Judith Tannenbaum was a poet, writer, and beloved educator, a mentor, friend, and mother. She was the heart behind the Prison Arts Collective and a source of deep inspiration for many. Now two years after her passing, friends and relatives honor her legacy with a collection of personal writing that reflects, reminisces, and meditates on her teaching.
An homage to her life and impact on incarcerated and marginalized students, The Book of Judith presents different aspects of Judith through a collection of original poetry, prose, essays, illustrations, and fiction from 33 contributors who knew her. Each piece of writing spotlights a voice that Judith’s teachings once touched, and these combined memories help form a clearer picture of her legacy. Included among these writings are those of JAC founder Wendy Jason and network artist Spoon Jackson.
Five pencil drawings, inspired by those serving life sentences in prison without possibility of parole, separate the book into the following sections: Unfinished Conversations, After December, Looking and Listening, and Legacy. In Unfinished Conversations, contributors share their bond with Judith Tannenbaum through prose and excerpts from letters both real and imagined. In the second section, After December, poets reflect on the life, artistry, and legacy of Judith. The third section, Looking and Listening, focuses on the truth-seeking qualities that Judith brought to her work. The fourth section, Legacy, features work from winners of an award and a fellowship bestowed in her name.
Spoon’s piece, “A Place Called Human,” can be found in the first section, “Unfinished Conversations.” Spoon writes on his experience in Judith’s poetry classes and the uniquely “real” environment she cultivated there: “The first time I went to Judith’s poetry class…guys did not have their group or chrono faces on. Their realness, love, wisdom, and authenticity shined out like globes or magical orbs. Judith had mastered how to bring out the real through the art of poetry.” It is this space that he dubs “A Place Called Human.”
He writes about his silence in her class, and how their relationship grew regardless: “…after a year of silence…we knew we had a kinship and a natural connection that could never end, even after her death…Judith embraced that silence. My silence did not intimidate her. She shared a similar silence. She found wisdom in the silence.” It was through this wisdom, realness, love, and authenticity, through her humanity, that Judith would leave her legacy: “A poet’s retreat beyond the sky. I am sure Judith was prepared for whatever would come. She rested easy like smooth blues, jazz, or folk songs. She made it clear everyone was welcome at the fire. Starlight does not wane—it transforms.”
In the fourth and final section, in a piece titled “Being Human Together,” Wendy similarly reflects on the impact of Judith’s life and legacy. She begins by stating that “…JAC would not exist but for Judith’s vision and trust in me to carry it forth…” After their first meeting in 2010, Wendy writes that Judith quickly became a friend and mentor. A couple years later, Judith would entrust Wendy with the management of the Prison Arts Coalition (PAC), an online hub for those involved in arts programming in carceral settings. It is from this platform that JAC was born.
They connected over their shared frustration with the commonly held belief that teaching artists entered jails and prisons intending to “change” people: “As Judith says in her essay ‘Human Beings Together,’ ‘…change isn’t the point…To intend to change someone requires an assumption that you know more than he does. I knew more about poetry than most of my students, and they knew more about living with regret. We all knew something about keeping one’s spirit alive in the midst of darkness.’” Instead, as Judith wrote, “We were human beings, and for a few hours each week, we were human beings together.” It is this understanding of the human experience, of the sharedness of it, which made Judith special.
She did change those around her. But not because she intended to. Simply because she understood what it meant to be human beings together. She understood how to learn, love, hurt, share, how to exist together.
For these reasons, JAC will forever be a space that reflects Judith’s spirit, guidance, and impact: “…The culture we’ve created within JAC embraces authentic presence, collaboration, and vulnerability—the ideals Judith held tightly to…We nurture and nourish one another, allowing our hearts and values to drive everything we do.” Thank you Judith, for being exactly who you were and for all that you continue to do.
Join us on October 6th at 7 pm EDT for a night of remembrance as we celebrate the recent publication of The Book of Judith. The event will include introductions by Lynne Elizabeth, Spoon Jackson, and Wendy Jason along with a selection of readings from the book by Fury Young, Allie Horevitz, and devorah major. Participants will also be invited to connect and share their memories and reflections. Register for the event here.
Order your copy of the book here. We encourage those interested to order directly from the publisher or buy local where possible.