Poet Q, Poet A: Jews Are Funny! Six Poets on Jewish Humor, Poetry & Activism and Survival

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February 6, 2015

In this installment of Rosebud Ben-Oni’s original ZEEK series of poet-poet conversations, poets Erika Meitner, Eduardo Gabrieloff, Hila Ratzabi, Jason Schneiderman and Emily Jaeger talk about their relationship with Jewish humor.

Eduardo Gabrieloff: One of the first movies I remember watching was Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie, followed shortly by High Anxiety and several Marx Brothers movies. My father had a joy I don’t think was matched by anything else I can recall seeing again for some time as he put the tape into our VCR and watched my sister and I watch Mel Brooks. Even as a child, I understood that these movies were hilarious but also that they were distinctly Jewish. And that Jews were funny. Or that a lot of funny people were Jewish. Growing up shy, I used humor to break the ice and let myself open up. As a poet, I try to inject even serious topics with humor. How do you use or avoid humor in your work?

Emily Jaeger: At this point, I haven’t really explored humor so much in my poems. However, Judaism, for me, has always been an experience of questioning the status quo. Biblical stories often depend on the inversion of expected societal norms: Jacob, the youngest son, inherits in place of the eldest. Tamara, a widow, must play the harlot to ensure her in-laws’ financial support. A woman, Devora, is chosen to be a prophet and return peace to the land of Israel. The way these stories question societal boundaries feeds into the tradition of Jewish humor but also the roots of Jewish activism. While I have not yet played with humor in my poetry, I have explored Jewish humor’s close relative – probing and exploring what it means to be a woman. Sharing the stories that counter our expectations.

Hila Ratzabi: I appreciate Eduardo’s anecdote because I have many happy memories of watching Seinfeld with my Israeli father. The two of us are so different in so many ways, but we have always connected over humor. He loves telling jokes, and they are almost always offensive to one group or another, including women. But we laugh together over our divides. Now he loves the silly cat videos I post on Facebook. Humor is deeply a part of me, despite or maybe because of the fact that I tend to be so serious. I joke around a lot, and recently this is spilling into my poetry. I’m working on a manuscript that addresses climate change (fun times!), and a good number of the poems in the project are wryly satirical. I don’t know how else to approach the scariest parts of myself and the world. With a long history of oppression, Jews have needed humor as part of our survival strategy. The deepest kind of humor is aware of the profound absurdities of existence. It is delicate work for any artist, and I’m still figuring out how humor works in my poetry, but it’s a nice relief once in a while.

Poet's Tree, Shel Silverstein

Erika Meitner: I often use humor as a release valve in my poems that grapple with especially harrowing or awkward subjects, like the Holocaust, adolescence, death, or gynecological exams. Humor is a great way to diffuse tense narrative moments in a poem, and it makes the poems much easier to read aloud to an audience – you can literally hear people’s relief when you come to a humorous moment in a more serious poem. I was always the kid in school who got tossed out of class for laughing when the teacher was yelling at someone else, so I’m sensitive to that need to emote – to laugh when things get tense – and I think it gives a poem more resonance, and more realism, when you can move through more than one emotional register. I think I inherited my streak of black humor from my grandmother (whom I called Baba). When she finally started talking about her experiences in various concentration camps, including Auschwitz, she told me that at one point, she was doing forced labor in a munitions factory as an electrician. I said, “Baba, what do you know about being an electrician? You were trained as a nurse.” And she said (with a totally straight face and thick Galicianer accent), “That’s why the Germans won the war.”

Rosebud Ben-Oni: Lenny Bruce, Gilda Ratner, Mel Brooks — my father was a big fan of these comedians, and often channeled them in my youth. I definitely use humor in my newer poems that will come out in my second collection B L O O D S P O R T, but I don’t know if it’s chiefly Jewish. I will say though that my father often shared the Israeli comic strip Dry Bones, and he often used humor to deflect any pain or trouble he is facing. The older I get, the more I find myself doing the same.

