Here is Part 3 of Jamie Wendt’s essay “American Jewish Women Poets,” a four-part series that pursues the question of what makes a Jewish poem Jewish, and of what the relationship is between Jewish identity and poetry. Read Part 1 here. Part 2 of the series, posted last week, looks closely at the work of pioneer poet Emma Lazarus. –The Editors
MAXINE KUMIN, ALICIA SUSKIN OSTRIKER, and CHANA BLOCH
In Part Two of this installment on American Jewish Women Poets, I analyzed two poems by Emma Lazarus, who is considered to be the first American Jewish poet. Throughout her writing career, her poetry began to have more of a Jewish presence, focusing on the state of Jews in America.
A few decades after Lazarus’ death, three important Jewish women were born who would also become known for their impressive poetry about Jewish themes and secular ideas that they were concerned with. These women include Maxine Kumin (born in 1925), Alicia Suskin Ostriker (born in 1937), and Chana Bloch (born in 1940). Similar to Emma Lazarus, these women show a strong connection to the Jewish people in many of their poems, but also explore issues of concern to the larger population. Emma Lazarus and Maxine Kumin are both drawn to images of animals and nature. Kumin not only creates portraits and personifications of animals but also explores issues of animal rights (such as the poems “Bringing Down the Birds” and “The Whole Hog”). Kumin and Lazarus both seem to be slightly more distant in their religiousness (due to their references to some Christian symbols and writing God’s name in their poems, which is traditionally never to be spoken or written by Jews) than Alicia Suskin Ostriker and Chana Bloch. Ostriker and Bloch have
lived more outwardly Jewish literary lives, which is evident through Bloch’s English translations of Yehudah Amichai’s poetry and Ostriker’s collection The Book of Life, a selection of her Jewish poetry throughout her career. But Kumin, Ostriker, and Bloch all share in the experience of being born just before and during World War II. They all grew up in the early half of the 20th century during a time of assimilation (similar to Lazarus’ experiences) but also during a time when the need for a Jewish country was strongest due to continued and extreme anti-Semitism in the wake of the Holocaust.
When deciding which poems to include here and analyze as Jewish poems, I noticed that I was at first brushing aside poems that did not discuss, mention, or connect to the Jewish experience of being a woman in America. I am conflicted about whether or not a Jewish poem is just about Jewish topics and themes or if a Jewish poem just needs to have a Jewish author and perhaps a Jewish value, even if indirectly mentioned and if many people might also describe as universal, not necessarily Jewish. Maxine Kumin only has a handful of poems about Jewish topics / themes / issues / concerns. Does that make her less of a Jewish poet than Alicia Suskin Ostriker who has a whole book of “Jewish” poems? I don’t think it does, but the amount of Jewish themed poems does provide the reader with a sense of what the poet’s connection to Judaism might be and whether or not the poet wants to be considered a Jewish poet by her readers.
Maxine Kumin’s poetry often expresses conflict or connection between two forces, sometimes between animals and humans, animals and nature, Christian and Jewish imagery, historical figures (particularly writers) and the connection Kumin feels with them or pretends to have with them which recur throughout her books. One poem that stood out to me due to its unique perspective and topic was the poem “The Jew Order,” which describes a connection she felt with her Jewish and African-American classmates. Here is the poem “The Jew Order:”
Mr. Welchon was a dusty, disappointed man.
He taught American History to my tenth-grade class
and was famous for his stringent pop quizzes.
The points of his shirt collars splayed out unhappily
on either side of his fat ties. Not a single girl
in the room had a crush on him.
This was an upscale high school in the suburbs
at a time when men wore suits and women skirts below the knee.
Because my mother was ambitious for me, I commuted
on two trolleys, an hour each way. Half of
the student body was Jewish, a quarter black.
The football team was salt and pepper, heavy on the pepper.
We yawned our way through the Civil War
the dates of battles, the burning of Atlanta
Sherman’s march to the sea, the one black regiment
that fought on the Union side, the surrender at Appomattox.
Ulysses S. Grant, a splendid classical name. We knew
he drank too much, that fact was in the history book
but not the Jew Order that he issued
out of Oxford, Mississippi, in 1862
expelling all Jews as a class from Union territory
in the Ohio and Mississippi valleys
within 24 hours of receipt of this command
for violating every regulation of trade.
Had we talked about how few Jews lived then
in the South, most of them merchants and traders
some of them daring to smuggle cotton up North
to bring in flour or shoes, salt or medicine
for the desperate Confederate households
risking death by hanging to slip past the blockade
had we heard, for example, of the woman in Richmond
before their dodgy shipments, being charged
$70 for a barrel of flour, who exclaimed, My God!
