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November 21, 2019

Erika Dreifus's Playlist for Her Poetry Collection "Birthright"


In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Erika Dreifus’s Birthright is an impressive debut poetry collection (following her short-story collection Quiet Americans).

Sivan Butler-Rotholz wrote of the book:

“With its honest, accessible language and straightforward storytelling, Erika Dreifus’s first full-length collection is a welcome addition to the modern American poetry canon—narrative, Jewish, feminist, or otherwise.”

In her own words, here is Erika Dreifus's Book Notes music playlist for her poetry collection Birthright:

My new poetry book Birthright is grounded in varieties of inheritance. I believe that each of us carries a bouquet of legacies: genetic, historical, religious, and literary; through the lens of one person’s inheritance experiences, the poems suggest ways in which all of us may be influenced in how we perceive and process our lives and times. My poems are conditioned by my circumstances as a child of my parents; as a grandchild of refugees from Nazi Germany; as a Jew, a woman, a Gen Xer, and a New Yorker; as a reader of the Bible and Shakespeare and Flaubert and Lucille Clifton. My poetic birthright is thus as unique as my DNA, but I believe that it resonates far beyond myself.

And, as it turns out, quite a few of the poems allude to songs. (I’m not sure that I was quite so conscious of that before I assembled this list.)

Please enjoy!

Age of Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In (The Flesh Failures) (The 5th Dimension)

This was the #1 song when I was born in 1969; since my birth (and age) are recurrent threads in the book, it seems an appropriate one to kick things off.

Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes

Many of the poems in Birthright deal with the bodies that we’re born into and that—through illness, injury, and other experiences—take us through life. But since I couldn’t find a song titled “Skin, Uterus, Blood and Bones” on Spotify, I figured this one would have to do.

Anticipation (Carly Simon)

If you were watching television in the late 1970s/early 1980s, you might remember Carly Simon’s song combined with oft-running commercials for Heinz ketchup. Play this one while you’re reading my poem “Out to Lunch.”

Kaddish (chanted by Yisroel Williger)

One of the poems in this collection essentially rewrites the traditional Jewish memorial prayer known as the Kaddish. There are many, many arrangements of the Kaddish. This is among those most familiar to me.

Blessed (Elton John)

My poem “This Woman’s Prayer,” written after the model provided by Esther Raab (1894-1981), is filled with a sense of blessedness. (Both Raab and I are subverting a traditional prayer in which Jewish men express gratitude to the Divine for not having made them women.)

Oh, Pretty Woman (Roy Orbison)

It took me a long time to begin to consider myself to be a “pretty woman.” To find out (some of) what held me back, please consult the poem “Vocabulary Lesson, 1977.”

Oseh Shalom (Prayer for Peace, arr. Debbie Friedman)

Like many American Jews of my generation, I grew up singing songs written and/or arranged by Debbie Friedman (1951-2011) in religious-school and youth-group settings. This is one of my all-time favorites. The yearning for peace between/among Israel and its neighbors suffused my education on matters relating to the Jewish state from my earliest lessons, and it underlies the “Israel poems” in this collection.

Jerusalem (Matisyahu)

Yes, there’s a Jerusalem poem in my book. And there are multiple songs about Jerusalem that I could have chosen to add to this playlist. I’m opting for Matisyahu’s “Jerusalem” not only for its inherently powerful message, but also to continue to applaud the artist’s courage in performing it at a major music festival when confronted by protesters who had sought to have him excluded.

New York State of Mind (Billy Joel)

Like Matisyahu, I’ll never forget Jerusalem. But if any city dominates this collection, it’s the one where my grandparents and great-grandparents disembarked from ships and built new lives; where my parents grew up and my sister and I were born; where I’ve been living again for more than a decade. You can find many of the locales that appear in these poems—Brighton Beach, Old Montefiore Cemetery, West 139th Street—on a map. But even when there’s no specific landmark mentioned, New York City is often the backdrop.

Shabes Brokhe (“Sabbath Prayer”; Fiddler on the Roof, Yiddish soundtrack)

A nice complement to my poem “Sabbath Rest 2.0.”

Charade (Main Title; Henry Mancini)

The poem “My Mother’s Olivetti” takes the reader into the early weeks of my parents’ courtship—which began with a date night at the movies (they went to see Charade, starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn).

Rozhinkes mit Mandeln (“Raisins and Almonds,” music and lyrics by Abraham Goldfaden [1840-1908]; sung by Emil Skobeloff)

The great-grandmother referenced in my poem “Family Plots” is the woman I’m named for. I know her only through the stories that her eldest daughter, my maternal grandmother, used to tell me. This is a part of my family that came from Yiddish-speaking Eastern Europe; when I listen to this lullaby, known in English as “Raisins and Almonds,” I think of this great-grandmother and her love for all of her daughters—including the baby who is memorialized in “Family Plots.”

Miriam’s Song (Debbie Friedman)

Another one by the late, great Debbie Friedman, this time in homage to the prophetess Miriam (remember her watching over her baby brother Moses as he floated toward Pharaoh’s daughter?). Miriam is one of several biblical women who is given voice in this collection.

Deutschland Uber Alles

As mentioned, part of my family tree is rooted back in Jewish Eastern Europe. But as very first poem in the book makes clear, both of my paternal grandparents were German Jews who (thankfully) found refuge from Nazism in the United States in the late 1930s. “Deutschland Uber Alles” makes a brief appearance in the prose poem “Diaspora” that appears in this collection.

Mrs. Robinson (Simon & Garfunkel)

Another direct reference! “Mrs. Robinson”’s cameo comes up in the poem “Wherever You’ve Gone, Joe DiMaggio.”

Dayenu (sung by Theodore Bikel)

Translated from the Hebrew as “it would have been enough,” “Dayenu” is the title of both a poem in my book and a Passover song that expresses gratitude for the multiple miracles that occurred at the time of the Exodus from Egypt.

Anatevka (from Fiddler on the Roof)

From Fiddler on the Roof, as referenced in the poem “When Your Niece Attends a Jewish Day School.”

With or Without You (U2)

The book concludes with a piece titled “With or Without.” Which song, then, could be more apt to end this Gen Xer’s playlist?

Erika Dreifus and Birthright links:

the author’s website
excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book

Jewish Journal review
Lilith review
Essay by the author

New Jersey Jewish News profile of the author
Christi Craig interview with the author
Deborah Kalb interview with the author
The Whole Megillah interview with the author
Writers in the Trenches interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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