Another Desert:Jewish Poetry of New Mexico

Another Desert: The Jewish Poetry of New Mexico Edited by Joan Logghe and Miriam Sagan.

Sherman Asher Publishing, P.O. Box 2853, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1999. 174 pages, $15, paper. ISBN 0-9644196-9-6

*****Many visitors have commented how much the desert of New Mexico resembles the desert of the Holy Land. Perhaps it's just that all deserts resemble one another. From the window of a plane descending into Madrid, the sandy earth, its sparse and scrubby plants, its exposed aridity (for the desert hides nothing–whether junked cars or scraps of paper or the crumbling facade of a house) could be Jerusalem or Albuquerque. Yet perhaps this very quality of resemblance draws a population, scattered, dispersed, into a new landscape that both reconfigures and remembers the ancestral desert.
*****This collection of poems by Jewish poets in New Mexico is preoccupied with exploring and reclaiming Jewish identity and heritage in the "other desert" of New Mexico. Most of the twenty-eight poets in this collection are recent transplants from other areas of the United States, particularly the East Coast. The editors have organized the book effectively into several sections--"Diaspora" ""Holy Days & Blessings" "Ancestors" "Kaddish" and "Conversos." While the first section is called "Diaspora," most of the poets came to New Mexico out of a pioneering desire, or a desire to assimiliate, which Natalie Goldberg captures in "I Tried to Marry America." Miriam Sagan's "Wailing Wall" casts a look back at the lost Holy Land and other poets recount the journey as in Yehudis Fishman's "Shifting Bones."
*****In the new desert, the transplants soon find themselves reviving ancient traditions and creating a new sense of community. The sections "Holy Days & Blessings," "Ancestors," and "Kaddish" recount this process. Sometimes, the rituals are revived with a sense of wry humor and self-consciousness: in Joan Logghe's "Taslich at Embudo Crossing" three women cast pieces of bread into the Rio Grande. 'We scour crannies for our crumbs,throw/Sin into forgiving current." In other poems, the confrontation is more harrowing, as when Carol Moldaw writes: "I took envy by its anorexic waist/and threw it into the river and watched it drown."
*****The title of "Ancestors" is self-explanatory, but, the poems vary from the familial subject, as in Gene Frumkin's "Uncle Hymie," to archetypal lineage, as in Carol Moldaw's "Rebi Shmerl and the Water Spirit." We find this same variation in "Kaddish" from the near and familiar loss of Phyllis Hotch mourning her daughter in "Kaddish for Debbi 1951-1997" to the lament of Judyth Hill for the children who perished in the Holocaust in "Star Children."
*****"Conversos" includes poems, many of them bilingual, by those Jews who came to the New World with the conquistadors. Forced to convert in Catholic Spain, these people settled in Northern New Mexico, where they continued their traditions, often unaware, even among themselves, that their family rituals continued from the Jewish tradition. This section of the book is deepy interesting, and the work of Isabelle Medine Sandoval is a discovery in its wedding of Spanish, English, and Yiddish.
*****The organization of the book is particularly effective as it follows the movement from dispersal to homecoming, from the desire to assimilate to a new appreciation of identity and tradition.