deft feeling for metaphor and image, finding ways to see himself as he looks at ritual objects and old stories. The author experiences rituals and customs themselves as metaphors – shaking a palm frond makes him think “shake me up”;spinning a dreidel makes him wonder what side of himself others will see.
 
Yossi Huttler is immersed in an American Orthodox world. There are many rabbis in his family-- he is observant and takes observance and study seriously, he counts among his mentors renowned writers Rabbi Abraham Twerski and Rabbi Michel Twerski. Little else about his biography is revealed in his introduction, and his poems, while personal in an emotional sense, don't deal with the particulars of his life, but with experiences common to observant Jews.
 
As someone who seeks out writing about Jewish women's experience, I really enjoyed the sense that this is an overtly male perspective on the holidays. The poem about growing a beard during the weeks after Passover is a case in point, as is this Yom Kippur description:
  
 
I don snowy kittel with white sash
 
Ivory yarmulke
 
Preparing to enter
 
The Holiest of Holy
 
days
 
Many of the rituals that would only be experienced by men in Orthodox communities have been open to me and my daughter in egalitarian observant contexts ( Reform, Conservative and other Jewish approaches included.) I was momentarily startled, for example, to read about little boys gathered under a prayer shawl for a special call to the Torah on Simchat Torah, since for me that's an opportunity to see all the children called together.
 
Who is the audience for this book? My reading of it was certainly coloured by all the learning and observance I can draw on – there are references to Jewish texts, customs and rituals that I've learned about or practiced in many different communities, Hebrew words with multiple echoes of meaning.
 
I'm certain that many references escaped me, and many of the customs are unfamiliar, or only things I've heard of, rather than felt my way through. I feel that I'm a good reader for these poems, as someone who loves these observances and loves to make connection through the arts to my Jewish life.
 
But I think this book has something to offer a wide group of readers. I turned often to the excellent glossary. Many of the Hebrew words were unfamiliar to me, and in a few cases I knew the individual words but not the phrases that refer to specific holidays and stories. Leil Shimurim is the first night of Passover, I learned, what my old Reform Haggadah called “The Watch night of the Eternal.” Bein Hametzarim, “between the narrows”, is a term for the three weeks between fasts in the summer.
 
Readers could take in the sensory images of the poetry, and enjoy the emotional and intellectual insights they can glean. I think, however, they would get more out of the poems if they referred to the glossary, reference books about the Jewish year, or even better, an experienced friend or teacher as a guide.
 
Huttler's style is beautiful and effective. There are things that can only be said this way, in short lines and simple words, with the ambiguity and overtones offered by sparing use of punctuation. Sometimes a word can do double duty in more than one phrase:
 
weedy stubble
 
seven week's
 
willful neglect
 
of face
 
to face respect
 
The rhythm of the poem about standing in the centre of the synagogue on Sukkot, as other men circle around, suggests the feeling of standing at the centre of a storm, even before words toward the end of the poem make the image explicit. And the sense of longing in the poem is visceral, as “out of the whirlwind” the writer calls “Hoshana”, “please save us”, and from the eye of the storm, he asks for an ayin tov, a “good eye” watching over him.
 
Some of the poems are addressed expressly to God, and some to a mysterious “you” who could be beloved, friend, or God as experienced as the beloved. Others are wry observations to the self, with an invitation to the reader to identify with the author's thoughts. And some are descriptions, interactions of metaphor, as in the Chanukah poem Pirsum, public is in the miracle:
 
Curving branches of lit menorah
 
Widen into glowing grin
 
Not every poem worked for me of course – some I found too literal, others I simply didn't get. Poems like the one about creation simply restate old teachings, without a personal insight. The work as a whole, though, is one I will enjoy returning to and sharing with friends.
 
The brevity of the poems invites a second look. A poem asking the prophet Jonah, “how can you sleep?” is, on second reading, asking the question of the author himself, and of the reader.
 

Yossi Huttler asks thoughtful questions, and works with these questions in ways that are beautiful, playful and deep.

Editor's note: I had a glance at a few of the poems when the book first came ot my attention and I too liked them. 

 
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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.


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