Heritage by Edwin S. Segal. Apprentice House Press, 2017.
Reviewed by Sarah Hansen
Heritage is a book of poetry consisting of poems about Jewish heritage. Of these poems, some speak from the perspective of biblical characters, some discuss important traditions in the Jewish faith, and some reflect on the tragedy of the Holocaust.
The poems recounting the stories of biblical characters are extremely compelling, particularly because they are written in first person. For example, the poems written from the perspective of Rachel and Leah allowed readers to contemplate the lives of these two women. Segal began by allowing the two to speak together in a show of unity, then alternated between that style of narration, giving each woman the chance to share her own story by speaking alone. In the conclusion of this poem, Rachel and Leah speak together, saying:
Leaving, we met something new:
swirling, silver storms of sand,
the chaos of new life
come to claim our destiny.
Jacob knew and sent us to
one side and he the other.
And out stepped Esau, but that’s
another story (7).
This passage shows the emotions of Rachel and Leah; it unveils the uncertainty of their lives, their love for their home land, their devotion to Jacob, and their never-ending resilience. Segal’s poems give life to these biblical characters in a way most audiences have never seen before. The depth of emotion seen in these poems is incredibly well done. Whether a reader is gaining a new perspective on stories they have studied for their entire life or is introduced to these characters for the very first time, the humanity and realism of these poems is captivating.
The second half of the book covers modern aspects of Jewish heritage with topics from the Holocaust to traditional Jewish holidays such as Yom Kippur. The poems reminiscing the Holocaust were breathtaking in their somber description. In “A Memory of Auschwitz, 1991,” Segal opens with the stanza:
I went to see the place, and now
Time and space have been twisted,
and I am still there, as it is
our obligation to be there,
with our mothers and our fathers,
for we must all regard ourselves
as if we too had gone in there
and not come out (24).
This disruption brings a new sense of horror to one of the worst tragedies in recorded history. When Segal describes visiting Auschwitz, he speaks with a tone of familiarity and connection to the victims who lost their lives there, referring to them as “our mothers and our fathers.” Through this, he takes ownership of his Jewish heritage and grieves for the lost souls as though they were his own parents. The poem ends with the lines,
I have been there in that place,
in Amalek’s empty camp;
I have seen my own face there,
and I shall never forget.
This imagery shows an incredible act of ownership as the narrator reflects on seeing his own face among the many of Auschwitz. Overall, this book of poems is filled with breathtaking imagery. Establishing an incredible sense of human connection is one of Segal’s greatest strengths.