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“The Kotzker Rebbe–”

*

Devotion to God.

Devotion to Art.

Immersion.

Withdrawal.

*

Four paths: Into the world. Apart from the world. Through the world. Beyond the world.

*

I’ve heard of him: the Kotzker Rebbe. Haven’t I heard at least one of his teachings from any of a million rabbis from whom I’ve learned?

Rebbe: that marks him as a Hasidic Jew. One of the mystics, healers, ecstatics. Eastern Europe, 19th Century. A vanished—exterminated—world. But where does he stand in the line of Hasidic Rebbes? And what are his teachings?

*

I meet him here, the same place where I meet St. Francis, in his Assisi eremitaggio; and Brother Michael, or is it Brother George, recovered heroin addict, at St. Peter’s Abbey, now a writer’s colony, in Saskatchewan; and Beato Angelico and Christ and monks “closed … off / in the tiny bare-bones / cells of San Marco,” a convent in Florence, Italy. Dickinson—Emily—is here, too.

*

Where am I am? Where have I taken you? Here we are. On pages seventeen to thirty-two. We’re in a poem, “Eremitaggio,” a poem in My Lookalike at the Krishna Temple, Jacqueline Osherow’s new book.

*

Devotion to God.

Devotion to Art.

Immersion.

Withdrawal.

 *

Is a poem: withdrawal from the world? Immersion in it? Does God have anything to do with this? Does art? Why these historical figures–monks and a rebbe and a couple of visionary artists?

*

Osherow stumbled upon the story of the Kotzker Rebbe, a “beloved, revered” rabbi who “spent his last twenty years in isolation,” as a child. Her response at the time?

… disbelief

the practice so alien,
unthinkable. I couldn’t
bear the thought
of missing anything

But, decades later, she’s still thinking about him, wondering why, why twenty years in isolation?

… Waiting
for insight, some say,
mentally ill, some say,
but judging from his
quotations—as an ape
mimics a human
so an old man mimics
himself—he was trying
to avoid self-imitation.

Self-imitation: what’s so bad about that, especially if the “self” one is imitating has lived an exemplary life, devoted to God, devoted to art? This is Osherow’s eighth book of poems. Maybe she’s seeing a little of herself in the Rebbe? Self-imitation: would it be a betrayal of life itself, ever changing, a failure to meet each new moment with the fullness of one’s being—one’s devotion, one’s curiosity, one’s imagination, one’s talent—as it exists, that gift, that gift from God, in the moment?

*

Living in seclusion from 1839 to 1859, the Kotzker Rebbe had, according to legend, other things to teach.

He also believed


that the bulk
of our exertions

sever us from our
authentic selves.

*

What does it take to live as one’s authentic self, created in the image of the Divine? “Complete attention,” which might have been, as Osherow wonders later in the poem, the Kotzker Rebbe’s motivation for his withdrawal from the world.

 Maybe the same was true for those monks:

who closed themselves off
in the tiny bare-bones
cells of San Marco,
each one illumined
with an installment
from the life of Christ
by the aptly nicknamed
Beato Angelico?

Fra Angelico’s frescoes: each monk completely concentrated on art, on the Divine, the line between them—art and God—dissolved.

Of course, as Osherow knows, in his solitude:

The Kotzker Rebbe
fixed his eyes
on nothing eyes
can see, San Marco’s
frescoes …

in the category best
translated as idols.

*

Her love of Renaissance art, one of many wonders of the world Osherow refuses to give up for a life of solitude, is equaled by her love of Dickinson.

… What
could I do, already
in her thrall at
fifteen, but
tearfully pledge
that if this
was what it
took, I too
would shut
myself inside
my room?

What it took: to master her art, must she withdraw from the world in order to devote herself entirely to it? She made her decision long ago.

Too late for me
to shut away
the trappings of
this world.

Still, the monks and the Kotzker Rebbe on her mind, she’s not finished trying to understand their choices, maybe even wondering what if. (See “The Road Not Taken”.)

… perhaps,
as I’m beginning
to suspect, I’ve
been missing
something
all these years
and the cloister
does have
genuine appeal—
if nothing else,
as hedge against
the long-term
wear and tear
of round-the-
clock exposure
to indignities
of every sort,
the exacting
fallout of
humiliation.

And for other evidence of the benefits, the power of a life in isolation, there’s Brother Gregory/Michael, for whom the monastery was the antidote for heroin, and Dickinson’s 1,775 “lyric / bull’s-eyes in tiny / hand-sewn leaflets / beneath a bed”.

*

Another teaching:

But the Kotzker Rebbe
not all that is thought
need be said burned
every single one not all
that is said need be written
of what legend claims
were many, many
manuscripts
not all that is written
need be published
his so-called quotations
not all that is published
need be read mere hearsay
as far as I can tell.

*

Mere hearsay, okay. Still, she has written and published all these other poems (not all … need be written; not all … need be published), and I am reading (not all … need be read) and, honestly, being read by one of them: my longing to immerse, withdraw; my weak devotion to art, to God.

*

In the end, Osherow does begin to withdraw. But not as an act of will to strengthen her devotions. Her withdrawal is organic, the natural result of aging, her perspective changing, her memory of details weakening.

… retreat
from what for lack
of better words
I call the world []


… by which
I mean my own
eclectic haul
of indispensable
indulgences,
daily growing
flimsier and flimsier
and each of which,
as my imagined
vantage widens,
loses its formidable
appeal, and even, wider
still, its singularity,
disappearing

*

If Soul were a place, then the name alone, Kotzker Rebbe (first line of the poem), would transport me there, or, at the very  least, point me in its direction, a place that is at once at home in one of the chambers of my heart and distant as a star, a place where devotion to God, devotion to Art, immersion and withdrawal meet. If you are looking for me, meet me there, meet me here, in “Eremitaggio.”

image: Fra Angelico, Annunciation, 1443-5, monk’s cell, San Marco Monastery, Florence, public domain


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Richard Chess

Richard Chess is the author of four books of poetry, Love Nailed to the Doorpost (University of Tampa Press 2017), <1>Tekiah, Chair in the Desert, and Third Temple. His work has been included in Century of American Jewish Poetry, Bearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of IMAGE, and Best Spiritual Writing 2005. He is the Roy Carroll Professor of Honors Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He is also the director of UNC Asheville’s Center for Jewish Studies. Find more at www.richardchess.com.

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