How Robert Frost and John Clare made their way into a Siddur
plus, a poem by H. Leivick
Some news came out recently which took a lot of people, myself included, by surprise: the leaders of Liberal Judaism and Reform Judaism in the UK are planning to work more closely as one movement. It doesn’t look like a merger (at least, not yet) but it is a real change - and a refreshing change to the direction religions often go in.
In many ways it makes a lot of sense. The two movements - now apparently, to be known as ‘Progressive’ Judaism - are united on key issues such as mixed sex congregations and same-sex marriage. Both use both Hebrew and English in their liturgy, though on the whole there is a greater proportion of Hebrew in Reform.
These Judaisms, which often go hand in hand with more liberal attitudes generally, represent around 30% of Jews in the country. Yet, in public conversation it can often feel like the ‘Jewish community’ is synonymous with the Orthodox one. If, like me, you grew up attending a Reform Synagogue, this can be disquieting, even disorientating. Keith Kahn-Harris writes about the difficulty of capturing the full diversity of the Jewish experience here. It is always wrong (and often dangerous) to treat religions as monoliths.
I grew up attending a Reform synagogue but I have recently been visiting a Liberal congregation near where I live in London, and where I’ve been made to feel very welcome. There are genuine differences between the traditions, most obviously in the liturgy - the scripts and rituals. A liberal service is more… liberal.
Those differences are mirrored in the Siddur - the prayer book. Siddurs are often central to a congregation’s identity. Unlike the Torah, everyone handles them week in week out. You use them at home. I remember a lot of contention when the Reform one was updated a few years ago.
As well as various services, blessings and songs, contemporary Siddurs act as an anthology of readings - passages for reflection grouped around individual themes. I loved these, as I love all anthologies. I was always struck by how diverse the Reform selections were - there were passages from Rabbis of course but also secular Jews - philosophers and writers - extracts from Anne Frank’s diaries. There were also poems - usually English translations of Hebrew or Yiddish originals. The selections seemed - and seem - an important way into a rich culture which I was a part of and apart from. I was much more interested in them than the regular prayers.
The Liberal Siddur has readings of this kind too - they are integrated into the service and read aloud together. There is another difference, too: some of the passages are taken from texts not written by Jews.
Last week, for instance, we read the reflections on the theme of loneliness, which included two poems I am very familiar with from the secular world: Robert Frost’s ‘Acquainted with the Night’ and John Clare’s ‘I Am’. The poems were unattributed - you would have to go to the back to know who they were by.
All of which felt very right to me, even revelatory. These are very special poems. Robert Frost’s poem, in particular, has meant a great deal to me, so I’m glad it might be finding others. A service creates a moment in which poetry like this can be heard. When we talk about the declining role that poetry plays in our everyday lives, I think we have to talk about the loss of regular spaces in which people are in the right frame of mind to take it in.
For so much of our history, this has meant religion. It is why poetry is read at weddings and at funerals. I say this as someone who has very little faith in the traditional sense of the word - and who has very mixed feelings about the role of religion in public life. When I hear of people talking of Britain being ‘a Christian nation or… nothing at all’, as one delegate at the ‘National Conservatism’ conference claimed at the weekend, my skin crawls.
At the same time, part of me feels protective of distinctively Jewish literature. Synagogue might be the right place to hear poetry but it is also the only place you will find a lot of these texts - whereas in our ‘Christian’ culture, Robert Frost and John Clare are relatively well-known and often anthologized.
It’s difficult to know where the balance is between the universal and particular. Poetry itself needs a leg up - and is best heard in the language it was written in: that’s true for English poetry as much as Hebrew liturgy. Whether or not a text is familiar depends on who you are. On a whole range of experiences.
There was another poem in the reading - one I hadn’t come across before, though the author, H. Leivick, is one of the most famous Yiddish poets of the twentieth century. We had it in the original Yiddish - which is the language to hear it in and which I do not speak it any more than I speak Hebrew.
The night is dark and I am blind. The wind tears the stick from my hand. Bare is my sack, empty my heart, and both are useless - too heavy a weight. I hear the touch of someone’s hand. Allow me to carry your heavy load. Together we go. The world is dark. I carry the sack, and he, my heart.
See variations on the following joke: “Two Jews are stranded on a desert island. They build three synagogues --- one for the orthodox Jew, one for the reform Jew, and one that neither one of them will ever set foot in.”
Poem by H. Leivick (Leivick Halpern, Russia and the USA, 1866-1962) from the Siddur Lev Cadash, where it is credited to The Penguin Book of Yiddish Verse (1987). This is the version printed in the Siddur, with some changes to the punctuation which are my own. The original publishers will have to trust me that the usage is educational.