Poetry in motion at Long Beach Shul

A fan of great literature, Rabbi Steven Moskowitz quotes French writer Gaston Bachelard to help explain how dreaming is central to a thriving Judaism. 

“‘I should say: The house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace,’ ” Moskowitz said, choosing a passage from the book “Poetics of Space.”

What’s the connection to Judaism? The synagogue is the “house for dreaming,” Moskowitz said. “Because in Judaism, dreaming is not a retreat from reality. It’s one of the building blocks for a better, more sacred reality.”

It may sound esoteric — even for a rabbi — but that’s just the style of Moskowitz, who has helped organize a series of poetry events to celebrate the end of a yearlong, $5.8 million renovation at his synagogue, Temple Israel, in Long Beach. 

The Reform congregation returned to its renovated space in October and is marking the occasion with a series of rededication ceremonies taking place over the course of nine months, with a particular emphasis on poetry. Holding an array of events — some have already happened — instead of just one ceremony was necessary, Moskowitz says.

“No community or individual can be described as a single form of description,” he said. “We’re far more textured and multidimensional than that.”

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez and Patty Seyburn

The activities go beyond putting a mezuzah on the door, putting the Torahs back in the ark and saying the appropriate blessings (although the 500-family congregation did those things). Congregants will delve into the arts, spirituality, parenting, childhood, Israel and education, with a month reserved for each topic.

So far, there has been a weekend-long celebration in October during which members marched into the synagogue and had a special Havdalah event. Popular musician Josh Nelson staged a live concert the following month.

Plenty more is planned. A February event for young children will feature puppeteer Mallory Lewis, whose mother, Shari Lewis, created Lamb Chop; several poetry events will take place in March; during separate happenings in April, psychologist and author Wendy Mogel (“The Blessing of a B Minus”) will lead a program on parenting, and Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles David Siegel will speak; the synagogue’s annual gala takes place in May, and the Los Angeles Zimriyah Chorale will perform in June. 

For the poetry events — which will include the creation of a congregation-wide collective poem, a commissioned poem and live readings — Moskowitz is getting a little help from friends, including congregant and KPCC reporter Adolfo Guzman-Lopez and award-winning poet Patty Seyburn.

In addition to serving as lead education reporter at the public radio station, Guzman-Lopez is a poet with considerable knowledge about the contemporary scene. Along with a band of volunteers, he is working with Temple Israel’s various constituencies, including its men’s club, chavurah (fellowship) groups, sisterhood and religious school, to put together a collective poem with the entire congregation included in the byline. 

To do this, Guzman-Lopez has been assigning writing prompts to congregants and crafting a poem based on the writings that he collects. One prompt asks participants to respond to the statement, “We are.” Another prompt begins with the phrase, “Our shul,” and asks the writer to jot down whatever comes to mind when thinking of the synagogue. 

Guzman-Lopez, who was born in Mexico City and raised in Tijuana and San Diego, grew up Catholic but married a Jewish woman. He and his wife are bringing up their children Jewish. 

The reporter has experience writing collective poems. When he was fresh out of college in the ’90s and living in San Diego, Guzman-Lopez was part of Taco Shop Poets, a group that did live readings at taco shops. Their poems looked at identity, immigration and other topics of political consciousness. During one workshop, the group began with the prompt, “We are,” as a way to start making their collective poem.

About one year ago, while lecturing about writing to high school students in San Pedro, Guzman-Lopez led the group of 10th-graders in an exercise in which they wrote about themselves. These writings became a collective poem, and Guzman-Lopez was so impressed by the final result that he decided the poem needed to be preserved. He did a story about the experience for KPCC. 

“People like to read, but I think the label of poetry turns people off,” said Guzman-Lopez, who thinks pieces should be written in a way that’s accessible. 

The final piece that he crafts for Temple Israel will incorporate the words of approximately 200 congregants. That collective poem is just part of a larger project, which is where Seyburn comes in. 

[Read the poem here.]

