Yosefa Raz + Leora Fridman
Yosefa and I spoke while both of us were on “half vacations,” as Yosefa termed it, away from our current homes. I was in Berlin and she in Jerusalem, two places moreover that both of us have inhabited but at different times—a category of place that also includes Oakland, California. Never having met in person, we’ve traced one another’s work for a while now, and finally had the opportunity to talk a bit more. —Leora
Leora: Since neither of us is exactly at home, it seems a good way to begin by talking about your relationship to home/land and place.
Yosefa: It’s funny, the question of homeland was a burning question—a flaming question in my life for many years. I lived in the States for 15 years, starting in 1999 when I did my MA in Davis, California, then Oakland (where you currently live), and then Toronto, and I was always caught between here and there, and thinking about it a lot, and having two languages (Hebrew and English) and two frames of reference and feeling defensive about both…defensive, ashamed, rich, orphaned, overwhelmed…
But I have to say things have changed since I moved to Tel Aviv, like that whole physical system—like a nervous system, like a certain kind of bone—is gone. The system of longing and nostalgia and homesickness and yearning, sort of my teenage girl self…telling myself to try and live the questions…
Now I just want to walk down the boulevard and feel the breeze and run into someone I know.
But I also want to say instead of that “system” of longing, I have another system in place, which my friend Shaul described as the constant presence/awareness of a sick relative breathing up the air in the room, and that is what it feels like to be Israeli.
Leora: I appreciate that homeland longing can be replaced by other relationships to space, lack thereof or un-wellness.
Yosefa: Yes, apropos sickness, real sickness and metaphorical sickness.
Leora: This makes me think about the move I see often in Oakland by people who are culturally appropriating something. How they say: “I know this is culturally appropriative,” nod solemnly, and then they go ahead and do it anyway.
I’ve been thinking about this in contrast to Israeli-ness, Leftist Israelis I have experienced, and how they hold their politics. The way you described the sick relative, and the lack of air—I think there’s a more constant holding of political tension, as opposed to Oakland radicals who too often pick it up and then put it down.
Yosefa: I really like this idea of “holding your politics” like it is a physical effort/practice.
I remember I once went on this week-long peace walk and all these people I knew were there (it was a bit like a dream in that way, because afterwards I also had other important relationships that were only beginning on the peace walk). We went to visit someone’s house whose son had died in a terrorist attack and started talking about settlers, and politics. My sister was there (this seems more and more like a dream!) and said something about how our uncle is a settler, but then it was clear that everyone has an uncle who is a settler—all these political questions are tied up in families and intimacy. Maybe it is like that now in the U.S. with Trump, but at the time I thought this was different than how I had experienced things in America.
Leora: Yes, great point! It’s so clear in this case that interconnection is an inescapable reality as opposed to a philosophy. And I love hearing about your dream/not dream. A German friend said to me the other day, “I like that you are such a devoted observer.” I thought, oh, the romance of observing (and the privilege to observe) and the position of such a thing as devotion, but is that a choice? Whether to be devoted as such? Your story about this peace walk reminds me of this. You do not have a choice there about whether to be devoted.
Yosefa: Yes, the devotion to that “sick relative” too…People here constantly talk about leaving and when to leave, but I am sorry/not sorry to report that I am not leaving.
I was just talking about this at dinner the other night, during what have been endless holiday meals here for the past few weeks, though sometimes good conversations. I was saying that in my twenties these questions about homeland were very big and symbolic. And, of course, all the longing that immigrating brought up for me was in some ways a return to my parents immigration, and their parents’ unsettling—like maybe my weird bursts of homesickness in Davis were actually encoded longings for the Poland of my ancestors.
But then in the past few years, the big abstract things got replaced by practical details of partner, job, health…and less the big questions. Also, I really had to just stay somewhere, anywhere, even if it was Kansas or Ottawa. Or Tel Aviv. Just pick a place and not constantly be sad about where I wasn’t. And this country was a place I was often summoned to—desired and imposed upon and pulled toward—so I let myself be carried back.