Read More from ZEEK’s Poet Q, Poet A series with Rosebud Ben-Oni

Poet Q, Poet A #2: Jewish “Authenticity,” Identity, Mapping & Archetypes

Poet Q, Poet A #1: Six Poets Talk Topography & Landscape in Their Poetry”

About the Poets

Rosebud Ben-Oni is a CantoMundo Fellow and the author of SOLECISM (Virtual Artists Collective, 2013). Born to a Mexican mother and Jewish father, she was a Rackham Merit Fellow at the University of Michigan where she earned her MFA in Poetry, and was a Horace Goldsmith Scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her work appears or is forthcoming in POETRY, The American Poetry Review, Arts & Letters, Bayou, Puerto del Sol, among others. A visiting writer at the University of Texas at Brownsville’s Writers Live Series, Rosebud is an Editorial Advisor for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts.

Erika Meitner is the author of three books of poems — most recently, Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls (Anhinga Press, 2011), and Ideal Cities (Harper Perennial, 2010), which was a 2009 National Poetry Series winner. Her poems have appeared in publications including Best American Poetry 2011, Tin House, jubilat, VQR, and The New Republic. Her newest book, Copia, was just released by BOA Editions in September 2014. Meitner holds an MFA in Creative Writing, as well as an MA in Religious Studies from the University of Virginia, where she was the Morgenstern Fellow in Judaic Studies. She’s currently an associate professor of English at Virginia Tech, where she teaches in the MFA program.

Eduardo Gabrieloff was born in Cali, Colombia. His Colombian mother converted to Judaism when she married his Jewish father, who had come to Colombia after his Uzbek Jewish father married a Syrian Jewish woman he met on a business trip in Brooklyn. Eduardo has been writing poetry since he was 17. His work has been published or is forthcoming from The Journal of Ordinary Thought, Ninth Letter, [PANK], Leaf Litter, and Bluestem. He obtained his MFA from the University of Illinois. He is a Calallo Fellow, a Signal Fire Fellow, and a Canto Mundo Fellow. Eduardo has worked in the nonprofit sector for over a decade and is currently working at the Denver Public Library Friends Foundation.

Hila Ratzabi was selected by Adrienne Rich as a recipient of a National Writers Union Poetry Prize. She is the author of the chapbook The Apparatus of Visible Things (Finishing Line Press). Her poetry is published or forthcoming in The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry, Narrative, Alaska Quarterly Review, Drunken Boat, About Place, The Normal School, H_NGM_N, Cortland Review, and others. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, and lives in Philadelphia, where she founded the Red Sofa Salon & Poetry Workshop.

Jason Schneiderman is the author of Sublimation Point, winner of the Richard Snyder Prize from Ashland Poetry Press, and Striking Surface, a Stahlecker selection*from Four Way Books. His poetry and essays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including American Poetry Review, The Best American Poetry, Poetry London, Grand Street, The Penguin Book of the Sonnet, Story Quarterly, and Tin House. Jason has received fellowships from Yaddo, The Fine Arts Work Center, and The Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. He was the recipient of the Emily Dickinson Award from the Poetry Society of America in 2004, and a finalist for the Eric Hoffer Award in 2011. He is the Poetry Editor of the Bellevue Literary Review, and an Associate Editor at Painted Bride Quarterly. Jason Schneiderman is an Assistant Professor at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, part of the City University of New York.

Emily Jaeger is a Jewish curly-top poet, returned Peace Corps volunteer, and backyard organic farmer who dreams in four languages. Emily served for two years as an agricultural extensionist in rural Paraguay, teaching local farmers sustainable growing practices and leading organic gardening projects. Currently an MFA student at UMASS Boston, she is co-editor and co-founder of the Window Cat Press, a new zine and Tumblr for young, emerging artists. Having completed her undergraduate studies in Bible and Ancient Near Studies at Brandeis University, Emily’s poems draw on Jewish liturgy as well as biblical and ancient Syrian verse. Her current projects include a poetic rendering of informal interviews with rural Paraguayan women. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Cecile’s Writers Magazine, Broadzine, and the Jewish Journal.

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