December 7, 2019

Dreifus’ ‘Birthright’ Poems Come Straight From the Jewish Heart

Erika Dreifus is one of our brightest literary lights. 

She was born in Brooklyn and educated at Harvard, where she earned a doctorate in history and then taught history, literature and writing. Her short story collection, “Quiet Americans,” was honored with the American Library Association/Sophie Brody Medal for outstanding achievement in Jewish literature. And many of the poems in her newly published collection, “Birthright: Poems” (Kelsay Books), first appeared in journals as various as The Christian Science Monitor and the Jewish Journal, Lilith and Tablet, Forward and Moment, The Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine and The Medical Journal of Australia. “Birthright” is exceptionally rich and provocative, earnest and intimate, fully as accessible as an overheard conversation and yet deeply rooted in both Jewish history and Jewish arts and letters.

Yet Dreifus describes herself, modestly enough, as a “Resource Maven” at her website. Her literary blog, “My Machberet,” is something like the Variety of the Jewish publishing world. Her free digital newsletter, “The Practicing Writer,” is a source of both advice and encouragement for aspiring authors and poets. And, tellingly, Dreifus is donating a portion of her royalties from “Birthright” to Sefaria.org, a free online library of Jewish texts, many of which provided the seed-pearls that can be discerned in the poems that appear in “Birthright.”

Thus, for example, she quotes the Fourth Commandment in “Sabbath Rest 2.0,” but she confesses that she is only partially in compliance: “My Sabbath day is typically tainted — / by writing, say, or boarding a bus or subway / But these days, I do keep the Sabbath free / from Facebook and Twitter.” Among her most moving poems is “Kaddish for my Uterus,” and she offers a revisionist version of Proverbs 31:10 under the confessional title “A Single Woman of Valor”:

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.

The title of Dreifus’ book of poetry inevitably (and intentionally) calls to mind the philanthropic program that brings young Jews to Israel, but she uses the word “birthright” much more expansively. She recalls her family’s arrival in the United States as refugees from Germany, the journey she made back to Mannheim, the place they left “just in time,” and the Olivetti typewriter that was a gift from her father to her mother three weeks after their first date:

More the five decades and a series of

electric typewriters, word processors,

computers, tablets, and smartphones later,

that Olivetti, beloved, remains her prized possession. 

But she also regards the Jewish homeland as a part of her own birthright. She recalls, in a poem titled “Sisters, or Double Chai,” that her mother admonished her to always remain loyal to her sister, and she feels called upon to do the same toward Israel: “Like my young sister, / Israel shares my blood. / I decided to keep any quarrels quiet, / because those outside the family / do not love her as a sister can / and does.” And the poem slyly titled “The O-Word” is a full-throated defense of the Jewish homeland:

 So judge the occupation for particularities or duration,

but please don’t pin everything on the Israeli nation.

It takes more than one to tango and more than one as well

to sustain two states where two peoples can dwell.

Dreifus writes with complete candor about the most painful of her own musings and experiences, but always with a sense of humor and proportion. “The Plot of Madame Bovary in 55 Words” is like a haiku in a high-comic mode, for example, and “Thirteen Ways of Looking at My Latest Cold,” a tribute to Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” turns out to be a tour de force of Jewish humor: “You sound like Kathleen Turner, / says the guy who shares my office. / I wouldn’t want to stand beside me on the subway either.” The 13th stanza conjures up the voice of a Jewish mother:

Stop complaining!

It’s a cold.

At worst,

a sinus infection.

Not cancer. 

The poem that best sums up her aspirations and her achievements, both in the pages of “Birthright” and, in a larger sense, in her life and work, is titled “This Woman’s Prayer.” She expresses gratitude for the time and place of her birth — “the last third of the twentieth century, / a time after penicillin / and before social media” — even as she allows that “the One might have aimed higher: /made me smarter, nicer / more loving, more generous.” The poem ends on a grace note, pure and simple:

Blessed be the One

who made me a reader,

a questioner, a thinker.

Who gave me life and faith

and health and so much —

so infinitely much —

more.

To which all of her readers will be inspired to say: Amen!

“Birthright: Poems” is available on Amazon. 


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.