Monday, December 18, 2006

Nadelberg's Names

[While I modestly but eagerly await the second installment of Eric's commentary, here's my take on Isa the Truck Named Isadore.]

Amanda Nadelberg’s Isa the Truck Named Isadore has received a number of notices since its publication earlier this year, most of them very positive. I think it’s one of the best first volumes of poetry to come along in quite some time: immensely readable, it yields a great many immediate pleasures. The poems are smart, generous, welcoming and often very funny, beautifully poised, nicely lineated, graciously timed. The book is wholly composed, that is to say, it is a "book" in Jack Spicer’s sense of the term (indeed, Nadelberg sometimes sounds like Spicer in his lighter moments), and the poems cleverly resonate against each other in all sorts of ways . There are sixty-three poems, each with a name as a title, in alphabetical order, from Adelaide to Zeb. Drawn from many languages (Welsh, Polish, Hebrew, French, Hungarian…), the names would suggest a multicultural agenda, but that turns out not to be case. Instead, all the poems are instances of current American speech, common vernacular, conversation oddly angled into art. Readers will think of Stein, Williams, O’Hara and other masters of demotic speech acts. Phrases teeter at the edge of cliché, back up into idiosyncrasy, and suddenly pitch themselves, tongue in cheek, into pop culture myth, morals and manners (“Tell her I want to apologize / like the talk show with the / four ladies said…”). The poems praise, complain, bless, narrate, explain, invite, argue, demur. They are in the voice of the named person, in the voice of an interlocutor, in the voice of the poet herself, in a voice from inside, from outside, all of the above, and none of the above.

All of this is reason enough for any poetry fan to be given this book as a Christmas or Hannukah present. Maybe especially a Hannukah present, because what most reviewers haven’t noticed, or have remarked only in passing, is that Isa the Truck Named Isadore is a wonderful addition to whatever it is we call Jewish American poetry. The Jewish fascination with the kabbalistic magic of naming is powerfully at work here. Invoking the name unlocks the mystery of the everyday, as we see in the often outrageous Jewish American scenarios. “Clelia,” for instance, tells of a wedding taking place in a bay on “floatable benches,” after the guests leave their shoes on the dock “Like that episode where Carrie loses her / 400-dollar Manolo Blahniks.” Here is the last part of the poem:

we were exchanging the niceties we
had written for the ceremony and one
of our friends, Marilyn, fell in. She
was sharing a bench with our friends
with larger asses. Marilyn is tiny she
was barely holding on. Marilyn’s
husband couldn’t swim so he didn’t
go in after her but the Rabbi did—he was
an excellent swimmer and a good Rabbi.
A slight delay in the service but
we were all just so happy
that Mar was okay. Her
husband was especially happy he
told the Rabbi if he ever needed
life insurance he should
call right up—he sold it and
could get him a good price.

I could go on about the line breaks and Nadelberg’s strategic lack of punctuation, but what really tickles me is “we were all just so happy / that Mar was okay.” But if this sounds too much like surreal Jewish standup, then try “Elijah,” which I quote in full:

When you open the door
he humps the banister. He drinks
so little from the cup so little so
everyone can’t be sure if
he’s really there or not but
it doesn’t really matter. You don’t
see him climb the chimney, slide
down the roof, it is slate, and into
the open window upstairs. He looks
so pretty in your dresses while
you help wash the dishes
downstairs. He waits for you to
come up, brush your teeth, climb
into bed and onto him. You
crush his arm and it doesn’t
matter either. Next year he will be
elsewhere but tonight this night
you’re the winner. It’s a big night
when you’re sleeping with Elijah.

Why is this night different from all other nights? Don’t ask! Making great claims or offering deep analysis of this poem may spoil the fun, though this is also a serious poem and a sinister one. It confirms my long-held suspicion that I was not the only kid at the seder who was terrified by opening the door for Elijah, and even though I never thought of the ritual in sexual terms (well, not consciously), I now understand the truly uncanny nature of the whole business. After reading this poem, I have learned something new about Passover, something that has been there all along.

One of the longer poems in the book is “Feivel,” which, as some readers may recall, is the name of the little Jewish immigrant mouse (last name Mousekewitz) in the animated movie An American Tail (1986), directed by Don Bluth, with Steven Spielberg as executive producer. The poem grows increasingly phantasmagoric as it proceeds, which is no mean feat given its resolutely conversational mode. Here is a sample from midway through:

If my mother’s best friend were a doll
with a string to pull for a repetition
she would say I hate Florida. Many
people in Florida have had face lifts and
breast augmentations. It is fantastically
scary. An American Tail is also scary
because this little mouse named Feivel
is separated from his family on their way
from Russia to America. They had to leave
because of anti-Semitism. Maus I and II
are also stories in which mice face
anti-Semitism. There are many
Jewish people in Florida. I am
Jewish but I haven’t had any breast
augmentation. If I haven’t had
any breast augmentation or a
face lift then I am not from Florida.

By the end of this poem, Jews and mice and breast augmentation and anti-Semitism are swirling about so that it too has becomes, as Nadelberg says, “fantastically / scary.” But don’t worry:

…In the end Feivel and his
family are reunited. I haven’t found
my family yet but Feivel has and he
taught us all never to stop looking
even if we aren’t looking for
mice. It works for everything.

Thank you, Amanda Nadelberg. This wandering Jew will keep that in mind.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Happy Hannukah! (A Commentary)

Like so much of Norman Finkelstein's poetry, like so much that is either Jewish or poetry, this selection from Track invites commentary.

"First night / first light," it begins: an easy, almost inevitable rhyme in English, although not (say) in Hebrew, and thus perhaps a mark of the poem's diasporic nature. A rhyme across opposition, as though night inevitably produces, leads to light: a hopeful implication, surely. An echo, on reflection, of Genesis: and there was evening, and there was morning: one [or, the first] day. I've never thought of this holiday having any particular echo of creation in it, but evidently it does, or does now.

"First night / first light / a gift": lovely how the silent "g" in the first two lines now steps into the consonantal spotlight. The pairing of night and light could be the gift, or the light as a riposte to the night. R. Cohen says: "there is a crack, a crack in everything / that's how the light gets in."

"First light / a gift / to the": to what? to whom? Grammatical suspense hints at a pun: "to the" as "to thee."

"A gift / to the / shammes": Finkelstein's freeze-frame lineation reminds us that there is a light before the first light of Hannukah, an ohr kadmon, if you will: the light that lights the shammes, which then lights everything else. A poem about inspiration, then? R. Stevens: "We say, 'God and the imagination are one.' / How high that highest candle lights the dark." Every previous line has had two syllables divided into two words; this, two in one, as though that equation, that illumination, had been achieved. "Shammes" is an awkward word, a break from the diction of the first three lines, an interpolation from the Yiddish, and the Hebrew before that: a beadle, a sexton, a servant. On this night, and indeed all through the holiday, the servant gets the first, unnoticed gift. (When they sing "Bo'i b'shalom,' the back-benchers stand in front.)

