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An Orthodox Poet Takes on God –– and Sex

When Matthue Roth takes the stage at a poetry slam, the audience knows right away that they’re seeing something new. For some it’s his peyes, or sidelocks; for others its the poetry about phylacteries (“my tefillin nature/leather wrapped around me like I’m/all tied up/in you. I know the secret of S+M, why/white men pay for bondage and loveless sex/night after night after night, finding nothing”). For most, though, it is the surprising juxtaposition of energetic, erotic performance poetry and intense, Orthodox Jewish religious feeling. How does Roth reconcile the two?

“I think one of the things that makes Judaism right for me is, it’s sex-positive,” Roth says. “I don’t talk about sex lewdly or dirtily. And I’m definitely not out to demystify sex. When I talk about it, I’m talking about sex as mystery, as something that I don’t know about yet, and especially as something that can exist in a different form than it does in today’s world.”

The poetry world is beginning to take notice. Roth has performed with literary star Dave Eggers in San Francisco, with legendary guitarist Carlos Santana at a benefit for Chabad and as a featured poet in the Def Poetry Jam on Broadway. Yet he still reads at venues not usually frequented by leading performance poets, such as Manhattan’s Solomon Schechter High School, where he read last March. “I think I’m vicariously trying to be a high school kid and that’s why it worked so well,” Roth said.

The response of the Orthodox world is understandably mixed. Roth’s Web site (www.matthue.com) warns that “some of these poems may be inappropriate for children and halachic prudes,” and it’s likely that some of the Satmar chasidim with whom he prays wouldn’t take kindly to linking tefillin and sadomasochism. But, he noted, “a group of Chabad girls quoted me on their AOL profiles. Where it says ‘married?’ they wrote ‘lookin’ for my dreidel maven,’ after this one Chanukah rap that I do.”

“Post-straight Orthodox performance poet” does have a ring of gimmick about it, and so Roth goes to great lengths to point out that he is not a novelty act. He sees himself as having a poetic mission: to “talk about God/with words usually reserved/for talking about sex,” as he put it in his poem “Trembling Before You” (dedicated to Sandi Simcha Dubowski, the director of the film “Trembling Before G-d,” which documented the lives of gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews).

Of course, the affinity between spirituality and sensuality goes back many thousands of years in the Jewish tradition — at least as far as the Song of Songs, long read as both an erotic love poem and as an allegory for the mystical relationship between God and Israel. Yet Roth also explores a more recent idea, often ascribed to French philosopher Michel Foucault: how the repression of desire serves to inflame it. For example, Roth points to his poem “Good Thing I Don’t Touch Girls (Or I’d Touch You).” “It’s all about how frum kids are as horny as anybody else,” he said. “It’s not that we’re less inhibited. It’s just that we express it in different ways. You know, like the most erotic thing in the world is before you kiss, before anything. Well, carry that tension and eroticism straight up ’til your wedding. That’s what I mean.”

While Jewish identity plays a primary role in Roth’s writing (he says he grew up in a “total shtetl ghetto, but going to public school because my parents wanted to expose me to diversity”), Jewish writers apparently do not — not even the other Roth. “I learned to write about being Jewish from goyim. I hated most Jewish prototypes for writing. Then one day I read Sherman Alexie, who writes about being Indian from this perspective of ‘You won’t understand, but I don’t care, you don’t have to read this but I have to write it,’ and it’s brilliant. He writes about his culture like I write about my heartbeat.”

Reflecting this intimacy, a wide range of Jewish concerns crop up in Roth’s poetry. “Shrink” quotes the poet’s grandmother as saying “this can’t be all/you’re too skinny/where’d you put the rest.” “Palestine” analogizes a personal relationship to the Middle East crisis (“You and me, we’re like Palestine/like two alien states who’ve been here this whole time/And just now is when we start/negotiating our relationship”). And, of course, sex. There are poems about almost everything in the Orthodox Jewish world, Roth says. “I even have a poem about getting bored during shiur.”

Jay Michaelson is an editor of Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture.

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