Ear­li­er this week, Amy Got­tlieb wrote about how the works of I. B. Singer and the beau­ti­ful, per­cep­tive” women around her mother’s kitchen table indi­vid­u­al­ly inspired The Beau­ti­ful Pos­si­ble as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series on The ProsenPeo­ple.

For four­teen years I worked as direc­tor of pub­li­ca­tions for The Rab­bini­cal Assem­bly, edit­ing the­ol­o­gy, ser­mons, schol­ar­ship, and litur­gy. This dream job appealed to my intel­lec­tu­al and reli­gious curios­i­ty, while offer­ing me a unique role. I wasn’t a rab­bi or a con­gre­gant, but an icon­o­clas­tic Jew­ish seek­er who was a stand-in for a rabbi’s most chal­leng­ing layper­son. In many ways, I rep­re­sent­ed the Haggadah’s Four Chil­dren — wise, rebel­lious, sim­ple, and curi­ous — in the guise of a hard-work­ing edi­tor armed with a red pen, Chica­go Man­u­al of Style, and a patient type­set­ter on speed-dial. Over the years, this liveli­hood mor­phed into a sequence of free­lance gigs: I edit­ed ser­mon col­lec­tions, con­sult­ed on ser­mon writ­ing, and revised count­less words writ­ten for spir­i­tu­al seek­ers. I even moon­light­ed as a spir­i­tu­al­i­ty ghost­writer and was hired to write accounts of Ayahuas­ca-inspired mys­ti­cal visions. A friend jok­ing­ly labeled me the rab­bi whis­per­er,” a motif that made its way into The Beau­ti­ful Pos­si­ble.

Ser­mons — emp­ty, flawed, inspir­ing, ghost­writ­ten— are excerpt­ed through­out my nov­el. As a life­long spo­radic syn­a­gogue-goer, I’ve heard many vari­eties of ser­mon-speak, and I tend to lis­ten to these oral, pas­toral essays as if I’m at a poet­ry read­ing, imag­in­ing the rab­bi as a poet wear­ing a frayed sweater in a smoky cof­fee­house, shuf­fling a stack of wrin­kled pages. As a poet, I’ve learned that there’s no mean­ing with­out cadence, no art with­out nuance. The rab­bis I know who com­pose the most lyri­cal ser­mons are well versed in Eng­lish and world lit­er­a­ture; a good ser­mo­niz­er knows Shake­speare and Rumi, along with the words of the prophets and the Baal Shem Tov. And a lit­tle Mary Oliv­er, Jack Gilbert, and Louise Gluck won’t hurt either. 

But what is a ser­mon in the first place? A prose poem smeared with a mes­sage? A tex­tu­al analy­sis shaped into a digestible sound-byte? The art of the ser­mon is filled with con­tra­dic­tion; the audi­ence wants some kind of take­away, but with­out nuanced lan­guage words become insuf­fer­ably clob­ber­ing and flat. Yet on the oth­er side, too much sub­tle­ty threat­ens to dis­ap­point the con­gre­gant who doesn’t want to leave the sanc­tu­ary emp­ty-hand­ed. Veer too far in any direc­tion, and you’ve fall­en off the map.

Both poets and cler­gy are in the busi­ness of work­ing with lan­guage to express a deep love of the world in all of its wild and mys­te­ri­ous per­mu­ta­tions. Both need to crack open the human heart in some way, to awak­en the spir­it. Yet poet­ry is invit­ed to dance with silence, with doubt, with uncer­tain­ty and sur­prise. Metaphor­i­cal­ly, the ser­mo­niz­er takes on the per­sona of the rab­ble-rous­ing prophet, while the poet is the prophet’s lit­tle sis­ter, row­ing her flim­sy yel­low kayak across a lake. The prophet gath­ers the tribe, imparts a les­son, feeds the hun­gry; his lit­tle sis­ter tunes into the music of the spheres, catch­ing the cadences of the lived world. But when the prophet ignores his kid sis­ter and under­es­ti­mates the pow­er of her flim­sy kayak, his mes­sage is imperiled.

Through­out The Beau­ti­ful Pos­si­ble, I weave in quotes by Hes­chel, Tagore, Rumi, and Dick­in­son that invite read­ers to expe­ri­ence the pos­si­bil­i­ties of poet­ic lan­guage. The char­ac­ter of Wal­ter stakes his claim in the poet­ic, the between, the uncer­tain. Ros­alie and Sol are drawn to his sen­si­bil­i­ty, and poet­ry has the last word, as I believe it ought to. In the words of Grace Paley, mas­ter kayak­er of the lived world: I’m not full of prayers. I’m full of language.”

Amy Got­tliebs fic­tion and poet­ry have been pub­lished in many lit­er­ary jour­nals and antholo­gies. She has received a Lit­er­ary Fel­low­ship and Res­i­den­cy from the Bronx Coun­cil on the Arts, and an Arts Fel­low­ship from the Drisha Insti­tute for Jew­ish Edu­ca­tion. She lives in New York City.

Relat­ed Content:

Amy Got­tlieb is the author of the nov­el The Beau­ti­ful Pos­si­ble, which was a final­ist for the Edward Lewis Wal­lant Award, Harold Rib­alow Prize, and a Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award. Her poet­ry has appeared in On Being, Ilan­ot Review, One (Jacar Press), SWWIM, Blooms­bury Anthol­o­gy of Con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish Amer­i­can Poet­ry, and else­where. She lives in the Bronx.