Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Two By Harvey Shapiro

Not much action here recently, other than YouTube videos. Tomorrow I head west for vacation; while I'm gone, here are two poems for you, both by the remarkable Harvey Shapiro.

The first I've been meaning to type in and blog about for, I don't know, a year or so; it's pretty mordant, even bleak, but the shifting tones and ideas in it are brilliantly modulated, I think. The second is on a facing page in The Sights Along the Harbor, and will leave a sweeter taste in your mouth, perhaps more appropriate to the season. (Although to be honest, my kids have had a blast this Hanukkah singing scraps of our family-composed, more-accurate translation of "Ma-Oz Tzur." "You prepare the slaughter / We'll supply the altar," or "We'll dust off the altar, / You supply the slaughter": which do you think? It's really quite a song, when you think about it.)

Anyway, more soon, when I get to sunnier climes!

The News

The Muslims in London are screaming,
Kill the filthy Jews.
I heard it on the BBC.
I agree, and call my brother
in Israel to give up the settlements.
Also, while he's at it,
what about the grandchildren?
Maybe the world is getting ready for another
big bonfire. You bring the marshmallows.
I'll bring the Jews.

The Generations

His son stood, holding and rocking the baby,
swaying back and forth, combined
with a little sideways shuffle,
which he had never done in shul,
since he never went to shul,
though his father had and his father had,
so the prayer that bound them all
was still being said.

Friday, December 14, 2007

At My Son's Request

This, so he can find it easily.

Tip of the kipa to Jewschool, as so often. The lyrics, if you want to read along, go like this:

Oy Vey, the toevah [abomination] is here
He said Oy Vey
Now the detail’s so clear
YES brought HD
Groise Tate [Father in Heaven] please help
It’s a broch [curse] this HD on YES

Gevald it’s Sodom and Gemorah
HDTV- it’s against the Torah
HDTV- oy voi voi voi
Now the shiksas look well
You will all go to hell
Or in Hebrew “yishmor HaKel” (God save us)

Cause the HD is now on YES

More on poetry soon, I promise!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Busy, Busy!

I'm supposed to be catching up on things, but somehow the pace has never slowed down. I have fun books on my desk I haven't read yet, among them a New and Selected from Adam Schonbrun in Israel and a copy of our own Alicia Suskin Ostriker's For the Love of God: The Bible as an Open Book--and of course I've been meaning to blog about the U of Chicago conference and about Maeera's book... Oy, oy, oy, it's hard to be a Jewish Poetry blogger!

To give you all something to tide you over, here's a link to the review I wrote for Shofar of Michael Heller's wonderful collection of essays, Uncertain Poetries. It hasn't come out in print yet, evidently, but they've posted the full text to their website, so go read it there!

My kids like this--enjoy--

More soon,

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


Teaching The Metamorphosis tonight. Well, not teaching it, exactly: talking about it with adult readers at the Wilmette Public Library, where I am leading discussions for a "Let's Talk About It: Jewish Literature" series sponsored by Nextbook. We're doing the Jewish Tales of the Supernatural sequence--they choose the books, I just talk about them!--and it's already been something of an education for me.

My favorite book in the series so far has been S. Y. Ansky's play The Dybbuk, which is utterly wonderful; two books from now we'll do another play, Kushner's Angels in America, which I've taught a half-dozen times and love more the more I read it. Singer's Satan in Goray? Bleak, but brilliant, or maybe brilliant but bleak. Next month: The Puttermesser Papers. I really didn't like that one. Really, really didn't like it. (What Ozick do I like? Not much comes to mind. Anyone out there able to make the pitch, close the deal? I have a month. Help me, somebody!)

Kafka? Meh. Not a writer I love. I'm too optimistic, too happy, too American (perhaps) to feel that way, although I did my best to love him at 16 and 17. (Never could pull off that broody, angsty thing.) Still, he's not a writer I actively dislike, either, and I am actually rather proud of the take-home questions we handed out last month to prepare for tonight.

I'm off to reread the text itself--not much of the criticism satisfies me just now, so let me pass those questions along and pat myself on the back for posting something today.

Here they are: steal at will!

1) Unlike the first two books in this series, Satan in Goray and The Dybbuk, Kafka’s Metamorphosis does not explicitly deal with Jewish characters or Jewish subjects. What might be gained or lost by reading the book as a Jewish novel? How does it seem different if we read it this way, rather than as a Modernist or Central European text?

2) Readers who approach The Metamorphosis as a Jewish book often refer to one or both of the following passages from Kafka’s letters:

“Most young Jews who began to write German wanted to leave Jewishness behind them, and their fathers approved of this, but vaguely (this vagueness was what was so outrageous to them). But with their posterior legs they were still glued to their fathers' Jewishness and with their waving anterior legs they found no new ground. The ensuing despair became their inspiration. . . . The product of their despair became their inspiration. . . . The product of their despair could not be German literature, though outwardly it seemed to be so. They existed among three impossibilities, which I just happen to call linguistic impossibilities. . . . These are: the impossibility of not writing, the impossibility of writing German, the impossibility of writing differently. One might also add a fourth impossibility, the impossibility of writing. . . .

"The disgusting shame of perennially living under protection. Is it not self-evident that one should leave where one is hated so much? (Zionism or ethnic feeling is not even needed here.) The heroism of staying under these conditions is that of cockroaches in the bathroom one cannot get rid of.”

Do these passages help us understand Gregor Samsa’s transformation? If so, what meanings or implications might we find in the rest of the novel’s plot—especially in its ending?

3) Historian Gershom Scholem once wrote his friend Walter Benjamin that “I advise you to begin any inquiry into Kafka with the Book of Job, or at least with a discussion of the possibility of divine judgment, which I regard as the sole subject of Kafka’s production.” Benjamin took a different view, and wrote that “the most essential point about Kafka is his humor…. I believe someone who tried to see the humorous side of Jewish theology would have the key to Kafka.” Do either of these suggestions help us read The Metamorphosis? Is there any way to understand the book as concerned with divine judgment? Is it theological in a particularly Jewish or humorous way?

4) The Metamorphosis begins with Gregor’s transformation, and ends with a focus on his sister Grete. How does Kafka’s portrayal of Grete compare with Singer’s and Ansky’s treatment of female characters in Satan in Goray and The Dybbuk? Why might the novel end with a focus on her, rather than on her brother?

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Multilingual Jewish Literature and Multicultural America

Not a whole lot of action on this blog recently, but I guess I can't complain: I've been as preoccupied with other matters as our other contributors. But as some of you may know, the University of Chicago is hosting a conference next week on Multilingual Jewish Literature and Multicultural America, organized by Jan Schwarz and none other than Our Founder, Eric Selinger. The keynoter is Werner Sollers; participants include Maeera Shreiber, Hana Wirth-Nesher, and yours truly. For details, go here.

And just for a little forshpaytz, here's a discussion of a poem by Harvey Shapiro--a bit of my "Ghosts of Yiddish in American Avant-Garde Poetry":

Consider, for instance, Harvey Shapiro’s poem “For the Yiddish Singers in the Lakewood Hotels of My Childhood”:

I don't want to be sheltered here.
I don't want to keep crawling back
To this page, saying to myself,
This is what I have.

I never wanted to make
Sentimental music in the Brill Building.
It's not the voice of Frank Sinatra
I hear.

To be a Jew in Manhattan
Doesn't have to be this.
These lights flung like farfel.
These golden girls.

This is a remarkable poem, not least because of the way it collapses, in a few lines, a great deal of Jewish American social history of the first half of the twentieth century. Affectively and thematically, it is a poem about cultural ambivalence. Shapiro makes it clear that he wants to resist sentimentality, despite the fact that the entire utterance is premised on nostalgia, which includes the Yiddish culture of his childhood.

Shapiro was born in 1924. During his childhood, Lakewood, New Jersey was a well-established Jewish winter resort. In the 1890s, when a leading gentile hotel had turned away the department store magnate Nathan Straus because he was Jewish, Straus “promptly built next to it a hotel, twice as large, for Jews only. In a few years other Lakewood hotels sold out to Jewish operators, and kosher establishments multiplied on all sides” (Higham 243). In the heymish Lakewood hotels, like those of the Catskills, one could still hear Old World Yiddish entertainers, along with more contemporary American popular music of the sort produced by Jewish American songwriters working out of the Brill Building, a Manhattan center of the music industry from the thirties through the sixties. Yet whether the “sentimental music” is sung in Yiddish by Jewish singers in Lakewood or in English by Frank Sinatra, crooning a hit written by Jewish American song smiths, Shapiro still feels trapped in memory, ironically “sheltered” by his past and continually “crawling back” to the page on which he inscribes his early history.

