Jewish American Poetry

Is there something uniquely Jewish about the poetry of Jewish Americans?

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Judaism, and Jewish culture, has become a backdrop and historical reference point for the latest generation of American Jewish poets, inspired both by its spiritual seeking and its cultural history. Samuel Menashe, born in 1925 but only discovered by a wide audience after he turned 80, learned Yiddish as a first language and titled his first book No Jerusalem But This. Menashe’s work gestures toward a spiritual search that is quasi-Jewish in nature, seeking meaning in nature above all. Contemporary poet Alicia Ostriker (1937- ) similarly invests her secular world with a Jewish bent, picturing “Armies of aging Jews soaking up sun/as if it were Talmud” in “Beck and Benny in Far Rockaway,” and penning a tribute to Ginsberg as “The greatest Jewish poet/After Celan and Amichai” in “Elegy for Allen.”

In 2011, Philip Levine (1928- ) was named U.S. poet laureate, succeeding, among others, the Jewish poets Robert Pinsky, Louise Gluck, and Howard Nemerov. Levine’s parents were Russian Jewish immigrants and he grew up in World War II-era Detroit, during the time of Father Coughlin and his anti-Semitic radio broadcasts. Levine’s poems are devoted to manual labor and the working class, with titles like “I Sing the Body Electric.” “Is it long as a noodle/or fat as an egg?,” Levine wonders in “The Whole Soul.” “Is it/lumpy like a potato or/ringed like an oak or an/onion and like the onion/the same as you go toward/the core?”

From the huddled masses to the ringed onion, American Jewish poets have reflected the wit, scope, and spiritual depth of the American poetic impulse. The religiously charged specifics—-the yahrtzeit candles and prayers for the dead and Talmuds--blend into a larger portrait of the infinitely variable America. The poets stand out, emblems of the uniqueness of the American Jewish experience.

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Saul Austerlitz

Saul Austerlitz is a writer and film critic in New York.