"Shammes": in it we see "shame" transfigured ("Lo tevoshi velo tikalemi..." / "V'lo nevosh, v'lo nikalem..."--is that right? quoted from memory), also "sham" ("if the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise"). The poet here as servant alit, and able to pass on light.

More tomorrow, on stanza two. A present to you, Norman!

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Happy Hannukah!

from Track:


First night
first light
a gift
to the

an o
pen gift
for you
to re

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Davidic Verse

Working up my talk on King David, I compiled a handful of poems that mention or deploy him. I'll post them over the next few days, just to keep things moving along here before the late-December break.

Here's one by Charles Reznikoff. I love how he embeds a line of iambic pentameter in the free verse of the poem as a whole, precisely at the moment when David (or his equivalent, in this case) declines the weapons of King Saul. What a fresh, surprising figure for the (Jewish) (American) modern poet's relationship to (British) (Christian) prosodic tradition!
from the sequence "Autobiography: New York"


I do not believe that David killed Goliath.
It must have been---
you will find the name in the list of David's captains.
But, whoever it was, he was no fool
when he took off the helmet
and put down the sword and the spear and the shield
and said, The weapons you have given me are good,
but they are not mine:
I will fight in my own way
with a couple of pebbles and a sling.

--Going To and Fro and Walking Up and Down (1941)

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

He's Back!

My good friend Anonymous is back, with a new love note:
By the way hymie kike I am a proud Sunni Muslim. You kaffirs are going to hell for not freeing Palestine. Inshallah.
Well, you know--somehow I knew you weren't a Sufi!

I still don't think this guy's entirely for real, but in any case, he's clearly been appointed my Patience Teacher for the next few weeks, and who am I to argue with such dedication to duty? I'll keep deleting his comments as soon as I spot them, and I'll stop boring you with my responses (probably), but let the record show that I appreciate his efforts. If I'm going to deal with anything Jewish, political or no, I'll have to deal with worse than this, so a little advance training will probably help.

Saith the Preacher (or in this case, the Poet):
There was a king reigned in the East:
There, when kings will sit to feast,
They get their fill before they think
With poisoned meat and poisoned drink.
He gathered all that springs to birth
From the many-venomed earth;
First a little, thence to more,
He sampled all her killing store;
And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,
Sate the king when healths went round.
They put arsenic in his meat
And stared aghast to watch him eat;
They poured strychnine in his cup
And shook to see him drink it up:
They shook, they stared as white's their shirt:
Them it was their poison hurt
- I tell the tale that I heard told.
Mithridates, he died old.
Salaam Namaste!

Ran Across This

Ran across this today, by Jerry Rothenberg: the sixth of his Altar Pieces, from Seedlings & Other Poems. I love the poem; anyone know the work in question?

This Mary Magdalene

has hebrew on
her bodice

& a naughty smile

Amsterdam 1993

Monday, December 04, 2006

King David Tomorrow!

I'll be speaking on King David and Jewish poetry tomorrow here in Chicago, at Congregation Rodfei Zedek on the South Side. I know an email announcing the talk just went out, with this blog address; for those of you just joining me, please excuse my testy post from yesterday. There's some history to it--not entirely happy, as you can imagine! I promise to be nice tomorrow night.

(Well, not too nice: we are talking about King David, my favorite bundle of contradictions. Whitman had nothing on David in the "containing multitudes" department.)

I have a fistful of relevant poems in hand, but if you read this and have suggestions--poems by Jewish poets that are either particularly Davidic, or that allude to David in some way--do send them along! I'm always looking for more.

Here's a favorite, rather wistful, by Yehuda Amichai:

Young David

After the first cheers
David returned to all the youths
and already the armored revelers
were so grown up.

With slaps on the shoulder, with a hoarse laugh.
And someone cursed and others
spit. But David was lonely
and felt for the first time there were no more Davids.

And suddenly he did not know where to put
Goliath's head that somehow he forgot
and still held by its locks.

Heavy and superfluous it now was
and the birds of blood that wandered far
again heard not, like him, the people shouting.

Or, in another translation (from here):

After the outburst of the first few hails
Young David went back to the waiting boys.
Already those who clattered their hard mails
Were so disarmingly mature and poised.

They formed the usual shoulder-slapping queue.
Some swore, some spat, laughed hoarsely, even cheered.
But David stood Alone. Henceforth he knew
There could not be another David here.

And suddenly he wondered where to put
Goliath`s head that his numb hands were yet,
Through sheer inertness, holding by the curls.

Now it was heavy and superfluous, Birds
Who flew into the bloodshot distance heard
No longer, as he did, the shouts and snarls.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Registration for Comments?

A reader writes:
Hey hymie kike remember to put in a registration feature so anonymous users can't post comments like mine go do that hymie kike

Hmmm...I invite someone named Norman Finkelstein to join the blog, and the next thing I know, I get my first piece of anti-semitic commentary. My guess is that Mr. A. U. Akbar here is actually a member of my local Jewish Federation, maybe one of the folks who wants me to block that other Norman Finkelstein (whom I've neither met nor read) from getting tenure. Or maybe one of that other Norman's enemies from Colombia--the University, not the country.

Still, just so he won't feel put out over having tracked his nemesis (or at least someone with the same name) over the waves of cyberspace, I'll take Reb Akbar's advice--unless you, cher Norman, object.

Until tomorrow, then:

Friday, December 01, 2006

Daniel Fuchs

As I said in my first post the other day, I plan to address Jewish literary and cultural matters beyond poetry per se, so I observe with great pleasure that David R. Godine, having recently brought Charles Reznikoff back into print, is also reprinting the work of Daniel Fuchs. Fuchs (1909-1993), although highly praised by the likes of Alfred Kazin and John Updike, remains of the one most underread of Jewish American writers. Godine has just brought out what was previously known as The Williamsburg Trilogy under the title The Brooklyn Novels, with a new introduction by Jonathan Lethem. The three novels which make up this trilogy, Summer in Williamsburg (1934), Homage to Blenholt (1936), and Low Company (1937), present a panorama of post-immigration life in Jewish New York which in every way rivals Henry Roth's more famous Call It Sleep (1934). Like Roth's novel, Fuch's work was influenced by Joyce, especially the Joyce of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and the first of the three books in particular follows the development of a young man, the child of immigrants, who aspires to be the chronicler of his Brooklyn neighborhood while simultaneously freeing himself from its poverty and provinciality. But Fuchs is a much funnier writer than Roth, and his vision of the life of the streets, though certainly quite dark, is less tragic and more absurd. Roth vanished into obscurity, only to emerge at the end of his life and publish his multi-volume Mercy of a Rude Stream. Fuchs, by contrast, broke up his next novel into short stories, sold them to popular magazines, and headed out to Hollywood where he became a successful screenwriter (he won an Oscar for the screenplay of "Love Me or Leave Me"). Godine published The Golden West: Hollywood Stories last year; it includes Fuchs' last novel, West of the Rockies (1971).

