Maine’s former poet laureate Stuart Kestenbaum has long found inspiration in the liturgy and traditions of his Jewish faith.
Readers of his poetry won’t find literal references to Jewish scripture in his poems but the religious practices of his faith help Kestenbaum seek out “a sense of the holy every day” and write about it.
Kestenbaum, 70, of Deer Isle will read a selection of his poems and discuss how Judaism influenced them at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Wells Conference Center at the University of Maine.
The poet grew up a Jewish family in Maplewood, New Jersey, in a Conservative synagogue. As a child, he attended services and went to Hebrew school. He celebrated his bar mitzvah when he was 13.
Kestenbaum attended synagogues in Portland after moving to Maine in 1974 and joined Beth El, Bangor’s Reform congregation, when he moved to Deer Isle in 1988.
His faith’s influence on his writing began nearly four decades ago.
“I think in the mid-1980s, I began to write in a style that was more open,” he said recently. “I began reaching more deeply into the topics I was writing about and became freer with language.”
But it was when Kestenbaum’s brother, Howard Kestenbaum, died on Sept. 11, 2001, in the attack on the Twin Towers the poet found comfort in the Jewish mourning rituals and prayers, and his faith began having a more direct influence on his work.
A number of poems that included prayer in the titles emerged from Kestenbaum’s grief, including “Prayer for the Dead.”
“…I dreamed my brother was alive again and possessing the beauty of youth, aware that he would be leaving again shortly and that is the lesson of the snow falling and of the seeds of death that are in everything that is born…”
Another poem, “Prayer in the Strip Mall, Bangor, Maine,” is about a time when Kestenbaum went to a large book sale at the Broadway Shopping Center. As he was leaving a man who was entering the store said, “I love you,” while facing the poet.
“ … he turns and says ‘I love you,’ not to me but calling back to his
friend who is departing, only he’s said it looking at me, closest
to me, which is unintended love, random love, love that should be spread throughout the world, shouted in our ears for free.”
In his writing, Kestenbaum said, he strives to bring some quality of the liturgy out in the poems. For the past two years, he’s participated in an online Torah study with Beth El Rabbi Darah Lerner.
“Looking at some of the texts, you see that they are beautiful,” he said. “But with others, you just scratch your head and wonder, why did they write that there? I try to use the texts as writing prompts.”
Kestenbaum served as Maine’s poet laureate from 2016 to 2020. He also was the director of the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts from 1988 until 2015. The current poet laureate is Julia Bouwsma.
The Feb. 8 event is sponsored by the university’s Judaic Studies program, an interdisciplinary minor, and the Jewish Community Endowment Association.
Admission to Kestenbaum’s reading is free and open to the public. The university’s COVID precautions for visitors are in effect.
To attend the Kestenbaum event remotely, email Judaic Studies coordinator Derek Michaud at firstname.lastname@example.org for a Zoom link.