Each Thursday, The Arty Semite features excerpts and reviews of the best contemporary Jewish poetry. This week Jake Marmer introduces “The Household Gods” by Richard Chess.
The story of Abraham smashing the idols and questioning his father about their potency is probably the most famous midrash out there. This week’s shul-goers, listening to Parshat Veyetzei, may overlook the tale’s lesser known cousin — Rachel’s encounter with her own parent’s deities. Fortunately, poet and University of North Carolina at Asheville professor Richard Chess saves the day with his midrashic poem “The Household Gods.”
Rather than merely writing off the idols as meaningless fetishes of superstition, Chess gives them life, albeit a peculiar and questionable life. Though empty, it is charged with accidental sparks of human theatrics. It is as if life’s cosmic irony, too big and incomprehensible for the everyday, finds its balance by leaning on the idols’ mute responses. These are surely a hoax but, Chess seems to imply, Rachel and Jacob both know about hoaxes all too well. In the classic tradition of midrash, Chess walks the line between mysticism and deception, reverence and parody.