There is a passage in Summer in Williamsburg which has always served as a touchstone for me in regard to the ways in which Jewish-American writers have negotiated the problems of assimilation and the loss of religious traditions under the social and cultural conditions of modernity. Replete with mock Yiddish and Hebrew, it is a lengthy description and ironic homage to
...these mysterious men in their black, shiny caftans, in their skull caps, these old men who come together in the evenings to play tick-tack-toe with the great Talmud, itself brought down miraculously through the centuries. In our time we must admire and respect this fervor, this tradition. They are true heroes in a world of puppets and therefore we do not understand them. These old men who find synagogues in a tenement basement store with the terrible toilets facing the back yards. These old men nodding over the yellow, holy-odored volumes, arguing in a straight line of tradition that extends over the world in width, in depth to the earliest times, in length to God himself. What dimensions, what awful dimensions, what wonderful men as they spit generously on the dirty floor.
This passage deserves some Talmudic exegesis of its own. As Walter Benjamin might say, it is a perfect instance of cultural transmission as catastrophe. Fuch's comedy depends upon a disquieting blend of the familiar and the alien, of the heimish and the remote. Something Jewish is being passed from older to younger generation, and the means of transmission, as is traditional in Jewish culture, is the Book. But what is certainly not being passed on is Talmudic wisdom, but instead the bittersweet knowledge of its loss, as seen from the perspective of a young, Americanized generation, already a bit nostalgic for a way of life it knows very well yet cannot call its own. The text that is the vehicle of this experience is no longer the religious tome but the resolutely secular modern novel. The novel exposes the world of "synagogues in a tenement basement store with the terrible toilets facing the back yards." But in doing so, it reveals itself as one of the "puppets" of modernity, and if it is any way heroic, its heroism lies in its powers of self-deflation.

This is early Fuchs; later, that ironic power of self-deflation will become more completely Americanized. He migrates from Jewish college boys and old talmudists, to Jewish gangsters and pimps, to Jewish agents and producers. By the time he writes about the Hollywood studio system, he will move brilliantly between the registers of the cynic and the moralist, leaving the line of tradition he describes above almost completely behind. He never quite comes to see Hollywood in the apocalyptic terms one finds in West's The Day of the Locust. He was very much a part of the industry for a long time, but he could cast a cold eye upon it as a novelist, and, I think, as a secular Jew. Sometimes he seems to be dancing around the Golden Calf. But the next instant, he's smashing it to bits.

Greetings from Norman

Hello to all the readers of A Big Jewish Blog. I've been an avid reader of this blog since Eric started it, and as some of you may have noticed, I've put in my two cents from time to time. Now that I'm an official contributor (and hopefully others will join us soon), I'd like to thank Eric for starting the blog and running it faithfully. We've had some lively discussions in the past; let's keep the ball rolling!

Ideally, I would like to offer a relatively substantial post about twice a month, more often if things get lively. Like Eric, my sense of this blog is fairly broad. Our central interest is Jewish poetry, but I think we should also consider Jewish literature and culture in general, the relationship between poetry and Judaism, the relationship between poetry and "spirituality" (I distrust that term, but I've never found a good synonym), and the contemporary poetry scene. No doubt I'll have something to say about all these matters sooner or later. Stay tuned. My first real post will be arriving shortly.

Norman Finkelstein

Thursday, November 30, 2006

There'll Be Some Changes Made

Hello, everyone! As you'll see over to the right--if that's where it stays as I juggle the template--one of my favorite Jewish poets and scholars, Norman Finkelstein, has taken up my offer to join this blog as a contributor. More new voices may follow, either officially or through cross-posting, etc. I'd like to keep this blog afloat even as my own bark founders here in Chicago. (Well, that puts it too strongly--but I am swamped, more or less, by projects that are only tangential to this. Busy, busy!)

Now that my grades are in for the quarter, I hope to return to blogging, here and elsewhere. Norman will join in as soon as he can.

Finally, a note to A, who asked about my politics.

I hate to say this, but your email--a kind one, not at all angry or blustering--shut me down here for weeks. I may post more explicitly political material here in the future; in fact, I'm fairly sure of it. I don't want to start debates, Lord knows. (If you want to read something really depressing, take a gander at what passes for "debate" after an article in Ha'aretz or on Jewschool.) But I feel the need to say a few things, and if they bear on Jewish poetry, identity, or my so-called Jewish life, this does seem the place to say them.

Until tomorrow, then!

Monday, November 20, 2006

Rachel Zucker Blogging

I'm so swamped, so slow to write and read these days that I seem to have missed Rachel Zucker guest blogging at the Poetry Foundation. Go and read; she's a wonderful poet, and (it turns out) a moving, smart blogger as well.

Maybe I should make this a jointly written blog? Get some other folks too busy to sustain one of their own and work out a schedule for contributions? It works for Jewschool, which I read more or less religiously every morning.

Let me know!

Monday, November 13, 2006

News Worth Knowing

This from YNET, via the Poetry Foundation:
Poetry as a common language

Syrian poet recites Arabic translation of Hebrew poem at Spanish poetry festival

Itamar Eichner

Published: 11.13.06, 12:50

Had it been up to the poets, perhaps peace between Syria and Israel would have been established long ago. This was the obvious conclusion reached several days ago at the poetry festival held in Lleida, Spain. It was where Israeli poets Ronny Somek, the celebrated Syrian Lebanese poet Adonis and the Syrian poetess Maram al-Misri found a common language.

Ali Ahmad Said Asbar, also known by the pseudonym Adonis or Adunis, is a Syrian-born poet and essayist who has made his career largely in Lebanon and France. He has written more than twenty books in his native Arabic.

At the age of 24 he fled to Lebanon after being arrested for nationalist political activity. In Lebanon he abandoned his nationalist ideas and in 1974 immigrated to Paris.

Adonis is considered to be one of the greatest Arab poets of all times and was nominated for a Nobel Prize in Literature. He is a friend of the Israeli poet Natan Zach and the two have published a joint work together. Adonis' work was published in Hebrew in Israel in 1989, and Ronny Somek wrote a poem entitled "Shalom, to Adonis the King," which was added to the preface.

Immediate chemistry

Somek, who came to Barcelona for the publication of his book "Pirate Love," arrived at the festival in Lleida and met Adonis for the first time. The two hit it off right away. "We spoke in Arabic, and it seemed as though the world was free of war," Somek said Sunday.

With regards to the Syrian poetess, Somek said Maram al-Misri told him that it had been difficult for her to write a poem following the recent war in Lebanon." Somek is now looking for an opportunity to invite Adonis to visit Israel.

The next day the two poets appeared in a panel discussing the status of poets' worldwide. The presenter asked each of them to recite one of their poems. Somek recited a poem, but beforehand he handed Adonis and al-Misri a translation into Arabic of his poem "Algiers."

