Review of Marc Widershien's The Life of All Worlds
edited: Tuesday, November 20, 2001
By Ian Thal
Posted: Tuesday, November 13, 2001
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A review of Marc Widershien's "The Life of All Worlds," originally published in the October 26-November 1, 2001 issue of The Jewish Advocate, a Boston based weekly newspaper.
Jewish Boston in the Cold War Era:
Marc Widershien Paints a Poetic Portrait of Years Past
The Life of All Worlds
by Marc Widershien
Ibbetson Street Press/Stone Soup Poets, 2001
63 Pages. Paperback. $10
Marc Widershien calls his book length poem, The Life of All Worlds, a “lyrical memoir.” It recounts his childhood and adolescence in the once-bustling Jewish community that flourished in Dorchester during the 1940s and ‘50s. The neighborhood he describes is one whose elders still have memories of Europe and whose youth are learning how to be American during the Cold War years.
This community is filled with many characters whose usually brief appearances are sufficient to betray the reasons Widershien, who holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from B.U. and teaches at area colleges, still holds them in affectionate memory. Often their ultimate fate is foretold as they are first encountered.
When telling the story of their childhoods, many artists are tempted to do little more than express the nostalgia they share with their contemporaries or provide some exoticism to younger generations. Widershien aspires to something far more sublime. The author’s memory of shopping downtown with his aunt, for example, is not an elegy for a simpler time, nor is it a romanticization of the past. Here, the boy and his aunt are purchasing food for a kosher kitchen; the dinner table thus binds one generation to the next as the kosher meal binds all generations to the Law and so to one another.
Widershien’s childhood experiences on Blue Hill Avenue, Roxbury and Downtown Crossing are all occasions to transcend the quaint and parochial into the realm of the global and/or universal. The young man’s first concert at Symphony Hall is a moment to reflect upon the Cold War with the Soviet Union. An outing to Revere Beach with his father is a meditation on the vastness of the world and a wonderment that the billions of people who inhabit it are still connected in the same way that the narrator is connected to his own loved ones.
It is not that the mundane refers to something greater, but that the people who make up the community, despite the apparent simplicity of the roles they play, are concerned with something greater, as described in the Rosh Hashonah service at Chai Odom:
I thought of Moses and the Sinaitic fire
and how Jews believed that the scriptures
were for men to learn about the ways of God
rather than God himself.
It was a Divine mystery even for those tailors,
and butchers, milkmen, dress cutters, doctors.
On this evening, the shofar is blown and Dorchester becomes connected to every Jew in every era in every corner of the world to the God of history, and back to the Widershien home.
The author’s father, to whom this work is dedicated and whose death in 1970 prompted the first draft of this work, is the personification of this community. An engineer who emigrated from a Ukrainian shtetl as a child, he is the loving father who takes his sons fishing or makes a sundae to distract his youngest from the news of the Korean War, but he is also his son’s guide into manhood. He encourages both the study of Judaism and music, suggests Mahatma Gandhi as a hero, makes the home a meeting place for Chai Odom’s scholars and thinkers, and as the 1960s begin, allows his sons to become their own men. He is the hero from behind the scenes.
As poem, The Life of All Worlds is sophisticated, yet accessible even to those who do not typically read poetry. The writing is elegant, clear, and crafted so that the reader puzzles not over the poetry but upon the same mysteries that occupy the characters. Marc Widershien has written an excellent book that vividly describes a time and place that today exists only in memory.