Tree of Life Sprouts New Mag

By Sophie Danis Oberfield

Published February 13, 2004, issue of February 13, 2004.
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‘The rules of the game have changed: prayers have given place to novs,” Ilan Stavans says in an interview that appears in the first issue of Tiferet: A Journal of Spiritual Literature. “It is the same art of storytelling that is at the fore.”

Launching February 10, Tiferet is a rare synthesis of the Jewishly inspired and the ecumenical, the literary and the spiritual. But its roots are Jewish, beginning with its Hebrew name, which refers to “a stable center within the kabbalistic Tree of Life.”

Donna Baier Stein, publisher and editor in chief, said that Tiferet will showcase writing that “somehow helps to reveal spirit, in all its manifestations, through the written word.” At 176 pages, the first issue stays true to the journal’s mission of giving space to “some of the best writers and thinkers of our time” as they explore the “relationship between the physical and spiritual worlds.”

In a converstion with Neal Sokol, for example, Stavans provocatively articulates the problems surrounding everything from literary anthologies to Zionism, along the way touching upon Jewish literary history, the rabbinate and his personal theology and interpretation of Jewish religious history. Poems by Alicia Ostriker use Jewish syntax and the phrasing of the Amidah prayer to highlight the often violent behavior of those who believe that God is on their side. Valerie Martínez delves into an academic exploration of the “sacred thread” in poetry, tracing the idea of words as icons (in the religious sense) from the pre-modern to postmodern worlds. And Daniel Tobin, in his nonfiction “Lamentation, Poetry, and the Double Life,” weaves together threads from his father’s death, Psalms, Emmanuel Levinas, Elizabeth Bishop, Simone Weil and Czeslaw Milosz, among others. There’s even an interview with writer Ray Bradbury.

“I hope that by reading the pieces included in Tiferet, the reader’s mind will be opened to other corners of consciousness,” said Stein, an adjunct professor of writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University and a founder of the new Bellevue Literary Review, where she is poetry editor. Stein’s upbringing, as the daughter of a Jewish father and a mother who converted to Judaism from Christianity but felt rejected by her Orthodox father-in-law, set the stage for her open approach to religion.

The journal’s genesis was sparked by a training program Stein has been taking in kabbalistic healing. When she learned about the existence of tiferet in the Tree of Life — “the appearance of the third thing when two seemingly oppositional things are united,” as Stein described it — she felt moved to create something new.

Tiferet, to be published twice a year, comes at a time of surging interest in both general spirituality and Jewish mystical spirituality, joining a marketplace of media offering varied spiritual-literary experiences.

Publications with very different missions and backgrounds have sprung up to publish writers who share their spiritual experiences through fiction, prose and poetry. Mima’amakim (, a Web zine that publishes a print journal yearly, comes from a distinctly observant, Orthodox Jewish perspective and is dedicated to artistic expression of the religious experience. Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought & Culture (, an online journal that publishes a hard-copy edition semiannually, features writing that could be classified as spiritual, among many other genres.

Why is all of this spiritual writing emerging now? Several strands of experience seem to be contributing to the trend. People have been shocked, saddened and disillusioned by violence all over the world, including the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks; increased bloodshed in Israel, and the Iraq war.

As the baby boom generation ages, Stein added, they are looking for meaning. “People my age have built careers, raised families, bought homes,” said Stein, 53. “Maybe [they] still find something missing.” The ever-vigilant marketplace reflects their search.

To others, the domination of technology and consumption in contemporary life leaves a void. “Our culture today is inundated with material and technological advances, and many people still feel stressed, overwhelmed, empty,” Stein said. “So they look for something bigger, a reality in which to place themselves in context.”

Still another explanation for the surge of interest is the broader acceptance of people who consider themselves spiritual but non-denominational or “postdenominational.” In New York City, for example, informal Jewish venues like Makor, Kehilat Hadar and the Jewish Community Center on the Upper West Side offer opportunities to study, pray, volunteer for community service and experience Jewish culture and community without the trappings of synagogue membership or movement Judaism. Many Jews, young and old, participate in meditation, yoga and other practices that are not specifically Jewish, and see no contradiction. An ecumenical journal with a Jewish name fits right into this pluralistic climate.

Some, like Zeek editor Jay Michaelson, see spirituality and writing that embrace the Jewish world. Spirituality, he said, “brings up an image for me of people thinking they need to surrender their intellect or their politics in order to ‘feel spiritual.’” Michaelson believes that today’s young Jewish writers should not feel the need to give up either their Jewishness or their contemporary consciousness in their work.

But Stein’s priorities are different. “I wish that Muslims and Christians and Jews and Buddhists and people of all faiths could walk up the same mountain together, at their own pace, in their own way,” she said. A non-exclusive spiritual experience, in the form of reading, can help to foster a sense of acceptance and cross-cultural understanding.

“The wish is that if each person’s spiritual search led them to a realization of Oneness of us all under God,” Stein said, “it would be a good thing.”

Sophie Danis Oberfield is a teacher and freelance writer living in Manhattan.

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