When Adonis' turn came, the audience was amazed when he told them that instead of reciting his own poem he would recite the translation of Somek's poem. The audiences applauded loudly in appreciation of the gesture.

"It was one of the most moving moments of my career," said Somek "I shivered all over, the Spanish press made a big thing of it the next day," he added.

Keep up the good work, the three of you. The eyes of Texas may not be upon you, but the eyes of the blogosphere are.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Stop Reading. Go Vote.

Found this this morning, on Jewschool:
As I contemplate tomorrow’s elections, I keep thinking about a piece of text at the end of the third chapter of Masechet Sukkah, the tractate of Talmud that deals with the holiday of Sukkot. The chapter closes with a listing of bad omens for the Jewish community and an enumeration of the human actions that the rabbis believed caused these negative portents. Part of the text reads:

ובשביל ד’ דברים נכסי בעלי בתים נמסרין למלכות
ועל שהיה ספק בידם למחות ולא מיח

And because of four things the wealth of the laypeople (literally “the home owners”) will pass into the hands of the government….
[Reason #3 is:] Because of those who have the ability to protest and don’t.”

Rashi interprets reason #3 as a rabbinic statement on social activism. He explains that the phrase “ba’al habatim” (which I’ve translated here as “laypeople,” but which can also mean “those who work for a living” or any number of similar things) refers to those who are wealthy. Because of their affluence, says Rashi, wealthy individuals have the ability to protest against those who commit moral and legal transgressions in society. Others, he continues, will listen to what these people have to say because of their social position. Should the ba’al habatim fail to protest, their wealth will pass into the hands of the government– clearly an ominous outcome in the eyes of the rabbis.

These days, democratic elections are one of the most powerful methods we have to protest against what we view as social transgressions. And is there anyone among us who isn’t wealthy in some way, whether in terms of friends, freedoms, good fortune, money, or the ability to influence at least an immediate circle of family and friends? As Jews who may be wealthy in either conventional or unconventional ways, we need to vote. The Talmud reminds us that if we don’t– if we fail to protest injustice when we hold that power in our hands— our wealth (our freedoms, our dignity) will pass into the hands of others who have the power to oppress us.

Makes sense to me. If it doesn't to you, consider this, from Martin Espada:
Sheep Haiku
--Achill Island, Ireland

A lone sheep cries out:
There are more of us than them!
The flock keeps grazing.
Go Vote.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Hot Fun in the Summer Time

Welcome to November, everyone! And if it's November, that means it's time for the NEH to announce their upcoming round of Summer Seminars and Institutes. Some of these are for college faculty; you can find that full list here, y si usted habla espanol, let me draw your attention to this:

Jewish Buenos Aires
(In Spanish)
July 9-July 27, 2007 (3 weeks)
David William Foster
Department of Languages and Literatures
Arizona State University
Tempe, AZ 85287-0202
(Seminar Location: Buenos Aires, Argentina)

For my purposes, the crucial list is here: the seminars and institutes for K-12 Teachers. Each runs from two to six weeks; for each you get paid a stipend of $1,800 (2 weeks), $2,400 (3 weeks), $3,000 (4 weeks), $3,600 (5 weeks), or $4,200 (6 weeks) to cover transportation, living expenses, and so on.

This year, the NEH will sponsor two, yes two seminars for teachers of poetry! The first will be at Harvard, taught by Helen Vendler:

Poetry as a Form of Life, Life as a Form of Poetry
July 2-July 20, 2007 (3 weeks)
Helen Vendler
Harvard University
Information: William Holinger
Harvard Summer School
51 Brattle Street
Cambridge, MA 02138

The second (drum roll please) will be right here at DePaul, taught once again by yours truly:

Say Something Wonderful: Teaching the Pleasures of Poetry
June 25-July 27, 2007 (5 weeks)
Eric Murphy Selinger
Department of English
DePaul University
802 West Belden Ave.
Chicago, IL 60614

And yes, that's a real email address, not just a placeholder!

Keep in mind that you can only apply to one (1) of these two seminars; the NEH has a firm rule about that, and I have seen good teachers barred from participation for a year because they broke it. So write to both addresses for information, decide which city, which length of program, and which content better suits you, and then get busy with your application!

Monday, October 16, 2006

Jewish Graphic Novels: a Call for Papers

This showed up in my in-box this morning. If you're interested, send in a proposal; if you know someone interested, pass it on!

The Jewish Graphic Novel

Essays sought for an interdisciplinary collection co-edited by an art
historian and literary scholar. The growing subgenre of Jewish literary
and graphic culture contains a number of significantly innovative
aesthetic works that are increasingly recognized by literary critics as
an exciting form of alternative narrative that may also represent the
inception of a new visual literacy that has significant implications for
the future of Jewish literary and artistic expression. As the catalogue
of a recent art exhibit devoted to this cultural phenomenon states,
"Jewish Graphic novels represent an important genre in artistic
expression and assert the intensity of word and image in conveying
narratives that speak eloquently to the contemporary viewer. [They]
offer intense visual elucidation of Jewish historic and literary events
by combining intense illustration with searing social issues." Works to
be addressed may include graphic novels by Will Eisner (A Contract With
God: and Other Tenement Stories, Fagin the Jew, The Plot: The Secret
Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion) Czech writer Vittorio
Giardino's trilogy of volumes about Jewish life under the shadow of
totalitarianism: A Jew in Communist Prague: Loss of Innocence, A Jew in
Communist Prague: Adolescence, and A Jew in Communist Prague: Rebellion;
Ben Katchor's The Jew of New York; Miriam Katin's memoir of WWII
survival, We Are On Our Own; Neil Kleid's portrayal of mobsters in
Brownsville; Etgar Keret's surreal tales, Jetlag: Five Graphic Novellas;
Joe Kubert's stunning account of the Warsaw ghetto uprising in Yossel:
April 14, 1943; Joann Sfar's whimsically philosophical The Rabbi's Cat,
James Strum's disturbing parable of American racism, The Golem's Mighty
Swing; and J.T. Waldman's recent bold retelling of the essential Jewish
myth of power and powerlessness in Megillat Esther. The editors also
hope to include an essay or two on the impact of Art Spiegelman's
seminal works of Holocaust oral history in Maus: A Survivor's Tale: My
Father Bleeds History and Maus II: A Survivor's Tale: And Here My
Troubles Began, which crystallized the acceptance of the graphic novel
as a legitimate literary form. This collection aspires to fill an
important gap in existing scholarship by offering the first collection
of critical discussions to solely address the way that Jewish graphic
novels grapple with Jewish history, cultural politics, antisemitism,
portrayals of Ashkenazi and Sephardic identities, the role of the
Holocaust in the artist's cultural and moral imagination, political
controversy, literature, sacred texts, and myth through these
captivating works that render image and text in hitherto unimagined
forms. Other essays might consider the important role of autobiography
in the graphic novel and the role of the graphic novel in the Jewish
Studies classroom. This list is by no means exhaustive; other relevant
theoretical, pedagogical, or cultural approaches will be considered.
Authors are encouraged to use images whenever appropriate but they are
individually responsible for all necessary permissions. Papers from all
disciplines, or interdisciplinary submissions (whether focused on single
works or comparative discussions), are welcomed. Send brief bios along
with abstracts (300 words) or complete essays that follow the current
edition of the MLA Style Manual to both Ranen Omer-Sherman and Samantha Baskind by

Monday, October 09, 2006

Poetry and Prayer, 2

Hi, everyone. More of those "Poetry and Prayer" poems on their way to you.