In terms of my work, I do feel a real sense of loss about leaving the Bay Area—it was a moment (in and around Occupy) in which something very intense was happening and I felt the energy of a community of writers around me, and I’m not sure I’ll get that again in this life.
And strange that in the past few days I’ve been dreaming of Canada, of women who I love in Canada bringing me things like poems and tea. In a dream, Helen encouraged me to be a plant, or allowed me to be a plant? I think I learned something there about slow growing, waiting through different seasons. And Sara and her partner opened up a restaurant in my dream and made me dinner reservations for a celebration. And all the water of Canada, the feeling of non-guilt when flushing the toilet.
Leora: I appreciate, and to some extent long for, the kind of commitment to place you’re describing. And politically it makes sense—it is when one stays in the same place for a while that one can actually politically dedicate; though, of course, there can be these intense bursts (“temporary autonomous zones”) as you’re describing with Occupy.
Going back to the romance and reality of “devotion,” I want to ask you about the word specifically. It’s a word I think about a lot and have been teaching with, and I remember you used this word in a review of the poet Brandon Brown’s work. I’m curious about it relationally, and also in a secular vs religious sense. Is it a word you have a relationship to?
Yosefa: My new-ish life in Israel in some ways feels like it has less room for talk about devotion—because of my relation to religion and politics, as well as my life in the same house with a very secular person. But maybe instead of talk of devotion, there are more acts of actual devotion. It makes me think of Ruth sticking to Naomi in the Biblical story of two women of different generations and cultures who stick together after death rearranges their lives (maybe that was the context in the BB piece too), she cleaved to her, davKAH—from the same root as glue. To make yourself glue on to something, like a country, or a marriage. I guess that is devotion.
Leora: How does this manifest in your work?
Yosefa: For me, these past few years have been years of cleaving to projects—to long unfoldings that are sometimes boring and repetitive, or even painful. I’m doing the opposite of flitting from flower to flower, and I think it shows in my face—a certain kind of tiredness or heaviness maybe.
Maybe I’m trying to do the opposite of immigration, trying to settle in finally, and stand behind my decisions, be firmer even in my flaws and my mistakes. But this all feels unbearably serious, especially for the lightness of a Friday morning in October, first good weather in months, and maybe a movie in the afternoon. Maybe what I’m trying to say is something about the materiality of devotion—you put yourself in a certain place and there you are and it is not another place. I always thought I could somehow transcend place through strong emotion, passion. But I am also working on new metaphors—I have some idea rattling around of crucifixion—dying and being reborn into devotion, dying and being reborn into all my commitments—when all I need is to feel that the earth is holding me back.
Leora: I love this. I turned 33 this year and everyone wanted to call it my “Jesus year. ”When I asked my friend Abrah (who identifies as a Hebrew priestess and is very committed to Jewish ancestral work, among other things) what this meant, she said, “It means this year you will be crucified on the altar of something.” I did not like this that much, but she went on: “Crucified for a cause—or maybe, for you, for art.” Crucifixion as commitment, maybe—noticing at a certain age that I have focused much of my life on a particular thing, and my body has oriented toward, or been laid across and out for, that thing. This “crucifixion,” if I have to call it that, is a rare moment for me to have or witness.
Yosefa: Especially re: Bay Area—I often felt there that there wasn’t enough glue, people could wander off, you could come if you want but don’t come if it doesn’t suit you…I wanted people to WANT me to come, to press me to, to be disappointed if I didn’t. To be angry at me if I didn’t show up.
Leora: Yes! I relate to this very much. I’ve been teaching this class called “Devotional Writing” and thinking mostly about the act of cleaving. It’s surprised me how radical it has felt for me to ask people to cleave to something, and how challenging. Forced cleavage.
Yosefa: Yes, so maybe devotion is very radical in the Bay Area that way, as a mundane kind of practice that has less to do with “spirituality” and more with glue.
