Janet Ruth Heller (left) and her new book (right).
Janet Ruth Heller (left) and her new book (right).

Janet Ruth Heller’s new book explores nature and relates it to Judaism.

Janet Ruth Heller likes to joke that her first publisher was her first-grade teacher. 

It happened after the woman gave a poetry writing assignment to Heller’s entire Milwaukee class and learned of the many poems the youngster had written. The teacher especially liked a verse about the emerging poet’s flying a kite with her dad, mimeographed it and gave a copy to each of the other students.

“Twenty-five copies of purple ink,” Heller happily recalled.

Some 65 years later, Heller happily has released her fourth poetry book, Nature’s Olympics (Wipf and Stock Publishers), which uses outdoor images to probe penetrating ideas, some delving into Judaism.

“I have been devoted to nature since I was a little girl,” said Heller, a retired university professor living in Portage. “My dad taught me about trees and plants and stars and animals, and I absorbed his love of nature. 

“The poems in this book were written over a lot of my life. The oldest poems were written when I was an undergraduate in college. The most recent were written in 2021. 

“There isn’t just one theme, but there are some related themes. For example, I find nature very comforting so some of the poems speak about my having a bad day or being in a state of despair and having some encounter with the natural world that changes my mood and my outlook on life completely.” 

“Haven,” for instance, was written after Heller walked beside a Wisconsin lake and chanced upon a beautiful garden, which she imagines would be like finding Eden. “Unveiling” becomes an elegy for her father as it describes his influence in sharing a love for nature with his children. 

“I have nature poems in my other books, but this book is all nature poetry,” Heller said.

In contrast, an earlier Heller book, Exodus, modernizes Midrashim. She presents interpretations and psychological explorations of people and events in the Bible. 

Heller uses the central metaphor of the exodus from Egypt to explore the journey people take when deciding to take on new experiences. Individual poems address leaving a bad relationship, finding a new job and taking risks. Many of the poems are dramatic monologues from characters in the Jewish scriptures. 

Heller’s poems have appeared in anthologies and Jewish periodicals, such as Studies in American Jewish Literature, Shofar and The Jewish Quarterly. 

“I read an essay about Edna St. Vincent Millay when I was in junior high, and that’s the first time it occurred to me that I could be a woman writer,” said Heller, also a writer of produced plays and children’s books, including The Passover Surprise. 

“I always liked to write, and my teachers encouraged me. In high school, I was on the staff of the literary magazine. I was also on the staff of the literary magazine at Oberlin College and Conservatory in Ohio, where I was double majoring in English and Spanish.”

After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, she earned a doctoral degree in English language and literature from the University of Chicago. Along the way, she studied Hebrew and Hebrew literature.

Heller, who moved to Michigan in 1989, has taught at many colleges around the state, including Grand Valley State University, Michigan State University and Western Michigan University. A member of Temple B’nai Israel in Kalamazoo, her career also has included teaching and administrative jobs at Hebrew schools.

Heller and her husband, former long-time elementary teacher Michael Krischer, reinforce their devotion to the natural world with retirement activities. Together, they care for a garden, replete with raspberries, on their property. While she prefers hiking, he favors bicycling and is a board member of the Kalamazoo Bicycle Club.

“I do a lot of work for nonprofit organizations right now, and I’m president of the Michigan College English Association, which holds an annual conference where people present both creative writing and scholarly work virtually and in person,” said Heller, whose own creative projects have addressed issues of bullying and antisemitism based on her experiences. 

“I’m also very active in my synagogue, especially with what we call the Green Team. We’re working on ways to make the synagogue more environmentally conscious. For example, we are involved in installing solar panels. We have a charging station for electric vehicles in our parking lot and a compost bin.” 

And in line with a vastly expressed appreciation of nature, Heller remains intent on the synagogue use of environmentally conscious ways of gardening and landscaping. 

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