A proof text: in Portnoy’s Complaint, it is to a Lakewood hotel that the young Alex Portnoy is taken on a weekend vacation with his parents and their Gin Rummy club, and Alex is given a taste of nature and its poetry, walking with his hardworking, semi-literate, constipated father and breathing “Good winter piney air” (Roth 29). The phrase in Shapiro’s poem, “crawling back,” connotes both defeat and infantilization, a problem, of course, that haunts Portnoy as well. The poet asserts that “To be Jew in Manhattan / Doesn’t have to be this,” but everything in the poem indicates otherwise.

What, we must ask, is another way to be a Jew in Manhattan—and more specifically, an adult male Jew? The obvious answer has to do with the last line of the poem, not even a sentence but a descriptive assertion, a finger pointing at a new world of possibility: “These golden girls”: shiksa goddesses of the type Portnoy also perpetually pursues. Farewell, Lakewood and its Yiddish singers; welcome, the sexual conquests of the fully assimilated, cosmopolitan Manhattanite. But wait: it is the penultimate line on which the poem turns. Looking down on the city at night, dreaming of love, does the poet see the Great White Way? No, he sees “These lights flung like farfel.” Farfel? Farfel: “Yiddish, from Middle High German varveln; small pellet-shaped noodles, made of either flour mixed with egg or matzo. Farfel is most prevalent in Jewish cuisine, where it is a seasonal item used in Passover dishes.” Those golden girls, those city lights, shine, in the poet’s imagination, like Mama’s cooking on Pesach. This, then, is to be a Jew in Manhattan, haunted by the Yiddish language and the Yiddish past.

Friday, October 12, 2007


for library recovery--a little list of books of midrashic poetry:


Robert Atwan and Laurence Wieder, eds., CHAPTERS INTO VERSE (English & American poetry--traditional and modern)
Enid Dame, LILITH AND HER DEMONS (poetry)
_________, STONE SHEKHINA (poetry)
Enid Dame, Lily Rivlin and Henny Wenkart, eds., WHICH LILITH? (poetry, fiction, essays)
____________, MIDRASHIM
Jill Alexander Essbaum, HEAVEN
Diana Hume George, A GENESIS (poetry)
Pamela White Hadas, IN LIGHT OF GENESIS (poetry)
Shulamit Hareven, THE MIRACLE HATER, THE PROPHET (fiction)
Laurence Lerner, ed. CHAPTER AND VERSE
___________, “Jephtha’s Daughter,” in BRIDGES 8.1-2 (2000)
___________, “Lilith to Eve,” in FEMINIST REVISION AND THE BIBLE
Peter Pitzele, OUR FATHERS’ WELLS (midrash/bibliodrama)
Marie Ponsot, SPRINGING (Adam and Eve poems)
Howard Schwartz and Anthony Rudolf, eds., VOICES WITHIN THE ARK (the best anthology of 20th c Jewish poetry--international--many midrashic poems included.)

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Reading in Chicago

Michael Heller & Norman Finkelstein

Powells North Reading Series

Powells North Bookstore
2850 N. Lincoln Avenue, Chicago IL

Thursday, October 18th, 7:00 PM

for more information, go to

Thursday, October 04, 2007


If it's October, it must be time for this, by our own Norman Finkelstein:


Who shall have rest and who shall go wandering . . .

At the sound of a horn he almost turns back,
more than once he almost turns back,
until his head whirls with the memorious leaves
and his hands grow calloused raking the yard,
piling up dissatisfactions,
considering handfuls of world, their sameness,
and the way they crumble as he clenches his fists.

Neither anger nor joy
but something akin to pleasure
moves him about, sets him on his path,
plays loving airs around him
and finally passes him on.

Why can't he be a fool
with a tame hare and a stool by the fire,
piping his little tunes?
Surely he gave his consent,
but he has no memory of the books arriving,
of years sheltered from the weather,
of studying all the codes.

There among the visitants
packed close between armchair and desk,
he honors the dead in small rituals,
puts out chocolate for them to savor,
sweetening the poverty of hell,
where costumes are not permitted
and all wear the same stuff of death.

He shuts and locks the door,
and the house disappears as he walks away.
It is another of his losses,
like the leaves falling, marking another year,
sealing another book.

How marvelous is that, eh? From Norman's latest, Passing Over. A book you ought to own.

P.S. An astute reader, Dan C--, spotted the source for that little riff about the fool. It's from Yeats:

Two Songs Of A Fool


A speckled cat and a tame hare
Eat at my hearthstone
And sleep there;
And both look up to me alone
For learning and defence
As I look up to Providence.

I start out of my sleep to think
Some day I may forget
Their food and drink;
Or, the house door left unshut,
The hare may run till it's found
The horn's sweet note and the tooth of the hound.

I bear a burden that might well try
Men that do all by rule,
And what can I
That am a wandering-witted fool
But pray to God that He ease
My great responsibilities?


I slept on my three-legged stool by the fire.
The speckled cat slept on my knee;
We never thought to enquire
Where the brown hare might be,
And whether the door were shut.
Who knows how she drank the wind
Stretched up on two legs from the mat,
Before she had settled her mind
To drum with her heel and to leap?
Had I but awakened from sleep
And called her name, she had heard.
It may be, and had not stirred,
That now, it may be, has found
The horn's sweet note and the tooth of the hound.

Norman, feel free to edit or add to this!

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Sui Genius

This Just In: Peter Cole Wins MacArthur "Genius" Grant

Very good start to year! Peter Cole, whom we've mentioned here many a time before, has won a MacArthur. Evidently he got the call just before the Hi-Hos. Gives a whole new meaning to that Leonard Cohen line: "and who / shall I say / is calling?"

Here's the official announcement off the MacArthur website:

Peter Cole is a translator, publisher, and poet who brings the often overlooked works of medieval Spain and the modern Middle East to English-speaking audiences. His highly regarded translations of the poetry of Solomon Ibn Gabirol and Shmuel HaNagid, two of the great Hebrew poets of the Andalusian “Golden Age,” offer readers a lyrical illustration of the extraordinary Arab-Jewish cultural partnership that flourished in tenth- through twelfth-century Spain. A poet himself, Cole’s translations infuse medieval verse with contemporary meaning while remaining faithful to the original text. His renderings of HaNagid’s poems in particular, long regarded as “untranslatable,” retain the subtleties, complexities, and formal elegance of the original verse. Underlying Cole’s translations is an implicit message of cultural and historical cross-fertilization that is also evident in his work as a poet and a publisher. His Ibis Editions publishes little-known works translated from Arabic, Hebrew, German, French, and Ladino, enlightening English-speaking audiences to the thriving literary tradition of the Levant. By fostering literary dialogue in and about the Middle East, Ibis provides an occasion for intellectual and cultural collaboration. In a region mired in conflict, Cole’s dedication to the literature of the Levant offers a unique and inspiring vision of the cultural, religious, and linguistic interactions that were and are possible among the peoples of the Middle East.

In your honor, Peter, this--if only because it started running through my head the minute I heard the news. Hats off!

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

After the Flood

My Jewish home base, the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation, has been in temporary digs for about a year now, while our new building gets built. Our library was boxed up and put into storage--and, sadly, during the storms that marked this summer here in Chicago, most of the library was destroyed. (Who by water? Now we know.)

Our librarian has asked me to give her a wish list for the poetry section, and for the library more generally: anthologies, single author texts, works of criticism, you name it. I'm passing the question along to you, my colleagues and friends. In the best of all possible worlds, what should we buy? In this world, what should our priorities be?

I'll post my own list as I draw it up--but I'm eager to see what your lists would look like, so send them along, one by one, two by two, or by the dozens!

To thank you (in advance), this, by the Idan Raichel Project:

Out of the depths...

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

More announcements

In the spirit of Eric's announcement of Maeera's book (which I'll be reviewing for American Literature), folks might be interested in a couple of other new items. The first is perhaps not news to most people here, but just in case: Jerry Rothenberg's Triptych, just out from New Directions, with brief intro by Charles Bernstein and brief postface by Jerry. The book reissues Poland/1931 and Khurbn, and juxtaposes them with a new serial poem, "The Burning Babe." The second item is a scholarly article that perhaps fewer of us are likely to run across: Eric Hoffman, "A Poetry of Action: George Oppen and Communism," American Communist History 6.1 (2007): 1-28. The second half of the title pretty much tells you what it's about; among other things, it makes extensive use of previously unavailable FBI files.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Maeera's Book (at Last!)

