The poems in “Birthright,” a new volume by Erika Dreifus published by Kelsay Books and out in November, have a profoundly Jewish sensibility. They focus on ancestors immigrating from Germany to escape persecution in the years preceding the Holocaust, prayer and ritual, biblical characters, and Israel. They are deeply personal, critical and wry, and aggressively political.
She always connected fear with being Jewish, knowing her grandparents’ stories about fleeing Germany.
“I was always aware that their Jewishness was actually why they had come to this country,” she said.
Dreifus, who grew up attending Congregation B’nai Jeshurun (TBJ) in Short Hills, where her family still holds membership, teases out the Jewish in many of her everyday interactions in the world. Accessible, the poems often feel like conversations with a friend. A launch party for the book will take place at TBJ on Nov. 3. She spoke with NJJN from her Manhattan apartment just before Rosh HaShanah as she was preparing to head home to Short Hills for the holiday.
The opening poem of the book, “Pünktlichkeit,” which deals with the German cultural imperative to be early, not just on time, ends with Dreifus noting that it served her grandparents well in getting them out of Germany but, she adds chillingly, “Who knows how many reported to the railways/before the hour they were told?” It is a reference to the trains that would take them to concentration and death camps.
Her early childhood was spent in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, surrounded by other Jewish kids in school and occasionally attending synagogue with her grandfather. In 1978, when she was 9, they moved to the much wealthier, and much less Jewish, Short Hills. “I was the only Jewish kid in my class,” she said.
She remembers first arriving at TBJ. “We’d never seen a driveway like this before,” she said, describing the long entryway to B’nai Jeshurun off of South Orange Avenue. “And by the way, we’d never seen a synagogue like this before,” she said of the modern, grand edifice.
And she remembers the welcome they received in the lobby from then-Rabbi Barry Greene. “He gave my sister and me each a flower from the floral arrangement.”
Her father, Charles Dreifus, is a past president of TBJ, and her mother, Madeline Dreifus, served on the board; she and her sister Joanna celebrated becoming b’not mitzvah and confirmands there, and both were elected temple youth group president. Her niece recently celebrated becoming a bat mitzvah at the synagogue.
An adjunct assistant professor of English at Baruch College of the City University of New York, Dreifus holds a doctorate in history and a master’s degree in education, both from Harvard University, where she also earned an undergraduate degree. She also received a master’s in fine arts from Queens University of Charlotte in North Carolina. Her other published volume is a short story collection, “Quiet Americans: Stories” (2011, Last Light Studios).
Dreifus’ knowledge of biblical characters was molded by the different environments of Brooklyn and New Jersey in her youth, and from the book “Bible Stories for Jewish Children” (1958, Ktav). Encountering the stories again in adulthood, she was confronted by the gap between childhood acceptance and adult questioning of a text. Her grown-up reaction forms the basis for her contemporary questioning of motives in the poem “Unsolved Mysteries of Samson and Delilah.” The poem opens: “Did anyone — / perhaps a prison guard — / ever wonder aloud in Samson’s presence: / Dude, what’s wrong with you?”
It continues, focusing on everything missing from the text and relationship: “Did anyone point out that Delilah had made it abundantly clear / that she couldn’t be trusted? / Did anyone say, / Samson, pal, why on earth did you give her / the power to crush you like that?”
And she contemplates his answer: “Best sex I’ve ever had. / I’m a masochist. / I’m a fool.”
A totally different kind of poem, “Kaddish for My Uterus,” reveals her feelings about a hysterectomy to remove fibroids, and her openness about bodily functions and processes, something she said was inherited from a grandmother whose dream of becoming a doctor was thwarted.
Dreifus describes “a daily life constrained by the mess, the pain / the sheer weariness of endless blood and clots” resulting from the fibroids. She uses the structure and language of the Kaddish, slipping surgery and the surgeon into the role of God — a sly move for a contemporary Jewish poet. “May the Surgery’s majesty be proclaimed / all the remaining days of my lifetime,” goes one line, and another, “Blessed be Surgery’s great name.”
Later in the poem, she discusses choosing “the old-school, traditional approach.” Although her words refer to the surgery, the line made me wonder if she felt the Kaddish format was “old-school,” although her poem subverts the central point of the prayer said by mourners. No longer are we proclaiming God’s majesty when facing the raw loss of a loved one, as the original Kaddish goes, but rather Dreifus extolls surgery and the surgeon for fixing our very human bodies. The poem might have worked better, though, if she seemed even slightly conflicted about losing her uterus. She writes, “I’d long since passed the point / of seeking to preserve my fertility…” There’s no mourning here, neutering the powerful tension of the original, which praises God despite God having taken the mourner’s loved one.
She told NJJN that in her experience, poets are expected to take a critical view on Israel that she doesn’t share; in some arenas, she finds herself in a lonely position. “We need poets and novelists … to be telling Israel’s story,” she said. “And we’re not doing a good job with that.”
When she talks about Israel in “Questions for the Critics,” she advocates forcefully on behalf of the Jewish state, accusing her critics: “Would you be satisfied, then, / if more Israelis died?” is how she opens the poem. “If children and their parents didn’t heed the sirens? / If they didn’t burrow beneath the ground?”
The book closes with a subversion of “Eshet Chayil,” from Proverbs, which famously opens, “A woman of valor, who can find? For her price is far beyond rubies. / The heart of her husband safely trusts in her …” Traditionally sung to women by their husbands at the Shabbat table, the words are oft-criticized as being anti-feminist.
She has titled her version “A Single Woman of Valor.” Dreifus claims for herself the ability to assess her own value, in no need of a man to sing her praises. “Far beyond pearls is my value,” she writes. “After years of self-doubt, and therapy, / my heart at last trusts in me. / I know I lack no fortune.” Later she reckons directly with the original text. “I have no children to rise and celebrate me / and no husband to commend me. // Yet I imagine Solomon himself in agreement that / my deeds may still praise at those gates.”
If you go
What: Erika Dreifus book signing and launch party for “Birthright”
Where: Temple B’nai Jeshurun, Short Hills
When: Sunday, Nov. 3, 10:30 a.m.-noon
Cost: Free, advance registration required
RSVP: tbj.org/event/erikadreifus or call 973-379-1555