Psalm, --Yehuda Amichai, translated by Chana Bloch

A psalm on the day
a building contractor cheated me. A psalm of praise.
Plaster falls from the ceiling, the wall is sick, paint
cracking like lips.
The vines I've sat under, the fig tree-
it's all just words. The rustling of the trees
creates an illusion of God and Justice.

I dip my dry glance like bread
into the death that softens it,
always on the table in front of me.
Years ago, my life
turned my life into a revolving door.
I think about those who, in joy and success,
have gotten far ahead of me,
carried between two men for all to see
like that bunch of shiny pampered grapes
from the Promised Land,
and those who are carried off, also
between two men: wounded or dead. A psalm.

When I was a child I sang in the synagogue choir,
I sang till my voice broke. I sang
first voice and second voice. And I'll go on singing
till my heart breaks, first heart and second heart.
A psalm.

From Book of Mercy (by Leonard Cohen, he of the "golden voice"):

I Stopped to Listen

I stopped to listen, but he did not come. I began again with a sense of loss. As this sense deepened I heard him again. I stopped stopping and I stopped starting, and I allowed myself to be crushed by ignorance. This was a strategy, and didn’t work at all. Much time, years were wasted in such a minor mode. I bargain now. I offer buttons for his love. I beg for mercy. Slowly he yields. Haltingly he moves toward his throne. Reluctantly the angels grant to one another permission to sing. In a transition so delicate it cannot be marked, the court is established on beams of golden symmetry, and once again I am a singer in the lower choirs, born fifty years ago to raise my voice this high, and no higher.

Sit Down, Master

Sit down, master, on this rude chair of praises, and rule my nervous heart with your great decrees of freedom. Out of time you have taken me to do my daily task. Out of mist and dust you have fashioned me to know the numberless worlds between the crown and the kingdom. In utter defeat I came to you and you received me with a sweetness I had not dared to remember. Tonight I come to you again, soiled by strategies and trapped in the loneliness of my tiny domain. Establish your law in this walled place. Let nine men come to lift me into their prayer so that I may whisper with them: Blessed be the name of the glory of the kingdom forever and ever.

All My Life

All my life is broken unto you, and all my glory soiled unto you. Do not let the spark of my soul go out in the even sadness. Let me raise the brokenness to you, to the world where the breaking is for love. Do not let the words be mine, but change them into truth. With these lips instruct my heart, and let us fall into the world what is broken in the world. Lift me up to the wrestling of faith. Do not leave me where the sparks go out, and the jokes are told in the dark, and new things are called forth and appraised in the scale of the terror. Face me to the rays of love, O source of light, or face me to the majesty of your darkness, but not here, do not leave me here, where death is forgotten, and the new thing grins.

And finally this, which stuns me freshly every time I read it, by Arielle Greenberg:


I will martyr myself at the stake, singing Hear.
A snake knew my name and caressed me.
The bush burned with ideas.
I was speechless; I was a ruby.
Every generation fashions an enemy.
I hid under a trapdoor in Spain, crying half-language.
Coveting, coveting, yes, no, like a jezebel on a rooftop terrace.
I eat nothing containing cartilage.
The oven is full of rock salt.
I went with my brother to interpret his stammering.
The first-born son must fast all morning.
I entered a beauty contest of strangers.
The rains lasted forever, like white dresses.
A dove came by with a postcard.
I killed my brother and hid.
There were dreams of stars and wheat.
The graves are decorated with only stones.
I took a literal train to my death. It was on time.
Boys are plied with wine and snipped.
I pray according to daylight.
Next year will return to the city of gold.
I shield my eyes from the priests’ blessing.
Girls get two candles each.
I stood at the bottom of a mountain with my soul.
A very small parcel of real estate was promised.
I was taken for a fool by my village to make a story.
He offered the angels his most finely sifted flour.
I hid in an attic with my diary.
The tents are goodly.
I was a lost tribe and came out black.
Each breastplate held a dozen precious gems.
The sea boiled and horses drowned.
I hope not to be inscribed in the book of the damned.
A drop of oil burned for eight days.
I win money made of bitter chocolate.
The cat swallows the chicken, and the reaper swift behind.
I made love to my king like a sibling in a cave.
Three, four, eight, eighteen, forty, one hundred and twenty.
Trees are planted like children there.
I pretended to be my younger sister under the veil.
Manna rained down and tasted like muffins.
I looked back and was turned to salt.
Rams, bulls, lambs and billy goats.
I offered you something clean from a well.
A prophet slips in the door to drink from his cup.
I hid from God and was found.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Poetry and Prayer

It's hard for me to explain, even to myself, why I'm finding it so hard to blog here recently. Something about that last stupid war--the "you kidnap my soldiers, I bomb your cities, and then I negotiate" war--has soured me deeply on official Jewish life, even public Jewish life. Even my rabbi's deeply torn, obviously heartfelt sermon on the war left me shaking my head, since every word he said that was critical of the Israeli bombing campaign was met with a smirk and a snort and a cynical aside from some jerk behind me...who turned out to be an old acquaintance, a funny, wonderful guy, except on this particular occasion.

What place is there for me in all of this? Why do I bother?

On the other hand, I had a lovely time buying my last-minute lulav and etrog last week. And my son says to me, two nights ago, "I love this holiday." Such a peaceful one (no one tries to kill us, but fails, so we eat); such a silly one (you shake it to the east, you shake it to the west, you shake it to the God that you love best); such a respite after the faked-up communal atonement (which again changed nothing, as far as I can see) of the Hi-Ho season.


Anyway, on Yom Kippur, I led what was actually a very pleasant, even delightful discussion group on poetry and prayer at JRC, and in lieu of an actual blog blog, I thought I'd put those poems up and into circulation. They've been lingering in draft form here for a week, but your very nice note, Cheryl, spurs me to get the job done now, before everyone wakes up. Here goes, then--and if you have any thoughts to cheer me in this endeavor, do send them along. Feeling rather lonely at the moment, out here in left field.

Poetry and Prayer

they dug.
They dug and dug, and so
their day went past, their night. And they did not praise God,
who, so they heard, wanted all this,
who, so they heard, witnessed all this.

They dug and heard nothing more;
they did not grow wise, invented no song
devised for themselves no sort of language.
They dug.

There came then a stillness, there came also storm,
all the oceans came.
I dig, you dig, and the worm also digs,
and the singing there says: They dig.

