By: Zev Granik  | 

Arts & Culture: Apophatic Poetry For a Time of Wordlessness

​On Nov. 30, Yeshiva University’s Writing Center held its annual Open Mic event, where students and faculty presented their original writing to a friendly and accepting audience. Anyone and everyone was invited to watch the performances, and/or perform themselves. I sat in awe listening to a series of powerful pieces by so many talented people, from the poignant and shocking short stories of the Writing Center’s Micah Pava (YC ‘23), to Professor Katherine Payne’s evocative personal reflection. Avraham Frohlich (YC ‘25) played an unforgettable original album of love songs, and Benny Klein (YC ‘24) performed a hilarious comedy set featuring advice for dealing with middle school bullies and awkward family reunions. The imposter syndrome was kicking in. What was I doing there? What did I have that could compare to these performances?

​This was the second YU Open Mic I have attended. Last year, it was a much smaller event, which I only heard about from Prof. David Puretz. He encouraged our whole creative writing class to go to this random event no one knew much about, and I was ambivalent about going. It wasn’t that I didn’t have anything prepared — a couple of poems collected dust on my Google Drive from a few months prior. I just had so much other work to do, and frankly, I was tired. But after some further cajoling from Prof. Puretz, I decided to try out this Open Mic thing, dust off those poems and give them a whirl in front of an audience. It was an exhilarating experience, one I hadn’t had in years. I suddenly remembered why I loved writing, and why I loved sharing my writing with others. It was a chance to play around with words, their sounds, and meanings. I felt I could finally express myself and activate a part of my personality that had been lying dormant for a long time. 

​Fast forward a year to this October. Another Open Mic approaches. Again, the ambivalence I felt last year struck. There was so much other work to be done, and so much relaxation and unwinding that would be interrupted by my participation in the event. But I remembered my experience a year prior, and I resolved to dust off another poem or two and perform.  

​Then Hamas attacked Israel. For a while, it was all any of us could think about. Assemblies.  Rallies. Shiurim. Calls. Texts. Media. Social media. Misleading, misinformed media. 

Suddenly the poems I was planning to read seemed trite, pointless. Everything did, except Israel and what the Jewish people had endured.

​For days and weeks, I tried and failed to write something about Israel. My inability to write was not because I didn’t have any thoughts on the situation. I had a lot of jumbled, angry, confused thoughts, and when I tried to get them down on paper, they all came out equally garbled. I had so many feelings, yet nothing to say.

​And then I heard about a sentiment which was circulating in Israel at the time–“Ein Milim,” “No words.” This perfectly described my predicament. So much welling up inside, but no way to express it. And so, I thought, if I couldn’t talk about Israel, at least I could talk about having nothing to say about Israel. 

​But as I started writing, I realized that really, “Yeish Milim:” We do have words to describe national pain and suffering. So much of our tradition discusses exile, war, loss and confusion. Until this moment, I had never really understood Sefer Eicha or the revenge lust of the go’el hadam. Far from being at a loss for words, Jewish texts and liturgy are packed with an unending litany of discussions of the chachamim of every generation explaining the meaning of and proper response to pain and tragedy.

​After this realization, I tried to somehow package the “Jewish approach” to Oct. 7 into my poem. But I quickly realized this was futile. There were just too many discussions and too many precedents and models to pick from. I couldn’t reference one of them without my thoughts shifting to another topic or context from our long history of tragedy. I began to feel mute again.  There were just too many images to use, and too many words. I was back to square one. I had nothing digestible or presentable to say.

However, this was different from how I had originally understood “Ein Milim.” It wasn’t that we had no way to express our thoughts and feelings. On the contrary, we have too many words. We could try to talk and conceptualize the events, but we might never reach an end. Now “Ein Milim” almost felt like an apophatic ideal, as if it was a command to be in a state of wordlessness.  I realized I had been grasping for symbols and wisdom, trying to put Oct. 7 into some framework so I could keep some safe distance from the reality of it all. Even when I had been at a loss for words, I still struggled to find them. Then I stopped searching. I just sat with the facts of what had happened, in all their gruesome, heart-wrenching detail. And I cried.

​I tried, in whatever incomplete and ironic way, to capture my personal progression in the poem.  Poetry is definitionally a linguistic medium, but this is essentially a journey toward languagelessness. Nevertheless, to paraphrase the Jewish Austrian philosopher of language, Ludwig Wittgenstein, sometimes you must climb the ladder of language, only to knock it out behind you.

Below, I attach the poem:

Some Words on Ein Milim

“Ein Milim”

A phrase for the malaise of these days 

Less than no words to express 

The dazed and confused attitude

Of our People who

Fearing a sequel,

Only discuss what has happened to us 

The sequence of prequels

Stretching back to our beginning

All the stories of glorious winning

And sinning

And failing and wailing 

Up again in victory

Down again in rupture

For three tens of centuries

Never knowing when

God will send

His people home


How far we had to roam 

Lugging that extensive tome

Beg, borrow, and loan

In atonement for our baseless hatred

Hanging by the sinews of our Luz bone

From which the One Enthroned Alone

Will rebuild our home

“Yeish Milim”

We do have so many words for all this

Built into a quilt 

Over endless millennia 

Of one enemy after another

Threatening to smother our hope

We cope with words

The teachings and the preachings

The multitudinous, plenitudinous pages and pages

Of untold ages of prophets and sages

Writing off of meager poor man's wages

Unfazed as they eagerly explained to posterity

How to deal with pain and tragedy

But how do we apply the fine print

The tiny hints from all we’ve read

Of all they’ve said to our newly dead?

Is this the same thread 

Of evil we faced in the Wilderness

When they mercilessly slaughtered our defenseless, 

The fake sanctimonious Amalek?

Is the sake of God’s Name really at stake

When Noble Ishmael 

(Who by the well God propelled to fame)

Claims to be fighting for just the same?

How could the wall of an eternal nation fall in flame

And her people be hauled back into exile

And all the while the world calls for her extinction?

Is this “normal” religious persecution,

The fruition of division turned into expectation?

Or are they against the State

A new spin on an ancient innate latent hate 

Bubbling up to the surface

Threatening to churn us 

Into oblivion?

What do we make of this line of questioning?

How do we candidly understand 

God’s grand narrative plan 

Without demands for bland white-sanded


This time I can’t pretend

To see some line out of this winding 

Mind-bending mine

I don’t have some rhyme

To tie this all in a tiny little bow

So then I’d know

How to make sense of this violence

The silence is deafening

Echoing throughout my heart

As an entire part

Of my body is cleaved clean off

Heaved off into the belly of a beast

Who feasts on festering preconceived irate fear 

Still I sit here trying to fit

Thousands of years of the swords

Of the hoards of the Lord’s Wars 

Into a few spoken broken words 

“Ein Sof L’Davar”

There are too many words to say

Too many ways to lay it all out

In some sane orderly arrangement

Twisting wordless horror

Into an absurd chorus 

Of pathetic noetic polemics


For Das Ding an Sich

The Thing in Itself in the light of day

As the Sages rightly say

Adding unto His praises

Can have no end

Once one speaks on such matters

They cannot, like common flatterers

Stop when they feel the pomp

Of the situation is sated

Rather they must blather on and on unabated

For all eternity

Until they have fallen, collapsed from exhaustion

And so, in an excess of caution 

Instead of collapsing this whole discussion

Into a poem for packaged consumption 

And with inflated gumption presumpting

To be exhausting all there is to say

Today I won’t say anything at all

Photo Caption: Wittgenstein says language is a ladder that must be pulled up after it is climbed.

Photo Credit: manolofranco / Pixabay