Draw Close: A Conversation with Poet Alisha Kaplan

Alisha Kaplan’s award-winning debut poetry collection, Qorbanot, uses the book of Leviticus as a jumping off point to explore the concept of sacrificial offerings in ancient and modern times. Throughout the collection, there is evidence of a deep engagement with Orthodox Judaism, even as the speaker wrestles with faith and observance. The poems – paired with beautiful original art by Tobi Aaron Kahn – reimagine traditional prayers, texts, and customs in innovative, provocative ways. 

In her conversation with poet Rachel Morgenstern-Clarren, Kaplan discusses what inspired her to write Qorbanot, how her identification with animals relates to her grandparents’ experiences during the Holocaust, and the way that working at her family’s farm in Toronto has helped her reconnect to the power of ritual. 

Rachel Morgenstern-Clarren: Tell me about why you chose to translate qorbanot as “offerings” instead of “sacrifices.” How do those words differ to you in terms of the relationship between the speaker and God/the speaker and the community/the speaker and the natural world?

Alisha Kaplan: The word “sacrifice” has a connotation of loss, and that isn’t what I wanted to focus on or how I understand the ancient sacrificial offerings in Leviticus that inspired my poems. Qorban (the singular of qorbanot), the Hebrew word for sacrificial offering, literally means “that which draws close.” It is inherently relational. And so I see the act of offering as a way to create or strengthen a relationship, whether that is with God, an individual, community, or nature. The biblical sacrificial offerings often involved all of these: after the bringing of a peace offering, there would be a joyous communal meal using whatever was left of the animal. This created a sacred relationship among offerer, God, and community, having all fed on the same life, as well as a renewed appreciation for the gifts of the natural world. 

Your second question makes me aware of the journey the poems took from beginning to end. The first part of the book contains a lot of guilt, shame, and anger towards God that I had held onto for years from my Orthodox religious upbringing. But as I kept writing, I let go of that negative, reactionary response and instead took a more creative and grounded approach to worship. I found my favorite definition of religion (aside from its patriarchal language) in the Encyclopedia Britannica: “Religion is man’s relation to that which he regards as sacred or holy.” In my poems, I redirect that relationship, manifested in the offering and its smoke, from rising up towards the heavens, and instead send it down to the earth, the people on it, and myself. 

RMC: What is it about Leviticus that intrigues you and how did it influence the poems in Qorbanot

AK: While working on a poem about menstruation, I returned to Leviticus, which details Jewish laws of purity and impurity, and which I hadn’t read in years. I found myself mesmerized by the classifications of sacrificial offerings that fill its pages, and how detailed, obsessive, gory, and visceral the descriptions are. There was something about the spices and burning fat that fascinated me, so different from the highly intellectual, prayer-centered Judaism that I grew up practicing.

On a literary level, I fell in love with the poetry, repetition, and strangeness of the language. And I began to write poems inspired by that language and the different types of offerings (peace offerings, guilt offerings, sin offerings, grain offerings), reinterpreting what those mean and look like in my life in the 21st century.  

I see the act of offering as a way to create or strengthen a relationship, whether that is with God, an individual, community, or nature.

RMC: How do you connect your work at your family’s farm to ritual sacrifices and the other laws in Leviticus?

AK: While working on this book, I moved back to Canada from New York where I had lived for a decade, in large part to spend more time at Bela Farm. The word in Hebrew for “worship” and “work” is one and the same: avodah. In so many ways, I experience farm work as ritual, and in doing more and more of it over the years, I began to regain a devotional connection I had lost. 

Some of these rituals are daily practices like weeding. Some are seasonal, like planting garlic in the fall, tapping the maple trees for sap in late winter/early spring, and harvesting honey in the summer. 

There is also a great deal of death involved in farming, which I’ve learned to accept and honour. Along with this death—of trees, crops, chickens, bees—comes decomposition and new growth. To live, we have to face and embrace death, blood, and suffering, as well, which I believe is one of the underlying functions of sacrificial offerings. And, I suppose, of poetry. This brings to mind something (also true of the offerings in Leviticus) that I once heard Yusef Komunyakaa say: “Poetry is celebration and confrontation.” 

RMC: There are brutal descriptions throughout Qorbanot of violence against animals, from ancient priests performing ritual sacrifices in Jerusalem to a packed butcher shop in Crown Heights. The poems that deal with the speaker’s grandparent’s experiences during the Holocaust, on the other hand, are very restrained, appearing just at the edges of violence. Did you intend to evoke the brutality happening off-camera in the sections about your family through the vivid descriptions of violence directed against animals elsewhere? What would you say makes the speaker identify so strongly with non-human animals?

AK: I wish I could claim that I had intended that, but I hadn’t, at least not consciously. I do feel strongly about not sensationalizing the horrors of the Holocaust or turning them into a spectacle, so I didn’t want to do that in my writing. 

I think what makes the speaker identify so strongly with non-human animals is a matter of culpability, responsibility, and humility. The messages I got in school and synagogue were that humans are above animals. That we are spiritual and moral, whereas animals are not. And that we should deny our base, animalistic instincts. I argue against that in my writing.

I feel that connection you mention between violence against animals and the Holocaust when I see images of factory farms, frightened animals lined up for slaughter, and I can’t help thinking of the overcrowded cattle cars that carried my family to Auschwitz.

The speaker’s attention and attachment to non-human animals is a reaching toward another kind of understanding, and away from the human ego which, often in the name of righteousness or progress, has caused so much damage. Climate change, species extinction, and the Holocaust are results of this superiority complex. I’m trying to learn how to take care of my world, and non-human animals have done a much better job at that than we have. 

Guilt Offering

by Alisha Kaplan

thank you for making me a woman for letting me reside in the book of life inside
of which is the pizza shop I was afraid to enter wearing jeans the movie theater I
was afraid to be seen at with a boy the shower I was afraid to sing in the chair I was
afraid to sit in lest my skirt rise my sex I was afraid to look at till I was twenty-five
thank you for teaching me to be afraid of the stranger for making the shoulder
something to look over bless you thank you thank you