Oh God of Mercy, Oh Wild God

Dancing from Grief to Possibility

The poet Gerald Stern (b. 1925) had much in common with the 11 members of Tree of Life Synagogue who were murdered on October 27. He was raised by immigrant parents in a Jewish household not far from the synagogue, in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. And, like most of those who died, his life was shaped in complex ways by the experience of living through World War II and contending with its particular meaning for Jews, and more particularly than that, for American Jews.

In “The Dancing,” linked here both in text and as Stern introduces and reads the poem, he expresses something of the wrenching dance from horror and grief to – what? what? Is it possible even to think of things like “hope,” like “possibility,” like “joy” in such moments? Yet in Stern’s potent memory of an afternoon in 1945 listening with his mother and father to Ravel’s “Bolero,” loss dances with, at the very least, relief, this offering its own small, ambiguous promise: “the three of us whirling and singing, the three of us / screaming and falling, as if we were dying, / as if we could never stop…”

I was reminded of the poem a couple days after the shootings when our social media assistant, Claire Dixon, posted the well-worn verse from Ecclesiastes on The BTS Center Facebook page as a remembrance for the victims: “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” Biblical platitudes can sometimes come off as cold comfort in such difficult times. Or, they ruffle the sensibilities of those who might think talk of dancing is inappropriate as we mourn the dead, struggle to grasp the scope of the tragedy, and perhaps, too, lament the loss of something profoundly human in the national character. But Claire – like Stern, like Qoheleth, the “assembler” of the wisdom sayings of Ecclesiastes millennia ago – recognized the deep entanglement of weeping and dancing. Through both, often together, the body expresses and creates that for which it seems there really are few adequate words. Stern leaves us only with these, “oh God of mercy, oh wild God,” at the end of the poem – an uncertain, only possibly promising new beginning.

Elizabeth Drescher, Gerald Stern, holocaust, Tree of Life, World War II

Elizabeth Drescher

Elizabeth Drescher, PhD is the editor of Bearings and a Consulting Scholar at The BTS Center. She is also an Adjunct Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University and the author of Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones (Oxford University Press, 2016), Tweet If You ♥ Jesus: Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation (Morehouse 2011), and, with Keith Anderson, Click 2 Save: The Digital Ministry Bible (Morehouse, 2012) and Click 2 Save: Reboot (Church Publishing, 2018). Her commentary on contemporary religion and spirituality has been published in Alternet, AmericaThe AtlanticSalon, The San Francisco Chronicle, The San Jose Mercury News, Religion Dispatches, The Washington Post, and other national publications. She is a much sought after speaker for religious and academic groups engaging the changing religious landscape in the United States. You can find Elizabeth on Twitter @edrescherphd.


Cover Photo: Demitri Bayer, Untitled (February 23, 2018). Via Unsplash. Cc2.0 license.

Body Photo: Rodrigo Fernández, “Gerald Stern at the Miami Book Fair International in 2011” (November 19, 2011). Wikipedia. Cc 3.0 license.