Green Mountains Review is proud to present Jamie Wendt’s essay “American Jewish Women Poets” as a four-part series that will run throughout the coming weeks. The series will focus especially on work of poets Emma Lazarus, Maxine Kumin, Alicia Suskin Ostriker, Chana Bloch, Hadara Bar-Nadav, and Sarah Wetzel as Wendt pursues the question of what makes a Jewish poem Jewish, and of what the relationship is between Jewish identity and poetry.
What is a Jewish poem? This question has been on my mind since I began writing poetry in high school. If I write poems about Jewish holidays and Israel, are they Jewish poems? If I write a poem that includes a few Hebrew or Yiddish words, is the poem Jewish? If the poet is Jewish, is the poem automatically Jewish as well? All of these questions can be asked of any minority group. There are several anthologies of Women’s Poetry throughout generations and location. There are collections of African-American writers who grew out of the Harlem Renaissance, adding African-American issues and beauty into the forefront of popular literature. There are collections of Latina and Chicana poetry. There are collections of poetry by Arab women and Chinese women. There are American Feminist anthologies. But Jewish women’s poetry has not been anthologized, with the exception of a small book called Dybbuk of Delight published in 1995 that did not gain much publicity and is rarely available on any online bookstore. There are a few collections of Jewish Women’s Writing (including Hebrew and Yiddish translations), but after doing several simple online searches, it is evident that none have a focus on poetry. There are books of essays about Jewish women’s poetry, but the poetry itself has not all been brought together.
Most likely, there is a lack of Jewish Women’s Poetry Anthologies because of the importance of assimilation during much of the 19th and 20th centuries. Not until recently has it seemed accepted and encouraged to declare oneself a Jew with pride in public. According to an article in the Jerusalem Post in January 2012, “‘In 2009, we can say that Israeli Jews are interested in the role of religion in the State of Israel and in the significance of a ‘Jewish State,’ and express positive attitudes toward expression of religion and tradition in the public realm,’ the report says. ‘However, they seek to preserve freedom of personal choice, especially with regard to Shabbat observance in public.’ The two previous studies conducted by the institutes in 1991 and 1999 showed that between those years, a marked decline was recorded in the attachment to Jewish tradition and religion, most likely due to the mass immigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union in those years. The reversal of the trend between 1999 and 2009, the study says, reflects both that the immigrants from the former Soviet Union have integrated into society and that the modern Orthodox and haredi (ultra- Orthodox) communities are increasing in democratic weight. ‘The results of the survey are evidence that Israeli Jews are committed to two significant values: preserving Jewish tradition on the one hand, and upholding individual freedom of choice on the other,’ said Dr. Eli Silver, director of Avi Chai–Israel.” In Israel as well as America, being Jewish is more accepted by the general populace.
Being Jewish provides certain Americans with an identity and a uniqueness all their own. In general, Americans seem to be more interested in others who declare themselves part of a specific culture other than simply White and Christian. Being Jewish, Chinese, Muslim, Homosexual, Latino, Greek, African-American, etc. in the United States allows minorities to view the world twice, not only as a member of their minority group but also as an American. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, minority identities are more accepted due to the American population becoming more and more of a melting pot and also due to a growing interest and tolerance in people with diverse backgrounds, which is seen through the high numbers of intermarriage. According to a CNN report called Study: Interracial marriage, acceptance growing, “About 15% of new marriages in the United States in 2010 were between spouses of different races or ethnicities, more than doubling the 1980 level of 6.7%, according to the study.” Jewish young adults are more likely to participate in Jewish events and celebrations than their parents who grew up in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. It is about time for a Jewish American Women’s Poetry Anthology to appear.
