Seeking an Inner Freedom

—  by Hannah Lee

On Shabbat, my Rabbi challenged our kehillah (congregation) to do more to observe Independence Day than march in a parade.  I love the Fourth of July, my second favorite American holiday after Thanksgiving.  My family invites our friends and neighbors to watch the neighborhood parade that passes in front of our home with us, but how else to celebrate?  Well, before writing this piece, I wrote a letter of thanks to President Obama and inserted it into the mailbox set up at the special exhibit on To Bigotry No Sanction, now at the National Museum of American Jewish History.

More after the jump.
The most thrilling part of the exhibit was seeing that the famous phrase, “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” was first coined by a Jew — Moses Seixas, in a letter on behalf of the Congregation Kahal Kadosh Yeshuat Israel, also known as the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island.  (The Hebrew name sounds like a contemporary merge.)  

George Washington, newly appointed as the first Chief Magistrate (the title was later changed to President) of the United States of America, echoed back the phrase in his reply, but with a more elegant turn from “to bigotry give no sanction.”  Seeing the original letters side by side as well as other letters that had been penned to Washington made me cognizant of how elegant and scholarly were Washington’s letters.  His reply to Seixas’s letter, which was full of blessings and also freely quoted from the Bible, was the most eloquent letter on display.

On Sunday, Professor Jacob Needleman was interviewed on NPR, and he spoke of our Founding Fathers who had a deeper, fuller meaning for “the pursuit of happiness,” than merely shopping to stimulate the economy.  Professor Needleman said that happiness meant to them a life of virtue.  My Rabbi would concur and say that true happiness means living in accordance with God’s will.  Then, Professor Needleman spoke about an “inner freedom,” one that allows us to maintain strength against popular but misguided ideas and trends, including shop-till-you-drop consumerism.  May we all find an inner freedom of integrity for ourselves and our family.  Happy Independence Day!

The To Bigotry No Sanction, exhibit will be on view at the National Museum of American Jewish History until September 30.  The museum, located at 101 South Independence Mall East, is closed on most Mondays.  

In Praise of the Physical World

Leonard Gontarek’s Spiritual Poetry at the Public Library

A week before both Passover, when we commemorate both freedom and slavery, remembering always, that as long as anyone is oppressed we are all still slaves in Egypt, I had the pleasure to begin the week at the Philadelphia Public Library Monday Poets Reading Series, now in its 16th year. Run for fifteen years by Michelle Belluomini, the new director of the series, Kay Wisniesskik, explained that “Philadelphia has a lot of creative people.  This venture is special as we feature local poets who have published books and have often won prizes.  We want to expose people to the excellence of the Philadelphia poetry scene.”  

More after the jump.  

On April 2nd, at 6:30 pm in the stunning Skyline Room of the Parkway Central Library, poet Leonard Gontarek read from new work for about 40 minutes that held the audience, comprised of about 40 people, captivated.  Gontarek’s poems are filled with both praise and melancholy, both images of rebirth and death.  “Truth is very subtle like a thief in the night.”   In poems that sampled from the Bible and Bruce Springsteen, from Gilgamesh and Zen Buddhism, Gontarek writes, “everyone steals a glimpse, because it is spring.”

Gontarek is the author of four collections. His poetry collections include Déjà Vu Diner (2006) and St. Genevieve Watching Over Paris (1984). His poems have also been featured in Joyful Noise: An Anthology of American Spiritual Poetry (2006) and in Best American Poetry (2005). Gontarek’s honors include several Pushcart Prize nominations and two fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.   His new work is written in numbered sections, often consisting of one line of verse, which draws attention to the poetic line.  In an incantatory poem about masks and identity in a fragmented, post-modern world, Gontarek writes: “it’s all shadow and we wore many masks.”  

Where many modern and post-modern poets shy away from the word God or any hint at spirituality or transendence, in Gontarek’s lyrical, erotic, playful poems the physical and metaphysical are inextricably connected: To praise Buddha without belief “is cereal without milk” he writes.  From a poem about a $69 hotdog, that is a sensuous celebration of the physical world, to melancholic poems about “the math of sadness” Gontarek’s poetry provides a precise questioning of the world, never reducing its complexity but paying close attention to its paradoxes.

The evening ended with Gontarek paying homage to the poet Adrienne Rich, a Jewish lesbian poet, who died last week at the age of 82.  He read her poem “Perspective Immigrants Please Note” an apt selection.  Rich writes: “If you go through/ there is always the risk/ of remembering your name.”  Gontarek welcomed us to go through many doors with him on this Monday night in April.  

A 20 minute Q & A followed with the audience asking questions about craft and composition.   This was the last in the 2011-2012 series which will resume its Monday Poets Reading Series in the Fall.  There will be an open mike at the end of the readings “so local poets can get over stage fright” Wisniesskik explained.  

Monday Night Poetry Series. 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. in the Skyline Room of the Parkway Central Library, 1901 Vine Street. Copies of the Featured Poets’ books may be purchased at the readings. For additional information, please call the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Literature Department at 215-686-5402.

Holiday Aloneness

By Hannah Lee

In our modern, frenetic society, people are often far from loved ones for the holidays, whether for studies, work, or national service.  As the retail establishments bring out their holiday decorations earlier than ever — Nordstroms, however, has promised not to do so until after Thanksgiving —  the atmosphere of forced cheer and gaiety can prove difficult for some of us.  So, what can be done about it?

I’ll paraphrase the late President John F. Kennedy who’d said in his inaugural speech on January, 1961, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”  The remedy for self-pity and loneliness is to take action for others.  In all the years of my marriage, my husband has had to work on Thanksgiving and certainly on the Friday afterward, so it’s not a long weekend for us to visit with family (and none choose to visit us, maybe because they do not want a turkey-less meal).  However, Thanksgiving continues to be my favorite American holiday.

One year, when my first-born child was very young and her father was to be on call for Thanksgiving, I signed up to help serve a meal the day before while she was still in daycare (I paid for extended hours that day).  I drove to a section of North Philadelphia where some of the buildings had busted windows and I found that I was the only person not of African origin.  I felt safe, though, because the organizers lead everyone in prayer at the beginning of the meal.

More after the jump.
When my daughters grew older, we have volunteered with MANNA, preparing and delivering meals to the home-bound chronically ill.  The early-morning kitchen stints, however, were hard for teens who like to sleep later than their usual 6 am wake-up call on school days.  Delivering to the various depressed neighborhoods where the clients live has been an eye-opening experience to my suburban children.  Driving with my children can be a comedy routine at times, as I am a bad driver and my elder daughter is an ill-tempered navigator.  My younger daughter, in turn, has been more patient with me.

Others have devised their own rituals.  Our cello teacher and his talented violinist wife, both émigrés far from family members, would bring their sons to perform as a string quartet for hospital patients.  A few years ago, I started a Giving Thanks notebook, where I invited my family to jot down their thoughts for the year.  My husband and younger daughter have consistently declined, but my elder daughter and I take pleasure in contributing to it and more so, in re-reading previous entries.

I do take care in serving new and favored dishes for Thanksgiving, but the meaning of the holiday is in giving thanks, acknowledging our freedom and our privilege.  That we can do even when we are far from loved ones.

Cartoon reprinted courtesy of Yaakov (Dry Bones) Kirschen