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David Caplan at Tiferes Bachurim


ISSUE:  Spring 2012
An Introduction to Observances by David Caplan

Photo by Noah Rabinowitz

These remarkable poems blend spiritual unease with religious confidence, an investigator’s fascinated spirit with a sense that the poet has almost—but not quite— come home. David Caplan reacts to what he saw, to what he heard, and to what he learned when he visited Tiferes Bachurim, a yeshiva in Morristown, New Jersey. Yeshivas or yeshivot (the Hebrew plural) are residential institutions devoted to Jewish learning, with the study of the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud at the core of the curriculum. This yeshiva serves the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, a strand of Hasidic Orthodox Judaism distinguished from other very observant strands by its outreach to other Jews, including the non-religious, and (in consequence) by its much higher profile in the secular world. It is, as a matter of course, a single-sex institution, where boys and young men observe a strict dress code. Like Buddhist and Christian monasteries, though perhaps not to the same extent, the yeshiva seems in Caplan’s reading designed to wall out the secular modern world; that world, with its styrofoam coffee cups and its microphones, gets in nonetheless.

“Into My Garden” describes what Caplan sees, what a photographer might record, in the classrooms and stairwells of the yeshiva, but it reserves its strongest emotions for what Caplan hears, or overhears: the Aramaic of the Talmud itself, which converts the humdrum school buildings into a numinous, even an erotically charged, enclosed space, an Orthodox Jewish answer to the hortus conclusus of European pastoral poems, themselves indebted at times to Song of Songs 5:1. “I am come into my garden, my sister, my spouse: I have gathered my myrrh with my spice; I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey; I have drunk my wine with my milk: eat, O friends; drink, yea, drink abundantly, O beloved,” runs the English of the King James Version. The yeshiva students are reading the Hebrew, and they believe it: their classroom might be that space.

Babylon is a place of exile for Jews, but also the place where rabbis compiled the Talmud preferred by Ashkenazi Jews: that Talmud itself comprises the Mishnah, the oral tradition around the Torah, and the Gemara, a record of rabbis’ arguments about how to read Torah and Mishnah, completed around 500 CE. As a hermeneutic discipline, Talmudic interpretation resembles not only the study of law but the study of literature; it may seem like a superior rival (superior, at least, for Jewish believers) to secular language and secular art.

Caplan compares what he takes to be these yeshiva students’ experience to his own years “in school,” in what must have been largely secular classrooms, where “serpentine” lectures and lecturers stood in for scriptural promises (a lecture was like a pledge, but promised nothing). Secular learning looks sterile, arid, when set next to nonhuman nature, to “pistil // and stamen crazed.” Jewish learning, in Caplan’s account, comes off rather better. The page ends “with a shrug,” his anticlimactic monostich suggesting his disappointment either with himself (why can’t he be more like these boys?) or with the Jewish tradition of reliance on argument, on words and more words.

If that tradition disappoints him there, it prompts reverence in most of the rest of these poems, which stand out as attempts to take seriously, to enter sympathetically into, an order of life and language that has set itself against modernity, against the English of most American poems. These poems are, and say that they are, translations of translations of translations, starting with God’s word in Hebrew and ending with Caplan’s words in American lines. In between come the words of the Talmud, and the words of the Talmud’s later interpreters, “the books they study” which “I skim” (so says Caplan’s poem “After”), and the words spoken and heard, the questions asked and answered, in the yeshiva now.

Another interpretive tradition, another religion, might see this endless deferral of final terms, this sense that the poet and the worshipper produce only translations of translations, as a denial of God, of any God-term. For these observant Jews, as Caplan sees them, that practice of asking and answering and again asking, of treating conclusions as reasons for questions, is itself a form of reverence, a reverence that the poem “After” works hard to present. If Caplan himself feels shut out from it at times, it is not because he craves final answers but because he cannot see himself as a good student, cannot wholly share this discipline.

And yet, as an observant Jew himself, Caplan knows more about traditional Judaism than almost everyone else who is likely to read his American poems. No wonder he can sound so hesitant, in tone and in the cadence of these lines: hesitation, in fact, might be these poems’ characteristic formal maneuver, the poet looking at the Hasidic culture of learning, the Hasidic practice of prayer, and then stepping back to ask whether he got it right.

These students are trying—sometimes reluctantly—to get their own learning right too. The boy or young man in “Only the Hebrew” has not mastered the Hebrew language, which is itself “holy,” its words more important than any visible things. The student’s silence, from which “we” withdraw, suggests the Jewish theological claim that God created the world by withdrawing (Hebrew tzim-tzum), “stepping back, just out of reach,” as a teacher of languages steps back, says nothing, while the student finds the right words. Caplan matches that binary (teacher and student) with couplets, flagging it down with a central internal rhyme.

God prefers Hebrew; nonetheless, “God Knows English.” So the student, “clean-shaven, hatless,” in that poem insists. God knows everything, if God exists, but the beauty in this Torah study, the beauty this third person (is he the poet? perhaps) observes and overhears, exists apart from facts and disputes and rules. It is a beauty in song, in what the philosopher Susanne K. Langer called non-propositional knowledge, a tune abstracted from the learned words—and yet a tune you can convey, to yourself and to others, only if you do learn those words.

