4.52. Richard Chess, poem ‘With the Blast of the Ram’s Horn’ (1994)

The poem “With the Blast of the Ram’s Horn” (1994) by the American poet Richard Chess (born 1953) and Alvin Curran’s electro-acoustic composition Shofar der Zeit (1990) *Chapter 4.50 are the most prominent secular shofar-inspired works in A Tool of Remembrance, curiously enough separated from each other by Chapter 4.51 on one of the most devout works, Yechiel Granatstein’s biography of rabbi Yitskhak Finkler (1991). Curran’s electro-acoustic shofar blasts swept like a wind through the concert hall and were accompanied by a comment like an iconoclastic manifesto. But whereas Curran demonstrated the vitality of the shofar tradition by providing the ancient ram’s horn with new ideas and electronic technology, Chess’ poem shows what can happen when tradition becomes a dead letter, no longer able to captivate the younger generation.

Richard Chess published “With the Blast of the Ram’s Horn” in his first collection of poems, the title and the motto of which were inspired by the shofar. The title, Tekiah, constitutes the first traditional shofar blast, while the motto is a quotation from Isa. 27:13 about the ingathering of the exiles: “And it shall come to pass . . . / that a great horn shall be blown; / and they shall come that were / lost in the land of Assyria,” the continuation of which leads to the holy city: “and the expelled who are in the land of Egypt shall come and worship the LORD on the holy mount, in Jerusalem.” Remarkably, only the title of the poem refers to the shofar.

“With the Blast of the Ram’s Horn”

The Hebrew teacher, Mrs. Melnick, read
A verse aloud. Her hair in careless knots,
Her acned face—worse when she’d smile
At us, those nasty blossoms on her cheeks.

[5] A battered map of Israel on the board
Reminded us, as she reminded us,
We were too poor in spirit for Jerusalem,
Spelled without vowels, of course, in Hebrew.

We craved for the milk and meat of life:
[10] Baseball before dark closed
The baseball field forever. Whack!
A ruler brought us back to Melnick.

No light to dream in left, we prayed.
At 6:15 the bell, the parking lot
[15] Of parents aggravated by their jobs,
The storm of our dispersion.

Judging from the subject, Hebrew, and the end of the school day at 6:15, the chronotope of the poem is an afternoon Hebrew school, where boys under the bar miẓvah age of 13 receive religious education. Rabbi Berel Wein commented on this school type and its inherent problems as follows:

After a full day of studies in the American public-school system, the Jewish child was to attend a two- or three-hour study session four or five days a week. As can readily be imagined this type of situation did little to inspire love of Jewish studies among the students of these afternoon Hebrew schools. *Wein, Patterns in Jewish History 36.

The title of Chess’ poem, put in quotation marks, may be taken from two high-spirited Bible verses, the first of which also appears in the Shofarot section of the Rosh Ha-Shanah service. *The Koren Rosh HaShana Maḥzor 618-20. In Ps. 150:3, God is praised with the shofar: “Praise Him with blasts of the horn” and in 2 Sam. 6:15, David brings the Ark to Jerusalem with shofar blasts, to turn the city into a religious center: “Thus David and all the House of Israel brought up the Ark of the LORD with shouts and with blasts of the horn.” There could be different reasons for the quotation marks in the title. First, the rendering of direct speech; the title could simply consist of the verse the Hebrew teacher read aloud in vv. 1-2 of the poem. Second, emphasis on the shofar blast as an authoritative discourse, which is not explicitly heard in the poem, but implicitly present all the time. Third, the suggestion of irony: the quotation marks could suggest that the words were spoken by someone who—at least in the opinion of the persona and his classmates—attaches more interest to the letter than to the spirit of the verse and the Bible in general. Mrs. Melnick did, probably, not try to grab the attention of the baseball-loving boys by telling a hit-and-run story like Judg. 7:16-22 about Gideon storming the camp of the Midianites with three hundred men, each holding a shofar. The impatience of her pupils makes itself felt in the last half of the poem: vv. 1-8 with their disciplined rhythm of five iambs are followed by vv. 9-16 with their growing rhythmic irregularity and restlessness, ending in an elliptical sentence in vv. 14-16 and the three iambs in v. 16 instead of four or five—and, moreover, the exact time of “6.15.”