I can't (won't) tell you how long I've been waiting to make this announcement:

Singing in a Strange Land: A Jewish American Poetics, by our own Maeera Shreiber, is now available from Stanford University Press.

Here's the official description:
This book begins with a silence. While Jewish American fiction has long been recognized as a fit subject for critical inquiry, Jewish American poetry has largely been overlooked. Recently, a few books have started to redress this silence, focusing on some specific Jewish American poets. However, even as these studies begin to identify specific individuals as “Jewish American poets,” the field must be theorized so that we might understand this fascinating occlusion. Poetic forms need to be identified; and the material difference of Jewish cultural practice must be taken into account.

Taking a broad view of the subject, Singing in a Strange Land asks: How does being Jewish-in-America affect poetic production? And how does poetry help shape Jewish American identity? Beginning with a historical inquiry into the status of Jewish poetry as a marginalized kind of writing, and moving on to detailed analyses of poets including Allen Ginsberg, Adrienne Rich, Louis Zukofsky, Louise Gl├╝ck, George Oppen, and Allen Grossman, Singing in a Strange Land helps us think about the ways in which displacement, exile, mourning, gender, and prayer contribute to the shaping of the Jewish American imagination and its poetic production.
We have only a handful of books on Jewish American poetry, and Maeera's bids fair to be essential reading. Let's all get copies and get talking about it here, shall we?

Friday, August 17, 2007

But Seriously, Folks...

--about what Alecia calls "living in the blur," the space between "secular" and "religious":

1) It seems to me that these terms, both Latinate, both based on Christian norms, fail to get at something essential in Jewish, or at least Jewish American, identity. I don't have a copy handy of Daniel Boyarin's brilliant Border Lines: the Partition of Judeo-Christianity, but his argument that our very notion of "religion" as a category was invented as part of the invention of Christianity in late antiquity struck me as well-founded and convincing. So did his even more intriguing case that this idea ("religion" as a category) was entertained but finally rejected by the men who created and eventually imposed rabbinic Judaism as a norm.

2) As a result, the identity documents we Jews have in our pockets ("your papers, please!") are a palimpsest of conflicting and competing terminology. This means, at least to say for us as 21st century American Jews, that they contain a palimpsest of options. Some are "religious," some national, some ethnic, some cultural; some are imposed from outside ("are you a member of The Jewish Faith?"; "how does it feel to be a Question?"; "must you mow your lawn on Shabbos?"), others from within, and others not imposed at all. "Secular observant Jew" is an entirely possible category. Arguments within the self are, therefore, commonplace.

3) Without speaking for anyone else, I'll testify that my own place on a "religious / secular" continuum has shifted many times. On reflection, I'd have to say that this motion has never, never been the result of reason, argument, or anything a Christian would call "faith" or "belief" or the loss thereof. It's all about mood, social context, family dynamics, the vagaries of my literary, professional, or sexual life. (Among the varieties of religious experience, James forgot to mention summer camp kisses--but at 14, they were Sinai, Horeb, a still, small voice all in one. I got your column of fire, baby, right here! "Arise my love, my fair one, and come away": all the rest is commentary. Go and study it.)

4) I live, now, in a neighborhood filled with "religious"--which is to say, shomer shabbos, Jews. I live on the fringes of that world, and must always do so: intermarriage will do that to you, as I've learned. Were I to learn enough Hebrew to chat with my thoroughly secular Israeli neighbors in the schoolyard, or enough Yiddish to chat with the ghosts of their grandparents, or enough Russian to chat with the architect-turned-custodian at my synagogue, I could see their religion and raise them a language. Maybe some day I'll do that, if the mood strikes--or maybe I'll start going to shul with my kids every week. None of that will make me be more or less Jewish, more or less a Jew; it would be about action, rather than ontology.

5) A proposition: The real divide today isn't between "religious" and "secular" Jews, but between ardent, ambivalent, and anti-Zionist Jews. That's where the rubber bullet hits the road. Case in point: the "conservative / reconstructionist" synagogue a couple of blocks from me, the one I could walk to, if I chose, has as the final topic in its conversion-class syllabus a history of the State of Israel. "Palestinians: No 'Right' of Return," one bullet point reads. My own politics are ill-informed and amateurish, but I'm struck here that this is one of the few "articles of faith" in the whole course. No shrimp, no Jesus, no Right of Return, and we don't really care about the shrimp.

6. In no particular order (from Siddur Kol Hevel):

“When he, too, who abhors the name, and believes himself to be godless, gives his whole being to addressing the Thou of his life, as a Thou that cannot be limited by another, he addresses God.”
--Martin Buber, I and Thou

"The human mind has all sorts of tricks of consciousness beside rationality, one of which is to address a projected part of the self or the universe as you, and both the 'simple' and the sophisticated take it as seriously as they need to on any given occasion." --Catherine Madsen, The Bones Reassemble

"All deities reside in the human breast."

--William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

For liturgy, God is always a moving target: we pray to him and get equivocal answers, or none; we ask to see his glory and are shown only his back. Any assertion we make of God's grace and mercy is at once undercut by the contingency of our daily experience. Any assumption we make of God's indifference or hostility is eclipsed by the appearance of mercy and grace in our lives. The declaration from the burning bush, ehyeh asher ehyeh ("I will be what I will be"), is a promise and a threat in equal measure, and hints at the simultaneous presence and absence of God at the other end of our prayers. Yet whether God is present or absent is not a final or even an answerable question, only a sort of spiritual brain-teaser by which our minds stay alert. With or without God, what is unequivocally present is the human other in need. --Catherine Madsen, The Bones Reassemble.

O einer, o keiner, o niemand, o du:

O one, o none, o no one, o you:

--Paul Celan, from “There Was Earth Inside Them” (Es war Erde in ihnen)

7) My own creed? Ani ma'amin b'emunah sh'leyma b'viat hamashgiach. I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Kashrut inspector. Someone always shows up to check your work, stamp your papers, keep a watchful eye. But until then, as my son says: "Get your treif on!"

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Der Judenfrage

Who is a Jew?

--No, Who's on first.

What is a Jew?


How is a Jew?

--Fine, thanks! How are you?

Where is a Jew?

--Skokie, evidently.

Why is a Jew? Why, oh why, oh why?

--Because, because, because, because. Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.

(Or, as we used to say in the '70s, "Jew is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.")

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

La question juive (What is a Jew?)

Rabbi Eliza would always say, Which comes first, the egg or the idea? as a way to stop a conversation she felt was coming too soon to a conclusion. One very hot afternoon, Rabbi Omar asked Rabbi Eliza to trace the origins of her favorite maxim. “In a roundabout way,” Rabbi Eliza began, looking up from the passage she was studying, “it’s related, to Rabbi Yukel’s so-called Rule of the Index Finger: Don’t put all your chickens in one egg, which itself is a variant of the saying, attributed to Rabbi Raj, and which we chant on the first half moon of Winter, One egg is not the world. On hearing this, Rabbi Omar loudly protested, noting that several centuries before Rabbi Raj, Rabbi Not-Enough-Sand-in-Dessert-not-Enough-Water-in-the-Sea had insisted that the central question to ponder on nights-without-visible-rainbows is Which comes first the basket or the idea of the basket?. “Exactly,” Rabbi Eliza said with a triumphant laugh, “without baskets or eggs we would only have words and without words only mouths.”

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Ostriker, Terman and Halevi

Many thanks to Alicia Ostriker for her nice framing of a perpetual question, one which is particularly important in regard to Jewish poetry. Chances are that most of us are out there on the same limb, and maybe being out there is part of the answer, if indeed there really is an answer, or even needs to be.

Alicia's post has been on my mind while I've been reading Rabbis of the Air, a new book of poems by Philip Terman. In a recent e-mail, after we had exchanged books (yes friends, Passing Over is now available!), Phil spoke about his style in contrast to mine, given his commitment to "narrative structures, use of personal experience, memory," etc. Mine, especially in recent years, has been much more disjunctive in various ways. But be that as it may, there's poem in Rabbis of the Air which illustrates the problem that Alicia raises with admirable tact, poise, feeling and economy. It's called "A Response to Jehuda Halevi":

"Is it well that the dead shall be remembered,
And the Ark and the Tablets forgotten?"

Yes, Jehuda, I would rather recall
the business cards of my father's
used car lot than the five books

and all their commentaries, the recipe
for my grandmother's kuchin than
the Kabbalah and its interpretations,

her delicate matzo balls than all
of the much-sought-after mystical
masterpieces. I would rather discover

the dandruff of my dead friend's dark
hair than the inscribed stones Moses
bloodied his flesh--twice--to attain.