Leora: It relates also to this book by the scholar and critic, Jon Nixon, that I’m reading right now, Hannah Arendt and the Politics of Friendship. Nixon writes, “Promising, for [Arendt], was not a defensive recoil from the unpredictability of the future—not a way, that is, of transcending, denying or erasing the unpredictable—but an acknowledgement of the fact of that unpredictability: a way of moving forward together into the unbounded uncertainty that constitutes the human condition.”
Yosefa: Ah, that’s beautiful! I think I’m starting to understand that now that, yes, there is so much unbound uncertainty to contend with, and devotion is not its enemy.
Leora: This kind of commitment through uncertainty came up in your recent interview with David Brazil. You framed the timing of the interview around the Counting of the Omer, the traditional counting of each of the forty-nine days between the Jewish holidays of Passover and Shavuot. Because of this framing in time, the interview had this background of an established, committed practice. I got the impression of you both coming from multiple locations of commitment. To the Omer, to poems, to each other.
Yosefa: I feel like with David, in many ways, we experimented around this idea of devotion, and practice, and kevah—things that are constant. David taught me the importance of doing things on a weekly basis, like our weekly parashah study (a weekly study of a particular portion of the Bible), which in turn became something to rely on.
Leora: Are there other practices like that in your life these days—in study, in writing or elsewhere that have become similarly devotional?
Yosefa: The nation-state imposes the cycle of the year here—all the holidays—on our lives, and so it is an ongoing practice to try to thrive and find meaning within that cycle. I meditate every morning for a little bit; when I asked a meditation teacher about this little bit, he said if you want to be a little happy meditate a little, if you want to be very happy meditate a lot. So I am practicing being a little happy, a little bit every day. And soon the semester is starting with its schedule of classes—which I am so happy to get to return to year after year. I think this is also a form of love.
Leora: Are you familiar with Laynie Browne’s thinking on devotional writing in the magazine Talisman? She’s one of the few “out” religiously practicing writers I know and have a relationship with. Some time ago she sent me this piece in Talisman that she wrote on devotional writing, which largely instructed the Devotional Writing Workshop I’ve been teaching. It gave me a lot of space in my mind, I think, to be able to consider religious devotion and creative devotion simultaneously.
Yosefa: As a child, my family was religious. I went to Friday night services with my mother every week, and we kept shabbat (Sabbath) and separated milk from meat sponges. I’m told I used to keep a bucket under my bed so I could do ritual hand washing the moment I woke up, and I was always drawn to religious figures, like my first grade teacher who wore a wig and taught us to pray with devotion. I was Mother Rachel in a school play, and there were special lights that made the white of my robes glint and shimmer.
Yosefa: Many of the writers I study and talk with are religious, even if it is in some complicated insider-outsider, love-hate way. I’m thinking of Maria Melendez Kelson, who I met in my first years in America, and now my friendship with Amital Stern, a writer who is deeply immersed in the abjection and monstrosity of religious Jerusalem, Jerusalem as monster and Goddess. And in my scholarship, I write about the prophetic voice—writers like Abiezer Coppe, William Blake, Walt Whitman, Haim Nachman Bialik…though secretly I am quite resistant to prophecy.
I can’t talk about Hebrew thought and Jewish meditation the way that Laynie Browne does. It’s too immersed and tainted in the drama of Zionism for me to come at it from a peaceful place. And kabbalistic practices are also entangled with modern day messianism; I guess that is the luxury of coming to kabbalah and Jewish meditation in America: you don’t have to listen to all these messianic strains, you can just turn off that channel.
My parents left (and recently came back) to religion, so I was left a bit in the cold with it—more insider/outsider, more, as we say in Hebrew, at the threshold of the lock (which is a quote from Song of Songs and the modern Hebrew writer Shmuel Yosef Agnon). That said, I do feel that through my biblical scholarship I have made some sort of deal with this longing. I have made myself a little space of knowledge and authority I am comfortable with.
