Poets Are Purim Jews: On Contemporary Poetry’s Inexplicable Obsession with the Ordinary 

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


Yehoshua November

Contemporary Poets
Yehoshua November

Has there ever been a group of agnostics so intent
upon meaning
in every car door shutting
in the cold, each turn
of a leaf as it descends.
Do they believe
more than us, dozing off
in the back of the synagogue?[1]

One might argue that contemporary poetry seldom mentions the Divine because its practitioners are largely secular. However, something more profound appears to be at play when one considers contemporary poetry’s tendency to jettison the exalted or overtly religious moment and, instead, insist on profundity and wondrousness in ordinary experiences, sometimes even restoring dignity to our most debased moments. Marina Tsvetaeva famously said, “All poets are Jews.”[2] I would like to suggest that many poets, Jewish and non, might be described as Purim Jews.

Despite the current global precarity, we find ourselves in the Hebrew month of Adar. Historically, Adar is a period of quintessential Jewish joy, marking the anniversary of the Jewish people’s salvation from potential erasure at the hands of Haman, King Ahashverosh’s highest-ranking advisor during the period of the Babylonian exile from Jerusalem―a short span in Jewish history wedged between the First and Second Temple eras. Salvation in the Purim story came, in large part, thanks to Esther, a young woman who concealed her Jewish identity to become Ahashverosh’s unwilling wife, the Queen of Persia. As recorded in the Book of Esther and celebrated on the holiday of Purim each Adar, after a string of seeming coincidences propelled her into a position of royalty, Esther stepped forward, revealed her Jewish identity, and thwarted Haman’s plan to annihilate the Jewish people.

“When Adar enters, we increase in joy” (Ta’anit 29a) is a Talmudic phrase one finds on bumper stickers in Jewish enclaves in Brooklyn throughout this month; it is what one hears in song lyrics blaring from the open windows of minivans in Williamsburg. The joy of Purim is limitless: Jewish tradition instructs celebrants to drink wine until they cannot tell the difference between Mordekhai, a Purim hero, and Haman, the villain (Megillah 7b). The exact reason for this memorable custom could serve as the subject of another essay.

But what makes Purim the most joyous Jewish holiday, and what can the holiday tell us about joy versus trauma in the Jewish literary tradition?

Interestingly, as the Lubavitcher Rebbe (R. Menahem Mendel Schneerson of blessed memory) points out, several anomalies surround the holiday and its central text, the Book of Esther (or in Hebrew, Megillat Esther).[3] The last work included in the sacred canon, Megillat Esther is the only text of the 24 Holy Writings that neglects to mention God’s name―a strange dynamic considering that, traditionally, Jews sprinkle “God willing” and “Thank God” into every casual conversation. Furthermore, Purim is the only festival whose name does not derive from a Hebrew word. “Purim” is a word in Farsi, a diasporic language Jews spoke during the Babylonian exile. The word itself, Purim, means “lots,” recalling the lottery Haman drew to determine the ideal day to wipe out the Jewish people (Esther 9:26).

Calling a holiday Purim is, thus, akin to calling a holiday “the Final Solution.” The names of all other holidays, by contrast, recall Jewish salvation via open miracles. Similarly, the name of the Purim hero, Esther, is rooted in the word “concealment.” As the Talmud states (Hullin 139b), centuries before her birth, Esther and the Purim story were hinted at in a biblical verse in Deuteronomy (31:18) which reads, “I will surely hide my face on that day” (in the original Hebrew: anokhi haster astir panai ba-yom ha-hu). This is a foretelling of Divine concealment in a period of exile. Put together, these details reflect a time when the Divine hand remained hidden, and it appeared the Jewish people would fade away, God forbid.

Ultimately, it was the resolve to hold fast to Jewish identity that turned the tide and led to salvation in the Purim saga. On a deeper level the mystics teach that, in the Purim story, the Jewish people called the world’s bluff, insisting that the Divine resides beneath the skin of the ordinary or non-miraculous moment, even when appearances suggest otherwise.[4] Purim teaches that what seems random and disordered—a cosmic lottery—is really rigged with Divine intentionality or acute Divine Providence.[5] Unlike Passover’s ten plagues and splitting of the sea, open miracles and Divine revelation do not characterize the Purim story, which theoretically could be chalked up to a series of coincidences. A Purim Jew knows otherwise.

