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Poet’s words take wing as song

Osherow taps Psalms for ensemble piece

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"I write poems out of my being a Jew, and one of the most essential aspects of that culture is a sense of profound connection to a long past," said University of Utah professor and poet Jacqueline Osherow.

This weekend, Osherow will take part in a poetry reading as part of the Madeleine Festival. "I think I'll be reading mostly — or perhaps entirely — poems that are connected in some way to biblical text," she said, adding that "it seems to make sense in an event at a cathedral."

In addition to the poetry, the song cycle "On the Wings of Wind," by Morris Rosenzweig, which includes some of Osherow's writings set to music, will be performed by the Canyonlands Ensemble. Julie Wright-Costa and Joe Onstott are the featured vocalists.

"I was raised a fairly traditional Jew," Osherow said, "with an attachment to the tradition. We ate kosher in my house, we kept the Sabbath to some degree in my house, we went to Jewish summer camps and that sort of thing."

Osherow said that she rebelled against the fact that women couldn't do certain things when she was growing up, and she learned how to do them. "Somebody said, 'Well, even if we let you read Torah, you wouldn't know how to do it,' so I learned how to do all this chanting. I learned how to chant from the Torah, from the Prophets, from the Song of Songs."

When she left home to live abroad and go to college, Osherow says she also moved away from thinking a lot about Jewish culture at the time — or so she thought. But when she moved to Utah to accept a position at the U., she found that her roots still flourished. It required more effort to become an active participant in the Jewish community here, but it also seemed to afford more opportunities.

"It's not as if every Jew in Utah knows how to chant," said Osherow, "so I started to do a lot of chanting. And I'm certainly not going to get up and chant what I don't understand, so my Hebrew — which wasn't bad; it was really pretty good to begin with — got much, much better because I was constantly engaging with all these texts, and they are truly great texts. And so it was not surprising that they would make their way into my writing. . . . Going over it again and again and again, a literary person notices all kinds of really cool things."

In addition to incorporating scriptural text and themes in her poems, Osherow ended up teaching the Hebrew Bible as literature at the university. And although she was using scripture for inspiration, it wasn't until she collaborated with U. professor and composer Morris Rosenzweig that she also drew on the Psalms in her writing.

Rosenzweig had been commissioned in 1993 by the Hillel Foundation to write a work commemorating the 50th anniversary of the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto. He approached Osherow and commissioned her to write one of the poems for the song cycle. "I don't think I had written anything based on the Psalms up to that point. One (thing) that struck me is that apparently there was this extraordinarily terrific soprano, and they called her the 'nightingale' of the Warsaw Ghetto. . . .

"The notion of 'how did she sing' under those circumstances — because, apparently, she gave a lot of concerts and sang a lot — reminded me of Psalm 137: 'How can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?' So I ended up integrating a lot of those kinds of verses from 137 in that lyric."

In a separate interview, Rosenzweig said that in writing the piece, he inserted quotes from Psalm 137 — in Hebrew — which Osherow had referenced. "I liked the idea of having the thing she alluded to actually present in the piece," he said.

The balance of the song cycle is made up of poems from the collection "The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse," plus one that is made up of Psalm text. "I'd been getting a lot of pleasure out of reading that book," Rosenzweig said, "because there were a lot of poems that one might not necessarily expect from a book of that title. . . . They're all old poems; they're from about 1000 common era."

Together, said Rosenzweig, the collection centers around a theme of different states — such as renewal, complaint, lament, marriage, rejoicing and a spring wine song.

Osherow said that since that experience, she has gone on to wrote a series of Psalm-based poems that figure prominently in her most recent book, "Dead Men's Praise."

If you go . . .

What: Jacqueline Osherow and the Canyonlands Ensemble, Madeleine Festival

Where: Cathedral of the Madeleine, 331 E. South Temple

When: 8 p.m. tonight

How much: Free

E-mail: rcline@desnews.com