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Jewish World Review Sept. 17, 1999 / 27 Tishrei, 5760

Robert Leiter

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Haikus For Jews

BASHO, THE GREAT MASTER of the Japanese haiku, a brief rarified form of poetry, once said that "There is no subject whatever that is not fit" for the genre. Still, what he would make of David Bader's collection of Haikus for Jews, recently published by Harmony Books, is anybody's guess.

Basho's works adhere to a severe formal elegance: three unrhymed lines of five, seven and five syllables respectively, totaling 17 syllables.

The preface to Bader's book picks up on this severity and does a deadpan imitation of high-art literary criticism. "Of all the many forms of Jewish-Japanese poetry, the Jewish haiku is perhaps the most sublimely beautiful. Consisting of just 17 syllables, this little-known style of verse combines the simplicity and elegance of Asian art with the irritability and impatience of Jewish kvetching. Its brief, carefully-wrought lines are designed to produce in the reader a 'haiku moment' - a sudden, intense realization, such as, 'so, that's it?' "

For example:

"Looking for pink buds
to prune back, the mohel tends
his flowering garden"

"Is one Nobel Prize
so much to ask from a child
after all I've done?"

According to Bader, the idea for Haikus for Jews came to him shortly after his first book, How to be an Extremely Reform Jew, was published several years ago.


"At the time, I kept reading about how Buddhism was influencing Judaism, about all these Jews making pilgrimages to Tibet. So I thought of going for something Zen-like and spiritual in that sense, but suited for a Jewish, urban, neurotic temperament

"Well, there's something called a Zen koan - those are the almost senseless phrases like 'What is the sound of one hand clapping?' So I first came up with something along the lines of Koans for Cohens, but I didn't think anybody would know what a koan was. Sonnets for Jews didn't rhyme, but the haiku thing did. And I liked the idea that you were supposed to have an enlightenment moment, this epiphany, when you read them. But in these haiku moments the scene wouldn't be through an old frog pond, as in Basho, but through gefilte fish."

Bader said he wanted the poems to be funny but also for them to mimic great haiku poets - "real haikus, but silly." He said that his favorites in the collection are those that have a Japanese feel to them - they mention cherry blossoms, insects or flowers - but inject a sort of borsht belt twist.

"At a minimum, I hope people will laugh," the writer said, "and that some of them might even seem perceptive."

"Heimlich. Is that a
Jewish name? I wonder, as
a diner turns

Robert Leiter is Literary Editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent.


©1999, Robert Leiter