Ukrainian-Jewish-American poet Tamara (“Toma”) Zbrizher plumbs ideas from contemporary life and reveals the richness hiding in plain sight. Even the simplest actions echo with meaning in her verse.
Consider “I’m thinking about my next tattoo.” The title functions as the first line, and it continues, “maybe the wheat stalks my brother and I/promised each other for Ukraine./As if needle-thin lines/can keep a country inside skin/As if puncturing flesh/can keep experience/from bleeding into dreams/…”
Through the millennial tattoo craze (in which she clearly participates), we are quickly drawn into her world of living between countries, political battles over international boundaries, her personal stake in the outcome, and a hint of the horrors contained in her cultural history. It’s how she understands the opening provided by tattoos and doesn’t hesitate to delve in, explore the depths, and bring up a polished gem, which hooks the reader.
Her poetry often references her complicated Jewish background. Zbrizher, now 34, emigrated with her family from Ukraine when she was 11. Forget streets paved with gold — when she arrived in Elizabeth she expected to see “Barbies on every tree.” Instead, she was struck by the lack of greenery and the architecture so different from the old-world European buildings she was accustomed to. Her first thought on arriving to her new home: “This? This?” she told NJJN.
Over coffee and cake at Liv Breads in Millburn, she spoke about her Jewish life in Ukraine and New Jersey, her family’s adjustment to the U.S., and, of course, poetry.
In Ukraine, religious observance was unconditionally off the table. “The Communists made sure that we really didn’t practice our religion,” she said. Instead, she settled for stories from her grandparents. She also imbibed the horrors of the Holocaust and Ukrainian anti-Semitism.
“I feel like my heritage, my roots are kind of deep in this tragedy, you know, in the tragic life that Ukrainian Jews had,” she said. “A lot of my family died in the Holocaust and I feel like these stories have kind of sat on my shoulders my entire life…. Everything is just tinged with that little bit of sepia, a little bit of sadness.”
A third-generation Holocaust survivor, her relationship to the Shoah differs from that of her American peers. She grew up on the land where the Holocaust occurred, where much of her family was murdered, including her mother’s relatives, burned alive in a synagogue. And her country’s history was loaded with anti-Semitism; her hometown of Khmelnitsky was named for Bogdan Khmelnitsky, a 17th-century Cossack who led pogroms which massacred, by some estimates, half the Jews of Ukraine. Yet Khmelnitsky remains a celebrated hero for leading a popular uprising.
“The anti-Semitism was very palpable there,” she said. “Coming from that kind of a background, there’s always skittishness.”
Her experiences in Ukraine led her to write “When the Holocaust Burns Your History, /You Grow Myth (After Marc Chagall’s ‘Red Jew’),” which was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in poetry, an American literary prize awarded by the Pushcart Press. In her poem, she imagines her grandfather at the end of the day, sitting on the stoop of his home. She describes his hands and what they held over his life:
“a gun, a shovel, then seed, /A book and another, then his/Riva, their daughters, /then grandbabies, green/as apples. Until his hands couldn’t hold tools, his knees folded/on the stoop of his Baba Yaga hut”
It’s a loving tale of a rich life, a person who served in wars, tilled the soil, found love, and was a father and grandfather, now aged, happy, sitting outside his home where it all happened. That is, until the turn in the very next line, when we realize the horrors he has lived through and learn more about the hut: “built on the bones of his loves,/Ma and Pa and beautiful sisters,/green as summer turned to snow/white ash by flames that ate/the skin off their bones./Back from the front, in one fractured/piece, he ran to the burnt field, once/home to his Ma and Pa and all/his pretty sisters, now a grave/with no tombstones. He sat/”
And after he has wept and mourned for them, he sets about creating a life. “salubrious tears that watered/the earth until ash soaked into/brown, branding it fertile again./He rose, cut down red oaks, laid/groundwork Solomon would covet./He sprinkled seed that sprouted/into an orchard, apples green, but so sweet that biting them/reminded him that even ash/can nourish. And all his babies/and their babies loved the smell of oak/and earth and no one ever died/in that house …”
Her grandfather’s tears soak the earth and “brand” it fertile, evoking the violence extracted that also manages to transform the land. In the end, he, too, becomes part of the land, and the happy and the tragic are bound together.
But her family left their difficult past behind when they came to the United States. They arrived in Elizabeth and moved across the street from the Jewish Educational Center on Elmora Avenue, where she was immersed into Orthodoxy, attending Jewish Educational Center (JEC) schools and an Orthodox synagogue. The family started to keep Shabbat and kashrut and held a Passover seder. She said she has fond memories walking on Shabbat with her friends to and from each other’s homes.
“When we finally got the chance to be a part of the community it was super exciting,” she said. For the first time, she had access to Hebrew, Jewish learning, and observance. “I felt like I was joining the community.”
But she said she was also constantly playing catch-up since she was far behind in Jewish education compared to her peers, and the immersion was short lived. She was kicked out of Bruriah High School in ninth grade “for being a bad influence,” she said.
“I got really into punk rock music and they really didn’t like that, obviously, and I kept asking questions about God and the Torah and things that didn’t make sense to me.”
The family moved to Kenilworth, where she and her brother enrolled in public school, and over time, the family’s religious observance diminished, although she said she held onto kashrut and Shabbat into college at Kean University.
Her punk rock aesthetic has mostly fallen away, although she retains one remnant of her many piercings — an industrial bar in her left ear that she has been unable to remove. But she has never stopped asking questions. In fact, her process for writing poetry is “I keep asking why until there’s nothing left,” she said. “And then, I ask why again.”
She’s also held tightly to her Jewish identity and the ability she has to study texts and stories, a heritage she finds rich, and that proves fertile ground for her art. She cites Gerald Stern and Sholem Aleichem among her many influences.
Zbrizher digs deep when she writes, unafraid to be vulnerable or reveal too much of herself. “If there’s nothing at stake for you then there’s nothing at stake for your readers, and I believe in putting everything in,” she said.
It shows. Her poems have a deep resonance and clear away all the noisiness from life.
She earned a bachelor’s in English literature from Kean and a master’s degree in poetry from Drew University. Her first book of poetry, “Tell Me Something Good,” was published in the spring by Get Fresh Books LLC. She reads from her work regularly in the Garden State and New York City, and she runs a writing workshop, a project of Arts by the People, at The Book House in Millburn each month. The next one, always free and open to the public, will be on Wednesday, Nov. 20, at 7 p.m.
As for tattoos, I have no idea if she ever got those wheat stalks, but she does have one tattoo on her finger that binds all of her identities together: POET.