Leora: After reading your interview with David, I was left considering how spirituality does or doesn’t interact with contemporary American poetics. How so few people claim actual public identities involving religion, but then many poets and readers are obsessed with tarot, CA Conrad’s rituals, and the like.
Yosefa: Right, the difference between religion and spirituality. There’s something embarrassing about religion, about its specificity—the matriarchs and the patriarchs—not to mention, the whole God thing. And then you have to donate money, “tithe,” or pay for your seat in the Yom Kippur services. And you have to reckon with all the crazies…
I think “spirituality” is a more elegant way of managing those feelings and affects without as much commitment. And less scars. But this goes back to the question of devotion and heaviness—I’m still trying to figure this one out. The balance of lightness and heaviness. What you can show on your skin.
Leora: Yes, beautiful. I have to some extent come (back) to practicing spiritual forms within Judaism in recent years because I want to be somehow authentically devoted, responsibly devoted. I think also as a white person in and around Black-led movements in the Bay Area, I’ve had a number of POC remind me how crucial it is to look to my own lineage as opposed to that of others.
Yosefa: I have to remember all these questions of cultural appropriation and the language around them, that doesn’t come up as often here, or in different ways (maybe because there is actually a lot more appropriation, of land, of water, etc).
Leora: Yes, definitely. Going back to poetics, I’d love to hear more about your thinking on prophets and poets—which I know you think about mostly because I’ve really appreciated that you publicly share your teaching syllabi on these topics online!
Yosefa: I’m really struck by the connection between prophetic sign acts and Conrad’s somatic rituals—the way a body can put itself in the path of Empire, even when the proportions between Empire and one body are of such different proportions that it is ridiculous. The way prophets did crazy things like walk naked, lie on their side, cut off their beard and divide it into three parts, bury a loincloth, break a pot.
Scholars usually classify these “sign acts” as didactic or pedagogical—Jeremiah breaks a pot to make a greater impression on his audience. But many of them have no audience, take a long time to perform, don’t really have a clear message.
I’m thinking of Conrad’s ritual around the Iraq War and wearing a catheter, or putting broken glass in their shoe. Nobody sees that; it’s not educational. I love teaching the rituals/poems/exercises to students because they unravel that educational momentum, or the directionality of the mimetic/symbolic and invite you into another way of making meaning. The Biblical prophet Hosea has to marry a prostitute. You give up or transform your whole life in service of a message or idea, but when you come close to it that idea breaks down into something incomprehensible. Which is what happens in war, or crisis, or what we are living through now. Great incomprehensible changes, and we can respond with our bodies.
And yes, sharing the syllabi. That feels like my move against the “capitalism of knowledge” to quote my teacher Chana Kronfeld. I often get help with syllabi, it’s my favorite kind of Facebook, so it seems only right that I put it back into the common space. Sometimes I feel syllabi are my favorite genre of writing. They are all potential, all connections waiting to happen, and these connections that happen in class discussion are sometimes so ephemeral, something magical happening in class that it is really hard to go back and explain later, that feeling of thinking together, and having emotions together.
Leora: As a reader of syllabi, I often feel I am a voyeur on that feeling of thinking together. I can’t quite see behind the curtain, but I know what might be happening somewhere due to the text I’m reading at the moment.
Yosefa: Also, the main literary device of the syllabus is juxtaposition. Like CA Conrad and Jeremiah. Maybe because of being from two countries and also always replicating that—two languages, two academic disciplines, two cities I move between—the classroom (and the syllabus) seem like the utopian place where you put those things together and they make sense in some ecstatic intellectual moment that can’t be replicated. (Not that teaching is always like that!)
Leora: Definitely not! But the everlasting search for it is real. The ecstatic is another theme I see consistently in your work, along with the disappointment involved in existing alongside the search for the ecstatic. I see in your work something I connect to other poets of Occupy Oakland: a piling-on, a constant over-fullness, a desire for complete inclusion of experience, specifically including mess. Does this feel like an accurate association? And was it something happening in your work prior to your time in Oakland?
