The Deronda Review: Traversing new frontiers in Jewish poetry
Sasson catches up with Esther Cameron, the editor-in-chief of The Deronda Review journal for poetry and thought, with a decidedly Jewish twist.
What is the Deronda Review and how did it get its name?
The Deronda Review is a literary magazine, mainly poetry though we print some prose (most recently an excerpt from Ben Ackerman’s novel Open When You Are). It’s basically and online magazine now though we print a few copies for libraries and to sell (Pomerantz Bookstore in Jerusalem sells them). Our motto is “Art for Awareness’ Sake.”
The magazine is named for Daniel Deronda, the last novel of the great Victorian writer George Eliot. She (real name Marian Evans) was not Jewish, but her last novel is about a man who discovers he is Jewish, becomes a baal teshuvah and goes to Eretz Israel. Eliot was one of the most insightful Victorian writers, and the fact that she made her final hero turn toward Judaism is no coincidence. I have a short essay about it on our website, here.
In the West Daniel Deronda has been a controversial book – inevitably there have been those who weren’t one hundred percent thrilled with Judaism crashing the party of Western literature, so to speak. But it’s also been very influential. It gave encouragement to some of the early Zionists, perhaps even some of the impetus for the Balfour Declaration.
The Deronda Review was originally titled The Neovictorian/Cochlea (two titles I couldn’t decide between back in 1996 when I started the magazine). “Cochlea” is the inner ear, and stands for the kind of inner listening that I wanted the poetry in the magazine to represent. “Neovictorian” was a tribute to a period when Western literature had some moral values and sense of responsibility. I was living in the United States at the time; after living in Israel through the ’80’s, I had left in 1990 and spent twenty-three years outside the country, with brief visits back.
One of those visits was right in the middle of the Second Lebanon War, in July 2006. That was when the name Deronda Review suggested itself to me as standing for the hope of a universal culture that would include a recognition of Judaism. At that time Mindy Aber Barad came on board as co-editor.
So you’re the founder of the magazine and still the chief editor?
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Well, as you’ve probably gathered, I started out as a student of Western literature, to which I was quite deeply committed. For all the questionable aspects of that tradition, it appeared to me as a quest for meaning and truth, there’s that thread in it. But at a certain point it became clear to me that Western literature was on its last legs.
Just a couple of weeks ago, in a writers’ workshop the workshop leader stated that the most important poem of the 20th century was T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” – that says it all. I was looking for some spring of living water in the wasteland, and the quest led me to Paul Celan, the last great poet of the Western tradition who “happened” also to be a Jew, a Holocaust survivor.
After awhile I realized that although he himself was nonobservant, the source of light in his work was – guess what – Yahadut! It was another junction, you see, a little like the junction represented by Daniel Deronda. So then I realized that poetry was not going to survive in any meaningful way unless it could somehow reconnect with Torah. So that’s why I’m here. I read as much as I can of Rav Kook; he had this dream of a reconciliation between Torah and universal culture, on Torah terms.
What is the Deronda Review aiming to do / what’s it’s goal / mission / purpose?
On the one hand I guess we’re trying to be a bridge. To the best of my knowledge The Deronda Review is the only literary magazine that is both Orthodox Jewish and universal. In the current issue about half the contributors are Jewish, but the proportion has often been lower. We publish poems that we feel have something to offer and that don’t contradict the Torah and its values.
On the other hand, within the Jewish literary world, to my knowledge we are the only English language poetry magazine that locates itself, physically and spiritually, across the Green Line, with all that implies — we believe that to defend the land of Israel is to defend universal values. Both Mindy and I are, technically, settlers (Mindy lives in Efrat, I live in Maale Adumim), and we’ve published a number of things from the hills of Judea and Samaria, we’ve published poems by people who were murdered in terrorist attacks and those who miss them.
How much latitude do you have in accepting submissions from outside the camp, as it were?
That’s sometimes been a complicated issue. Basically, our policy is that we will print poems from people who don’t share our views (with exceptions for extreme cases), as long as this particular poem isn’t problematic from the standpoint of Torah or of loyalty to Eretz Israel. We want very much to hold on to what we have in common even with people from whom we are divided on some pretty vital issues.
Name drop! Who has contributed to it?
Name-dropping for us isn’t very meaningful since we are not exactly mainstream (well, we are, in my opinion, but not what is officially considered mainstream). But among our repeat contributors (besides Mindy and me, of course!) have been Yakov Azriel, Judy Belsky, Eric Chevlen, Courtney Druz, Ruth Fogelman, and on the Western side Constance Rowell Mastores, Cynthia Weber Nankee, Susan Oleferuk, and the late Jack Lovejoy.
