Sep 28 2011

Denise Levertov – Illustrious Ancestors

Published by at 9:27 am under Ivan's Story,Poetry

Illustrious Ancestors
by Denise Levertov

The Rav
of Northern White Russia declined,
in his youth, to learn the
language of birds, because
the extraneous did not interest him; nevertheless
when he grew old it was found
he understood them anyway, having
listened well, and as it is said, ‘prayed
                  with the bench and the floor.’ He used
what was at hand — as did
Angel Jones of Mold, whose meditations
were sewn into coats and britches.
                  Well, I would like to make,
thinking some line still taut between me and them,
poems direct as what the birds said,
hard as a floor, sound as a bench,
mysterious as the silence when the tailor
would pause with his needle in the air.

— from A Big Jewish Book: Poems and Other Visions of the Jews from Tribal Times to the Present, Edited by Jerome Rothenberg

/ Photo by runneralan2004 /

Today is the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. It’s no coincidence that it occurs near the cardinal point of the autumn equinox. When the year starts with the darkening months of autumn and winter, the year is born from the inside out. The year begins with an inward focus that nurtures and shapes the outer activities of spring and summer.

My closest friend is Jewish. We’ve been friends since the age of seven. Growing up, I spent much of my free time at his house. I often joined his family for holiday meals and occasionally for a Saturday visit to the synagogue.

In my own home, I was raised by a single mother who was a lapsed Catholic. Through my mother, I picked up a strong sense of morality and spiritual purpose, but only a sketchy idea of what religious life meant to most people. That’s part of why I had both a fascination with and, occasionally, rebellion against my friend’s religious and cultural life.

His family was modern and generally secular. I got the feeling that his parents’ religious observance was more about cultural identity than religious belief. But there were moments, such as when I’d join them on Rosh Hashanah, with his family gathered around the dining table, where each food had a significance — apples dipped in honey to bring sweetness in the new year — that I would feel the spark of belonging, not just to a family, but to a heritage.

I was such a solitary child who didn’t like rules or prescribed behavior. There were times when I was not the best influence on my friend, encouraging him to ditch Torah school so he and I could attend to the mischief of childhood… not that he needed a lot of encouragement. 😉 It was my mother, who had rejected formalized religion, who helped me to recognize the importance of his religious heritage. She reminded me of the grainy black and white photographs in my friend’s living room, photographs of cousins, aunts, and uncles lost to the Holocaust, how the continuing enactment of tradition can be an important way to reaffirm the continuity of one’s identity, of family, of the realization of the dreams of past generations.

My friend now has children of his own. As someone without children myself, there is something deeply moving to me to watch how that mischievous boy is now grown up and sharing his rich heritage with his own children. The turning of the year. The turning of the generations.

We all need to find our own unique way to draw a taut line between ourselves and those who’ve gone before us to show us the way…

Denise Levertov, Denise Levertov poetry, Secular or Eclectic poetry Denise Levertov

US (1923 – 1997) Timeline
Secular or Eclectic : Beat

More poetry by Denise Levertov

5 responses so far

5 Responses to “Denise Levertov – Illustrious Ancestors”

  1. maryann moonon 28 Sep 2011 at 11:05 am

    I think your mother very likely had the most influence on the way you grew up and matured as a student of life in the world. Your Jewish friend probably showed you something that was not at all that familiar about life , and just the fact that he was Jewish is important.
    I’m always fascinated by Kryon who never lets up on the idea that “as the Jews go, so
    goes the world.” They’ve always been thought of as the “chosen race”
    and I believe they, as a race, are worth our fascination and great interest, having within their human nature a genuine sense of integrity.

  2. Warwick, Paulon 28 Sep 2011 at 2:44 pm

    My dear Ivan,

    I salute your deeply moving commentary on this thoroughly absorbing poem. Both are a gift that has enriched my day.
    With peace profund,

    your friend,


  3. Patricia Tayloron 28 Sep 2011 at 3:41 pm

    Ivan, sharing your life journey is so valuable to the reader. Fascinating it is to watch oneself and reflect on why we are as we are. I turn 70 next year and a practising Catholic, but for many reasons embrace all systems and learn from them. I’m so grateful for the events that brought me to this place. [I was a sole parent of 4 ]
    We at the bottom of the world find it difficult to think autumn, as we approach spring, but that’s a further reminder of the paradoxes of life!

  4. Samon 28 Sep 2011 at 7:27 pm

    What a beautiful poem … the darkness in the Lunar Calendar; approaching.
    Winter is implied but the inner Will still looms larger – a testament of an old soul.
    Thanks again for your thoughtfulness through the year !

  5. yohannahon 29 Sep 2011 at 2:59 pm

    I totaly understand you there.I have with you a commun fascination and a very special love story,I feel,for this people:Jews.I do not know why it is like this,can’t explain,but it is lovely thing ,is in’t?

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