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.