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Poet’s Haggadah story

By Jonathan Maseng

April 13, 2011 | 5:52 pm

Every year at Passover, families around the world pull out their Haggadahs for their Seders, and whether they use a traditional text, a modern one, or even Maxwell House, the story and the words remain largely the same.  But one man, Rick Lupert, saw an opportunity to do something more than produce just another slight tweaking of the classic text.  And thus, the Poet’s Haggadah was born.

The idea didn’t emerge out of nowhere, Lupert’s been running a poetry website – Poetrysuperhighway.com—for over a decade, and one of his main goals is getting poets from around the country to connect.  “I’m always looking for different ways to get poets to share their work with each other,” Lupert says.  One year, as Passover approached, Lupert realized that there might be a way to combine his interest in poetry and Judaism in a unique way. “I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be interesting if poets reinterpreted the Haggadah.’”

Lupert put out a call for submissions and turned to some Los Angeles poets whose work he felt might fit.  He had no clue what the response would be, although he hoped that due to the success of past poetry exchanges he’d done, and the large number of poets who visited his site, that he’d get some good interest. 

One of the poets Lupert contacted was Rachel Kann.  “I’ve known Rick for years and years,” says Kann, “through the poetry community…but not through anything Jewish.”  For Kann, the opportunity to connect her poetry with her Judaism was a welcome one.  “I think he knew I’d be excited about it,”  says Kann, “I take my Judaism very seriously.”

Kann was raised in a secular household in a small town, where, she says, she and her siblings made up roughly “50 percent of the Jewish population.”  It wasn’t until she was older, and “tattooed” that she grew into her Judaism, finding inspiration in the writing of Aryeh Kaplan and Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav.  Kann decided to write a poem responding to the song Dayeinu.  As she describes it, the poem barely made it in the book as she struggled to get it in before the deadline, but Kann is thrilled it did.  “I have so much gratitude (to Rick) for giving me the assignment,” says Kann. “It parted my Red Sea…I was struggling.”

A few months after publishing her poem, a friend invited Kann to read at an event for the Los Angeles Board of Rabbis.  Kann “was freaking out” before her reading.  She wondered how the rabbis would respond to a tattooed outsider reading her potentitally blasphemous poem.

“I was thinking, I’m going to get struck by lightning for reading this poem here,” Kann recalls.  To her surprise, the rabbis “were so supportive. The response I got was very healing for me, very affirming.”  As a Jew who often felt like an outsider, Kann’s poem allowed her to feel like she was accepted.

Poet Larry Colker was similarly solicited for a contribution.  He spent a number of days trying to figure out what to write about.

“I was reluctant because “occasional” poetry is typically a trap for mediocre work,” Colker says.  But because of his respect for Lupert, Colker pressed forward.  What emerged was a poem about Elijah the prophet, which Colker says is “very personal.”  He submitted it despite some trepidation, because he trusted Lupert. “Rick always endows his creations with unique…wrinkles…so I thought it would be fun.”

When Ellyn Maybe, a regular at many LA Poetry events, heard from Lupert, she jumped right in. “It sounded so cool,” says Maybe, who submitted a poem about the “Four Questions” that delves into issues of social justice.  “I think that’s one thing poets do naturally… questioning,” says Maybe. 

It wasn’t the first dip into the world of Jewish poetry for Maybe, who has also written poems on topics like Yom Kippur.  “It’s important to look deeper into things for yourself,” says Maybe about her decision to delve into Jewish holidays.  For Maybe, whose work is usually not so steeped in Judaism,— she’s traveling with her band to the Glastonbury festival later this year to perform—it was a unique chance to explore Jewish themes.

One thing Maybe loved about the project was the “Poets’ Seder” that went on after the anthology was completed.  A number of poets who’d published in the book gathered at Beyond Baroque, an arts center in Venice.  “They came out, we had some music, it was sort of a performance seder,” says Lupert.  The poets in attendance read their work live, and others called in from around the globe.  As Maybe recalls it, “a lot of poets read that night. I think it was moving.  It’s neat when people are in an anthology together and get to hear their work spoken, too.”

The event was a big success and is available to listen to at poetseder.com, where the anthology can also be purchased.

Lupert hopes the book will find a place at the seders of people around Los Angeles and around the world.  “I didn’t think anyone would necessarily use this as a Haggadah,” Lupert says, though he did just that at a seder at his in-laws.  Lupert hoped that the book could supplement a traditional Haggadah at a seder, and that it would “be an interesting read, whether or not people used it for Passover.” 

“Everyone has their own sensibility about what they enjoy,” Lupert says.  He doesn’t expect that every person will love every poem in the anthology, but he hopes that through its diversity it offers something for everyone.  And if you enjoy poetry, you may want to pick up a copy for your own seder and see for yourself.

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