Yosefa: The ecstatic is from before Occupy Oakland, from growing up in/alongside the majesty and abjection of Jerusalem and its constant stream of excessive mystics. Various members of my family who crossed continents and lost their homes and languages in order to be part of something bigger. My father told me that I wanted to be part of Jewish history. But when you go to Jerusalem it’s so disappointing always—the garbage and the petty politics (the smallness of the Jordan river as metonymic of this) and the racism and homophobia of the people you want to admire. And the army behind it all, clearing a space for the mystics to pray.
This is something from a piece I’m working on about a documentary by Moran Ifergan about the Western Wall: “The women on screen pray and cry instead of me. I turn to you, in the cold movie theatre, my arm on your bare leg. I didn’t plan this, I whisper, but it’s as if the movie is speaking to us, about the terrible failures of faith inside a marriage, the ways your heart can’t bear to love. And this is the secret root of everything, the women crying, alone, the soldiers with their stupid rallies and all the dirt and fear of Jerusalem. This is the heart of the matter.”
Well, that’s just more mess—marriages and weeping—but maybe they belong with the mystics. I feel like my mother told me, don’t be too much, too loud, too fat, too weepy. Or maybe, more accurately, she feared that she was too much. And my first poetry teacher in a very different way had an aesthetics of restraint, of minimalism. Maybe also a way for her to survive in the too-much of Jerusalem. A lot of subtlety, secrets on the page. A lot of cutting words out—this was her devotion. And lots of Hebrew poetry, especially by women, has an aesthetics of minimalism, of impoverishment, of simplicity.
But I’m not like that at all, and I can’t help the way my memories of the army, for instance, came to me like some kind of colorful, baroque, grotesque animation. Over-saturated. Which is why I filtered my life in the army through Henry Darger scenes. But yes, overdoing it, like Dodie Bellamy, Stephanie Young, and Sheila Heiti (who I know you’ve written about), as well as writers here like Tahel Frosh and Sheikha Helawy (I’ve translated a bit of both). Writers who have given themselves over to the over-doing, to maximalism, to taking up space on the page and in life.
Sheila Heti has a passage about female genius in How Should a Person Be about how no one knows what that might look like. Yet, to me, there seems to be female genius in these commitments—maybe we could call it devotions—to excess, to mess, to truth-telling. But you still have to be clever about it. It is a performance.
Leora: I’ve been reading Susan Best on affect in feminist contemporary art, and she writes about performance that lets the reader be alongside of the work, instead of overwhelmed by it: “The sense of restraint or the introverted emotional tone of the works means that the beholder is drawn alongside the work rather than being drawn into it…a respectful non-intrusive being with.” I like this alongside. Of course, I relate to what you’re saying around the socialized aversion to too-muchness—and I think Best is pointing to a muchness that still allows for the muchness of others to still exist. A relational muchness. This reminds me of how I am often asking someone how are you doing at an art opening or poetry reading, and really wanting to know. But it’s usually uncomfortably received. Perhaps it’s a sense that any affect we experience should stay contained in the work we are making. And it’s also gendered, asking about FEELINGS. I’ve wondered this here in this conversation: We don’t know each other all that well, and amongst all these questions part of me just wants to ask: How is your body? How are you feeling?
Yosefa: I know, this is a funny conversation to be having so dis-embodied, and I find myself longing to be at that art opening or poetry reading and have that kind of conversation with you! This is a first for me—being interviewed. But it seems an extension of how I write too—my fantasy of being interviewed, or questioned, by curious people who wish me well! Though that fantasy, of being asked by my “American friends” or “American lovers” about Israel or Israel/Palestine ended up going in some perverse directions in the poetry I wrote in America.
Leora: Perverse directions! Yes please! I’m thinking of your recent work in Elderly. These lines stick with me: “mannequins without heads are singing this call to arms / call these legs and tell them you’re running late.” I feel I’m calling those legs in our dis-embodied state. But we’re getting long here, and running late, so we’ll stop for now. Thank you!