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.

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