03:08 - Source: CNN
California synagogue attack latest in hate-filled pattern

Editor’s Note: Daniel Blokh is an 18-year-old creative writer attending the Alabama School of Fine Arts. He is a current National Student Poet and the author of two poetry chapbooks, “Grimmening” (Diode Editions, 2018) and “Holding Myself Hostage in the Kitchen” (Lit City Press, 2017). He will be attending Yale in the fall. The views expressed here are his. Read more opinion on CNN.

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4 years after I stopped going to Sunday school
A man walked into a synagogue and peeled it open

Like a scab. No safety. No

Safety. Watch, on TV - the myth of danger
Reassembled with its ugly biting

Heads, its wings, its invisible creep.
When my parents told me about danger’s weight

How could I know to believe them?

This is the beginning of a poem I wrote several months after 11 people were killed in a mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. The poem goes on for a few more pages, and belongs to a series of poems with the same name: “Weight.” In various poems, the weight becomes the weight of Jewish history, the weight of loss following tragedy, the weight of my Magendavid on my neck as I decide to tuck it under my shirt, the weight of responsibility to our ancestors, or the weight of fear.

Daniel Blokh

I have come to realize that in a community struggling with so many heavy emotions, poetry is a perfect platform to speak those complex feelings into the world so they are heard and known, to build a foundation of empathy in which we can feel understood and safe.

I’m glad I eventually let all the poems in “Weight” flood out onto the page, but for a long time, I didn’t think of writing down my feelings about the shooting. Though I study creative writing at a magnet school and teach poetry workshops around the country as one of this year’s five National Student Poets, poetry felt too feeble to capture the many feelings spurred in me by the shooting.

I had known, from my parents’ experiences and my own research, that anti-Semitism was a powerful force with an extensive history, shaped largely by the way Jews’ self-contained communities made them easy to scapegoat and stigmatize. But the shooting showed me that despite Jews’ far more integrated position in today’s society, anti-Semitism is alive and well, even experiencing a sudden increase, and strong enough to lead to an act of this magnitude. We are still a tiny community that is often seen as “other,” which leads to stereotyping, prejudice, hateful comments, vandalism and violence.

After months of carrying fear and hurt and anger inside me, a familiar feeling of needing to convey myself brought me to the page. Growing up as a Jewish kid with Russian immigrant parents, I felt like the odd one out whenever I was around most other kids in Alabama, and first turned to writing to express my strange reality to others. Now, as I sat down to write “Weight” many years later, I rediscovered the power of writing that first drew me to the art form.

Writing allows us to place readers in our voice, our imagery, our experience, our world. Poetry, in particular, with its emphasis on the lyrical and illogical, asks us to trust our author and fall into their reality. Depicting these realities has great societal importance; in the Russian tradition my parents exposed me to, for example, poets were the truth-tellers to turn to for honest depictions of life amid Soviet lies and distortions.

Writers convey their experience, in all its immense complexity, in all its baggage and history, in all its explosive emotion, and allow readers to empathize with it. That kind of empathy is how we begin to deconstruct misunderstanding, to fight against hatred. Once you connect with someone on such an emotional level, it is difficult to continue seeing them as “other.”

As a culminating part of my role as a National Student Poet, I am tasked with developing a poetry-related community service project. Inspired by the outlet poetry provided me in the wake of Pittsburgh, I have chosen to build a project around teaching poetry workshops at synagogues and Jewish summer camps. I want to introduce my students (whether they be teens or adults) to poems that respond to national tragedies and bear witness to hate, read a bit of my own poetry, and then encourage them to create pieces addressing their own emotions in a free-write.

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    As anti-Semitism grows in our country and events like the very recent California synagogue shooting continue to occur, I find myself returning again and again to poetry, adding new sections to “Weight” and processing my feelings through the page. My hope is that my project will introduce other American Jews to the method of poetry to sort through their own emotions in our dangerous world.