Indeed, Purim tells us that hidden Divinity resides in all things, and it is a Jew’s―or humanity’s―job to unearth it. Hence, as Hasidic teachings point out, the Book of Esther is called the scroll or megillah of Esther. While “Esther” means hidden, the word megillah stems from the word gilu’i, meaning revelation.[6] The ethos of Purim is, thus, to reveal what is concealed, to unearth the supernatural buried within the natural. Hence the custom to wear masks on Purim, reminding us that the world masks its underlying Divine unity.

As noted, Esther and the Purim story are alluded to in the verse in Deuteronomy where God proclaims, “I will hide my face on that day.” A Hasidic reading of this verse emphasizes the use of the pronoun “I.” Here, according to Hasidic teachings, “I” hints that the most profound Divinity―the Divine “I” or Essence, Divinity beyond names, Ineffable Divinity captured only by a pronoun―is accessible precisely where God is hidden.[7] Surprisingly and perhaps fittingly, the word “I,” which connotes God’s Essence in this verse, is Anokhi. As Hasidut underscores, though the Humash is written in the holy tongue of Hebrew, the word Anokhi is ancient Egyptian and not Hebrew―another indication that, in a sense, the Divine Essence, the Divine I, is accessed “outside” the parameters of overt holiness.[8]

Ultimately, the Purim story serves as a microcosm of creation overall. Not by coincidence, the Hebrew word for world, olam, derives from the word he’elem, meaning Divine concealment. As Lurianic Kabbalah suggests, to make space for the finite world, God hid pre-creation’s Divine light (Or Ein Sof) via a contraction (a Tzimtzum).[9] This is so that humanity might then locate and draw the Divine into the empty space where the flawed and mundane human drama plays out. As the Midrash states―and Hasidut elaborates―this cosmic plan is called a dirah ba-tahtonim―the project of making a home for the Divine in the lower realm (Tanya 36). The metaphor of home―the place where one is free to be one’s true self―specifically in the lowest realm, again suggests the deepest Divinity is found not in the spiritual Heavens, or in transcendent religious moments, or even in open miracles―but in the seemingly quotidian experience.[10]

To infuse light into a lackluster moment―moreover, to restore dignity to a debased moment―is to fulfill the world’s purpose, which, naturally, provides profound joy: “There is no happiness like the resolution of doubts.”[11] And surely, the greatest doubt concerns whether our small daily lives hold significance.

I would argue that perhaps poets―Jewish and non–intuit at least a secular iteration of this Hasidic/Midrashic teaching. As noted, poets are Purim Jews. Their tendency not to mention the Divine or the exalted moment, but to insist on underlying meaning and wonder in the mundane, appears to go beyond agnosticism. I think, often, poetry moves us so deeply―it provides incomparable joy―because, like the weekday holiday of Purim, it reminds us that ordinary moments are suffused with wondrousness and purpose.

Indeed, two of my favorite poems reflect the Purim and “home in the lower realm” theology. And although the authors of both poems, Marie Howe and Sharon Olds, are not Jewish, they often write out of biblically infused upbringings. Of course, like many former religious practitioners, sadly, they experienced their share of youthful trauma in their faith-based childhood homes. Because the poems are so well known, I will just point to a few specific moments.

In Marie Howe’s “What the Living Do,”[12] initially, the speaker finds herself exasperated by life’s mundane tasks and items including Drano, a clogged sink with “crusty dishes [that] have piled up,” dropped grocery bags, a hair brush…

Ultimately, however, the poem pivots and insists on profundity precisely within this mundane framework―not via transcendence or rising beyond the body but from within the ordinary. As Howe notes, in some of contemporary poetry’s more famous lines: “But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass, / say, the window of the corner video store, and I’m gripped by a cherishing so deep // for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I’m speechless…”

Like most contemporary poems, Howe’s does not unfold in a place of worship, does not express a longing for the beyond, and, like the Purim story, does not mention God. Its setting: home, the video store, the parking lot. Yet, a sense of the sacred located precisely in the mundane pervades the poem. In fact, though it does not announce itself or stand out in the way a miracle or open Divine revelation might, this sacredness proves all the more striking because its address is a human one, this world, the lived-in environment. A person of faith might call this the presence of God; one with a secular background might call it humanistic; and both might refer to the same thing. To be reminded that our small passing moments hold acute meaning—and to feel gratitude for this—brings great joy.

