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A Tribute to Chana Bloch: Poet, Teacher, and Mother

August 8th, 2018

This blog post is written by Jonathan Bloch, son of Chana Bloch. The 36.2 (Summer 2018) issue of Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies is a tribute issue for writer, poet, teacher, and mother: Chana Bloch (1940-2017). In the words of the special issue editors, Rachel Tzvia Back and Dara Barnat, “We gather together in the pages of this special issue for Chana Bloch to sing of her a funeral plainsong of profound appreciation, of enduring love, of great sorrow at her leaving.” This special issue includes essays and poems from her students, loved ones, and friends. We are especially excited and grateful for the final two pieces in the issue, an artwork contributed by Jonathan Bloch and a never before published poem by Chana Bloch which was discovered by Bloch’s sons after her passing.

Most people who know my mother know her through her words. I know her the same way – because Ima and me talked constantly. We would sit at the kitchen table and talk, one thing

leading to another, in conversations that meandered for hours, for the joy of it. But then she died. Now, I am left holding my end of the conversation, which we never finished. I will never be able to tell her how my life has changed. She will never see my daughters grow up. We will never sit at the kitchen table again.

But she gave me words. It’s because of her that words have flavor for me; that words have meaning for me. And I think that all the words between us were our connection, but also a barrier. She was always saying, “you know, isn’t it amazing that so-and-so, and I’m so happy that this, and isn’t it a wonderful surprise that that” – it was lovely, but also kind of exhausting. But I think I understand why she did that. She grew up in a difficult family, and had to maintain a constant note of joviality on top of the anxiety.

But this reflexive habit of hers matured, over time, into a deeper ability – to laugh; to deal with pain, even to find joy in dealing with it; to find poetry in dealing with it; to make use of it. She made much use of pain. The quality she admired in Mark O’Brien1 – his ability to choose his attitude even in unimaginably difficult circumstances – had become a core attribute of her self.

That attribute – the ability to cope with difficulty – is primarily a practical one, and my mother’s overriding tendency was to be practical. I think, though, that she secretly wanted something else in her life, a kind of sensuality, which she never got enough of. At her core there was innocence and joy, which, in a less harsh world, would have been met with sensuality. It’s probably one of the reasons why she wrote poetry. That, and also because she was a dauntingly brilliant human being with a profoundly artistic soul.

Another ideal she cherished, for herself and in her poetry, was clarity. When I was a child, Ima wrote the word ‘clarity’ in black marker on an index card and taped it to the wall above her typewriter, where she would see it when she looked up from writing. I remember seeing that index card with the word clarity, in fading marker, hanging there for many years. I think that clarity was her lifeline, to the end. On her deathbed, two days before she died, she opened her eyes suddenly and asked, “Do I still have my head?” I asked, “Ima, do you mean do you still have your wits about you”? And she nodded. And I said, “Yes, Ima, that fact that you asked that, means that you definitely still have your head”. Even at the point of death, that clarity – do I still have my head – was still her concern.

And when she had to go, she left us. I think not when she was ready – but at a certain point she had to accept it, and then she became ready. And she accomplished the last thing she wanted to do in her life: to choose when, and where, and how she would die. It was her wish to come home from the hospital, to lie in her study overlooking the garden, with her family around her. At the end, she found the strength to give up her strength.

I know she would have been happy living on for many more years – writing, working, traveling, watching her grandchildren grow up. I feel that Ima got interrupted in the springtime of a life that was glorious with creation, and wisdom, and humor and love. She never really became an old person; she was full of youth, the life force, till the end. After all she had gone through, she still had such lightness of spirit. And so she remains forever young.


1Mark O’Brien was a poet who spent his entire adult life in an iron lung.