…perhaps I will finish my days without roasting
in the oven of what one human does to another
or the furnace of what God does to man.
—from “Two Worlds Exist” by Yehoshua November
To be angry at God requires believing he exists. To feel anger at God after that belief has evaporated can feel like punching at a ghost.
Orthodox Jewish poet Yehoshua November believes in God incontrovertibly, but he knows faith is not always a salve. Sometimes it raises more questions than it answers. In his new collection, Two Worlds Exist, November explores what it means to believe in a God who allows terrible things to happen, and who maybe even causes them to happen in the first place. Alongside these questions of theodicy, November looks at the sadness that can accompany daily life, balanced against the joys and rewards of love, parenthood, and religious devotion. Though tinged with weariness throughout, the collection is ultimately hopeful. When it cannot muster hope, it at least endures.
November and his wife have several kids, and their youngest daughter is almost completely deaf. It is through the lens of his daughter’s disability the poet explores the seeming unfairness of the deity he has devoted his life to following and understanding. There is a synecdochal relationship throughout Two Worlds Exist between his daughter’s hearing loss and broader issues of divine injustice and capriciousness. Yet November manages to bring the same gravity and grace to both the common and the cosmic.
No matter what he’s exploring in a given poem, November is at his best in exposing the resonance of small moments, and allowing the reverberations of those such moments to echo in the broader spaces of his life and faith.
Today, I walked into an empty library.
on a table, a book opened to a page
on hearing loss—
no trace of the one
who’d been reading—
like a love note left by a stranger
for someone else who shares your name.
November doesn’t stay in these small spaces, however. He also looks outward at the heartache of those around him, and at that of both the broader human experience and the specific Jewish experience in which he lives. In a poem in which a group of rabbinical students have been ousted from their dorm building at two in the morning because one young man pulled the fire alarm after finding out his parents were divorcing, November cleverly and subtly exposes the skeleton of irony under the bones of much of our sadness:
And because the yeshiva caters to souls
but also bodies,
the early morning mysticism class
on why the Divine Presence cannot dwell
amongst those plagued by sadness
has been cancelled.
Incarnation is a two-sided coin: the body can know both suffering and pleasure. The senses can torment or delight. Our physical carriages can break down and betray us, but they are also our only in windows onto the beauty of the world. November delves into this dichotomy in ways both small and expansive. In recalling his courtship with his wife, he writes,
…the high priest of my soul,
having just returned from a year in the Holy Land, said,
this is just a young man’s desire
for a young woman with long dark hair.
but in the body’s version, there are five Jewish children
and our life together.
In another poem, a friend whose son has died receives advice to get outside and exercise. The friend starts riding a bike everywhere, and rides it to visit November, but the exercise hasn’t been helping. It is only in the final lines that we learn, in passing, the bike belonged to the man’s deceased son. The physical activity that should have helped his body and in turn his soul was instead tethered to his grief.
The sorrow of enfleshed humanity, particularly in the long, tragedy-filled history of the Jewish people, can lead not only to the question of why God allows suffering to occur, but why God put people into fragile, breakable bodies in the first place. More than once, November offers a simple refrain that peeks into this mystery without resolving it: “And the soul comes down because / it needs something from the body.” There are things the spirit and mind cannot learn without fingertips, skin, eyes, and beating hearts.
This is, of course, hardly a comfort in the face of suffering. The very context of historical suffering that informs these questions also provides some of the armor against despair, against wholesale rejection of faith. In “Falling from the Sky,” November writes
When we found out our daughter had gone deaf,
I did not question God’s fairness—
not out of faith
my whole life it had always seemed
that at the next moment
terrible news would fall from the sky—…
The dread informing this existential stance brings to mind the caustic wit of Shalom Auslander, a Jewish writer who intellectually left his faith behind but found—as so many of us have who grew up in strict religious settings—that you can never entirely shed the faith of childhood, even if you disavow it. November, of course, has not disavowed it, but explores the way faith can sometimes taunt as much, or more, than it comforts. There is no masqueraded happiness in Two Worlds Exist, no pretending the life of the believer is softer or safer than that of the godless. November recognizes that one does not believe because one chooses to; belief is something you fall into just as inexorably as love.
When I was younger,
I believed the mystical teachings
could erase sorrow. The mystical teachings
do not erase sorrow.
They say, here is your life.
What will you do with it?
What Yehoshua November has done with his life—and what he shows us in Two Worlds Exist—is to keep living it. To doggedly persist. To claim joy where it can be found. To endure until hope returns. It is in these moments of found beauty November’s faith proves its worth, and the collection reveals itself as hopeful, however wearily. The hope, ultimately, is found in November’s belief his soul has a higher home it will one day return to. In “The Soul in a Body,” he compares his soul to a Russian immigrant reflecting after decades in its present home:
But I am not from here. I am not
from here at all.