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.