Because I am nothing without them,
whose words accent my speech,
whose motions choreograph my gestures--

dreamstuff are my dead, demanding
my devotion--yes, Jehuda,
it is well they shall be remembered,

their names the undertone whenever
my own name is called, their ghost-souls
more present than this corporeal furniture

of the world which, like the ark and tablets,
hold their form in bodies of beauty
then dissolve, indistinguisable from the dust.

Ordinarily I would have a lot of trouble with a poem in which the speaker invokes his grandmother's "delicate matzo balls," but in this case, the gamble with sentimentality pays off, given the strength of the ensuing stanzas. It's a poem that raises one of those big questions, as Alicia does, and it makes a lot of sense in the context of Halevi, whose devotional poetry carries such an erotic--i.e. profane--charge. Terman makes a powerful claim for cultural Jewishness over religious devotion here, in the name of the "ghost-souls" of his dead. For more along these lines, check out Rabbis of the Air.

Friday, August 03, 2007

What is a Jew Redux

Just recently chatting with Ken Gordon at JBooks on the question of Judaism and Modernism, or as he puts it, “Making Jews Modern,” it seems to me this is yet another variant of the perennial question, What Is a Jew. Is this a weird question? Christians don’t seem to ask “What is a Christian,” or at least they don’t ask it where I can hear it. On the other hand, many Afro-Americans do seem to hold the self-scrutinizing mirror up in a similar way, asking themselves Am I black enough? Am I too black? Is it a question of blood? Is it a question of culture, and if so, what culture?

For Jews, one crude dividing line has long been Religious (or Observant) versus Secular. Personally, I think these are leaky categories. I was a Red Diaper baby, or as I like to put it, a Third Generation Atheist Socialist Jew. My grandfather on one side stopped studying Talmud and started studying medicine; the grandfather on the other side was a disciple of Kropotkin; my father was a Union man and for a few years a Party member; my parents voted for Wallace when everybody else was voting for Truman. My Jewish education consisted of being told that religion was the opiate of the people and that Jews were in favor of education, tolerance, justice and kindness, and against poverty, war, ignorance and prejudice. Because Jews suffered, we were supposed to help anybody who was suffering.

Did my parents know that their passion for social justice was rooted in the Hebrew prophets Isaiah and Amos, or even further back, when we were commanded to love the stranger because we know the heart of the stranger, because we were strangers in Egypt? No. My parents never saw the inside of a shul, and they never read the Bible. When I became obsessed with writing midrash, in my late 40’s, my mother (in her ‘70’s) thought I was crazy. But in retrospect, the lineage is obvious. So the split between religious and secular Judaism is, as we say in academe, problematic.

Two books I’ve recently read touch on this, Esther Schor’s biography of the poet-essayist-journalist Emma Lazarus, and Rebecca Goldstein’s Betraying Spinoza.

I’ll condense a bit here from my review of Schor’s book, in Sh’ma:

Lazarus, born into an extremely wealthy and visible New York Sephardic family, was never “religious.” Throughout her life she pretended not to notice the genteel anti-Semitism of her elite literary and artistic colleagues and friends, while her own Jewishness grew increasingly intense as she matured. She translated medieval Sephardic poets, then Heine, and wrote a sharp essay about Heine’s conversion to Christianity, claiming that “no sooner was the irrevocable step taken than it was bitterly an unworthy concession to tyrannic injustice.” When anti-Semitism of a less genteel kind began to swell in Europe, she responded instantly. In her melodrama The Dance to Death, about massacre and martyrdom in fourteenth century Germany. viciousness is not underplayed.... Like other assimilated Jews of her class, Lazarus felt condescension for the “ghetto Jew” of Eastern Europe. But in the 1880’s, when floods of Russian Jews fleeing pogroms became a “problem” both for Christian America and for assimilated Jewry, Lazarus not only became a major player in the debate, unflinchingly attacking both Christian hypocrisy and Jewish complacency; she visited the refugees on Ward’s Island and elsewhere, advocated for sanitation, education and job training, published Songs of a Semite, and in a weekly column in the American Hebrew announced her vision of a secular Jewish state in Palestine—years before the word “Zionism” was invented. She also insisted on a new idea of America. “Every American,” she wrote in an unsigned essay, “must feel a thrill of pride and gratitude in the thought that his country is the refuge of the oppressed.”

Lazarus died at the age of 38, of Hodgkin’s disease. Her writing came to respect and quote prophets and rabbis. She is known today for her words on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. But Schor’s excellent biography makes clear that by the end of her life she “was inventing the role of an American Jewish writer” whose prophetic burden “was to glimpse, in the trials of her people, the pain of the world’s exiles, and in her own passionate vocation, a mission for her country.” This sense of mission is still felt by many Jews in the worlds of literature, art and journalism, not to mention the Jewish activists who still crowd every progressive organization and gathering, and for whom being Jewish means you side with the oppressed and against the oppressors.

One common type of Jewish activist, of course, doesn’t come out as “Jewish,” just as lefty. But what Isaac Deutscher called “the non-Jewish Jew” has a long lineage. Allen Ginsberg is perhaps the most significant recent avatar—somebody who hated being labelled as a Jew, and was conspicuously extremely Jewish. Goldstein calls her philosophical-cultural biography of Baruch Spinoza Betraying Spinoza because her project is to “out” him as the Jew he chose not to be. For Goldstein, the spiny Spinoza (his name means “thorn” in the Portuguese of the Amsterdam Jewish community in which he grew up) was among the inventors of modern philosophy, standing between Descartes and Leibniz as a proponent of Rationalism—one might say Extreme Rationalism, since for him the universe is itself composed of pure Reason. Her description of his writings is lucid, and to a philosophical novice like myself, fascinating. But her larger project is to show how his philosophy was shaped, despite his disavowal of contingency, precisely by the contingencies of history.

In 1656 at the age of 23 Spinoza was excommunicated by the Amsterdam Jewish elders, in a writ that accuses him of “abominable heresies” and “monstrous deeds,” curses him, and forbids other Jews to have any kind of contact with him. One can see why. He must have been a thorn in the side of a community of refugees from the Inquisition. His later monistic metaphysics emphatically rejects the concepts of a providential God, a chosen people, the Mosaic authorship of Torah, a personal afterlife, and much else that was essential to this community’s often turbulent efforts to define what a Jew was supposed to be and believe—including “belief” itself. Like Shakespeare’s Coriolanus who, when banished from Rome, retorts “I banish you!” and seeks “a world elsewhere,” Spinoza became the West’s first advocate of a purely secular state. More than that, he dismisses the significance of whatever interferes with Reason: family, race, religion, gender, nationality, are all irrelevant to Truth, all obstacles to the knowledge which is the proper goal of all human life.

Goldstein’s portrait of Amsterdam Jewry and its theological controversies in Spinoza’s time is rich and convincing. I confess that I enjoy learning that Jews were at least as contentious in the 17th century as they are now. She tracks the rationalism Spinoza inherits from Maimonides, as well as the “ecstatic impulse that irradiates kabbala;” both impulses were alive and well in Amsterdam, and both clearly charged his batteries. Somewhat less convincing is her attempt to portray Spinoza as enacting on a small scale the story of the persecuted and secretive Marronites in their attempt to forge a new identity for themselves What’s most fascinating, it seems to me, is that in Spinoza’s thought an absolutely rational secularism is identical with an absolutely impassioned amor dei intellectualis, the intellectual love of God. “The mind’s highest good is the knowledge of God, and the mind’s virtue is to know God,” he writes. He calls this knowledge “blessedness.” God is the infinite center of his thinking, and though his idea of God as immanent in all that exists isn’t what his fellow-Jews had in mind at all, it wouldn’t surprise me if many Jews today—both “religious” and “secular”—think something similar.

I’m recommending both these books. But I’m also curious what others think about the “religious” versus “secular” divide. Obviously the distinction is a useful first-order one. Some Jews are purely and faithfully observant, some are purely and faithfully atheist. But what about the areas of overlap? What about those of us who live in the blur? If I look at the table of contents of Rubin’s Telling and Remembering, or Barron and Selinger’s Jewish American Poetry, I’m wiling to bet that more than half the poets in these volumes live in the blur. What does that tell us? I think I m out on a limb here, and I hope others are there with me.

