The Yiddish Epic Poem “Kentucky” Shows Another Side of American Jewish Literature

Dec. 19 2017

First published serially in 1921-1922, I.J. Schwartz’s Kentoki was once a staple in the curricula of Yiddish-language schools the world over, and for many Jewish children who grew up before World War II it formed their image of America. The poem, writes Dara Horn, powerfully captures human drama, the Jewish immigrant experience, and something of the turn-of-the-century South:

Born in a shtetl near the then-Russian city of Kovno in 1884, in 1906 Schwartz followed the mob to America, where he continued his career as a Yiddish poet and translator, producing Yiddish editions of medieval and modern Hebrew poets as well as Shakespeare, Milton, and his greatest influence, Walt Whitman. He lived long enough to enjoy his generation’s ultimate Eden: retirement in Florida. But it was his move to Lexington, Kentucky, at the age of thirty-three that left its mark on the Jewish American epic. And Kentoki is an epic in the largest sense.

Kentoki isn’t merely a book-length saga covering three generations of Southern Jewish life. Its language also imposes a grandeur on its characters that would be comical if its lyrics were any less majestic than they are. The poem opens with a canto titled “After the Civil War.” We enter first in der fremd, “in the strangeness,” an expression used by more than one American Yiddish poet to describe America. . . .

The land’s threatening seduction [becomes one of the book’s themes, found] in lyrical episodes involving unplanned pregnancies, armed hillbillies, lynchings, and a Jewish peddler beaten to death by drunken rednecks. But [at the book’s beginning], any casual reader of Jewish literature will recognize this nameless wanderer. He acquires a name only when he knocks on a farmer’s door, asking for shelter in the barn in exchange for some goods in his pack, and delighting local farmers’ wives with his stash of tablecloths, eyeglasses, and toys. Finally, the stranger reveals his name: Joshua, though the backslapping farmers call him “Josh.” And so Joshua arrives “in the new Land of Canaan”—which, in case this was too subtle, is the title of the next canto. Our Joshua continues his conquest of Canaan by invoking every possible biblical allusion, even making his first real-estate purchase for his daughter’s burial plot, a riff on Abraham buying a cave to bury Sarah.

Read more at Tablet

More about: American Jewish literature, American South, Arts & Culture, Yiddish literature


Putting Aside the Pious Lies about the Israel-Palestinian Conflict

Jan. 23 2018

In light of recent developments, including Mahmoud Abbas’s unusually frank speech to the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s leadership, Moshe Arens advocates jettisoning some frequently mouthed but clearly false assumptions about Israel’s situation, beginning with the idea that the U.S. should act as a neutral party in negotiations between Jerusalem and Ramallah. (Free registration may be required.)

The United States cannot be, and has never been, neutral in mediating the Israel-Palestinian conflict. It is the leader of the world’s democratic community of nations and cannot assume a neutral position between democratic Israel and the Palestinians, whether represented by an autocratic leadership that glorifies acts of terror or by Islamic fundamentalists who carry out acts of terror. . . .

In recent years the tectonic shifts in the Arab world, the lower price of oil, and the decreased importance attached to the Palestinian issue in much of the region, have essentially removed the main incentive the United States had in past years to stay involved in the conflict. . . .

Despite the conventional wisdom that the core issues—such as Jerusalem or the fate of Israeli settlements beyond the 1949 armistice lines—are the major stumbling blocks to an agreement, the issue for which there seems to be no solution in sight at the moment is making sure that any Israeli military withdrawal will not result in rockets being launched against Israel’s population centers from areas that are turned over to the Palestinians. . . .

Does that mean that Israel is left with a choice between a state with a Palestinian majority or an apartheid state, as claimed by Israel’s left? This imaginary dilemma is based on a deterministic theory of history, which disregards all other possible alternatives in the years to come, and on questionable demographic predictions. What the left is really saying is this: better rockets on Tel Aviv than a continuation of Israeli military control over Judea and Samaria. There is little support in Israel for that view.

Read more at Haaretz

More about: Israel & Zionism, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Mahmoud Abbas, Peace Process, US-Israel relations