Wednesday, May 24, 2006

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.

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