Wild Geese, Mountains, Rivers,

The AARC Enriches Services with Poetry

– Emily Eisbruch, special to the Washtenaw Jewish News January Edition

Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

What can be better than poetic verse and vivid imagery to elevate and move our spirits? The Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Congregation (AARC) features beautiful and thought provoking poetry in its worship services, led by Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner. Here’s a chat with Rabbi Ora about the role of poetry in Jewish services.  

Rabbi Ora, what inspired your interest  in incorporating poetry into Jewish services? 

I grew up attending a Conservative shul in Toronto where Shabbat prayers were usually sung with the same melodies and there was rarely any deviation from the strict ‘keva’ (order of service). When I moved to Philadelphia in 2011 to attend the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, I joined Fringes, a chavurah co-founded by feminist activist poet Elliott batTzedek. Fringes services feature a mix of traditional liturgy and contemporary poetry.  I learned from davening (praying) with Fringes that poems can shake up our expectations of what prayer looks and feels like. 

What do you see as the role of poetry in worship services?

Poems crack open our hearts when we’re feeling broken, or tired, or fearful or numb. Poems offer an ‘aha’ moment; they help us feel seen, and less alone. Good poetry reminds us that there is beauty in the world — beauty that we’ve witnessed, and beauty that others have witnessed and bring to us in a gift of words. Poetry is remedy, balm, revolution, or reminder of how interconnected we all are. 

What does poetry provide that the siddur / prayerbook does not?

The siddur is full of gorgeous poetry! The psalms and the prophets are featured widely in our Shabbat siddur, and are profound and powerful poetry. But there are two real challenges to appreciating the poetry of the prayerbook: One, services are usually in Hebrew, and most North American Jews aren’t fluent Hebrew speakers. This means that a lot of the beauty of the language gets lost. And two, any poem that gets repeated again and again will lose a lot of its vividness. Bringing new poetry into services cuts through the lulling effect of repetition. Poetry—if it’s good, if it gets us and we get it—says, ‘Wake up! Pay attention!’

How does poetry compare to music/song in services? 

Poetry is an invitation to awaken to what’s holy in the world and in ourselves. It’s a chance to see things in a new light, or to feel seen. For these reasons, I think of poetry as more of an individual experience — though I do love that moment when, just after our congregation finishes reading a new poem out loud, you can hear a collective murmur of ‘wow’ and ‘yes.’ Singing together is more about the collective experience, feeling the sound of many voices resonating in the room or in our bodies.

What are your favorite sources for poetry to use in services?

Poetryfoundation.org and poets.org are consistently great online sources. Lately I’ve been enjoying drawing from the book Poetry of Presence: An Anthology of Mindfulness Poems, by Phyllis Cole-Dai (editor) and Ruby R. Wilson (editor).

Who/what are some of your favorite poets and favorite poems?  

Consistent favorites are Adrienne Rich, Yehuda Amichai, Ada Limon, Ross Gay, Carl Phillips, Mary Oliver, and for services in particular, Rumi and Rainer Maria Rilke. 

Mary Oliver’s ‘Wild Geese’ (shown below) is an antidote to the harshness and shaming that lives in some aspects of our Jewish tradition, our world, and ourselves. 

Wild Geese, by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good. 
You do not have to walk on your knees 
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting. 
You only have to let the soft animal of your body 
love what it loves. 
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. 
Meanwhile the world goes on. 
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain 
are moving across the landscapes, 
over the prairies and the deep trees, 
the mountains and the rivers. 
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, 
are heading home again. Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, 
the world offers itself to your imagination, 
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting – 
over and over announcing your place 
in the family of things.

To learn more about the Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Congregation, and see for yourself how poetry is used to enrich the services, please visit aarecon.org, or contact Gillian Jackson at aarcgillian@gmail.com or Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner at rabbi@aarecon.org.