Alicia Ostriker


Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Rockdale Lectures

Robert Murphy of Dos Madres Press has generously arranged to put recordings of the lectures I gave at Rockdale Temple in April on line here. The titles of the lectures are "Remembering and Forgetting in Jewish American Fiction" (including discussions of Daniel Fuchs, Bernard Malamud and Myla Goldberg) and "The Sacred, the Secular and the Book: The Problem of the Jewish Literary Imagination." In case you're looking for something to do before the new Harry Potter comes out (or once you're done with it), give a listen and let me know what you think.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Countdown to The Book We've Been Waiting For...

No, not Harry Potter. I mean the book--THE book--that I've long needed, about Zukofsky.

Let me explain.

Fifteen years ago, Mark Scroggins and I were neighbors, nearly. He lived in Reston, I in Arlington, VA: close enough to meet for coffee and to talk, though not often enough, about poetry. We both loved Ronald Johnson--that was how we met--but after that, our tastes diverged. I leaned to the right, professing a love of Merrill and Auden. For Mark, the touchstone was always Louis Zukofsky, on whom he'd written a dissertation back at Cornell.

I got Mark to take a second look at my favorites, but Zuk always eluded me: one of those poets I felt I ought to love, but for various reasons (never quite clear to me, I'll confess), never did. I needed a hook, somehow: a text or tale to have in mind when I read the poems themselves, as I have Susan Howe's and Charles Bernstein's essays when I turn to their work, or Rene Stenke's novel Holy Skirts when I read the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.

And now it's here, or almost here:

Louis Zukofsky: The Poem of a Life
, by Mark Scroggins: a critical biography born (says Mark on his blog) from "7 or 8 years of grubbing in the archives (think Gandalf in the Minas Tirith scrolls basement, minus the pipe & tankard of ale), interviewing poets, writers, & folk of all walks of life from San Francisco to Edinburgh, and (mostly) bending over a legal pad or a word processor in a haze of tobacco smoke & caffeine."

I've read portions in draft: they're deftly written, critically subtle, and emotionally astute--in short, they're everything that I have needed to read Zukofsky for pleasure. To read him not least as a Jewish poet, let me add in these heimish confines.

For the last few years, we've all heard that Zukofsky was a crucial figure in twentieth-century American poetry, and still more in Jewish American poetry. This is the book, I reckon, that will clinch that case. I don't have the software handy to do a "countdown to publication" as they do for Harry P, but I'll be waiting for it to show up in my mailbox just as eagerly as my kids are waiting for HP & the Marshy Mallows. (Note to Mark: maybe you could photoshop a Z-shaped scar on L's forehead, just for the cover? He's got the glasses already!)

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Shameful Self-Promotion

Here's my review of Hettie Jones's DOING 70 as it appears in this week's FORWARD. To see it in the metaphoric flesh, go to While I'm at it, let me also plug my review of Kenneth Koch, also at the FORWARD:

Doing 70
By Hettie Jones
Hanging Loose Press, 92 pages, $15.

It is hard to talk about Hettie Jones’s poetry without mentioning her biography. Born Hettie Cohen in 1934, brought up in a middle-class section of Queens, she decamped to Manhattan’s Greenwich Village in the mid-1950s. There she met and married the young black poet and soon-to-be playwright LeRoi Jones. In “How I Became Hettie Jones,” her remarkably level-headed 1990 memoir of that remarkably un-levelheaded period, Jones claims that she made this series of leaps because she was Jewish, although not in any conventional way. “As an outsider Jew I could have tried for white, aspired to the liberal intellectual, potentially conservative Western tradition,” she wrote. “But I was never drawn to that history and with so little to call my own, I felt free to choose.”

She chose New York’s Beat Bohemia and had quite a time. She became friends with poets (Allen Ginsberg and Frank O’Hara), with musicians (Ornette Coleman and Archie Shepp) and with painters (Franz Kline and Larry Rivers). As we know, this multi-hued downtown scene, so lovingly depicted in “How I Became Hettie Jones,” did not last. In the final analysis, it could not. The tensions of the early ’60s drove a thick racial wedge through the whole shebang — through her marriage as well as through a whole series of equally fragile alliances. LeRoi Jones became Amiri Baraka, but not before he left his wife and kids. And the rest, as they say, is history.

“How I Became Hettie Jones,” makes it clear that the complicated Beat paradise it describes was much more heavenly for the men than for the women. With a few exceptions, the guys were old-fashioned guys. They wrote, drank, smoked dope and screwed around, while their wives and girlfriends — all talented in their own right — earned the money and took care of the bills and looked after the kids. Occasionally they managed to screw around, as well, but only in their rare, free moments. The toll on their creativity was pretty high. While Hettie Jones did write a number of books for children and adults through the ’90s, she did not publish her first volume of poetry until she was over 60. She has made up for lost time “Doing 70” is her third in nine years. On the whole, Jones’s poems present fresh examples of a late ’50s/early ’60s aesthetic. To call them “Beat” does not do them justice, because they are happily devoid of the dated prophetic stances and the willful cuteness that you find in way too many works of the time. Nevertheless, she claims kin with the Beats. Her poetry mixes the everyday diction of William Carlos Williams with a capacious Zen openness. It tends to move swiftly from a concrete present to moments of glancing insight. Her poems usually start with mundane, very urban occurrences (getting towed, calling the plumber, meeting an acquaintance from the neighborhood in the street), only to end with expressions of unexpected joy.

Here is the end of “Genuflection to the Cable Guys From Time Warner,” which describes a rainy-day confrontation between two workmen who insist there is a cable box on the roof and an “undersized, overdressed/older white woman/in raveling fingerless gloves,” that is, the poet herself:

Genuflection in the house
to the cable guys
from Time Warner

who find nothing on the roof

and are laughing coming down

the one who says, oh, you have a nice apartment
and the one who reaches to shake my half-gloved hand

sweet meeting, these bare, wet fingers.

The poem concludes with that lovely second of contact between Jones and the workers. she describes all this with such lightness, such good humor that even the most informed reader might miss what I take to be an echo of Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro.” But perhaps you don’t actually need to notice it, because Jones’s refusal of Pound is so complete. She rejects Pound’s urban anomie, however pretty it might be, and substitutes in its place the odd recognitions and connections of city life.

This same insistence on human contact animates “Women in Black,” a brief account of a vigil in Beijing:

Patterns in the dust of
different kinds of shoe soles
black on black
we sway like grain, like the woman
beside me, the scar of the burning
she escaped

When she turns to me,
smiling, the scar is a path, slick
in the gathering dark Half the world
is ours to take.

This poem is not the best in the collection (the title poem takes that prize), but it definitely shows Jones at her best. She moves with deceptive ease from perception to simile and then to flat declaration. Jones is also very deft in her treatment of what becomes the central figure of that poem, the scar that marks the woman beside her. That scar seems to signal some untold story of violence, but Jones lets it rest as a simple fact. She avoids the temptations of melodrama and opts instead for the hope and the wit of the final line. Not only is Jones apparently free of rancor, but she also is possessed of what might be the greatest of political virtues: solidarity. She is able to relate without having to identify, to love without having to consume. This is a great gift, and, coupled with her resolute optimism, it is worth the price of admission.

Needless to say, not all the poetry in “Doing 70” is as successful as this. It is very hard to find a consistent balance between relatively slight motivations and resonant conclusions, especially in anti-war poems. So the book is uneven and sometimes the endings don’t work. That doesn’t matter. The strength of Jones’s work does not really rest on its best lines or its aptest metaphors or its most fitting closures. Instead, the poems serve as models of emotional engagement. Tough and sexy, they remain committed to the upstart possibilities of the postmodern city. Jones lacks illusion, but she is not disillusioned. That is no small thing, and may well be one of the gifts of age. She is, in the end, a mensch. It is usually mere irrelevance or pure sentimentality to talk about a poet’s heart. With Hettie Jones, it becomes a form of praise.

Tue. Jun 19, 2007

Friday, June 01, 2007

Summertime Jews

Ain't no cure, so you might as well enjoy them.

(Don't ask me why, but this sounded awfully summery to me.)

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

SKV #3

In a comment, Daniel suggests poem 50 from Cohen's Book of Mercy. I found it on line, so here it is!
I lost my way, I forgot to call on your name. The raw heart beat against the world, and the tears were for my lost victory. But you are here. You have always been here. The world is all forgetting, and the heart is a rage of directions, but your name unifies the heart, and the world is lifted into its place. Blessed is the one who waits in the traveller's heart for his turning.
I do love that last line. There are others in the sequence that hit me harder, maybe because this one is more purely consoling by the close. I wonder: might Cohen's "here" gloss the Hebrew "haMakom," as in the Passover song? (Baruch haMakom, Baruch who? Baruch Shenatan, natan Torah....)

