by Erika Dreifus
Kelsay Books, 86 pp.
Reviewed by Joanna Chen
The Jewish poet and writer Emma Lazarus, living in the late nineteenth century, was among the first literary figures of her time to tackle, among other subjects, the particular mindset of Jews living in America. Erika Dreifus similarly does this in her debut collection of poetry, Birthright, with a particular emphasis on the social and cultural role of women, both today and in the past. In the collection, she braids together her own family history with refigured biblical tales, juxtaposing her life story against that of her grandparents, who were “Holocaust refugees”, as Dreifus puts it, having emigrated to America in the late 1930’s.
Dreifus who holds a PhD in history from Harvard, wears many scholarly and literary hats. She is a fellow in the Sami Rohr Jewish Literary Institute and adjunct assistant professor at Baruch College. Her 2011 collection, Quiet Americans: Stories, was inspired by the life stories of her paternal grandparents, German Jews who escaped Nazi persecution. Her blogs, Practicing Writing, and the Jewishly-inclined My Machberet, provide links to all things writing-related, as well as creative opportunities that catch her interest. Additionally, she produces a free monthly e-newsletter in which she collates information about writing markets for both aspiring and established writers. Through these projects, Dreifus generously shares her wisdom and experience with creative writers around the world.
Birthright serves as a platform for Dreifus to share her more personal insights, something she does with integrity, perception, and historical perspective. As such, it is a warm invitation to delve into her roots, and our own. As the poetry unfolds, the reader follows not only Dreifus’ journey back into her own family’s past, but also her understanding of the biblical backdrop of our existence, particularly as it plays out in the lives of women.
It is these poems that are the most compelling to me. “Kaddish for My Uterus”, a riff on the Jewish prayer for the dead, begins with “Exalted and hallowed be Surgery’s great name” rather than God’s. Just as kaddish does not mention death, so too this poem is one of gratitude and positivity rather than lamentation.
“A Single Woman of Valor” similarly provides a rewriting of this traditional Jewish text, taken from Proverbs and typically directed at the woman of the house on Friday night. But Dreifus breaks here with tradition, positing the idea that a woman in today’s diverse world is not necessarily a mother:
I have no children to rise and celebrate me / and no husband to commend me
and yet, undoubtedly, she is worthy –
I am like a merchant’s ships;
From afar I bring my sustenance.
I rise while it is still nighttime, and
brew coffee for my household.
I consider and I buy.
I work out.
Dreifus’s poetry spans a varying range of topics that mirror the world as she experiences it. She frequently references social media and her daily life in New York, complete with MetroCards, hair-coloring woes and global warning. She compares her relationship with Israel to that of the relationship between two sisters with blood ties. Her awareness of what it means to be a believing Jew is continually present but often with a twist: “I’ve always remembered the Sabbath day; / I just haven’t kept it holy” she admits wryly.
She weaves biblical stories through her writing, refiguring them boldly, such as “On Reading Chapter 19 in the Book of Judges”, in reference to a so-called concubine who escapes her Levite husband only to be raped and murdered by a mob. “I wonder,” Dreifus muses, “what has changed since those ancient times” and there is no question mark here because Dreifus knows that nothing has changed, and the Bible provides a mythical paradigm for the ways in which women are abused in contemporary society.
A good poem should resonate; it should open the door to new experiences and spur discoveries about ourselves and the world. While reading this collection my curiosity was aroused; I was inspired to look up biblical references and found myself perusing Sefaria, an online Midrashic tool that Dreifus used while writing the poems in Birthright (and to which, incidentally, she is donating a portion of the proceeds from the book). For example, in “The Book of Vashti”, in which Dreifus highlights Queen Vashti’s plight, the woman who preceded Queen Esther is depicted as wicked and vain because she refuses, according to Dreifus’ poetic interpretation, to appear naked before her husband, King Ahasuerus, and his friends. What Dreifus is suggesting here is the possibility of another perspective, a widening of the traditional narrative. Likewise, in several other poems threaded through this collection, she focuses on the life of Ruth, a woman considered to be the first convert to Judaism, and how her struggle is still relevant today.
Dreifus’s poetry provides much food for thought in today’s world of sharp takes and social media and she asks us to dwell on the stories of those who came before us and think about how they shape our own lives. In one of the final poems, “The End of the Lines”, Dreifus admits that “it saddens [her] to think that this story will end here”, suggesting that she will leave no physical heirs, no legacy for generations to come. Yet I am reminded of Emma Lazarus’ “Sympathy”, in which she writes: “This woman my soul’s need can understand, / Stretching o’er silent gulfs her sister hand.” Dreifus indeed stretches out her hand to us all; her words have an enduring quality, an ability to open doors and create a collective inheritance that others will enjoy for a long time to come.
Joanna Chen is a writer and literary translator whose essays and poems have been published in Guernica, Poet Lore and Lilith, among others. Her translations have appeared most recently in Poetry International, Mantis and Consequence. Less Like a Dove (Shearsman Books) was released in 2016, Frayed Light (Wesleyan Poetry Series) in 2019 and My Wild Garden: Notes from a Gardener’s Eden (Schocken) was published in 2020. She teaches literary translation at the Helicon School of Poetry and is a columnist for The Los Angeles Review of Books blog.