Connecting to Judaism through writing

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Some writers focus on one format, for example, writing either fiction, nonfiction or poetry. That’s not the case for David Ebenbach, who has published short stories, novels, poetry and Torah commentary. His most recent work is a collection of poetry called “Some Unimaginable Animal” (Orison Books), which includes poems based on biblical stories and Jewish holidays. 
In an e-mail interview, Ebenbach mentioned that Judaism plays a major role in his life. “I’m married to a rabbi, so that probably tells you something. (I even have a t-shirt that says, ‘Real men marry rabbis’),” he said. “I’m pretty engaged and invested in Judaism, both as a religion and as a civilization – and, for me, my connection to writing is often indistinguishable from my connection to Judaism. I think about one when I’m doing the other. They are both at the center of my efforts to find meaning, to repair the world and to live my life the right way.”
That means that Judaism is also a major focus of his writing. “So, because it’s hard to disentangle Judaism from my writing, Judaism shows up in my work a lot,” he said. “Certainly that’s true in terms of characters, where it’s my default; my characters are automatically Jewish unless I go out of my way to make them something other than Jewish. The way I figure it, why shouldn’t Judaism be the norm? It is in my life!”
This becomes very clear in his poem “The Rabbi’s Advice,” which contains a twist on a Jewish folktale. “I love that folk tale,” he noted. “For those who don’t know it: an overwhelmed man goes for help to his rabbi and the rabbi advises him to bring all of his livestock into the house with him, which makes a crazier situation much crazier, and then, of course, when the rabbi tells the man to remove the livestock again, the man is so relieved that he now sees that his normal life isn’t so bad. For me, this is a charming tale, but one with a questionable take-home message.”
In writing his poem, Ebenbach sought to offer a different version of this message. “Sometimes when a person is suffering, it’s helpful to say ‘Hey – get over it – things could be worse’ (which is what the rabbi in the tale essentially does), but a lot of other times the most helpful thing is to acknowledge and honor the person’s suffering,” he added. “And I think that, probably because of a long history of trouble, Jewish culture leans a little too heavily on that first option: Hey – it could always be worse. So I wanted to write about that.”
Writing gives Ebenbach a chance to see the world from a different angle. “I love the power of writing – and particularly poems, which seem well-suited to bold statements and notions – to allow us to consider new ideas and to see familiar ideas in new ways,” he noted. “So in ‘Some Unimaginable Animal,’ I offer alternate versions of all kinds of things: the Garden of Eden narrative, traditional ghost stories, the Rosh Hashanah Tashlich ritual and even the Big Bang.”
He does enjoy all the different formats in which he writes. “I have found it incredibly useful to write in multiple forms – short pieces of fiction, novels, poems, essays and the occasional play – because each one is good at certain things and not as good at others and I need to use all of them if I want to be able to write about everything that interests me,” he added. “Generally I head to poetry when the material needs to focus more on imagery and language, and to fiction when it needs to focus more on character and narrative. And then there’s drama, which is usually when I get sick of my usual work and just want people to talk the way people talk and move around the way people move around, and I don’t want to get lost in description or clever narration at all. So using all the forms means I don’t get bored and I keep access to whatever I want to write about.”
In his work “The Artist’s Torah,” Ebenbach combined Torah study and the exploration of the nature of creativity. “There’s a famous declaration in our text Pirkei Avot that I really love: ‘Turn it [the Torah], turn it, for everything is in it,’” he said. “This idea, attributed to Ben Bag Bag (who had a fantastic name), is exciting for two reasons. First of all, it tells me that I’m in the Torah, and that my work and insights about how to approach my work must also be in there. That’s an audacious idea. The second reason this declaration excites me is that we’re told that we find everything not by just leaving the Torah inert in front of us, but by turning it – by interacting with it, in other words; engaging with it, looking at it from many different angles. I love that.”
His belief that the Torah has a message for everyone can be found in his work. “When I settled in to write ‘The Artist’s Torah’ – a series of chapters on each of the weekly Torah portions, every one of them digging for wisdom on the creative process – I found that the Torah, when turned this way and that, was actually overflowing with wisdom for artists,” he noted. “I assume that goes for all professions and life paths – I bet you can find yourself in the Torah, whether your thing is business or healthcare or customer service or politics or professional wrestling. For me, because of who I am, it’s about creativity. When I watch the matriarchs naming their children, that tells me about different experiences of creation; the building of the Mishkan reminds me about the role of planning and intuition in creative work; the roles of the priests make me think instinctually about the roles of the artist; the repetitions in Deuteronomy get my mind focused on revision; and on and on and on.”
While much of his writing is serious, humor does play a role. “One of the things I’ve been exploring in my most recent books is humor,” he noted. “When I was just getting started, I had the feeling that literature had to be deadly serious, even though life isn’t consistently serious and is in fact often absurd. Meanwhile, I’m steeped in a Jewish worldview that has, despite some very traumatic history, nonetheless turned to humor again and again. And so this collection, ‘Some Unimaginable Animal,’ tries to make the case that poetry can be funny sometimes.”
He notes, that, ‘for example, in ‘Some Unimaginable Animal,’ there are a number of ‘First’ poems – ‘The First Insect,’ ‘The First Mammal,’ “The First Primate’ – where I basically make up what it might have been like to be the first-ever insect to exist, or mammal, or whatever. Those were a lot of fun, and one led to the next. And then I’ve also written a lot of ‘I’m going to’ poems. ‘I’m going to write a whodunit’; ‘I’m going to write a book on religious intolerance’; ‘I’m going to write my own procedural drama.’ Those were fun, too. I’ll tell you: writing a poem about what you’re going to write is much easier than actually writing the thing you say you’re going to write.’”
To see Reporter reviews of several of Ebenbach’s previous works, visit www.thereportergroup.org/Article.aspx?aID=4769 (“The Guy We Didn’t Invite to the Orgy”), www.thereportergroup.org/Article.aspx?aID=2832 (“Into the Wilderness”) and www.thereportergroup.org/Article.aspx?aID=2997 (“The Artist’s Torah”).