College President R. Barbara Gitenstein met with students and colleagues last Wednesday night to discuss and analyze Anthony Hecht’s poem “Rites and Ceremonies” as part of the “Religion, Culture and Identity” program.
Gitenstein, who has a doctorate in English and is the author of the book “Apocalyptic Messianism and Contemporary Jewish-American Poetry,” explained how the poem emphasizes the dark side of human beings and their capability to do evil to one another. Each of Hecht’s “Rites and Ceremonies’s” four sections alludes to a particular moment in Jewish history. Hecht plays games with language and pulls Jewish history and tradition together to illustrate what lessons should have been learned from each moment.
Gitenstein said Hecht, who died in 2004, wanted to make his audience aware that “Rites and Ceremonies” is a poem that spans across human history and makes it as present and vivid as current events.
She also discussed his idea that survival alone does not prove anything, and it is up to the survivors of the Holocaust to bring the world back together.
“(‘Rites and Ceremonies’) is a great poem that responds to the Jewish experience of history and particularly the experience of the Holocaust,” Michael Robertson, professor of English, said.
The president proceeded to analyze the four sections of Hecht’s sprawling poem.
The first section of the poem, titled “The Room,” referring to the connection between God and the Holocaust. Hecht explains how “Gott mit uns,” (“God with us”) was etched across the belts of Nazi soldiers. Gitenstein explained how this image signifies the acknowledgement of God in a place where Hecht feels God was not actually present to save the lives of the millions who were murdered.
“The Fire Sermon,” the second section, deals with the Black Death, a plague that swept across Europe, causing widespread illness and death. Two Jews confessed to the poisoning of wells causing the illness, and as a result, Jews across Europe were massacred in various communities for “their wrongdoing,” even though the disease was actually spread by fleas and rats.
The third section, “The Dream,” refers to the Babylonian exile. This was the deportation of Jews from their ancient kingdom of Judah to Babylon. This exile also coincided with the desecration of the First Temple of Jerusalem, a defilement of a famous Jewish sacred place.
The last section of the poem is called “Words for the Day of Atonement,” referrng to the Jewish holiday better known as Yom Kippur.
Robertson said he was interested in the way Gitenstein drew a comparison between Hecht’s verses and T.S. Elliot’s “The Waste Land,” noting that Elliot was a known anti-semite but Hecht was able to imitate his style to write about Jews.
“I loved it because president Gitenstein introduced a poem that most of us aren’t familiar with at all but that I think is an absolute masterpiece,” Robertson said.
While Robertson considers himself well-read, he added that he felt Gitenstein had introduced him to “a masterpiece that I never knew existed.”
Students said they took a lot away from Gitenstein’s analysis of the poem and gained a different perspective from the experience. Tracy Magielnicki, sophomore English major, thought it was interesting how Hecht “used different ways to approach and reference different authors and historical events that occurred.”
Mark Smith, freshman history/secondary education major, was impressed that Hecht wasn’t afraid to reference different things. “He went outside of the standard beliefs of Judaism and took a risk in the modern world,” Smith said. Smith also found it interesting how “religion can play a role in what one thinks,” and how much of an impact religion really has.