Jewish Professor and Poet Discusses His New Book of Poetry
Baruch November is a professor of English at Touro College in Manhattan. His poems have appeared in The Forward, The Jewish Journal, Paterson Literary Review and other publications.
In a recent interview, November spoke about his debut book of poetry, Bar Mitzvah Dreams (Main Street Rag Publishing Co.), which deals with love, Jewish history, Justin Bieber and roast beef.
AZ: What’s your favorite poem in the book?
BN: “The Beliebers” about Justin Bieber. It exposes the fault of someone who has so much vanity. He went to the Anne Frank Museum and said she would have been one of his fans. He’s like a lot of celebrities, who are lost and don’t know the right observation to make. Words are important and have power. I bet she would have been a fan of his if he was in that time period. But that’s not the point. She and her kind were massacred and nobody did anything about it. I wouldn’t say he’s a bad person but he needed to be more thoughtful and sympathetic. He missed a great opportunity. Celebrity and youth make people do crazy things.
AZ: Why did you call the book Bar Mitzvah Dreams?
BN: A lot of the book is about childhood experiences. There are two poems in the dream world about me re-visiting my bar mitzvah in surrealistic ways. In one of them, I imagine that T.S Eliot and Ezra Pound are at my bar mitzvah, and they’re complaining that I’m doing a bad job.
AZ: At reading from the Torah?
BN: Yeah. It was really hard for me. I didn’t do a great job.
AZ: But the rest of your bar mitzvah was good, right?
BN: Actually it wasn’t so good. I had my bar mitzvah at the Western Wall, and we arranged for a rabbi to set up to the Torah. Another rabbi, an imposter, took his place and said he was sent by the original rabbi. When the original rabbi came to the Western Wall and saw us doing it with this other person, he stopped it. I already started my [Torah reading] and I had to stop.
AZ: That’s crazy.
BN: My father wanted to strange him, but he held himself back.
AZ: What does it mean to you to teach at Touro College?
BN: Teaching at Touro is really important to me. I get to teach a diverse group of students, including Jewish, Hispanic, and African-American students all in one class. Having diversity inspires me to teach, because I know that I get to talk with the world, and a range of experiences and viewpoints are represented.
AZ: You have many poems about dreams. When people go to sleep and have dreams, should they take them seriously?
BN: I think people have no choice but to search their dreams for meaning, even if there is not always a cohesive meaning to be found. There must be a reason our minds collect all these specific images and show us them in our sleep. In a way, it’s almost more interesting to think about what our mind does when we relinquish control of it in our dreams. Maybe it tells us something of our true selves [that] we can’t access when we’re awake.
AZ: What’s a dream that you have had that hasn’t happened yet?
BN: I would like to get married and have children. Sometimes I wonder if being in the world of poetry scares Jewish women away because it’s not a normal ambition in the Jewish world. But I love my poetry, and I wouldn’t change.
AZ: Your brother Yehoshua wrote God’s Optimism, and was a finalist for The Los Angeles Times’ Book Prize for poetry. Your sister, Deena, published a book of poetry. Did you feel pressure or jealousy that made you want to come up with something good in your book?
BN: It motivates me, it inspires me, it makes me proud that my family is so talented. It makes me feel sometimes that I want to compete with them, but it’s never a jealous feeling.
AZ: Did you write any poems about women you’ve dated?
BN: Yeah, but I never showed it to them.
AZ: There are some in this book about them?
BN: I don’t name them. But if they opened the book, they would know it’s about them.
AZ: You moved around a lot. How has that impacted you?
BN: I’ve lived in Stony Brook, Miami, Richmond, Kansas City, Scranton, Minnesota and Pittsburgh. I went to Binghamton for college, and got my master’s from Sarah Lawrence College. I live now in Washington Heights. You constantly have to re-acclimate to society and to a new place. You get to learn a lot about humanity because there’s a lot of variety.
AZ: How does being Jewish impact your poetry, and why do you write about beards?
BN: I often draw on the words of the Torah for inspiration. The Torah has a lot of poetic ideas. In Judaism, beards are important. The Kabbalistic reason Jews are supposed to have beards is to show compassion. If more people knew what beards symbolized, more people would have them.
AZ: What’s poetic about being a Mets fan?
BN: The suffering. When they go right, they go wrong very quickly. I try to capture that.
AZ: You wrote a poem about roast beef. Why is food so important to you?
BN: That’s about the obsession and frustration people have with dieting. In that poem, I wrestle with the things I should be doing, like eating healthy food. But you also have to enjoy life.
AZ: But you wouldn’t have chocolate for breakfast, right?
BN: I have had chocolate for breakfast.