I have seven children! How am I to feed them all?
to whom the shopkeeper replied, I do not know, Madam,
unless you eat your children; young as we were
had we read further that any Jew who remained
would be held in confinement as prisoners
except that Morris Hoffman of St. Louis together
with his little cluster of B’nai B’rith brothers
threw themselves on the bosom of our father, Abraham
in the name of religious liberty and justice
asking him to annul the order and protect his
humblest constituents, wouldn’t we have looked
at one another? Wouldn’t we have felt the smallest spasm
of national pride when Lincoln said: This protection
you shall have? He revoked the Jew decree
the same month he signed the Emancipation.
Young as we were, had we read these two exchanges
wouldn’t we have looked at one another
black kids at white and vice versa
sharing our adolescent fury at injustice
our radical innocence, our masturbatory guilt
wouldn’t we all have looked at Mr. Welchon
who was there to teach and guide us in his boredom
he at the blackboard at the front of the room
we in our restless alphabetically integrated rows
for calling the roll, wouldn’t we all
have looked at one another
with a heady momentary taste of solidarity?
The long sentences and repeated phrase (had we talked, had we heard, had we read) that lead up to the strong last stanza are part of what make this an excellent poem. Kumin sets the reader up for the realization of solidarity at the end of the poem by providing background information about the school and the town at the beginning. The strong images and easily accessible language create a visual of the people. For example, instead of simply stating the year or decade that this event occurred, Kumin writes that it was “a time when men wore suits and women skirts below the knee.” Kumin “shows” instead of “tells” the time period.
While some of her descriptions in the second stanza “tell” more than “show,” they are necessary for the narrator to arrive at the complexity of thought that occurs throughout the rest of the poem. The fifth through ninth stanzas keep the reader engaged by rarely allowing time to pause due to wanting to find out what would have happened if the Jew Order was mentioned in their textbook and had the students talked, heard, and read. The fifth, sixth, and seventh stanzas provide reasons why the Jews were clearly not to blame, and as a reader, having the background knowledge of the racial make-up of the class helps me connect this type of prejudice to the experiences of African-Americans in the American South. Kumin weaves history through these stanzas to make the similarities between cultures more evident.
Kumin had to conduct research in order to provide accurate historical information for this poem. Kumin includes a note at the end of her book about this poem that thanks a woman at L.A.’s Skirball Museum “for supplying the exact wordage of Grant’s decree.” The inclusion of Grant’s exact words from the Jew decree and specific details about Morris Hoffman helps ground the poem in history and adds authenticity to the experience. Reading Grant’s exact words create a sense of shock due to his unjustified anger, and then when Kumin mentions that President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and revoked the Jew decree during the same month, solidarity between Jews and African-Americans already seems present before Kumin actually comes to that conclusion in her writing.
The narrator suggests that her mother sent her to this suburban school because her mother wanted her to have a good education, and the long commute was worth the knowledge that she would gain from this school. However, the opposite seems to be the case. Mr. Wolchen is not interested in teaching and does not take advantage of helping his diverse students see the connections that they share and the struggles both Jews and African-Americans faced in America. If only they did see the connection between each other, maybe there would not have been so much white flight from places across America during this time period, in particular the West Side of Chicago where the majority of the residents were Jewish in the 1930s and 1940s but by 1960, the same neighborhoods were almost entirely African-American. By telling this story, Kumin is addressing a disconnection that exists between people of similar backgrounds in America but that could easily be broken down if only given the right opportunity.
The choice of not just writing about the Jew decree but framing it within history by including information about the Emancipation Proclamation and the students in her classroom decades later allows Kumin to explore not only conflict between dual identities (Jewish and American, Black and American) but also connections across people that are caused by hatred and ignorance but can lead to peace. Therefore, “The Jew Order” is not only a Jewish poem but also an American poem.
The collection of Maxine Kumin’s poetry as a whole has more concern for social issues and nature than any specific Jewish concern. Alicia Suskin Ostriker, on the other hand, divides her book The Book of Life into six sections that focus on Jewish issues with some other topics and concerns weaved throughout. The first section focuses on family, the second section includes only two poems that focus on Judaism as a religion, the third section has poems about the Holocaust, the fourth section includes a variety of Ostriker’s psalms and other poems about God, the fifth section focuses on Israel, and the final sixth section only includes the title poem “The Book of Life,” mainly about Jews throughout the world within the frame of God’s judgment between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur when people are written in God’s Book of Life for the coming year (who will live and who will die). Throughout all of the sections, there are themes of personal struggles with religion and God, particularly issues of masculinities in religion, and recurring sufferings of innocent Jews. However, the first poem in the book, “Becky and Benny in Far Rockaway,” focuses on a positive experience between the narrator and her aunt and uncle at the beach. The poem places the narrator in an everyday type of situation that happens to include Jewish people and Jewish experiences. I would label this type of poem (and many of Ostriker’s poem in the first section of The Book of Life) “being Jewish as an everyday experience.” Here is the poem:
Near the Atlantic Ocean, past the last subway station,
Streaks of sand on the sidewalk,
Armies of aging Jews soaking up sun
As if it were Talmud
And the rickety white stairs
To an apartment like a frail body.