What’s been your favorite poem that appeared on it, and why?
I’m tempted to take the Fifth. There has been so much wonderful stuff. But just about everything we publish by Belsky and Azriel is great – as Mindy puts it they’re the “royalty” of Israeli English poets.
On the Western side, two poems came to my mind in answer to that question. One is “Song” by Constance Rowell Mastores. Actually that appeared in the magazine when it was still The Neovictorian/Cochlea. You can see in the file at this address if you search on “The astronomer.” It’s a poem in which every word is under tension, it’s like a string stretched between the opposite ends of the universe, it creates a sense of awe.
And the other is “Reeds of Cane,” by Jack Lovejoy. That didn’t actually appear in the magazine itself but is posted on our website, here. It’s a long poem in blank verse about the fate of one human being caught in the currents of history. The verse is extremely smooth, in contrast to the turbulent events that are related. It’s a piece of incredible craftsmanship and at the same time an expression of profound compassion. Lovejoy was really a continuer of the Western tradition at its best.
All that said, I would like to say that with all the amazing poems we get every issue, my hope is that each issue is just a little more than the sum of its parts. Each time, after the decisions on which poems to publish have been made, comes the task of arranging the poems so that they resonate with one another and reinforce one another and give the sense of a conversation, a conversation from depth to depth.
I think I’m trying to recapture something I glimpsed in the ’60’s in Berkeley, when there was so much ferment going on, and a lot of people were writing poems to sort it out for themselves, and sharing them with each other. That sense of working on a common world, is something no one poem can express. I hope it’s felt in the magazine, every now and then.
When I started reading about Kabbala and encountered the term “olam ha-tohu” (world of chaos), I thought of Western literature. In olam ha-tohu the sefirot are very strong, but they’re not integrated into an order – each one is for itself. In olam ha-tikkun – the world of rectification – there is this order in which everything has its place. I’d like to think The Deronda Review is moving literature just a bit in the direction of the olam hatikkun.
How can other Jewish poets contribute to it?
We’re an annual and have just published an issue, which means it will be a while before we settle down to reading for another. First of all, we’d like potential contributors to read the magazine – the current issue, and maybe look at the past issues in the archives too. That will tell them what we are looking for better than we can say it in a few words.
If someone has a longer poem or prose work that wouldn’t fit into the magazine itself, or a poem on some recent event, we would consider it for the columns on the homepage, where we post things from time to time. Our addresses are derondareview at gee mail and maber4kids at ya hoo.
What are the plans for the future?
We’re planning a reading for the issue on April 24 iy”h at the OU center in Jerusalem, combined with a show of paintings by Judy Belsky. We’ll announce it on the website – stay tuned!
And our next theme will be “Utopia”!
Any last words about Jewish poetry / poets, and The Deronda Review?
I would urge Jewish poets to study the Western classics, if only for the craftsmanship. And also for a kind of intensity that the best Western poets have, perhaps because their language is all they have. They aren’t anchored anywhere, they have only the words of some language which is not lashon hakodesh, which is just another human language, and the meaning they can breathe into them.
Paul Celan spoke of poetry as a way of “orientation.” And I think this has something to give to us, even here and now, or precisely here and now, where so much is shifting. In any event, since there is more and more interest in literary writing in the Orthodox world, I think it’s important to sift that tradition, to see what we can take from it and what we can’t, and if possible to avoid being guided too much by the Western literature of the present, because that really is a system whose energy has dissipated.
I especially recommend the practice of writing sonnets. (Yakov Azriel has wonderful sonnets on Biblical subjects, a number of which we are proud to have published.) There’s something about that form that lends itself to the expression of dignity. A fair number of Hebrew poets have used it; in Hebrew it’s sometimes referred to as shir zahav (song of gold) because the gematria of zahav (gold) is 14, like the lines in a sonnet.
If I may dare to point it out, the digits of 365 and 248 also each add to 14. The tselem elokim has something to do with form. There are secrets even in secular reality. Perhaps someday what we can salvage of secular literature will be read as a kind of midrash on the book of Esther, where everything is seemingly secular but, of course, not really!
Anything else you’d like to add?
Since you ask, I can’t resist mentioning one more document, a kind of curriculum for an imaginary poetic academy which is posted here. I’d like to think that poets who would like to grow and or maybe add one or two strings to their harps would find it food for thought.
You can find The Deronda Review website HERE.