O one, o none, o no one, o you.
Where did it go, when it went nowhere at all?
O you dig and I dig, and I dig through to you,
and the ring on our finger awakes.

--Paul Celan


No stab in these hands.
No thorns. No myrrh.
No swing low.

No jubilee.
No abide with me
not in this hymnal.

But blow me open, God.
No song in this throat,
just blow me open.

--Arielle Greenberg

O Many Named Beloved
Listen to my praise
Various as the seasons
Different as the days
All my treasons cease
When I see your face

--Samuel Manashe

You whose name I know
As well as my own
You whose name I know
But not to tell
You whose name I know
But do not say
Even to myself—
You whose name I know
Know that I came
Here to name you
Whose name I know

--Samuel Manashe


sleep, little beansprout
don’t be scared
the night is simply the true sky

sleep, little dillseed
don’t be afraid
the moon is the sunlight

sleep, little button
don’t make a fuss
we make up the gods
so they can make us

sleep, little nubbin
don’t you stir
this sky smiled down
on Atlantis and Ur

--Albert Goldbarth

Kids are stirring. More poems and prayers tomorrow, I hope, and a happier note to begin them.


Tuesday, September 26, 2006

This (not quite) Just In

Just finished--and I mean just finished, as of 12 hours ago--my essay for that collection on Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture. Remember that? Was a time I posted on that pretty much weekly. Then I decided I'd better actually get busy and write it.

Turned out to be harder than it sounded, but thanks to the very flexible deadlines of my editors (PBUT) and their willingness to let me write about not only Norman, but also a handful of other poets inter alia, it's done (at 40 pages, almost), and in, in, in!

So, catching up a bit, this came over my email transom a few days (weeks?) ago, and I thought I'd pass it along:


Literature of the Levant

is pleased to announce


BY Samih al-Qasim

Translated from the Arabic by Nazih Kassis, introduced by Adina Hoffman

965-90125-5-1, paper $15.95, 224 pages

One of the foremost Palestinian poets and a major figure in the Arab world, Samih al-Qasim was born in 1939, in Zarqa, Jordan, to a Palestinian Druze family from the Galilee. He grew up in the village of Rama and experienced the Palestinian tragedy of 1948 first hand, achieving fame as one of the celebrated “resistance poets” during the 1950s. His first book was published when he was just eighteen, and over the decades he has produced a body of work that is as varied and innovative as it is large. Today a citizen of Israel and still a resident of Rama, Samih al-Qasim is an outspoken opponent of racism and oppression on all sides of the Middle East conflict. Given the richness of al-Qasim’s work and its centrality to Arabic literature at large, it is surprising that his poetry remains almost unknown in English to non-specialists.

This bilingual collection will, it is hoped, help to correct this state of affairs, since one cannot really claim to understand modern Palestinian letters without reading Samih al-Qasim. Sadder Than Water collects poems from his various periods and modes and makes available to English readers for the first time ever the full range of al-Qasim’s oeuvre, which is characterized by its ironic approach to painfully charged political situations, its melancholy music, and its lyrical evocation of Palestinian heritage.

“Brilliant … youthful and daring.”

Naguib Mahfouz

“When we read his poetry … amid the torrent of despairing poems that poured forth [after 1967] we felt an extraordinary power surging forth … from the depths of despair and misfortune, defying despair and misfortune.”

al-Tariq (Lebanon)

“Al-Qasim’s new poems … are close to the hearts of oppressed people everywhere.”

al-Nahar (Lebanon)

Samih al-Qasim is the author of over thirty books of poetry, as well as several novels, collections of plays, essays and criticism. He appears regularly at literary festivals throughout the Arab world and in Europe, his work has been translated into many languages, and editions of his collected poems have been published in Beirut and in Cairo.

Nazih Kassis is a lexicographer and translator of contemporary Arabic prose and poetry. He received his doctorate in linguistics from the University of Exeter and has compiled, edited, and translated several dictionaries. He has taught English and Arabic at the University of Haifa, the Academic Arab College for Education, and Portland State University. He writes poetry in the local dialect. Born in the Palestinian village of Iqrit in 1944, he has lived in Rama since 1948.

Adina Hoffman is the author of House of Windows: Portraits from a Jerusalem Neighborhood (Steerforth Press/Broadway Books). She has worked as film critic for the American Prospect and the Jerusalem Post, and her essays and literary criticism have appeared in the TLS, the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, New York Newsday, and on the World Service of the BBC. One of the founders and editors of Ibis Editions, she is writing a life and times of the Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali.

To order the book or learn more about Ibis Editions, please visit our website:

Everything I have read from Ibis has been stunning, and I don't see why this should be any exception. I have my credit card in hand, folks, and I'm clicking over as soon as this goes up on Blogger. Hope I'll see you there!

Monday, August 28, 2006

OK, OK, So It Was a Month

But I'm back now.

Missed the first days of Elul--what is it now, the 4th? So much for my yearly plan to make this year the one when I try to prepare for the Hi-Hos (hi-ho, hi-ho, it's off to shul we go) something more than a chore. I do dread them, to be honest; they leave me spiritually cold and logistically frazzled. Here's what I wrote three years ago in a dvar for DePaul's Kol Nidre service:

Three years ago, I decided to stop coming to Yom Kippur services—at least, that is, to the services for adults. This wasn’t just a matter of scheduling or comfort, although I’ll admit that the 90-minute children’s service I took up instead has a good deal to offer on both counts, along with a live performance of the Book of Jonah, complete with a four-foot cardboard fish and a pint-sized female God in a cotton-ball beard. I decided to stop coming because, frankly, I didn’t see the point. When the second intifada broke out, right in the middle of the Days of Awe, the responses I heard to it before Yom Kippur were just the same as those I heard after the holiday. Those who blamed the Palestinians before, blamed them afterwards. Those who blamed Israel, blamed Israel. Those who didn’t know what to do, or say, or think, remained confused. For my friends, for “my people” as I saw them on the news, and, most of all, for myself, 25 hours of fasting and prayer hadn’t done a damned thing. At which point, bring on the cotton balls.

Three years and another cruel, pointless war haven't changed my view. But this year is a "Jewish year" chez Selinger, and I'll need to think of some way to deal with these Days of Aw-Shucks standing between me and Sukkot, a holiday I can love.

More on that, as well as on poetry--and who knows, maybe more of that old dvar, soon. The kids will be up momentarily, and I have pancakes and lunches to prepare. It's the hard-knock life.

Celebrate me home.


Thursday, July 27, 2006

Official Hiatus

Which will look a lot like the unofficial hiatus I've been on these last couple of weeks, I suppose. I'm off to hike and swim and play music, mostly; when I come back, I'll report on my course at Spertus, on a lovely chapbook Mike Heller sent my way, and on other matters Judaic & poetic.