(A typo above, but I think I'll keep it. I like the ha-Hu as a Who.)

Peter Cole's New Anthology

I don't know how many of you have already seen it, but there was a glowing review of Peter Cole's new anthology The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492 (Princeton UP) in the New York Times a few weeks back. Quoth Eric Ormsby:
One day in 10th-century Baghdad a visiting foreign student named Dunash Ben Labrat showed his teacher, the revered scholar Sa'adia Gaon, a poem he had composed in a novel style. Sa'adia handed the poem back with the comment ''Nothing like it has ever been seen in Israel.'' This dubious compliment, which all teachers of creative writing might wish to employ, failed to discourage Dunash. He took himself, and his new poetry, back home to Muslim Spain. There, despite the dismay his mediocre verses prompted in other aspiring Hebrew poets, his style caught on. Within a few decades, from these unpromising origins, a brilliant and original body of Hebrew verse began to take shape. Virtually stagnant since late Biblical times, Hebrew poetry and the language itself would be transformed by a succession of poets of genius and their imitators. In Peter Cole's rich new anthology, the extent of their astonishing achievement is fully revealed for the first time in English.
It's a beauty, this book, and I hear tell that even though Amazon says it will take 4-6 weeks to ship, they have them in stock. Find it somewhere, buy it, and let's talk!

Celan in Eric's Siddur

Norman Finkelstein

Despite my doubts about the project--Eric and I have had on an on-again, off-again debate about the uses of modern poetry in liturgy--I would say that given the hybrid nature of this strange beast, Paul Celan's work would be a must. One thinks immediately of his "Psalm" ("Praised be your name / no one"), from which comes the title of his volume Die Niemandrose (1963). But perhaps just as powerful and appropriate to the occasion is this untitled poem, also from that volume:

Being beyond in the night.
With words I fetched you back, there you are,
all is true and a waiting
for truth.

In front of our window
the bean-plant climbs: think
who is growing beside us and
watches it.

God, so we read, is
a part and a second, a scattered one:
in the death
of all those mown down
he grows himself whole.

our looking leads us,
with this
we keep up relations.

This is the Michael Hamburger translation; the one by John Felstiner also has its virtues. The first stanza in particular has always struck me as a perfect expression of the modern Jewish religious sensibility.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Siddur Kol Hevel, part 2

Rachel sent a link to this, which Catherine Madsen (author of the essential, fascinating book on liturgy, The Bones Reassemble) drafted some years ago:
Our father, our king, we resent fathers and kings.
Our mother, our teacher, we resist mothers and teachers.
Our eclipse, our no-one, renew us for a good year.
Our figment, our construct, hear us, pity us, and spare us.
Our guess, our denial, seal us in the book of pardon.
Our hope, our dismay, speed our liberation.
Our doubt, our division, temper us to your need.
Avinu malkeinu, for your sake if not for ours.
Our limit, our secret, remember us 'til we live.

Our rock, our redeemer, give us endurance in pain.
Our place, our midst, root us in the cracks of your being.
Our breath, our life, evade all our theologies.
Our midwife, our surgeon, bring out of us what is in us.
Our infant, our patient, demand from us 'til we provide.
Our lover, our consoler, lie down beside us in loneliness.
Our enemy, our catastrophe, goad us to act justly.
Our mugger, our rapist, shatter our lives with your claims.
Our maker, our destroyer, build us again from the ground up, carefully.
That's more specifically liturgical than I had in mind for SKH (Siddur Kol Hevel), Rachel, although I'm very grateful! I'd been thinking of things like Blake's "All deities reside in the human breast" or scraps of verse, like Cohen's "I draw aside the curtain. You mock us with the beauty of your world" (from Book of Mercy). And I must say, much as I admire the first two lines here, I deeply dislike the penultimate one. Not to sound like Job's wife, but if you're going to call God a mugger and rapist, why not call him "Our Hitler, our Stalin," or "Our sondercommando" and be done with it?

This, on the other hand, also by Madsen, helped give me the title for my project:
For liturgy, God is always a moving target: we pray to him and get equivocal answers, or none; we ask to see his glory and are shown only his back. Any assertion we make of God's grace and mercy is at once undercut by the contingency of our daily experience. Any assumption we make of God's indifference or hostility is eclipsed by the appearance of mercy and grace in our lives. The declaration from the burning bush, ehyeh asher ehyeh ("I will be what I will be"), is a promise and a threat in equal measure, and hints at the simultaneous presence and absence of God at the other end of our prayers. Yet whether God is present or absent is not a final or even an answerable question, only a sort of spiritual brain-teaser by which our minds stay alert. With or without God, what is unequivocably present is the human other in need.
"Kol Hevel" is, after all, a pun: "all is vanity," but also "The Voice of Abel," which is to say, of your brother's blood, of "the human other in need."

But keep them coming, everyone! Show me what you're working with, as the (utterly inappropriate) song says.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Siddur Kol Hevel

Eric Selinger

Hi, everyone. I've made the joke so often it's not funny anymore--which is to say, I am now officially working on Siddur Kol Hevel: A Prayerbook for the Rest of Us. Not a prayerbook, exactly: more a set of readings. Poems, tags of prose, you name it, all of them contrapuntal to normative Judaism, whether from a secular, heretical, philosophical, mystical, or literary point of view. Jews and non-Jews welcome: in this book, Blake rubs shoulders with Scholem, Duncan with Deutcher with Dickinson, the Kotzker Rebbe with Leonard Cohen and Marc-Alain Ouaknin. You get the picture.

What I need now is your help.

What are your favorite, most inspiring, most unsettling passages? The ones you turn to, or that shaped you, for better or for worse? Ones you've stumbled across, and that haunt you--or tickle you, for that matter, with their sass and heterodoxy.

I'll post mine, one by one, as the summer goes on. Please post yours, as comments or (if you're a contributor) as a post: the passage, and some sort of attribution, so that I can track it down if need be.

I don't know what all of this will end up being: a book, a website, who knows? But it's a project worth doing, I'm sure of that, and we're the folks to do it!

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Poem By Heschel, Music by Pharaoh's Daughter

Woke up this morning...

...and realized I'd given that last post the wrong title.

It should have been

Min ha-matzav karati Yah--

A psalm from my Siddur Kol Hevel.

Time for

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

All the News that Fits, Alas

The Diameter of the Bomb
The diameter of the bomb was thirty centimetres
and the diameter of its effective
range—about seven metres.
And in it four dead and eleven wounded.
And around them in a greater circle
of pain and time are scattered
two hospitals and one cemetery.
But the young woman who was
buried where she came from
over a hundred kilometres away
enlarges the circle greatly.
And the lone man who weeps over her death
in a far corner of a distant country
includes the whole world in the circle.
And I won't speak at all about the crying of orphans
that reaches to the seat of God
and from there onward, making
the circle without end and without God.

--Yehuda Amichai (trans. Stephen Mitchell)

(A young Ethiopian Jewish immigrant sheds a tear as he takes refuge in a bomb shelter from Qassam rockets fired by Palestinians into nearby Gaza Strip on May 16, 2007 in Sderot, Israel. By David Silverman/Getty Images.)

(A Palestinian boy holds the side of his face as he lies wounded in Al-Shifa hospital following an Israeli strike against the house of a Hamas leader in Gaza city, 20 May 2007. Four people were killed and five people wounded in a the Israeli air raid against Gaza targeting the home of Hamas leader Khalil al-Haya, who was at the time of the attack away from his home. By Mahmud Hams/AFP.)

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

A sample of poetic discourse around Jewishness from 1912:


The impudence of his artistic swank
More fragrant somehow do I find than rank,
Who paints upon his subtly purple banner,
“1 am the Oxford plus the Yiddish manner.”


Exalted cheekbones and a prattling smile,
A touch of mischief and a childish guile,
With teeth that twinkle and with lips that please-
In short, a Bayswaterian Viennese.


So overwhelming breathed her powder’s reek,
So loud her dresses and her hats would shriek,
That you would entertain a false impression
And murmur an ineffable expression,
Until you realise your wish is vain
By looking at her visage chastely plain.

These are nos. 4, 5 and 6 (though they're not numbered as such in the text) of 8 "Epigrams" by "H.S.B." (no idea who that is) in The New Age 11.22 (26 Sept. 1912): 516. I found them when I was trolling for Pound material; they follow immediately on section IV of EP's serial essay "Patria Mia."

"Bayswaterian Viennese" seems very Eliot somehow.

