From Bridges Volume 1, number 1
I think that many people brought up in reformed Judaism must go starving for two phases of religion: poetry and politics. The sermons I heard were pale and mechanically balanced talks. I grew up among a group of Jews who wished, more than anything else, I think, to be invisible. The were playing possum. They shrank away from the occasional anger of the rabbi, and said that such a man ought not be in that pulip; they were the people who read Sokolsky's column at breakfast, and agreed with him every time he said that Jews should be quiet and polite, and should never protest; the were the people who felt that Hitler would be all right if he would only leave the Jews alone; They were, later, the people who told van Paassen he was crazy to worry about the Jews in Germany and Poland. They supported big charities. They gave generously of their money. Some of the women even gave their time. But they wanted a religion of reassurance; they listened to the muted organ, and refused to be involved in suffering that demanded resistance, and refused to acknowledge evil. If they had a mission as a responsible and inspired people, they did not want it. It was enough to be Jewish. Charity was about the most they could give; not struggle; they would neither approach the source nor make the connections
There was one place where this was done, for me; and that was in the bible. I sat under the shadowy dome during the drone of the watered-down sermon and the watered-down liturgical music, and I read the Bible. Its clash and poetry and nakedness, its firey vision of conflict resolved only in god, were true to me, no matter what I was coming to believe about the reality of the world or power or divinity or death or love. The Bible was closer to the city than anything that was going on or could possibly go on in the Temple.
...My themes and the use i have made of the have depended on my life as a poet, as a woman, as an American and as a Jew. I do not know what part of that is Jewish; I know have tried to integrate these four aspects, and to solve my work and my personality in terms of all four. I feel that I am at the begining of that attempt, too. Jewish references have come into some of my poems--the strong cry of the Shema, the raw, primitive, blast of the Shofar, the Friday candles, the tragic migrations, modern tortures and the Warsaw ghetto, Joel and Ezekiel (in terms of John Brown), images start in me by the poetry of the prophets in the English Bible. I have always accepted the fact that the treatment of minorities is a good test of democracy, or any other system; I do not believe that is a particularly Jewish idea. I have wanted Jews, and everyone else, to have social equality anywhere in the world. On the way out of adolescence, I searched, as others do, for ancestors. I felt, then and now, that if one is free, freedom can extend to a certain degree into the past, and one may choose one's ancestors, to go on with their wishes and their fight. But I do not think theat Jews are any more responsive to any of these ideas than are Christians. I am not afraid of allies in anything I may undertake, and I would work for my few beliefs with anyone who is willing to work for them.
To live as poet, woman, American, and Jew--this chalks in my position. If the four come together in one person, each strengthens the others. Red-baiting undercuts at the position of women, anti-intellectual and anti-imagnative drives such as congress has recently been conducting,--these are on the same level as the crowing storm of ani-Semitism.
...To me, the value of my Jewish heritage, in life and in writing, is its value as a guarantee. One's responsibility as Jew is really assumed, one is guaranteeed, not only against facism, but against many kinds of temptation to close the spirit. It's a strong force in onself against many kinds of hardness which may arrive in the war--the idea that when you throw off insight, you travel light and are equipped for fighting; the idea that it is impractical to plan and create, and that concrete construction and invention are the only practical things, apart from killing. Organized religion has not been able to take a strong stand about these things, any more than it has been able to stand with the Jews in Warsaw, or against the disguised Fascists at home.
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Last updated February 2005
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