My uncle and aunt were both warty, like alligators.
They set a lunch on the oilcloth-covered table.
I felt peculiar about the smells.
The lunch seemed to go on all afternoon.
Anxious syllables floating over my head like fireflies.
Shayne maydel was me.
Eat, they said in English, eat.
So I ate, and finally reached the pastoral scene.
Bo Peep, pink roses, green leaves
At the dish bottom,
One of those sweet, impossible memories
Jews used to buy themselves in America.
The two of them beamed,
Gold-toothed, as if their exile were canceled.
You should eat and be healthy, they said.
This poem portrays people of two generations: the narrator who appears to be a young girl and her aunt and uncle who speak both English and Yiddish and represent a mixture of Jewish European and American cultures. This poem provides a glimpse into what it is like to be part of a Jewish family and what it’s like to live as a Jew in America where being Jewish is embedded into everyday life. According to an article in The Washington Post, Judaism in America is part of the everyday experience instead of an outsider’s experience: “Now as Jewish Americans have become part of mainstream, they don’t feel the urge to ‘fit in.’ They have produced a vibrant secular culture that is well adapted to contemporary lifestyles and has flourished with the help of 21st century information technology” (Kosmin and Keysar). Even the poem’s title shows the connection between secular American culture and Judaism. Becky and Benny are nicknames for Biblical Hebrew names, but by naming them with nicknames, the aunt and uncle have become Americanized, more secular and less religious.
Becky and Benny seem old in the poem and fit in with the “armies of aging Jews soaking up sun / as if it were Talmud.” Knowing the seriousness that comes with studying Talmud, the reader can picture this scene of old Jews really intent on getting a tan. This simile is one way that Ostriker creates humor in her poem, along with some of the stereotypical Jewish images, such as the aunt and uncle commanding their niece to eat and eat. However, it’s interesting that in the first stanza, the image of aging Jews is only one amongst about five details describing Far Rockaway Beach. Ostriker wrote the first stanza in fragments and did not separate the details of the beach itself (streaks of sand, rickety white stairs, etc.) with the description of the aging Jews. The Jews just seem to be part of the landscape, not more or less important than the rest of the scene. This is an example of Judaism being part of the everyday experience for the narrator. Unlike Emma Lazarus who seems very conscious of being Jewish in her poems and relating to Jewish concerns, Ostriker includes Jewish people as part of the American experience and as nothing particularly special or significant. Ostriker does, however, include details in the poem to show that being Jewish is an identity that matters.
The fact that Becky and Benny are part of an older generation allows for the use of Yiddish phrases to feel natural and important. While most 75% of Yiddish speakers perished in the Holocaust, and only about four million people speak Yiddish today, many European Jews coming to America integrated Yiddish phrases into their English language. This is still true of the “Holocaust generation” today, which it seems Becky and Benny might be a part of. They call the narrator shayne maydel, which means “beautiful girl” in Yiddish–although, the narrator also feels that the language they talk in has “anxious syllables.” Perhaps the Yiddish phrases that the narrator is familiar with, like shayne maydel, make her feel loved and connected to her heritage, but other Yiddish words that Becky and Benny might use when talking to each other feel foreign. This also describes the way the narrator feels about the lunch that they have on the beach. Ostriker includes the detail of Becky and Benny being “warty like alligators” in the same stanza as the detail of the oilcloth-covered table and the smell of the food. Putting these details together make it seem like the food might be “warty” or odd-looking as well. Food and language are both very important aspects of Jewish culture, and while the narrator is also Jewish, the narrator seems to crave American culture more than Becky and Benny, demonstrating the dual-identity that many Jewish Americans faced.
Once the narrator eats in the third stanza, the aunt and uncle are proud and excited. The simile in the last stanza, “The two of them beamed, / Gold-toothed, as if their exile were canceled,” is very powerful and vivid and represents the connection between Becky and Benny and Judaism; the happiest moment in their lives would be if they were able to remain in their homeland, not be exiled and sent away, not even to America. All they want is for their niece to eat and be healthy, and it brings them so much joy that they begin to feel at home. It is their niece who allows them to feel more American and connected to both of their cultures at the same time. Ostriker is showing assimilation as a way for generations to relate to one another but also the importance of holding on to tradition and culture and claiming the little details of Judaism as part of her identity.