Alan Golding

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

More Welcomes, More Thanks

Eric Selinger

A welcome, belatedly, from me as well! I've been busy teaching a new Jewish poetry course--a four-week "Lunch and Learn" course at the Spertus Institute here in Chicago--focused on the question of "What's Jewish About Jewish American Poetry?" Not that I actually answer the question, mind you, other than in some pretty roundabout ways. As an investigatory tool, though, it's serving quite nicely.

My first session looked at some poems that are not overtly "Jewish" in any way, but which open up in remarkable ways when you look at them as Jewish poems. My main examples were "The New Colossus," by Emma Lazarus, and "Night Terrors," by Alan Shapiro, although the handout I'd prepared included a half-dozen additional texts. (What can I say? They're a talkative bunch, my students.) I didn't get into the tonal issues you frame so nicely, Alan, but I should have; the Shapiro, in particular, draws on the sentimental side of that Yiddishe tam, and could be read quite nicely as some kind of allegory about Jewish poetics and the voice of the mother (a Grossman idea, yes, Norman?):

Alan Shapiro, “Night Terrors”

Whose voice is it in mine when the child cries,
terrified in sleep, and half asleep myself I'm there
beside him saying, shh, now easy, shh,

whose voice?--too intimate with all the ways
of solace to be merely mine; so prodigal
in desiring to give, yet so exact in giving

that even before I reach the little bed,
before I touch him, as I do anyway,
already he is breathing quietly again.

Is it my mother's voice in mine, the memory
no memory at all but just the vocal trace,
sheer bodily sensation on the lips and tongue,

of what I may have heard once in the pre-
remembering of infancy, heard once and then
forgot entirely till it was wakened by the cry,

brought back, as if from exile, by the child's cry--
here to the father's voice, where the son again
can ask the mother, and the mother, too, the son:

why has it taken you so long to come?

Monday, April 23, 2007

Semina Culture

Norman and Eric,

Thanks for opening up the blog to other contributors. I'd like to let people know about an illustrated article that Charles Bernstein posted regarding the "Semina Culture" show that has been touring the country for the past year-and-a-half. "Surrealism Meets Kabbalah: The Place of Semina in Mid-Century California Poetry and Art" looks at the impact of Kabbalah and Hebrew letters on the art and poetry of the group that formed around Wallace Berman's ground-breaking California journal, "Semina" (1955-64). The article can be found at

Stephen Fredman

Welcome to our new contributors

Norman Finkelstein

As you may have noticed, we're expanding our list of contributors here at A Big Jewish Blog. I'd like to extend a welcome to all of them. Hopefully we'll hear from quite a few folks in the near future, and things will get lively.

David, thanks very much for your post--that's just the sort of commentary we're hoping for. I'd say that the idea of a "Jewish tone," ranging from the aggressively comic to the sentimental, is well worth considering in our endless quest to identify what makes a modern poem peculiarly "Jewish." Of course, this range doesn't preclude other tonal possibilities. One thinks of the psalmic tendency (Oppen's "Psalm," obviously, but there are many other instances) or the prophetic (much of Alan Grossman; for instance "How to Do Things With Tears").

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Jewish Modernism

David Kaufman

Since I started reviewing for the FORWARD a few years ago, I’ve noticed that one of the most common ways of trying to figure out if a work is “Jewish” (rather than merely written or composed by someone who happens to be a Jew) is to locate some kind of specifically Jewish content in it—references to the Bible, the liturgy, the holidays, the Shoah, childhood experiences with bubba and zayde, etc. Another alternative—not as common, but surprisingly prevalent—is to place the work in the context of a Jewish aesthetics that derives directly and unabashedly from the Tanakh, as if there weren’t close to 3000 years of Jewish experience and artistic practices between Sinai and yesterday.

Allowing for the dubious leap-frogging over the Talmud (not to mention the 19th century) in the second approach, both ways of looking for the Jewishness of Jewish art miss way too much, especially in 20th century poetry. They miss tone—that elusive mixture of diction, cadence and situation that makes all the difference. Think of Zukofsky’s “Poem Beginning ‘The'.” Its Jewishness does not merely rest on its quotations from Yiddish, but also—and perhaps more importantly-- on its sheer bloody-minded aggression towards Eliot and the whole project of High Cultural (ie goyish) Modernism, an aggression that plays out on all levels of the poem.

So let’s say that there is a specifically Jewish Modernism and that it sounds a little different from its non-Jewish counterpart. Its tutelary spirit is Heine and its cardinal points are aggression and comedy. It cuts across schools and affiliations and so includes Karl Shapiro as much as Zukofsky and Reznikoff. But as comedy is frequently nothing more than socially sanctioned aggression, we might want to—or need to --add sentimentality to our compass of modern Jewish aesthetics. And sentimentality, the chief affect of kitsch, was of course anathema to the High Cultural Modernists.

If my hunch is right, then we can begin to understand the peculiar Yiddishkeyt of all sorts of poets who might not otherwise make the cut. Two examples come immediately to mind (to my mind, at least, because I’ve reviewed them recently): the ferociously Jewish quality of both Bernstein’s “Groucho Marxism” and his fascination with a swoony and sometimes silly version of Swinburne, as well as the oddly manic Jewish goofiness of Kenneth Koch, the tummler of the New York School. The Jewish content is rather thin in both men’s work. The Jewish tone is not.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Jerome Rothenberg's Triptych

Charles Bernstein

The Brooklyn Rail has just published my Foreword to Jerome Rothenberg's Triptych (Poland/1931, Khurbn, and Burning Babe), which New Directions will be launching in a few weeks. The full text is now up at the Rail's web site.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Rockdale Preview

Norman Finkelstein

My scholar-in-residence gig at Rockdale Temple is coming up in two weeks. The theme for the three talks is “The Jewish Literary Imagination”: “Remembering & Forgetting in Jewish-American Fiction,” “Midrash in Jewish-American Poetry,” and “The Sacred, the Secular, & the Book: The Problem of the Jewish Literary Imagination.” This last one is the most speculative and risky, and I hope the audience, which will be lively and literary but not particularly “academic” or “theoretical” in their orientation, won’t be put off. The first part of the talk has to do with interpretive innovation in traditional Jewish religious texts (Scholem and Bloom are important sources here). Then I move on to the “secular” instance of Kafka, who, of course, isn’t that secular at all. Here are the last few paragraphs, ending with—surprise!—Wallace Stevens:

… Drawing on Bialik and thinking deeply about Kafka, Walter Benjamin observes that “Kafka’s real genius was that he tried something entirely new: he sacrificed truth for the sake of clinging to its transmissibility, its haggadic element. Kafka’s writings are by their nature parables. But it is their misery and their beauty that they had to become more than parables. They do not modestly lie at the feet of the doctrine, as the Haggadah lies at the feet of the Halakah. Though apparently reduced to submission, they unexpectedly raise a mighty paw against it.”

Here we arrive at the heart of our investigation. It is Kafka, more than any other writer, who leads Bloom to assert the incoherence of the view that some imaginative literature is sacred and some is secular. For nearly a hundred years, we have been reading Kafka with something approaching religious devotion. Indeed, for many Jewish readers,and unquestionably for nearly all subsequent Jewish authors, Kafka’s writing—his Scripture—assumes an existential authority and a doctrinal power that becomes stronger the more one thinks about it. And yet the more one thinks about it, the more elusive the message of this Scripture, this new Kabbalah, becomes: in every respect, it is a writing that is more concerned with concealment than with revelation. It’s truth, if it bears truth, remains hidden; it preserves, as Benjamin understands, nothing but its transmissibility, and that is inescapable. I am reminded of the debate between the priest and K. in The Trial, after the priest (who speaks much more like a Talmudic sage than a Christian minister) tells K. the famous parable called “Before the Law.” As they argue the numerous possible meanings of this enigmatic parable, they consider the truth of what the doorkeeper of the Law tells the man who has come to beg admittance. “It is not necessary to accept everything as true,” the priest tells K.; “one must only accept it as necessary.”

