The zeitgeist of the American Jewish experience flows from the pen of Philip Terman.
An award-winning poet who teaches creative writing and literature at Clarion University of Pennsylvania, Terman has published five books of poetry, drawing heavily on Jewish history, characters and wisdom.
He was the inaugural speaker at Temple Emanuel of South Hill’s Bagel Bites: Sunday Brunch Series, an adult education program that is free and open to the public. At the Dec. 16 event, Terman read several poems from his book “Our Portion” (Autumn House Press, 2015).
The poems brought laughter from the audience of about 25 people one minute, and tears the next — an echo of the Jewish experience itself.
Terman is drawn to Jewish themes, he said in an interview, because “there is boundless energy and spirit and history. It’s what I grew up with, and what I gravitate towards”
Raised in Cleveland by a mother he describes as a “synagogue Jew,” and a father he refers to as a “deli Jew,” it is his Jewishness that moves him, “from the texts to the corn beef sandwiches.”
Terman and his wife live in a rural area about 10 miles from Grove City, in a red brick school house with a slate roof built in 1884. There are not too many Jews out that way, but nonetheless when it comes to his Judaism, “it’s hard to get away from it,” he said. He and his wife are active members of Congregation B’nai Abraham in Butler and are former co-presidents of that congregation.
While “you couldn’t make a minyan” at Clarion University, he said, the broader campus community turned out in droves at a vigil to raise money for HIAS following the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue building. Being one of a small number of Jews at Clarion, Terman tries to bring a Jewish essence to campus, and can “pretend to be the expert,” he quipped.
Expert or not, it’s clear that Terman’s Jewish identity percolates deep in his kishkes, and is revealed through his accessible, clever and poignant poetry.
At his Temple Emanuel reading, Terman commenced with the poem “Eloquence,” a reflection on growing up with a speech impediment, with a tie-in to the Torah’s most famous stammerer, Moses.
“As a Jewish poet, of course I’m going to write about my ancestors,” Terman told his audience, before launching into “The Dress Factory,” a tribute to his immigrant grandparents in which he paints clear and loving imagery of an Eastern European shtetl, then the heartbreaking realities of the early 20th century American sweatshops.
In “My Russian Jewish Grandparents and the Birth Parents of Our Chinese Child Meet at a Café and Discuss our Child’s Future,” Terman imagines his Jewish ancestors bridging time, space and culture to connect for common cause with his adopted child’s birth family. It is an inspired fusing of Judaism’s past to its continuing evolution.
The penultimate poem of the morning was Terman’s tribute to the victims of the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue building, “A Minyan Plus One,” excerpted below:
I didn’t know them, but I knew them
,in the way we know those raised
,no matter where we originated
in the same beliefs our ancestors
inherited all the way back into
those mysterious origins, however
they formed — something certain
,in those stories of creation and exile
,of miracles and complicated kings
—of commandments and wisdoms
Dave Rullo, who helped organize the event, tapped Terman to be the Bagel Bites: Sunday Brunch Series’ first guest, he said, as he is renown throughout the region as being an accomplished Jewish poet.
“We are working to bring some interesting and different speakers to the community,” he added. “Our goal is to make this event something that people will say, ‘We can’t miss.’”
Bagel Bites is sponsored by the Larry & Brenda Miller Memorial Caring Community Fund. Upcoming speakers include Nathan Firestone, a professor of political science at Point Park University, and Rabbi Danny Schiff, Foundation Scholar at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at