Judaism is often described by its followers as being a religion, a culture, a nation, a peoplehood, and a family. Because Judaism means so many different things, it can be viewed and expressed in poetry in various ways. Some poems by Jewish women that may not mention anything directly related to Judaism still feel like Jewish poems because of the imagery or the issues, such as human suffering, the importance of educating a new generation, being overly aware of Christianity in America, or even mundane images such as tattoos, beards, candles, and baking bread. Knowing that a poet is Jewish helps the reader analyze the poem to be able to see through some of this imagery that may not be overtly Jewish at the outset but does represent aspects of Jewish tradition. Chana Bloch’s poem “The Family” is a great example of this. She writes about a set of Russian dolls, one doll going inside the other, looking just like the other dolls, obviously related, one woman carrying the “children” at night and during the day, seeing each other everywhere and in everything they do. This poem shows a strong sense of identity and togetherness of a family, which is a central part of Judaism. However, the poem does not reference anything specifically Jewish.
Other poems by Jewish poets do not seem to have any connection to Judaism. A Jewish poet might be writing about nature or a mundane everyday experience and perhaps the poem was not intended to be Jewish but the reader still might be able to find Jewish aspects in the poem just due to the knowledge of the poet being Jewish. Readers might actively try to find what makes the poet Jewish other than birth. While some Jewish poets don’t write much about Judaism, there are several Jewish women poets who are “openly” Jewish and have many poems on Jewish issues and themes. This caused me to wonder why might a poet want to write a Jewish poem.
For Emma Lazarus writing in the 19th century, writing Jewish poetry was a way to validate her beliefs to the public, express her political opinions, and connect with Jewish readers. For myself, writing Jewish poetry is simply an expression of my everyday life. The everyday American Jewish woman’s experience can include a connection to other Jews even if they are not around anyone Jewish, because each time a woman says a blessing before eating or lights candles on Shabbat, Jews know that other Jews are doing the exact same thing. I think we often have each other in mind. However, everyday Jewish experience can also include a sense of otherness, frequent memory of suffering and misfortunes of the past, and newspaper reminders of anti-Semitism today in the Middle East, on American college campuses, and elsewhere. Because there is still anti-Semitism today, choosing to be a Jewish poet is like coming out of the closet; once a poet is labeled as a Jewish poet (or any minority), there’s no going back. For some writers, this might feel like an obligation to write about Jewish experiences more consciously. Writing from a Jewish sensibility provides female poets the ability to express a multi-identity perspective that is unique to American literature. Without reading and understanding the poetry of all minority groups, it is not possible to have a clear representation of American literature and what it means to be an American poet. American Jewish women’s poetry is an important yet underrepresented part of the collective American voice.
Each of the poets that I have studied writes about their Judaism in different ways. Some of them come to Jewish writing in their later books (like Emma Lazarus and Chana Bloch), beginning their writing career on secular topics, perhaps to gain an audience and acceptance. Some poets write about Jewish holidays and lifecycle events. Other poets include Judaism as an everyday experience without focusing on it in as a subject for their writing (like Alicia Suskin Ostriker and Chana Bloch’s later poems). And other poems purposefully focus on Jewish experiences, issues, and ideas. When choosing poems to include in this analysis, I was conscious of the fact that sometimes I was choosing obviously Jewish poems when many of the other poems in the collection were not about Jewish concerns. When analyzing Jewish women’s poetry, I think it’s important to not only look at the poems that address Jewish values, concerns, traditions, etc. but to look at the entirety of the poet’s work. In an email correspondence with Hadara Bar-Nadav, she discussed the issue of only studying a Jewish poet’s poetry as Jewish poetry by stating, “I’d like to think that there is some balance–that a poet’s biography can in some way inform the way readers interpret the poetry, but not at the expense of shutting down other layers and possibilities in the poems themselves.” Therefore, Jewish women poets write Jewish poems, American poems, feminist poems, nature poems, etc. Not all of a Jewish woman’s poetry collection includes all “Jewish” poems. Studying poems by Emma Lazarus, Maxine Kumin, Chana Bloch, Alicia Suskin Ostriker, Hadara Bar-Nadav, and Sarah Wetzel, I will analyze the Jewish themes in poems that are particularly about Jewish ideas or events, determine how Jewish identity is reflected through poetic language, discuss why some not-so-Jewish-poems are actually semi-Jewish, and analyze how politics and poetry mesh in the creation of Jewish poetry of suffering.
(Part 2 of 4 will appear on this site next week)