The chronotopic concept of “ideological sacred space” *Kunin, “Judaism.” Sacred Place 116-9 of the rabbi and anthropologist Seth Kunin can be helpful in understanding “With the Blast of the Ram’s Horn”, when applied to the functions of space and time in Chess’ poem. “Ideological sacred space” is an abstract hierarchical categorization of geography, in contrast to the “functional sacred space” of the home and the synagogue. Ideological sacred space consists of a holy center, surrounded by a set of concentric circles, each representing a domain with a degree of sacredness, diminishing with the distance from the center. Applied to Chess’ poem, the sacred center to which the title alludes is the Temple Mount in Jerusalem; the second domain is Jerusalem (v. 7); the third, the Holy Land (v. 5); the fourth, the afternoon Hebrew school; the fifth, the parking lot (v. 14); and the sixth, the baseball field (vv. 10-11).

Between the sacred domains of the Temple Mount, Jerusalem, and Israel, and the secular domains of the parking lot and the baseball field, the afternoon Hebrew school is a liminal space, “where opposing domains meet and perhaps overlap.” *Ibid. 125. The Hebrew teacher is a representative of the sacred center, and her derived authority is expressed in vv. 5-6, where “A battered map of Israel on the board / Reminded us, as she reminded us” of the sacredness of the language of the center, the language “without vowels” (v. 8) for which the pupils from the periphery are judged “too poor in spirit” (v. 7). In the persona’s view, the teacher in the afternoon Hebrew school bears a certain superficial resemblance to the more sacred domain from which she derives her authority, judging from the “battered map of Israel” in v. 5 and “Her acned face” in v. 3. The boys are more interested in the secular pleasures in the outside world with its non-kosher combination of the “milk and meat of life” (v. 9), which has led to a conflict and the closure of the most attractive secular domain, the baseball field. It is closed forever after the pupils played there before dark, that is, probably, under school time. The counterpart of the secular baseball bat is the teacher’s ruler, and instead of the ball, the desk is hit with an unrelenting “Whack!” (v. 11). Instead of running to the first base, the boy is forced to remain seated.

The liminality of the school chronotope is also expressed in the antagonism between the dreams of the boys and their prayers (v. 13); as the night is falling, these prayers are either private prayers for the bell, announcing the end of the school day, or a regular prayer with a conflict between the Hebrew words, directed at the sacred center, and private thoughts, directed at the secular outside world.

Stanzas 3 and 4 show conflicting centripetal and centrifugal movements between the domains with their different grades of sacredness and secularity. On the one hand, there are the memories of the stroke of the baseball bat in vv. 10-11, which gave the ball a symbolic centrifugal movement; on the other hand, there is the stroke of the teacher’s ruler in v. 12, which “brought us back to Melnick” and introduced a centripetal movement, forcing the boys to concentrate their attention on the sacred center. The last verse of the poem offers the strongest antithesis between centripetal and centrifugal movements: the sound of the bell is followed by “The storm of our dispersion” with its allusion to the motto of the collection of poems: “. . . a great horn shall be blown; / and they shall come that were / lost in the land of Assyria.” The centrifugal movement towards the secular world contrasts with the ingathering of the exiles in the holy city of Jerusalem by an equally stormily advancing God, as formulated in Blessing 10 of the Amidah: “Sound the great shofar for our freedom, / raise high the banner to gather our exiles, / and gather us together from the four quarters of the earth.” *The Koren Siddur 120; The Koren Rosh HaShana Maḥzor 620. As a conclusion, it can be said that the shofar in this poem—or, more precisely, in the title and in the motto of the collection—is the marker of sacred time and a symbol of centripetality, in contrast to the bell as the marker of secular time and the symbol of centrifugality.

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