Phil Terman’s motto is that not everyone is a poet, but everyone has poetry in them.
Terman has published several books of poetry, including “The Torah Garden” and “Rabbis of the Air.” He received the Anna Davidson Rosenberg Prize for Poems of the Jewish Experience and the Kenneth Patchen Prize.
Given Terman’s background and the axiom of his life, it’s no surprise that when asking his sister-in-law about his mother – a Holocaust survivor – he found verses in the story. .
Receive The Jewish Chronicle Weekly Edition by email and never miss our best stories
“I thought, I’m going to break this line; it’s powerful, I hear music in there,” Terman recalled. “I wanted to capture her tone, and I started breaking up the lines. I also used stanza pauses and pauses and italics for the words she underlined, trying to recreate her tone as much as possible. on the page.
Realizing he had tapped into something more primitive than other forms of writing, Terman began researching oral storytelling. He ended up realizing that he was creating something between documentary and poetry.
Terman liked the format so much that he decided to continue exploring it, this time with the oral history of members of Congregation B’nai Abraham in Butler, of which he is a member.
“Our synagogue has been around for a long time, and it’s unique and very historic,” he said. “I think it’s the only one between Erie and Pittsburgh, and it’s fading.”
Knowing that interview skills were crucial, Terman enlisted his friend and fellow actor Larry Berg to help with the project.
Berg had a long career in radio, interviewing the likes of Elvis Presley and Paul McCartney.
“I’ve interviewed maybe 40,000 people in my career,” Berg said. “But when Phil came to me with his idea, I thought, ‘This is going to be really interesting. “”
Berg was intrigued by the idea of creating something more than an oral recording that would simply read like a transcription.
The couple decided to test the new concept with Terman interviewing Berg.
“When he interviewed me as part of an experiment and showed me the results in poetry, I thought it was a powerful literary form,” Berg said. “Somehow the poetry highlighted everything and dramatized everything in a way that I had never seen before. Those were my words, but seeing it put into poetic form was really unique and different.
In fact, the experiment worked so well that it made Berg regret not asking his grandfathers about their experiences living in England and Russia, or talking to his own father about his childhood. on New York’s Lower East Side.
Terman said that, like music, he wanted his poetry to “sing”, as he was always interested in creating lyrical narratives throughout his work.
“But also, I love highlighting and exposing people who have interesting lives, stories and experiences to tell that people might be interested in but otherwise don’t get the full attention,” he said. declared.
Terman has written about a wide range of people, including prisoners and people working in homeless shelters. Everyone lives a poetic life, he says. But for now, he wants to highlight the poetry of Congregation B’nai Abraham.
“In this situation, I think there’s so much wealth that’s not being shared or exposed to others, and we’re getting to know it better and spreading it,” he said.
Berg said it’s important that the synagogue’s history be preserved, especially while there are still members who have been with the congregation for decades.
“There are people who still remember 40 or 50 years ago,” he said. “We want to preserve that so someone, somewhere knows we were here. This place is still a vibrant Jewish community, however small it may be, but someone must know that in 10, 15 or 20 years.
Terman agreed, noting that the congregation has a depth and diversity that is important to document.
“It’s amazing how people came to Judaism, what they think about Judaism, what it means to them, and what the synagogue means to them,” he said.
The couple will spend the foreseeable future interviewing devotees and creating poetry from their words. After that, if there is interest, they could take the show on the road and interview members of other small congregations.
In fact, Terman, who retired from teaching last year, would like to make it a new career, although the economy prevents him from continuing his work for free any longer.
He worked with his current publisher, Mammoth Books, to self-publish the poetry he created from his sister-in-law’s interview. He could follow a similar path with these interviews, he said.
In the meantime, Terman said he tries to capture the poetry in the stories of those interviewed and strives to ensure the pieces he creates capture their voices.
Ultimately, he said, this project shows that we could all communicate in verse.
“When we speak, do we speak in poetry or do we speak in prose? We may be talking about more poetry than we think. PJC
David Rullo can be contacted at [email protected]
Example of a poem created from an interview with Cantor Michal Gray-Schaffer
A good game
My first love of Judaism
was the intellectual pursuit—
you are always learning.
You are expected to learn all your life.
But it’s really living life to the fullest.
To be a good person in this life.
Not because you are rewarded
in a future life,
That’s what you should do.
And you take responsibility for yourself
and I think that’s how I’ve always been.
And that’s why Judaism and I are a good match,
as far as I’m concerned.