By Emma Castleberry
When Jessica Jacobs reflects on why she founded Yetzirah, a nonprofit that fosters a space for Jewish poets, she thinks of Toni Morrison’s famous quote: “If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” Jacobs did just that, but with a community. “Yetzirah is a community to which I wanted to belong, but didn’t exist yet. So with the efforts and encouragement of many others we are creating it,” she says. “As poets, we write in chorus and companionship with our ancestors and contemporaries. And as Jewish poets, whether we write directly into and from our religion, culture and history or not, we are part of an ancient tradition, one I want to explore with writers I admire.”
Yetzirah: A Hearth for Jewish Poetry was founded in 2022 and offers publishing resources, a searchable database of Jewish poets, and an online reading series. In partnership with UNC Asheville’s Center for Jewish Studies, Yetzirah will present its inaugural summer conference on the university campus, June 20–25. Three National Jewish Book Award winners—Ilya Kaminsky, Alicia Ostriker and Rodger Kamenetz—will lead generative workshops and present evening readings, which will be open to the public. “The conference will be a major gathering of the tribe,” says Kamenetz, whose first book of poetry, The Missing Jew (1979), was well-received among the Jewish community but “regarded in the literary world at large as too parochial,” he says. “But we are in a new situation now where Jewish culture is increasingly seen as worthy of general consideration, just as any culturally literate person would give attention to French culture, Japanese culture or African-American culture. In our diverse world we need to be open to all cultures and that is happening.” Kamenetz calls Yetzirah “a great project long-needed,” and says the organization represents “self-awareness among Jewish-American poets of a commonality and even pride in drawing on three thousand years of tradition while also facing into contemporary life.”
While Yetzirah is the first national organization dedicated to Jewish poets, it’s not the first group of its kind: Jacobs was inspired by Cave Canem, a long-standing literary group for African American poets, and Kundiman, an organization for Asian American poets. In 2017, Jacobs started working on a collection of poems in conversation with the Torah and surrounding texts and discovered it was difficult to find Jewish poetry. During the period of her research, antisemitic attacks occurred throughout the country, including the white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville and the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Collectively, these experiences inspired Jacobs to create Yetzirah, and the organization’s positive reception affirmed her decision.
“Though Yetzirah has only been in the world since September of 2022, the enthusiastic response of Jewish writers and readers around the country and in countries including Canada and Israel has been deeply inspiring,” Jacobs says. “Our online reading series, curated by the poet Jehanne Dubrow, is made up of some of the most exciting poets writing today, all of whom have donated time and talent to Yetzirah by joining us.” As of January, Yetzirah’s first year of programming is fully funded, almost entirely from modest individual donations. “To me,” says Jacobs, “this speaks of the need Jewish poets feel to have such a space of gathering.”
Part of the mission of Yetzirah is to introduce the work of Jewish poets to a wider audience and expand the idea of what Jewish poetry can be. “Our audiences so far have included a good number of non-Jewish listeners, many of whom have written to say how much it means to them to be welcomed into this world and to learn more about the culture and tradition, all while hearing some phenomenal poems,” says Jacobs. “And as Asheville and the larger North Carolina literary community have been so welcoming to me, it was important to me that Yetzirah be based in Asheville and each summer, through our annual conference, to bring nationally renowned writers to share with our community.”
In honor of National Poetry Month this April, consider picking up a poetry collection by one of this year’s Yetzirah conference faculty: The Missing Jew: 1976-2022 by Kamenetz, The Book of Seventy by Ostriker, or Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic. You can also peruse the Database of Jewish Poets on the Yetzirah website to see what speaks to you. “Poetry is the world and its wisdom distilled into an art form you can carry with you in your pocket—the same poem, as you read and reread it, able to accompany and grow with you year after year,” says Jacobs.
The final online reading of Yetzirah’s 2022-2023 series will take place on April 9. Register for the event at YetzirahPoets.org/yprograms/april-9-liberation-freedom. Subscribe to Yetzirah’s mailing list to stay updated about events: YetzirahPoets.org/donate/subscribe.