70 Faces Review
My scheduled presentations for From God To Verse are now complete, so if anyone would like to book me to speak to your group (via Internet video or otherwise), please feel free to contact me. Most recently I spoke at the congregational breakfast at Temple Am David in Warwick, and I thank the organizers for inviting me and the audience for a fun Q&A session.
Meanwhile, I’d previously mentioned another book of Torah poetry on this blog, namely 70 faces, and I wanted to offer a brief review. But first, two disclaimers:
Disclaimer #1: The author of 70 faces, Rachel Barenblat (a.k.a. “The Velveteen Rabbi“) is a friend of mine.
Disclaimer #2: Before I wrote this review, I wrote her a lengthy email asking “Are you sure you’re okay with me doing this? Because I take my reviewing seriously and won’t go easy on the book just because you’re a friend.” She agreed.
So, about the book.
70 faces is far from Barenblat’s first poetry book, but it is her first poetry book since being ordained as a rabbi. It is then, appropriate, that she has chosen to do a poem for each Torah portion of the year. (As you might suspect, I empathize with those who are completists, especially with regard to Torah-inspired work.)
I think what I like best about this collection of poems is the immediacy they convey. Reading many of the pieces, I find myself drawn into the emotional landscape, rather than simply reading about the stories of the Torah as one usually does. There is a pervasive humanity throughout the collection, which I think shines through and makes the poems easy to connect with.
A favorite line of mine comes from the very first poem “Postpartum”, based on the opening chapters of Genesis. Could the whole project be a wash? Aside from enjoying clever wording, I really appreciate the simplicity of the statement, the humanizing of the divine, and just how much is conveyed in seven words.
Her poem “Korban” on the opening chapters of Leviticus begins You’ll need a smoker. // Get one from Home Depot // and tighten each screw and bolt // exactly as the directions teach. These lines maintain the spirit of detailed scriptural instructions on how burnt offerings must be made, but are more (emotionally) accessible to the modern world.
Not that all of 70 faces is a proud heralding of the Torah. Barenblat does not shrink from taking issue with some passages, such as the Israelites’ songs of praise to the Lord after drowning the Egyptians. I don’t want to sing to the Lord, begins “The Psalm I Sing” … not if that means celebrating // when the floodwaters or the bombs // have left their bodies bent and bloodied // even if they were cruel taskmasters // even if they hit us first // even if they are not like us at all.
Barenblat asks her readers to join her in really thinking about some of these ancient stories, and the work she does in engaging with the text really resonates with me.
In some places. And that’s my only real complaint about this book: Some of the poems do nothing for me. I’ll read three great poems in a row that really make me think, and then the next one will have me wondering if I’ve missed something. But perhaps that’s inevitable in any collection of poetry. And this one has everything from a sestina (no easy feat to write) to a poem that reminds me a lot of William Carlos Williams.
70 faces, like the Torah itself, ends up having some passages I enjoy more than others. Is the quality even throughout? Perhaps not, in either case. But for anyone looking to engage with the Torah on a more human level, this collection offers many fine pieces for reflection and connection, and for that reason I recommend it.