When Moskowitz and Guzman-Lopez began to plan the project, they decided to commission a professional to compose a piece in dedication of the synagogue. After making a list of several potential writers, they met Seyburn, the author of three poetry books and an assistant professor in the English department at California State University, Long Beach. As the three discussed themes such as rededication and recommitment, the connection was immediate, Guzman-Lopez says.

It helped that Seyburn, who was raised in a flourishing Reform community in Detroit, incorporates Judaism into her work, including her book “Diasporadic.” 

“There are a lot of working poets in Los Angeles and a fair amount of Jewish poets, but not so many of us who are really comfortable writing about the [Jewish] tradition, about the Jewish perspective,” Seyburn said. 

Years ago, while studying for her doctorate at the University of Houston, Seyburn realized that Judaism and contemporary poetry could work together. She discovered this as she took a course on midrashim — interpretations of biblical stories — and found their language to be strange, eclectic and full of personality. They have “great material for poetry,” she said. 

A congregant at Temple Bat Yahm in Newport Beach, Seyburn isn’t finished with her poem for Temple Israel, but she has a vision for it. It will combine different poetic forms in a three-part structure that mirrors the synagogue’s evolution.

The first part will be written using classic poetic modes familiar to the casual reader, such as a rhyming quatrain, a four-line stanza in which every other line rhymes. The second part will be free verse and expansive, written in a contemporary conversational style that recalls poets like Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg. The final section will take inspiration from psalms, which are poems of praise.

Temple Israel’s journey runs parallel to the structure of the poem, Seyburn says, because every synagogue wants to be traditional when it starts out. As it grows, however, it seeks to carve its own identity, take risks and be nonconforming. In the end, hopefully it finds itself in a place thankful for both worlds, she says.

“I want the third section to focus on gratitude — for community, for nature, for the city that Long Beach is,” Seyburn said. 

The efforts of Moskowitz, Guzman-Lopez, Seyburn and the synagogue’s congregants will culminate on March 9. Festivities will include a reading of Seyburn’s poem, the congregation’s collective poem and conversations about both.

The poems will be printed in a chapbook given to everyone in attendance, and Guzman-Lopez says he is considering creating an audio recording of the collective poem.

Then, on March 30, Rabbi William Cutter, Steinberg Emeritus Professor of Human Relations at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, will lead a poetry Shabbaton at the synagogue.

Moskowitz says he is looking forward to Guzman-Lopez’s edit.

“The notion is to remind us that we have poetry residing within us, if someone will only help it to emerge,” he said.

Likewise, the rabbi is just as thrilled that Seyburn has agreed to do her part. 

 “I’m very excited that we are able to bring such a renowned poet to produce something specifically for us,” he said. 

Plus, the congregation gets to enjoy a new home with a fresh look and feel. The synagogue’s renovation resulted in a site with a “completely different aesthetic and functionality,” virtually unrecognizable to the community, Moskowitz said.

The 25,300-square-foot site — the building that housed the sanctuary and offices was built in 1941 and an add-on for the religious school was erected in 1965 — has been reconfigured. A large lobby has replaced offices and a maze of hallways at the synagogue’s center, with the renovated sanctuary and a new library located on the sides of this assembly area. Other highlights include the 180-degree turn of the sanctuary; the ark now is on the eastern wall, which allows for spillover seating into the upgraded social hall.

During the renovation, the synagogue rented offices for its administrative staff; held services at the Alpert Jewish Community Center in Long Beach and conducted its religious school program at Westerly School, a private school in Long Beach.

The poetry events are a fit for Moskowitz, who writes Torah-inspired poetry for fun and brings poets into the discussion during Torah-study sessions. But the rabbi declined to talk about his own verse, preferring to keep the focus on the synagogue’s journey and how poetry fits into that. 

“The very notion of rededication, which has to do with this lovely tension of embracing and honoring the past and also innovating ourselves for the present … seems to require a language that is full of motion rather than one that is static,” Moskowitz said. “To me, that is the language of poetry.”