Sunday, July 16, 2006

Sunday Morning

Woke up at 5, 5:30 this morning, from a new teaching nightmare. In this one, I'd agreed to teach two new classes for two institutions in downtown Chicago in the same time slot. Spent most of the dream running full-tilt from building to building looking for the classrooms, trying to explain to my students why I had to be somewhere else for a minute, but would be right back. Even in the dream I thought to myself "this is like an I Love Lucy episode"--but it was still incredibly stressful and unpleasant, and I'm glad to be up, even early, too early, in a silent house.

Did I mention that I start my Spertus class today? The one on "Religion and Identity in Contemporary Jewish American Literature"? The one I've never taught before, to some unknown number of adult students? (Could be three, could be five, could be a minyan--I'll find out in a few hours.) I've been up to my earbuds in popular romance fiction all summer, reading and teaching it, getting up to speed on the criticism; as of this afternoon, though, and for the next week, it'll be Bernstein and Kushner and Goodman and Scholem, Ozick and Finkelstein, Ostriker, Bloom, Jacqueline Osherow, Ari Elon... A few of my favorite things, but evidently (see above) a daunting task as well.

I'll keep you posted.


Friday, June 09, 2006

A Bissel Gertrude Stein

Found this curious piece in Painted Lace and Other Pieces (1914-1937), p. 94:

I know all about the war I have been in France ever since the peace. Remember what was said yesterday.
We can think and we know that we love our country so.
Can we believe that all Jews are these.
Let us remember that the little bird of all is not the one that has the singing dell. It sings and it sings and a great many people say it is not pleasant. Is it litely that there is real grief. Anywhere there are beards and everywhere there are girls and all about there is a wealth of imagery.
I saw all this to prove that Judaism should be a question of religion.
Don't talk about race. Race is disgusting if you don't love your country.
I don't want to go to Zion.
This is an expression of Shem.

Dated 1920, evidently. Not sure what to make of it, but I have to return the book to the library today, and wanted to post it here for future reference.

More soon.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Draft Syllabus




Sunday, July 16, 2:00 pm- 6:00 pm; Monday, July 17-Friday, July 21, 9:00 am-1:00 pm.


Dr. Eric Selinger, Ezra Sensibar Visiting Professor, Summer 2006

Course Description

Many of the best contemporary Jewish American writers are fascinated by religion—and not simply by Judaism. Whether "secular," "religious," or somewhere in between, these writers explore the power of spirituality, the dangers of fanaticism, the boundaries of community, and the complexities of modern Jewish identity, often by revisiting deeply traditional questions and texts. In this course, we will read a set of primary texts slowly and deeply, and consider not only what they say about religion and Jewish identity, but also how those ideas are embodied in the formal and literary qualities of the books themselves.

Course Objectives

This course will allow seminar participants to explore some the ways that important contemporary Jewish American authors have represented the relationship between “Jewishness” and Judaism, and how ideas about religion and identity are enacted by an author’s choices of genre, style, and form. We will learn about the religious, historical, and literary references in the primary texts for the class, but our primary focus will be on the development of those interpretive, analytical, and close reading skills which enable us to engage with literature in an increasingly nuanced and sophisticated manner. Poems, novels, and plays treat questions of religion and identity quite differently from argumentative genres like the essay, the sermon, and the op-ed piece. We will pay particular attention to character analysis, literary form, and the appreciation of artistry.

Course Requirements

The reading for this course is primarily focused on a set of primary texts: one novel, one two-part play, and several poems, both short and long. Please read all of the primary texts and as much of the secondary literature as possible before the seminar.

I expect all students to participate actively in seminar discussion. In addition to this in-class engagement with the readings, students will write an analytical essay (approximately 15 pages) on one of the works we have studied. I will give a list of suggested topics, and will be glad to work with students to develop their own topics and approaches to the texts.

Course Materials

· A Reader of photocopied materials, including primary and secondary sources

· Allegra Goodman, Kaaterskill Falls

· Tony Kushner, Angels in America, parts 1 (Millennium Approaches) and 2 (Perestroika)

· Alicia Suskin Ostriker, The Volcano Sequence

[I may want to add one more book here. Maybe one volume of Norman's Track; or, for one more genre, a memoir or a book of essays. Mike's Living Root? That new memoir by Jack Marshall, From Baghdad to Brooklyn: Growing Up in a Jewish-Arabic Family in Midcentury America? Maybe some of Albert Goldbarth's essays, now back in print? Hmmm...]

Course Sessions and Topics

Sunday, July 16: “We Jews Are That Way”: Versions and Aversions of Jewish Identity


“Secular” and “Religious” versions of Jewish identity

Ribboni and Rabbani versions of Jewish identity

Approaches to reading lyric poetry and other poetic forms


Charles Bernstein, “Solidarity is the Name We Give to What We Cannot Hold” (Reader)

Ari Elon, selections from From Jerusalem to the Edge of Heaven

Norman Finkelstein, “Acher” and commentary; “The Master of Turning” (Reader)

Arielle Greenberg, “Synopsis” (Reader)

Kenneth Koch, “To Jewishness” (Reader)

Howard Nemerov, “Debate with the Rabbi” (Reader)

Jacqueline Osherow, “At the Art Nouveau Synagogue, Rue Pavee” (Reader)

Alicia Ostriker, “Entering the Tents” (from The Nakedness of the Fathers, Reader)

Monday, July 17: A Gay (and Jewish) Fantasia on National (and Jewish) Themes


America as a “chosen nation,” a “melting pot,” and other Jewish things

Transformations of religious material in secular Jewish culture

Recalling and restaging the (Jewish) history of leftist politics in America

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons) and / as “Jews”

Gay men as “Jews,” Jews as Homosexuals, and other intersections of Gay and Jewish identity


Tony Kushner, Angels in America, parts 1 and 2

“Angels, Monsters, and Jews: Intersections of Queer and Jewish Identity in Kushner's Angels in America,” by Jonathan Freedman (PMLA; in Reader)

Chapters on Mormons in Bloom’s The American Religion

Tuesday, July 18: Religion and Jewish Identity in the Novel


The “Jewishness” of the Realist Novel

The “return to religion” in contemporary Jewish American Fiction

Identity and difference within Jewish community


Cynthia Ozick, TKTK

Allegra Goodman, Kaaterskill Falls

Wednesday, July 19: Kaaterskill Falls, continued (or maybe that additional fourth book)

Thursday, July 20: The Shekhinah Dialogues


Feminist revisions of Jewish tradition

Poetic appropriations of Kabbalah (and pop-Kabbalah)

Apophatic rhetoric and religious poetics

Approaches to reading a long “serial poem”

“Spirituality” and non-Halakhic Judaism


Eric Murphy Selinger, “Shekhinah in America” (Reader)

Alicia Suskin Ostriker, the volcano sequence, sections 1-5

Friday, July 21: the volcano sequence, continued


Alicia Suskin Ostriker, the volcano sequence, sections 6-9 and coda

The Shekhinah Dialogues

Sorry, I couldn't resist. Steal that, someone, please.

Back to drafting.


