In Southwestern Virginia, many people can trace their roots back to before America got its independence. Appalachian culture prevails to this day, so, when a Jewish professor of creative writing moved here to teach at Virginia Tech, she found a cultural landscape very different from where she grew up. Erika Meitner’s award-winning new book of poetry explores her new home from an outsider’s perspective, something that runs deep in her own family.
“I’m first generation American. My mother was born in a displaced persons camp in Stuttgart Germany in a displaced persons camp after my maternal grandparents were liberated from Auschwitz."
Erika Meitner says, her father’s family also escaped the holocaust, fleeing from Czechoslovakia to what is now Israel. She says her kind of family background is pretty unusual in this part of Virginia.
“I grew up in a very Jewish community in New York, where almost everybody I knew had grandparents who were holocaust survivors. And, to relocate to a place where the Jewish community is very tiny is very different.”
Here’s one example of how she knew she wasn’t in Long Island anymore.
“The first question people would ask me when I moved down here was, what church do you attend, a and I’d say, none, I belong to the Jewish community Center and we don’t have a Rabbi. Everything is done by volunteers."
She says that was surprising to most of her neighbors, and that was surprising at first, to her.
“The other thing that was surprising to me, having grown up in not only an urban area, but an area where gun laws were very strict was, as I had my first son, I realized that a lot of the houses he was going over for playdates, had fire arms in them, which isn’t something I ever thought about in NY. And it engendered some very awkward and intimate conversations with my neighbors about how they keep their fire arms and if they’re locked up and if I could see if they were locked up.”
This is a reading from her poem called, “Dollar General:”
“ I’ve been living in the south now for most of my adult life. ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ says Leviticus 1918 and the Hebrew word for neighbor is Reah, meaning friend, companion, fellow, other. I am a Jew and the mother of one white son and one black son. I’ve been writing about guns lately, but this is not really a poem about guns. It’s about Christmas….”
Christmas is a time when her house is the only one around with no Christmas lights surely the saddest on the block, she writes, “because it is unlit. But in fact, many of Meitner’s poems in this book are also about fire arms. She started working on it the day after the Newtown (Connecticut) shooting.
“And, one of the most shocking things to me as a prof at Virginia Tech is that every student we have here and at every university, has been through a lock down drill, if not an actual school shooting.”
Meitner landed her first real tenure track teaching job in creative writing at Virginia Tech in 2007. Her first assignment was working with students who had lost friends in their school shooting, helping them to use writing as a way to deal with trauma.
"And I think one of the things that was helpful for me was having had this fam bg that was very much rooted in trauma and silence and the concentration camps and my stories around that kind of helped me approach my students…from a place, where I knew what it was like to be around people who had lived through pretty deep trauma."
Erica Meitner’s book is called ‘Holy Moly Carry Me.’ It won the 2018 National Jewish Book Award in poetry and was a finalist for the book critics circle award for poetry.
The book is published by BOA Limited.