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With his hard peaked blue cap and golden beard, Yehoshua November looks like he’s dressed as Van Gogh’s Postman for Purim.
Purim is the Jewish carnival holiday that commemorates the saving of the Jews of Persia (Iran) by Queen Esther from the death decree of King Ahasuerus’s evil advisor, Haman. On this day, Jews don costumes and become other people, even non-Jews. Maybe that’s how freedom should be memorialized, as the unburdening of the caged self in the act of becoming another.
In keeping with the anarchy of Jewish history, what began in Persia has led me to the house of a Hasidic poet in Teaneck, New Jersey. I come wearing my late brother’s knitted black skullcap on my head. My accidental costume. Simply by wanting not to offend my host, I enter his house dressed as an Orthodox Jew.
At the long table in the kitchen November sits with his family, with a bottle of whiskey that keeps the high excitement level at the table from flagging. Purim, a rare Bacchanalian Jewish holiday, is blessed by the Talmud with the words: A person is obligated to drink on Purim until he does not know the difference between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordechai” (Mordechai, one of the story’s heroes, adopted Queen Esther as his daughter when she was little).
Seeing November’s father with long Hasidic sidecurls taped to his head makes me happy the way a Marx Brothers movie makes me happy. The release of sly, demented, convention-shattering energy. A father dressed as his son.
The poet, rocking back and forth in ecstasy, is reeling off a string of mystical Purim stories that lose me. They are convoluted but appreciated for the sheer joy with which they are told. By comparison, his poems are straightforward and strike with pure light to any open heart.
Here are the opening stanzas of his poem, “Tangerine,” dedicated to his grandmother, from his book, God’s Optimism:
- I know you only as a small boy knows an old woman
peeling a tangerine for his small mouth
and from the inscription in the Yevtushenko book
you gave my father when he was a boy:
May you never be afraid of your Russian sensitivity.
But as I read your notebooks
I see we share the same fear of science,
and a distrust of all the gifts we have not earned.
In between his stories, blizzards of children crash into November’s lap, wanting their father to break free from his Purim orbit and be their father again. The poet asks me to bless his father, and turning to him, without a drop of whiskey in my belly, and disguised as a bearer of blessings, I do.