In describing the home in the “lowest realm” theology, the Alter Rebbe, founder of Chabad Hasidism, notes that God wanted a home in the absolute lowest realm―in a realm relative to which there is nothing lower (Tanya 36). That is to say, the Divine desires to dwell not merely in our mundane lives but in our lowest moments. In spiritual life, this means holding onto faith through excruciating circumstances, bringing light into darkness. Sharon Olds’s poem “I Go Back to May 1937”[13] offers at least a secular iteration of this theology. The poem’s speaker heartbreakingly chronicles her young parents’ pre-marriage innocence and then describes how her parents’ marriage turns sour and abusive in ways the naïve couple never could have envisioned. At the end of the poem, the speaker imagines going back in time to relay a warning to her mother and father before they wed. Despite the pain that will ensue from her parents’ union, she ultimately tells her father and mother, “Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.”

These last lines appear to serve as a kind of Ars Poetica, suggesting that to “tell about it,” as Olds puts it, to render the story unflinchingly in all its lower-realm details, is often poetry’s point. And further, perhaps the poem redeems or transforms the experience in some kind of way. Perhaps it asserts there is meaning and light―even here. Hasidut often posits that to transform―especially to transform one extreme to its opposite, such as unholy to holy, darkness to light, debased to ennobling―means to reach into and draw upon a Divine space beyond creation where all categories remain fluid and equal.[14] That is to say, to transform means to touch―and pull down into the world, to make a home for, as it were―the Divine Essence that transcends all definitions.[15] Surely, there can be no greater or more difficult form of joy.

[1] Yehoshua November, “Contemporary Poets,” Virginia Quarterly Review 91, no. 2 (Spring 2016): 151.

[2] Marina Tsvetaeva, “Poem of the End” (1924), available at

[3] See Likutei Sihot 6, at 189-191 (addressing the anomalies listed in this paragraph).

[4] See ibid., 189-195; Likutei Sihot 1, at 213-217.

[5] R. Menahem Mendel Schneerson, “Al Ken Kar’u La-Yamim Ha-Eleh Purim, Chapter 9,” Sefer Ha-Ma’amarim Melukat al Seder Hodshei Ha-Shanah, Volume 3.

[6] See Likutei Sihot 6 at 191, 195.

[7] See Likutei Sihot 6 at 194; Likutei Sihot 9 at 193-95.

[8] See Likutei Sihot 3 at 892-895.

[9] See, e.g., R. Israel Sarug, Emek Ha-Melekh, Sha’ar Sha’ashu’ei Ha-Melekh 1; R. Hayyim Vital, Etz Hayyim 1:2.

[10] See R. Sholom DovBer Schneersohn, Yom Tov Shel Rosh Hashanah – 5666 at 3-4.

[11] Rema, Torat Ha-Olah 1:6.

[12] Marie Howe, “What the Living Do” (1997), available at

[13] Sharon Olds, “I Go Back to May 1937” (1987), available at

[14] See Likutei Sihot 11, at 74-79. And see Hasidut Mevo’eret Moadim, Volume 2, at 41-42, on all categories as equal relative to the Divine Essence.

[15] See Likutei Sihot 6, at 22-25. And see Hasidut Mevo’eret Moadim, Volume 2, at 87.

Yehoshua November is the author of God’s Optimism (a finalist for the L.A. Times Book Prize), Two Worlds Exist (a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award and the Paterson Poetry Prize), and The Concealment of Endless Light (Orison Books, fall 2024). His work has been featured in The New York Times Magazine, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, The Sun, VQR, and on National Public Radio and Poetry Unbound. November teaches writing at Rutgers University and Touro University.