Philadelphia’s arts and culture life is, to use Ernest Hemingway’s felicitous phrase, “a moveable feast.” Writer and award-winning poet Lisa Grunberger has contributed to this life of art and culture since she moved to Philadelphia nine years ago.Grunberger, the Arts & Culture editor of The Philadelphia Jewish Voice, is an assistant professor of English at Temple University. She has published two books: the poetry collection Born Knowing, and the modern Jewish folktale Yiddish Yoga: Ruthie’s Adventures in Love, Loss and the Lotus Position. Grunberger will be presenting her works in Philadelphia at both a poetry reading (October 8) and a book reading (October 15).
On a recent late summer afternoon, the declining light tinged with fall’s intimation, I sat with Grunberger at Green Street Café, one of her favorite places to write. “This is where I wrote ‘Genesis: Beginning the In,’ when I was eight months pregnant with my daughter, Rachel,” she told me.
This poem recently won the Brittany Noakes Poetry Award. Here is an excerpt from the poem, first published in “Born Knowing”:Genesis: Beginning the In
Now I will relive my mother
backwards, read her life
from back to front
from the moment she breathed
her last breath in my arms
after I pressed her mottled feet
into my sleepy hands
to the moment she picked olives
in Israel, made her little brother
pee in his pants at the movies in Tel Aviv
because Katherine Hepburn was kissing Spencer Tracy.
She lifts me into her cradled arms
and kisses my newborn forehead
in the Miami hospital.
By the time I’m done
a new story will birth
between my legs, a new letter will be open. The poem, as local poet and contest judge J.C. Todd observed, “is an homage to the maternal legacy that passes from mother to child to child of child.” In explaining why she chose this poem for the award, Todd commented:
‘Genesis: Beginning the In’ kept drawing me back in appreciation of the organic ease of each distilled image opening into the next. Repeated readings deepened its resonance. This poem imagines the profound, non-linear recombining of cellular memory, personal remembrance and family history.
Grunberger specifically acknowledged and praised the purpose of the Brittany Noakes poetry contest: “I’m thrilled that the contest, sponsored by the Soroptimist International chapter, will provide grant money for a woman who has experienced financial hardship and wants to go to school.”
Grunberger recounted that her mother, a cinnamon and spice Sabra who was born in British-mandate Palestine, continues to be the inspiration for her writing. “When I was 9 years old, on my first trip to Israel, my mother gave me my first journal and said ‘I want you to write down everything you see and hear and smell and taste.’ Writing is a way to pay attention and really attend to what I see and hear and taste. In its own way, it is a form of prayer.”
Grunberger has been writing incessantly ever since, filling up hundreds of journals with poems, stories, movie scripts and play treatments. But a writer’s life is precarious and uncertain. Grunberger, single in New York, felt herself adrift, trying to make ends meet by teaching yoga, waitressing, teaching literature and philosophy classes at Hofstra University and of course, sitting in cafes filling notebooks with her writing. “One day, I was teaching a lunchtime yoga class and I was demonstrating headstand pose when I heard my mother’s voice saying to me: ‘For this you got a PhD, to stand on your head?'”
This incident was the inspiration for Grunberger’s book “Yiddish Yoga: Ruthie’s Adventures in Love, Loss and the Lotus Position.” The book is about a recently widowed bubby who kvetches and stretches her way through yoga to help her grieve.
Describing how her book was received, Grunberger said:
The Jewish Book Council sent me on two national tours with the book, which was exhilarating and encouraging. The book was very favorably and perceptively received by reviewers from around the country. I love performing from the book and talking to people about it, as it makes me feel closer to my mother. One question I always get is ‘When is this book going to be made into a movie?’ Although the book is fictional, the emotional truth of the character’s grief is very close to home for me as I’ve experienced a lot of loss and, blessedly, recovery from loss. I found yoga to be extremely healing. It is a great l’chaim!
In fact, the bubby character, called Ruthie, was originally named after Grunberger’s mother, Rachel, but her publisher thought the guttural “ch” sound in Yiddish would be too difficult to pronounce for most Americans.
And pronunciation may soon be a real issue. As Grunberger explains:
I wrote a stage version of the book, which develops its story and characters. We will be working with a Grammy-winning musician/arranger to adapt the stage version into a musical. It will be titled ‘Yiddish Yoga: The Musical.’ As Ruthie likes to say, about her journey from loss and grief to a new life: ‘In dreams begin flexibilities.'”
Here is an excerpt from “Yiddish Yoga,” which is a deceptively simple, anecdotal modern Jewish folk tale:
The Cost of Dreams
Last week, I had a dream that I was floating on a giant flying carpet — a gift certificate for a year of free yoga classes!
I must say it was very relaxing, just drifting through the heavens. Kind of like Miami Beach meets Calcutta.
There were rabbis and yogis and they all had long hair and flowing robes.
I kept crying out to the clouds I’m the Hippy Bubby Extraordinaire from Manhattan!
But I woke up in a panic — Oy vey iz mir, the cost of all this drifting and dreaming. My poor granddaughter, Stephanie, meine maidelah, spent a small fortune on these yoga classes for her Bubby Ruchy.
“To help you grieve, Bubby, it will be healing for you.”
When I got up, I went straight to the yoga center — I haven’t moved so fast since I loifed to Loehmanns’ fifty percent post holiday red tag sale!
Grunberger laments that now Loehmnn’s too is gone into “the next world.” She says:
I wanted to sit shiva for Loehmann’s when I discovered it was closing. I have myriad memories of shopping at the Loehmann’s in the Five Towns in Long Island with my mother when I was a child. It’s another era that has come to an end. Though, I believe, it lives still in memory, like a lost place of pilgrimage. And, of course, nothing is ever lost in the Book of Life.
Both the October 8th poetry reading and the October 15th book reading events that Grunberger is giving are free and open to the public. Consult the Philadelphia Jewish Voice calendar for more details.