That is a claim about beauty—you get it by studying, by diligent practice, though it seems to exist in the moment, apart from all rules—that we might recognize from the world of classical music, or from art-for-art’s-sake techniques. Acquiring Hebrew as a second or third language, learning the background and frame of mind for Torah study, are like playing the scales and practicing the exercises that you must perform, year after year, in order to perform the music of Bach, or of Liszt. A secular reader might find such claims hard to believe, but Caplan’s poems believe it: indeed these poems insist not just on the humane interest and the dignity of these dressed-up boys, on the worthwhileness of their pursuit, but on their studies as an aesthetic practice, if by aesthetic we mean that it feels like an art, that the beholder may find it beautiful (I do not mean that it has no object outside itself).

Caplan also contemplates another aesthetic practice, photography, and another still if you count the visit to Morristown itself, the frame for his observations, which set him apart from what he sees. These are poems about yeshiva life, but also poems about observing, framing, seeing, and in a poem about Jewish religious life Caplan’s preference for realistic details keeps running up against the invisibility and intangibility of the divine presence, the preference for words and sounds over pictures and things, that characterize the yeshiva itself. There are “no mirrors, not even above the sink” at Tiferes Bachurim: the planners want the boys to focus on words, and on sounds, and the Hasidic style of dress, with even the boys “abstracted/ into dark suits and hats,” sets out to make the visible world recede before the invisible, the “quick shrugs and alliance” of things said. For a poet (even an observant Jewish poet) accustomed to making images out of words, this aniconic life cannot suffice: he takes what images he can, first those he sees (in “glass doors” that become mirrors) and then those he imagines, the words about words of God making a Jewish (as opposed to the familiar Anglophone Protestant) inward light.

There is also darkness. Nittel Nacht (nothing night) is Yiddish for Christmas Eve, a time when European Jewish tradition—still followed by Hasids, as here— prescribes that no Torah study, and no sacred communal activities, should take place. Instead, Jews should find secular pursuits, even trivial ones, such as chess. The “little plastic kings” that create nothing, on the chessboards at the Yeshiva, are there in place of melech ha-olam, the Jewish God as King of the World. All the other traditions in other poems show Jews’ relation to a Jewish God. Nittel Nacht—as the poem makes clear—instead responds to Jews’ historical place in a Christian culture marked by pogroms: Jews should not gather on Christmas eve, lest they give violent bigots an obvious target (the custom also reflects a medieval Jewish wish not to honor an apostate). By contrast with the European Yiddish-speakers among whom the custom arose, American Jews are like the fearless deer, “not hunted for generations,” though unlike the deer American Jews can read history, can see the shadow of Christian persecution, “faint or imagined.” The eminent gay actor Ian McKellen says that he removes Leviticus 18:22 (“Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind”) from hotel Bibles. Caplan, like McKellen, wants to separate the true commandments of a credible God from the false charges brought by the bigots, and by the secular rulers, of this world.

Like other Hasidic sects, the Lubavitch movement had a living leader whom members held in special reverence: the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994), the namesake for Menachem Mendel Schottenstein, in Caplan’s poem “Bris Milah.” The poem “Ohel” describes a ceremony performed by visitors to the rebbe’s grave, in Cambria Heights, Queens, the poet and perhaps his wife (“we”) among them. (“Ohel” literally means “tent” in Hebrew”; “the Ohel” refers to the site of the Rebbe’s grave.) Here Caplan steps away from the argumentative space of yeshiva into a space designed for silence, where written words work as petitionary prayer. These lines (short and stately, by Caplan’s standards) appear to remember a prayer for fertility: the empty gray space, the white skyline, and the time to “count … backward” all clear a space (as God withdrew to create a space) where children might emerge. But that space of silence is an exception—usually in these poems (and it is one of the most recognizably, specifically Jewish things about them) reverence manifests itself as argument, as a proliferation of pious sound, musical or disputatious or both.

Caplan writes to portray this Orthodox world as a set of real people with serious joys and concerns, neither figures for trouble elsewhere (the land of Israel never appears) nor idealized Others from an ancestral past. Other poets, such as John Hollander and Allen Grossman, have made American poems from Jewish interpretive traditions; Caplan stands out in that he makes poems about the present-day people who try to live by those traditions—his project belongs to American Jewish poetry, but shares the goals of American “ethnic” fiction, with its border-crossing, inside-outsider narrator, its ambassadorial reports. Caplan’s lines try to bring into their pace and their phrasing, their details given and withheld, a way of life that he shares in part, and stands outside in part, and has brought into his circumspect and introspective American English. This project of sympathy with the yeshiva students never seems more successful than when Caplan shares their joys: the third person of “Chassidus by Telephone,” asking “To get religious—what does that mean?” might be somebody the poet observes “on the train home” or it might be the poet himself, without an epiphany or a “wonder story,” who nonetheless finds that “a lecture on fear and love” has become “a wordless tune,” an experience at once aesthetic, sociable, discursive, and religious, a credible form of communal sacred song.

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