What, I would ask, do we accept as necessary? In posing this question, I am asking not only what it is that we require in our search for meaning, but what we acknowledge to be inescapable in our lives, what in effect determines meaning for us. This is a philosophical, if not a religious question. Now, granted, I’m an unusual case, but when I reflect on this question, I come up with a peculiar answer: literature. It is in my experiences as a reader, and eventually, as a writer, that I feel my fate not merely being revealed, but even being shaped. I think many serious readers (there seem to be fewer and fewer of them) share this feeling with me, though they might not put it quite such portentous terms. Secular Jews, educated, middle-class, American Jews, two or three generations beyond the crisis of assimilation, whether or not they belong to a temple, whether or not they are members of some Jewish organization—these Jewish readers in particular still reach for imaginative literature in order to develop a keener sense of who they truly are. As in Kafka, they do not necessarily accept what they read to be true, but they accept that their reading is necessary. Again, this is what is meant by transmissibility. These Jews have gone from the Book to books, a transition through modernity that is analogous to the transition I have been describing in regard to how innovation in Jewish texts, sacred and secular, comes to pass.

To bring this talk to a conclusion in a rather different key, I would like to refer to one of my favorite poems by a most unlikely figure in the present context, Wallace Stevens. It is a late poem called “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour,” in which, I presume, the muse addresses her poet, after they have come together many times in what she calls “the intensest rendezvous.” “Here, now,” she declares,

…we forget each other and ourselves.
We feel the obscurity of an order, a whole,
A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous,

Within its vital boundary, in the mind.
We say God and the imagination are one…

On one level, it is a scandalous proposition, whether one believes or not. Then again, the two terms that the Interior Paramour conflates, God and the imagination, share at least one thing in common, which is the creative principle, out of which comes “an order, a whole.” Is Stevens’ poem a sacred or a secular utterance? “What difference does that make?,” you may ask—he certainly wasn’t Jewish! Well, no, and I’m not going to retroactively convert him. It’s funny, though: early and late, Stevens’ poetry is sprinkled with references to rabbis. He explains this as follows: “the figure of the rabbi has always been an exceedingly attractive one to me, because it is the figure of a man devoted in the extreme to scholarship, and at the same time making use of it for human purposes.” I think that’s very well said: it makes most authors and critics into rabbis, which has been my intention all along. So with Reb Stevens, I say “Oh! Rabbi, rabbi, fend my soul for me / And true savant of this dark nature be.”

Tuesday, April 10, 2007


Norman Finkelstein

I had hoped that a post like this wouldn't be necessary, but recent events have once again reminded me that I need to clarify my identity, especially for those of you who are visiting this blog or reading my work for the first time. I am Norman M. Finkelstein. My middle name is Mark, though I haven't written or made public appearances under that name or used my middle initial in over twenty years. I am a poet and literary critic. I am not Norman G. Finkelstein, the controversial political scientist, though I am occasionally mistaken for him. I do not share his opinions in regard to Israel, the Holocaust, or most Jewish-American organizations. But Norman G. and I are acquainted--we were both in the class of '75 at Binghamton University. We spent a pleasant hour together at DePaul when I visited Eric Selinger's poetry course some years ago. We haven't been in touch since.

I should also note that there is a third Norman Finkelstein: Norman H. Finkelstein, a librarian and the author of many books for young adults. To make things even more complicated, all three of us write about modern Jewish history and culture, each in his own very different way. Sometimes I feel like I'm living in a Philip Roth novel. But so it goes.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Happy Passover

from Passing Over

At the turning of the season
at the border of the day
at the threshold of the house

before the spring comes
before the night falls
before one goes inside

to the warmth of the hall
to the light of the candles
to the faces at the table

think of yourself
as one who stands apart
forever in transition

between the darkness of the past
and the promise of fulfillment
that would reside in the future

if not for your doubt
of history as myth
of the totality of redemption

which begins so far away
and so long ago
that the mind reels

at the life of the people
who clean the house
cook the meal

set the table
with cups of wine
and the plate in the center.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Praise and Lamentation

The following poem, by my old friend (and first creative writing teacher) Henry Weinfield, originally appeared in his chapbook The Tears of the Muses (Dos Madres Press, 2005). It will be included in his forthcoming volume of new and selected poems, which Dos Madres will be publishing, probably later this year. Last night Henry read the poem at Xavier, along with selections from his new Hesiod translation and a beautiful retelling in verse of the stories about the prophet Elijah, from the Book of Kings. Weinfield is, as far as I'm concerned, one of the greatest poets writing in English today. The fact that he writes entirely in rhyme and meter, using utterly pellucid diction and straightforward grammatical structures, makes him, to say the least, a nonesuch, and one whose work may be unacceptable to readers (mostly academics) given over to what might be called the ideology of the avant-garde. In any case, he is a poet willing to take extraordinary risks, which almost always pay off. "Praise and Lamentation" strikes me as one of the most important Jewish poems--and one of the most insightful political poems--to come along in many years. It is, needless to say, a provocative work on every level. Henry has consented to have the poem reprinted here. We invite your comments.


I praise an Israeli soldier named Nisan:
“They think that I’m a monster with a gun,
Who prays each day, eats kosher, yes, and kills
Arabs,” he says. Sardonically, he smiles:
“I never pray; I don’t believe in it”
(There’s something oddly comforting in that);
“I drink milk and eat cheese even with meat.”
He lives in a village bordering Lebanon,
Which Hezbollah is always firing on;
He’s nineteen and he hasn’t slept for days.
Another reason to accord him praise
Is that he hasn’t any politics
To speak of: all he wants is to go home!
His people really are in quite a fix,
So he’s stuck standing guard in Bethlehem!
These are my people, and I’m proud of them.

These are my people and I’m proud of them,
But now we too must learn to bear the shame
That other peoples, nations (goyim) do,
For we are now among the nations too,
And have ourselves begun to victimize
Others (it’s one of history’s sadder ironies).
Oh, it was easier in our own eyes,
When violence was visited on us,
To be a victim and be virtuous,
But now it seems to end in violence;
And though we say that it’s in self-defense
We know that it’s a half-truth – hence a lie.
We, who once preached against idolatry
And put an end to human sacrifice,
We, through whose books the world learned to be wise,
We too have now resorted to the slick
Impostures of religious rhetoric.
Religion in its Latin derivation
Refers to that which binds us to a nation,
And in the end, when all is said and done,
It binds us to the past – to what is gone,
And binding us together, binds us down,
Making us monads of the nation-state,
Anachronism’s slaves – such is our fate.

We who wrote Jonah and the Book of Ruth
Had pity once on strangers, for in truth
We had been strangers in an alien land.
We who wrote Job, Ecclesiastes, and
The Book of Samuel once understood
That since we’re really only flesh and blood,
Apotheosis isn’t in our line:
We’re human, all too human, not divine.
Ruth was from Moab, southern Palestine,
And Job was probably an Edomite;
Yet evidently they both got it right,
While Jonah had to be rebuked for pride
(He wanted God to practice genocide!)
And even David, the anointed one,
Was made to grieve through Absalom, his son,
Because he took a lamb that wasn’t his.
If one is chosen, this is what it is
To choose to be among the chosen ones –
Knowing that nothing that one has or owns
Or is a part of has priority.
This is a great responsibility
And most of us find it far too arduous:
It seems to be much easier for us
To think we have a special destiny
And have been chosen by the fates on high.
The Chosen People are the ones who knew
That no one’s ever chosen; this being so,
They learned to live within a paradox
Inscribed in secret in their sacred books,
Books that the centuries bequeathed to us.
That’s why their writings are anonymous,
And why as wanderers without a home
They learned to wait for what would never come.

Easy to valorize, from where I stand,
The People of the Book and not the Land,
Here in the comfort of America,
Not the worst corner of Diaspora,
A promised land flowing with milk and honey –
At least for those who have been blessed with money.
Easy to fail to recognize that these
Fanatic settlers are refugees
From Yemen, Egypt, Turkey, and the dark
Precincts of Williamsburg or Borough Park
(At any rate, from somewhere in New York),
Shaped, like the rest of us, by circumstance,
Contingency, exigency, or chance,
And, like the rest of us, committed to
A way of life, things that they think are so.
Their history is not your history;
And why should you imagine you are free
Of prejudice, much less that you were sent
To be a spokesman for enlightenment?
No one is chosen, as I said before
(It’s very hard to hear this); what is more,
Nobody really chooses on his own.
To be, essentially, is to be thrown
Into a world of possibilities
Impossible to grasp, do what you please:
A partial world in which we play a part,
Not one that we have made as one makes art –
And we are part and partial, never whole.
That’s why we seek for power and control
As partisans – as Arab or as Jew,
Believing that our own beliefs are true
And ready to engage in violence –
As if there weren’t any common sense
Or age-old wisdom one could bring to bear –
Like little children, never taught to share.

So here we are, and likely to remain,
In the proverbial condition humaine,
Arab and Jew, you, me, and everyone,
A nineteen-year old soldier named Nisan,
Stuck in the past, in bondage, partisan.