It isn’t uncommon for Jewish writers born into religious families to face, at some point, a crisis of faith that affects their work. Often their writing is laced with that theme — see Isaac Bashevis Singer. But for the chasidic poet Yehoshua November, his faith was never in doubt. What was in question was whether, as a deeply religious Jew, he’d be able to write for a broad audience as well.
“At the time I was in graduate school,” about eight years ago, says November, “I felt like [my religious life and my literary interests] were mutually exclusive. Like I couldn’t do both.”
But encouragement came from an unexpected source: his rabbi. Though November was raised Modern Orthodox, he became hasidic in college and developed a close relationship with his college’s Chabad rabbi.
He later entered an MFA program in creative writing and, as graduation neared, asked the rabbi what path he should choose: study Talmud or become a poet. The rabbi said: both.
November has since infused his poetry with a fervently Jewish religiosity that, in the largely secular world of literature, is rare. But it has worked: November’s first collection of poems, “God’s Optimism,” which came out in November, was nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and won the prestigious Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award last year.
November says editors weren’t interested in his work at first, however: “Getting published in the beginning was very difficult, probably because of the content.” But once they saw the poise and crisp narrative clarity of his work, they welcomed him.
He still publishes frequently and now teaches at Rutgers and Touro College. The irony is that he probably has more readers among secular Jews and even non-Jews than he has in the Orthodox world. But that distinction matters little to him. Writing, he says, is an extension of his faith.
“God created the world because he wanted to dwell in the lowest realm, our realm,” November said, explaining a kabbalistic teaching. “If you make a good impression, then you sanctify His name. And that’s what I try to do in my poetry.”
Favorite poets he’s read recently: Edward Hirsch, Philip Terman.