Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Jewish American Lit in the Sixties

For the second year in a row, I'm going to be teaching a 3-week summer course at Hebrew Union College, mainly to rabbinical students. This time the topic is Jewish American Literature of the 1960s, with "the sixties" stretching a few years back into the fifties and on into the seventies. Here's my course description:

“The Sixties” in Jewish American Literature: Assimilation & Rebellion

The decade of the 1960s was a period in which Jews entered the mainstream of American society and contributed to American culture to an unprecedented extent. At the same time, Jewish Americans were also instrumental in the formation of the counter-culture which stood as a critique of mainstream American values. Torn between assimilation and rebellion, the generation of Jewish American writers which came of age during this period reflect their historical situation in a great range of literary genres and styles. This generation, largely the children of hard-working first and second generation Jews who anxiously sought to fit into American life, both acknowledge and reject the drama of their parents’ struggle for middle-class status and social acceptance. They seek to redefine their Jewishness in relation to the turmoil and promise of the sixties. This course will consider a variety of texts and authors of the sixties (give or take a few years), and attempt to situate them in terms of their Jewish identity and cultural impact. Authors will include Philip Roth, Grace Paley, Bernard Malamud, Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan.

As you can see, it's going to be quite a mix. I'll be starting with Goodbye, Columbus and moving on to Ginsberg's Kaddish, including the various responses of other Jewish poets to that poem (most notably Allen Grossman's great review). The Malamud stories will probably include "The Angel Levine" and "Black Is My Favorite Color," for a consideration of Jewish / African-American relations during that period. Paley's feminist perspective is likewise crucial, and Dylan, well, it's a no-brainer, especially given "Highway 61" ("God said to Abraham / Kill me a son..."). Does anyone have any other suggestions? I'd really like to show a good film...

Monday, April 21, 2008


I've been meaning to post something here about why I haven't been posting here, which would lead me into a whole long riff about Jewishness and middle age and eating BLTs during Pesach. To be honest, though, I've been preoccupied most recently with a different sort of ethnic issue.

A couple of weeks ago, you see, the Latino Poetry Review went live on line. In its inaugural issue, my big essay from Parnassus: "Gringo with a Baedeker, Cortez in Kevlar." Just go to the main page and click "essays"; you'll find it. After you do--or maybe before--click on "Letters to the Editor." There you'll find a long response by Javier Huerta, a poet and graduate student who was deeply offended by my dismissal (on aesthetic grounds) of the seminal Chicano poem I am Joaquin by Rudolfo "Corky" Gonzales. Huerta's letter began as a post to his blog, which you can find here, followed by 20+ comments. He's since posted another meditation sparked by the piece; more blog responses to the essay-review show up at the Blog of Many Names by C. S. Perez, and I've gathered them for you (the ones so far) here.

[PS: just found this, another blog response, considerably more pissed off. "Save your empty gestures," this poet says of my apologies. Sorry, Mr. Corral--still a few of those to go.]

Now, as you'll see in the comments on each of those posts, as well as in the Letters page and over at Romancing the Blog, I've responded several times to the controversy, each time with an apology. Huerta, you see, has me dead to rights: I did a lousy job writing about the Gonzales poem, failing not only to question my own first impressions of it, but also to be the sort of "chameleon critic" that I've always tried to be. (I have some quotes from him, and comments on them, over at Say Something Wonderful.)

What I can't help but wonder, though, is how much of this fracas might stem from my bringing a particularly Jewish (secular, resistant, sketpical) sensibility to bear on some of these poems. Is my hesitation before, and my impulse to scoff at, certain kinds of identity poems rooted in my embrace of a certain version of goyish aesthetics? Or does it blossom from a "Debate with the Rabbi" impulse that assumes all group identities to be problematic, ripe for unsettling or complication?

Reading white? Or reading Jewish?
Eccovi! Judge ye! I'm all ears.