Being Jewish as an everyday experience is a theme also seen throughout many of Chana Bloch’s poems as well as Alicia Suskin Ostriker’s poems. Bloch’s poem “Flour and Ash” is a great example of a poem that seems secular and has nothing to do with Judaism, but by knowing that Chana Bloch is Jewish and by digging a little deeper into the images through inference, many of the images she creates have a strong sense of Jewish identity and connection. Here is the poem “Flour and Ash” from Bloch’s book Blood Honey:
“Make flour into dough,” she answers,
“and fire will turn it into food.
Ash is the final abstraction of matter.
You can just brush it away.”
She tacks a sheet of paper to the wall,
dips her hand in a palette of flour and ash,
applies the fine soft powders with a fingertip,
highlighting in chalk and graphite,
blending, blurring with her thumb.
Today she is working in seven shades of gray.
Outside the door, day lilies
in the high flush of summer-
about-to-be-fall. Her garden burns
red and yellow in the dry August air
and is not consumed.
Inside, on the studio wall, a heavy
thickens and rises. Footsteps grime the snow.
The about-to-be-dead line up on the ramp
with their boxy suitcases,
When I get too close, she yanks me back.
She hovers over her creation
though she too has a mind
to brush against that world
and wipe it out.
This poem probably begins with a mother speaking to her daughter (the narrator who doesn’t appear until the last stanza) explaining how to make bread; although, the mother tells the narrator to basically burn the bread and turn it to ash. Knowing that Bloch is Jewish brings up many Jewish images just from this first stanza. First of all, one of three mitzvot (commandments) for women according to Torah scholars is to bake challah for Shabbat each week. When the mother tells her daughter how to turn flour into dough, the mother seems to be passing on the tradition of challah to the next generation. However, since the mother doesn’t intend for the bread to be cooked and eaten but rather burnt, the dialogue from the mother suggests that she does not want this tradition to continue; she is turning something holy into ash, killing the tradition.
This then leads to the second stanza where the mother has turned the making of dough into art. The long five line descriptive sentence leads to the last line of the second stanza, which is a sentence on its own. Because this last line is a short sentence compared to the previous five line sentence, it stands out as being more powerful. The mother is “working in seven shades of gray,” and seven is an important number in Judaism. The world was created in seven days, the seventh day of the week is the holy Shabbath, there are seven blessings said at a wedding to honor the bride and groom, and there are seven days of mourning (Shiva, which literally means seven in Hebrew) after a Jew passes away. By stating, “Today she is working is seven shades of gray,” the mother is possibly in mourning for her traditions or for Judaism as a whole. This begins to make more sense in the next few stanzas where images of death continue to occur. However, despite all the death, her garden burns red and yellow but is not consuming. This is a reference to the burning bush in the Exodus story when God spoke to Moses for the first time. The bush that God spoke from was burning but not consumed. By having this detail in the poem, Bloch is noting that while there is death of tradition, God is still present in this household.
The fourth stanza is really interesting, because there seem to be two locations present at the same time. The studio is where the mother is creating art out of dough or ashes of dough, but then the ashes seem to remind the mother of the Holocaust almost immediately, because Bloch includes the image of Jews leaving ghettos for the concentration camps. She is able to provide this detail and expect her reader to infer and make the connection of the “about-to-be-dead,” grimy footprints, “boxy suitcases,” and “ashen shoes” to the Holocaust. By not clearly stating that her mother thinks about the Holocaust victims while in her studio, the images in the fourth stanza seem more mysterious.
The narrator appears in the last stanza trying to get close to the dying people and/or the ash her mother has created, but when she does this, her mother yanks her back. Perhaps the mother is aware that by failing to honor the traditions of her people and heritage, she is also failing the Jews who died in the Holocaust. They died for what they believed in and the mother in this poem is not willing to continue the traditions, knowing full well that if she does not continue them, they may die, and she has to accept that. She doesn’t want her daughter to get too close, because she doesn’t want her daughter to be in danger or afraid, so the mother would rather let her daughter be ignorant of the Holocaust and the dangers that can come with being Jewish in an anti-Semitic world. This is clear when the narrator realizes that her mother has the ability to wipe out her creation, just like some people blame God for wiping out his creation–the six million Jews during the Holocaust. The mother in the poem seems to be both skeptical and a believer in God, showing another dual-identity that some Jewish women face.
Chana Bloch uses multiple perspectives and multiple, contrasting images within stanzas that create tension and surprise. Without ever using any specifically Jewish images or words or events, she is able to create a poem expressing Jewish loss through the everyday/common experience of baking bread.
(Part 4 in Jamie Wendt’s essay “American Jewish Women Poets” will appear on this site next week. Read Part 1 here.)
Bloch, Chana. Blood Honey. Pittsburgh: Autumn House Press, 2009. Print.
Kumin, Maxine. Where I Live: New & Selected Poems 1990-2010. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2010. Print.
Suskin Ostriker, Alicia. The Book of Life: Selected Jewish Poems, 1979-2011. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012. Print.