Something to Chew On

I'll be teaching a Masters level course on "Religion and Identity in Contemporary Jewish American Literature" at the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies here in Chicago this summer, along with my Summer Romance course at DePaul. Any suggestions for the reading list?

Here's something for everyone to chew on while I grade and write my summer syllabi. It breaks off abruptly after the Bernstein poem. I'd love, but love, any thoughts on that poem as well!


Among religious Jewish American poets—or, to be more precise, among those Jewish American poets who draw on religious topics and texts, whatever their practice may be—the notion that God Himself likes a lively opponent has proven deeply inviting. Consider the use that Alicia Ostriker makes of this idea in the volcano sequence, a serial poem that gives italicized voice to the Divine in order to let Him / Her / It—the gender and degree of anthropomorphism shift throughout the text—respond to the poet’s questions, quotations from scripture, and other forms of address. (“Only in the space of this dialogue does that which is addressed take form,” she quotes from Celan in an epigraph, “and gather around the I who is addressing it.” Through this imagined colloquy, the secular “nothing” that marks the absence of a God becomes a mystical “nothing,” an apophatic no-thing of a Deity, and thus an addressable, if still unembraceable, You.) In the “addendum to Jonah” that closes section VII of the book, Ostriker casts herself as the pouting prophet and puts words of response in the Mouth of Mouths:

a dead gourd

one of your jokes

are you very angry

be serious

your heartbreak is not interesting

it is your rhetoric that beguiles me

I liked your performance at Nineveh

just as I liked your song by the waters of Babylon

your legal brief at Uz

I want you to praise me hotly but more than that

I want you to save the world

by any means necessary

your word against


The sudden twist at the end of this passage from end-paused free verse to a jarring enjambment—“your word against / mine”—draws our attention to the complexity of the thought. This God loves human rhetoric, indeed longs for our human “word” to contest, as well as report, divine decrees, as though thereby to hone our moral sense or resist His own worst instincts. (He even quotes Malcolm X, “by any means necessary,” as though to suggest that divine rule is no more natural or inevitable than white supremacy.) As the linebreak hints, however, our human word may also belong to God—“your word against / [is] mine”—, which makes our resistance part of an argument, so to speak, within the Godhead: a new twist on the Talmudic precept that “these and these [two opposing rulings] are the words of the living God” (BT Eruvin 13b).

Among secular Jews—again, a fuzzy category, given the atheism, pantheism, Buddhism, and je-m’en-foutism so prevalent even in synagogues, at least in my own experience—so let’s say, among those Jews who recite the Shema less frequently and reverently than they tell Jewish jokes, the Judaism of disputation has been put to a variety of uses. Some are political. When Sarah Ironson tells her grandson Louis, in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, “As er darf ringen mit zain Libm Nomen,” (“You should struggle with the Almighty”) since "Azoy toot a Yid (“It's the Jewish way"), her injunction has little to do with theology, and everything to do with fighting the powers-that-be and the way-life-is, on Earth much more than in Heaven. That she gives the admonition in Yiddish, the language of twentieth-century Jewish sotsyalizm, lets Kushner stake two claims, one religious and one secular, to resistance as the “Jewish way.” Kushner credits Harold Bloom as an influence on his play, and in Bloom’s Ruin the Sacred Truths, the critic describes “Jewish dualism” in terms that echo and expand Kushner’s “Jewish way,” stripping it of its lingering theistic rhetoric. A “ceaseless agon within the self,” Bloom calls it, “not only against all outward injustice but also against what I have called the injustice of outwardness, or, more simply, the way things are” (Ruin, 162, my emphasis). Like Marlon Brando’s biker in The Wild One, the secular Jew is ready to rebel against whatever you’ve got. (Is this such a leap? The film’s director, Laszlo Benedek, was a Hungarian Jew smuggled to safety by Louis B. Mayer in 1939.)

Religious, ambivalent, and thoroughly secular Jewish poets have all made good use of this figure of the Jew-as-mental-rebel. Jacqueline Osherow draws on it in her long poem “Views of La Leggenda della Vera Croce,” where its bravado launches her into a quickly shifting series of confessions, theological musings, and arguments with herself. “Don’t be too shocked, I’m often blasphemous,” she shrugs at first.

It’s a deal I have with God; at least I pray.

Though he may have a plan—I’m not impervious—

In which I’m expected to wake up one day,

Go to synagogue, recite the psalms,

And convince myself with every word I say.

Beggers can’t be choosers; these are godless times;

Let Him hold on to His illusions.

A moment later, since “the way things are” now includes her skepticism, Osherow pivots to turn against it—and, which is more, to find a Jewish precedent for her imaginative claims and retractions:

Besides, maybe I do have a few qualms

About my persistent heretical allusions

To Someone who is—after all—a Deity….

You’ll find I’m a jumble of confusions.

Besides, I’m not sure God much cares for piety;

My guess is—since David was His favorite—

That He’s partial to passion, spontaneity,

And likes a little genuine regret.

True, David lost his ill-begotten child—

But what did the pious ever get? (10-11)

Osherow’s regal eyebrow cocked at “the pious” finds an ostensibly unschooled, am-ha’aretz counterpart in Howard Nemerov’s “Debate with the Rabbi,” where the Jew against Judaism turns out to be the truest Jew of all:

You’ve lost your religion, the Rabbi said,

It wasn’t much to keep, said I.

You should affirm the spirit, said he,

And the communal solidarity.

I don’t feel so solid, I said.


Stubborn and stiff-necked man! the Rabbi cried.

The pain you give me, said I.

Instead of bowing down, said he,

You go on in your obstinacy.

We Jews are that way, I replied.

The Rabbi here speaks not simply for normative faith (“your religion” at best, or at least “the spirit” of it), but also for the normative identity imposed by “communal solidarity.” The speaker demurs, at first because he feels himself too fluid or shifting or multiple—not “so solid”—to affirm his membership in the community. (Like Kafka, perhaps, he feels like he has little in common with himself, let alone with “the Jews.”) By the poem’s final stanza, however, he proudly steps into that very communal role, speaking in the first person plural (“We Jews”) to embrace an identity based on multiple Biblical precedents. If to be a Jew means to be “stiff-necked,” as God, Moses, Jeremiah, Nehemiah, and others lament, this speaker will be one. If it means to bow down, he’d prefer not to, and if that means that Jew is to Rabbi as Mordechai is to Haman, so be it.

With Osherow and Nemerov in mind, we can find something quite familiar, even traditional, in Charles Bernstein’s formally disjunctive (and thus more “radical”) poem “anafirmation.” It is short enough to quote as a whole:

I am not I

when called to account—

plaster over, dumbly benched

the corrosive ardency

of blinkered identification.

To affirm nothing, a veil

of asymptotic bent,

prattling over-

tunes in the striated

ecstacy of a turned-

around spade. Sprain parkway

gulls its titular

horizon, & my growling

Zebra knows me just

enough to tip

her hat.