Discussing Sheologies, a Poetry Collection of Jewish Folk Tales

On a rainy Shabbat day, I drive to my friend Taylor Sinason’s farm in Bellingham, Washington. Taylor is an herbalist, a practitioner of Jewish plant magic, a farmer, and a fellow poet. We are meeting up to discuss Sheologies, my new book of poetry steeped in Jewish folk tale and fabulism, plant magic, teenage-girl ancestors, and talking Jewish flowers.

Taylor lives in a tiny place called the Hex Hut, a hexagonal tower with a wooden staircase that spirals to the top floor. Lavender and wildflowers grow outside the base of the hut. The landscape is filled with large evergreens, and the sound of the creek mixes with the day’s light rain. Moments after walking into the Hex Hut, Zazu, the grey-speckled kitten, rushes in, all fluff and wet, his green eyes shining. He disappears almost as quickly as he appears.

Taylor and I sit down for a meal, a salad filled with greens from their bountiful garden and the first precious strawberries of the season, and begin our discussion. 


First off, I liked reading your work. And I am curious about family, both living and ancestral, and the way they are present in your work.  

I have all these ancestors I don’t know about. I don’t exist in a vacuum. I didn’t just become a poet. I didn’t just start hearing all these plants talking to me. I didn’t just come into my Judaism in this magical way out of nowhere. 

And I feel lucky because I do know a lot about my ancestry. For example, we have a family bible from my great-great-grandfather, who came from Germany, that has our family lineage written inside. I’ve been to the cemetery in Germany where a lot of my mom’s family is buried and sat with those gravestones. 

But I also feel a huge sense of loss when I think of ancestry. I know that there are folk practices that didn’t get passed on because they were oral and weren’t valued by those who had the ability to write. And so, as someone who is a writer, I am trying to use that as the tool to go back and find the things that weren’t written. There is a dichotomy there. It is also empowering to have this tool that my ancestors may not have had access to, and now I am engaged in preserving what they did.

Though the only way I can figure that out is intuitively, through creation and imagination. If something feels good on my body or I find myself engaging with a plant in a profound way, I believe that my ancestors worked and felt similar things. 

A lot of my book is a suspension of disbelief and it’s me choosing to believe that these people exist: priestesses that take care of flowers, flower spirits, sisters that are half flower, healers that are working in the kitchen. Those are my ancestors, and also, ancestry doesn’t have to be linear.

I have been in a similar process because I don’t have a lot of stories of my ancestors. I still crave and need that connection. It’s similar to when I started learning about Jewish herbalism and realizing all of my favourite plants are in this book. 

Your poetry speaks to everyday magic, and I’m curious about your practice of noticing the world around you. How do you apply or incorporate it into your writing? 

I often think of writing as a ritual like w r i t u a l. Living on the West Coast, I am in close contact with nature and I am constantly awed by the forest, the ocean, and the mountains. 

But when I did my MFA in Ohio, I was suddenly in a much more suburban place with flat land, and it was really hard for me to get access to nature. I would be in nature but I didn’t feel like the nature there spoke to me. The fields didn’t stay green, there weren’t any mountains, and the ocean wasn’t nearby.

Even though I write largely about the West Coast in Sheologies, it was actually helpful to be in Ohio to learn how to listen to nature when it’s quiet. When you’re in front of the ocean it’s so loud. It’s easy to feel like the water is talking. But when you’re in a meadow and it’s silent, or there’s a million cicadas that are driving you crazy, you’re like, okay, now I have to learn how to listen to the natural world in a different way. 

This has also been helpful for noticing magic because magic was very place-based for me, and now it isn’t as much. It always involves physical engagement with the world around you while being present in your body and your surroundings. It is accessible everywhere.

I grew up in the Midwest, so I definitely understand. There is a certain degree of intentional reverence that the land asks for. When did you first encounter flower priestesses?

I’ve always been obsessed with peonies. They’re so magical. They have such an intense, vibrant energy to me. And over time, I discovered that they were used in some Jewish traditions and customs to clean up after a miscarriage and for cramps. They are very connected to processes that a woman’s body goes through.

At some point, my mom sent me a magazine about peonies that she found. In the it there was an article about Paeonia, a kingdom in ancient Greece where peonies were revered and sacred. I was thinking about the Greeks and how they love temples and how they had priestesses. It’s a pretty simple jump to imagine that there were priestesses caring for peonies and that was part of their sacred duty. So there’s a poem in Sheologies called  “Paeonia,” which is a conversation between the peonies and the priestesses. 

It is not an explicitly Jewish poem. The poem essentially wrote itself. I was in a garden and the words just came. It was a one-draft poem. I remember thinking, I don’t know where that came from but thank you, peonies. That was one of the most intense moments of feeling like a plant wrote through me. I didn’t know that could happen. 

I love this image of the flower priestesses tending these flowers like the peonies tend to women. Who are your poetic inspirations?

I love Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, who runs the Velveteen Rabbi Blog. I particularly love her book 70 Faces. Reading her work was the first time I learned about feminist midrash and poetry as feminist midrash. I love Alicia Jo Rabins, Leila Chatti, and Mary Syzbist. They are all women poets who work with religious text and are interested in the revisioning and the recreating of religious text. And so am I. Which is probably similar to what my ancestors did. The rabbi sat in the synagogue and studied and felt close to God. But women and nonbinary people were in the kitchen, in the garden, working in the community.

Yes! And they weren’t allowed in institutional spaces. So they were channelling God in different ways. And I see that in your work. There’s this kind of dance between deep reverence and irreverence like in “Kosher Prawn Turnovers” where you mention a seagull wearing a kippah. You have a very playful relationship with your Jewishness. 

Yeah, that’s super important to me. If it isn’t fun, if it isn’t delightful, if there isn’t pleasure, why bother? I don’t come from a position of deep scholarship. I’m never going to spend time in yeshiva. My poetry is always grounded in the everyday. I think life is funny.

And in your work, you create and envision new worlds, which I think is inherently political. 

Yes, I think my poetry is political. It’s quietly political; I sometimes feel guilty about that. But part of my job is accessing and celebrating joy and celebrating spirituality as something that can heal and bring delight and pleasure.   

I often think about Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass and how it talks about what would happen if you believed the world loved you and believed that our relationship with the earth is reciprocal. We generate, we populate, we tend. We are not pests. Building on those sorts of ideas is political. 

And all this ties into Olam Haba or creating the World to Come. How I take part in such a creation is by naming and believing in the possibilities for the future, a future where we live in alignment with ourselves.  

It is everyone’s job to do their part in creating the World To Come, and maybe one day that’ll be enough.

Header image design by Clarrie Feinstein.

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