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Bev Yockelson Reads "The Trans Haggadah Companion"

February 11, 2019

Don Share: This is the Poetry magazine podcast for the week of February 11th, 2019. I’m Don Share, editor of Poetry magazine.
Christina Pugh: I’m Christina Pugh, consulting editor for the magazine. On the Poetry magazine podcast, we listen to a poem or two in the current issue. Bev Yockelson is an artist, barista, and MFA candidate at MICA Mount Royal in Baltimore.
Don Share: A few years ago, while living in San Francisco, Yockelson attended not one, but four Passover Seders with his partner Nico. One he heard about through Keshet, an organization that matches queer Jews with queer hosts for Passover meals.
Bev Yockelson: So we were sitting around this, like, super small kitchen table. We had never met any of these people before, but we all got together and it was like a potluck, and so we all made food and sat down to really explore the Passover story and talk about the Exodus and talk about Passover. So you read out of the Haggadah, and often there are companions to the Haggadah that offer different lenses that you can read the story through; so there will be a feminist Haggadah companion and things like that.
Christina Pugh: While sitting around the table, the guests started wondering: who are the side characters in the Exodus story? Who gets overlooked?
Bev Yockelson: Someone off-hand mentioned, oh, you know, like, Moses wasn’t the only person who was, like, really key in the parting of the Red Sea. And so we ended up talking a little bit about Nachshon who ... who was the first person to actually go into the water, and trust that the miracle would happen. (LAUGHING) It was just a really beautiful thought, how someone who was been talked about since the time of my ancestors, who, like, possessed so much confidence and belief that he could just go and everything would work out, and everything would be OK.
Don Share: Nachshon came to open Yockelson’s own version of a Haggadah companion.
Bev Yockelson: So I was interested in writing a poem that would offer a trans lens for this story, just because I am trans, and so that’s important to me.
Christina Pugh: The poem draws directly from Passover traditions, including the hiding of the afikoman.
Bev Yockelson: There is a tradition of hiding the afikoman, which is a piece of matzo that’s been broken, and it gets hidden, and then the young people will look for it. I’ve always been really interested in that tradition. I think it’s fun—I used to do it when I was a kid—but I think, for me, I’m interested in how the afikoman relates to the idea of being a body, having a physical representation, and trying to find all of the pieces of yourself. And through the traditions of Passover and through learning and asking questions, we can find broken pieces of ourself and exist as a whole.
Don Share: Here is Bev Yockelson reading “The Trans Haggadah Companion.”
Bev Yockelson:

On this night
             I remember Nachshon
             who was not Moses who
                         walked into the Red Sea
                         and called for God
                                                  to meet him there
On this night
             I am only a body and you
                                                  are only a body
On this night
                         nothing is hidden
                         only the afikomen
On this night
                         God was here and I
                                                            I knew it

Don Share: One of the key questions during the Passover Seder in the Haggadah, sort of, the unfolding ritual for the Seder, the kind of script for it, is a question that the youngest asks, which is: why is this night different from all other nights? And it’s a very powerful question, not just in terms of, say, Jewish history and liturgy, but a question that faces anyone on the brink of exile anywhere in the world at any time. This night is different from all other nights when you have to reflect on being cast out into the world, as the poet explained ...
Christina Pugh: Hmm.
Don Share: … in the introduction. Something about the pieces of yourself, something about dispersal. Something also, though, about courage to go out there and make the waves part. (LAUGHING)
Christina Pugh: Hmm.
Don Share: If that’s what can happen—to sort of hope for, engage in and put your fate in the miraculous—is a challenge that so many people have always faced and always will.
Christina Pugh: It’s very powerful, the repetition of “On this night.” It really draws attention to the parting of the Red Sea, of Passover. And I really feel with these repetitions, every time that happens, there is a kind of rethinking of these traditions. And also, by making it a “Trans Haggadah Companion,” it seems as if the poet is working through how this pieceness and this embodiment of a human body might be working for himself/herself/themselves as a trans person. What’s interesting to me is that a lot of that is not brought into the poem as a kind of working through, but it’s really encapsulated in lines like “On this night / I am only a body and you / are only a body.”
Don Share: That connection of trans people with this enduring tradition is, I think, a discovery that the poem and the poet are making. I think it’s.. it’s sort of a new way to think about so many different things. And even though it’s not a long poem, it really has a lot in it. For instance, when it says, “On this night / I remember Nachshon / who was not Moses who / walked into the Red Sea / and called for God / to meet him there.” And at the end of the poem, when it says: “God was here and I / I knew it,” it’s sort of a transformation of, again, another part of the inheritance, which is that ordinarily, in the Old Testament, when God is looking, the human being has to say, “I’m here.” (LAUGHING)
Christina Pugh: Right.
Don Share: When God’s looking for you, you say “I’m here.” And this moves it around so that God is here. And the human being knows it.
Christina Pugh: Hmm.
Don Share: So that it’s like a kind of transness of perspective, of mortal bodies and immortal bodies, of history and immediacy, of making a connection now to something, the memory of which is inherited and passed along, and passed along…
Christina Pugh: Hmm.
Don Share: … and we have that sort of obligation to remember. But what is so moving to me about this poem is that it shows that our obligation is not just to remember but to transform, to inhabit with our bodies the things that are passed along to us that we have to bring forward in any way that we can. So it illuminates so many aspects of history and responsibility in a very sort of short but really moving space. 
Don Share: You can read “The Trans Haggadah Companion” by Bev Yockelson in the February 2019 issue of Poetry magazine, or online at
Christina Pugh: We’ll have another episode for you next week, or you can get all February episodes all at once in the full-length podcast on Soundcloud. Let us know what you thought of this program. Email us at [email protected], and please link to the podcast on social media.
Don Share: The Poetry magazine podcast is recorded by Ed Herrmann and this episode was produced by Rachel James.
Christina Pugh: The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. I’m Christina Pugh.
Don Share: And I’m Don Share. Thanks for listening.

The editors discuss Bev Yockelson's poem "The Trans Haggadah Companion" from the February 2019 issue of Poetry.

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