Difficult Passengers: Jews and Poetry

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Asked who has been Britain's best-selling Jewish poet people might come up with Dannie Abse, or Elaine Feinstein, or, wondering if the question inferred long-dead poets, Amy Levy. None of these ... she was born in Nottingham and she wrote poems about fairies. Remember the line 'There are fairies at the bottom of our garden ...'. Britain's best-selling Jewish poet was the late Rose Fyleman, whose work still has a half-life on Internet sites about fairies. There was no particular Jewish content to her work which immediately begs the question as to what Jewish poetry, as opposed to poetry written by Jews, might be.

Michael Rosen's 'Ice Cream' is something that everyone recognises as a Jewish poem. When his family had ice cream, his father thought it would be nice to add a little bit of fruit salad with it, so they had this next time. Then his father wanted to add a few sprinkles of chocolate. So next time it was ice cream, a little bit of fruit salad, a few sprinkles of chocolate, then his father wanted to add ... and so it went on, until his mother could no longer stand it and started shouting that if he didn't like this cafe he could find another one. Why did he always behave like this? He was spoilt, it was his bubbe that did it--and there, if we ever doubted it for a minute, is the confirmation that this is a Jewish family, a Jewish poem. The audience can relax, we're on familiar territory. This is Jewish poetry. (1)

Except this is not the Jewish poetry of Primo Levi from Italy, of Yehuda Amichai from Israel, of Paul Celan from Romania, later France, or Allen Ginsberg from North America. Somehow you can't imagine Henrich Heine from Germany or the poor, murdered Itzik Pfeffer from Russia writing about a few chopped nuts to go with the fruit salad, and the chocolate. Yet we know their work as Jewish, even though one was an apostate and one was an agent for Stalin. Well, Jewish poets have as much in common as Jewish politicians--Michael Howard on the one hand, leading the British Conservative Party, and Noam Chomsky on the American radical left.

Even Marcel Proust's comment that 'In every Jew there is a prophet and a bounder' could hardly bring together such disparity. Emma Lazarus, whose poem 'The New Colossus' adorns the Statue of Liberty ('Give me your tired, your poor ... Your huddled masses, yearning to break free'), and who thus probably had the biggest readership of any North American Jewish poet, saw herself as an outsider, if not an outlaw. Lazarus, although pretty well assimilated, was an object of Christian curiosity. Waldo Emerson's daughter described her as a 'real, unconverted Jew'. (2) We'll return to the issue of the outsider later.

Wherever Jews have lived, and whatever their language--biblical and modern Hebrew, Yiddish, Judeo-Arabic, Judezmo (Ladino)--as well as Gentile languages--Jews have written poetry, on all subjects. One of the most erotic poems I know is Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs. European Judaism's Jonathan Magonet touched on this in issue 02/02, but for variety I'd recommend the version by Peter Jay: 'I am my lover's, his desire is for me. / Come my love, let us go to the country ... / where the vines are in bud / the grape-blossom open / and the pomegranate blooming ... / There I will give you my love.' (3)

There is no room here to discuss this fine poem, which must have been representative of Hebrew lyrical poetry of its time. The first major locus of Jewish poetry that we know much about was in medieval Spain, just under one thousand years ago. Solomon Ibn Gbirol, for example, wrote philosophy in Arabic, poetry in Hebrew. There was a heavy emphasis on liturgical and metaphysical poetry and there have been several fine translations in recent years. But to return to this issue of Jewish poetry, as opposed to poetry written by Jews ...

As with everything else today, the answer lies in the odd corners of the Internet. That's where you'll find Jewish haiku. …