Samuel Menashe

A neglected master takes his place in history.

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Spirituality in the works of Samuel Menashe

Spirituality, and the pained search for meaning, is Menashe's main concern. In this search, he often employs explicit references and oblique hints to Jewishnesss, summoning the shadows of his Jewish heritage in most unexpected ways:

Promised Land

At the edge
Of a world
Beyond my eyes
Beautiful
I know Exile
Is Always
Green with hope--
The river
We cannot cross
Flows forever

Each line of this poem questions itself. On one hand, the poem can be read: "Exile Is Always," implying that it will never end. Yet, reassuringly the poet adds that it is "Green with hope." Menashe asserts that the river to the Promised Land can never be crossed, yet somehow its flow is the "forever" of eternity.

The poem itself quakes with motion, like the very river Menashe is describing. Its tone is timeless. With themes of exile, redemption, and looking at an unreachable land, it could well be Moses narrating the poem.

At the same time, perhaps, the poem can speak to contemporary Diaspora Jews. It asks questions relevant to the present: is Israel, fraught with realities of war and issues of social justice the Promised Land we've dreamed of all these years? Or is the Promised Land a spiritual reality located inside us, at the unreachable edges of our inner worlds?

The Meaning of Survival and Beyond

Perhaps most emblematic of Menashe's spiritual vision are these two poems, both presenting a similar sentiment about the source of spirituality and survival:

Enlightenment


He walked in awe
In awe of light
At nightfall, not at dawn
Whatever he saw
Receding from sight
In the sky's afterglow
Was what he wanted
To see, to know
 

Survival

I stand on this stump
To knock on wood
For the good I once
Misunderstood

Cut down, yes
But rooted still
What stumps compress
No axe can kill

However universal the "Survival" poem may be, the word itself has come to imply something very specific to 20th and 21st century Jews. Additionally, knowing that it was written by a Jewish poet who was born to Eastern-European immigrants--and who fought in World War II himself--it is hard not to think of the "stumps" of those vast demolished forests of Jewish Europe. The poet seems to suggest that the stumps will live on. Yet he presents more of a heartbreaking vision of mutilation than an encouraging one of some sort of vitality and revival.

Yet Menashe further implies that there is some sort of "misunderstood" good in the image of the stumps--perhaps a new reality of learning to grow into the ground, rather than upward like the rest of the trees.

Both poems are dark and depressing, yet fraught with pain, hope, searching, and the need for redefinition. This is the vision of the post-Holocaust, contemporary Jew: digging, craving, reaching toward a new understanding of the self.  

Menashe's poetry hints at a secret to Jewish spiritual survival in the 20th and 21st centuries--a combination of individuality and awareness of a greater truth. His voice combines the dark and ancient with the new and raw, intimately addressing both death and eternity.

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Jake Marmer

Jake Marmer is a poet and performer, living in New York City. He is currently working on his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at CUNY Graduate Center. You can find more of his work at jakemarmer.wordpress.com.