Jake Marmer is a Jewish poet, performer and educator who immigrated from Ukraine at 15 and lived for many years in New York — a city he still calls home. Nevertheless, he now lives in the Bay Area and dean of Jewish Studies at Kehillah Jewish High School in Palo Alto. He writes for the Forward, is the poetry critic for Tablet magazine and is a co-founder of North America’s first Jewish poetry retreat at the KlezKanada festival.
Marmer’s poetry encompasses themes of religious philosophy, music, identity, the workplace, parenting and love. His second book of poetry, “The Neighbor Out of Sound,” was published in October and underscores pride in Jewish identity and the human experience. Marmer will read at a book launch party at Adobe Books in San Francisco on Nov. 15.
His title is derived from a poem by Emily Dickinson, and the book opens with three quotes, from Dickinson, the American poet Jerome Rothenberg and the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. Writing for the Jewish Book Council, Lucy Biederman described Marmer’s work as “channeling Dickinson’s poetics and Derridean philosophy without losing his sense of humor.”
Marmer sets up the first section with an explanation of the niggun, a traditional Hasidic chant, followed by seven “niggun” poems. The other contents take a variety of forms: long, very short, prose poems, prayers, even some described as sermons. While steeped in religious references, with titles such as “Call and Responsa” and “4 Cups Midrash,” the evocative language is recognizable as that of contemporary secular poetry.
In his poem “The Law of Returning Lost Objects,” he manipulates language and philosophy, departing from the question of when an object is lost and reflecting: “if you fall upon scattered money it is yours/ if you fall upon a scattered thought it is now your thought/ scattered memory and the lost image become your possession.”
In “Everywhere,” he poses philosophical questions to his very young son. He asks, “but what is god? does it do anything?” The 3-year-old’s “verdict” is deceptively simple: “says hi says hi to everything.”
As an immigrant, Marmer also explores a divided sense of national identity, starting with a brief, poignant description of how he first learned of his Jewish origins at age 8, when, while living in the former Soviet Union, he came home from singing a schoolyard song containing the word “yid.” His father tells him it’s not a nice word. “Also: we’re Jews,” he announces. Marmer writes that it wasn’t until he was a teen in America that, “as I started piecing together the language of Jewish praxis and its abandonment, Yiddishkeit became alive to me as a poetics.”